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Asheville on any given Friday night and you will hear sounds as ancient as the human spirit. A massive drum circle gathers once a week in Pritchard Park, pumping rhythmic beats through the heart of the city. The booms and smacks of djembes, congas, claves and shekeres remind us of Asheville's diverse cultural past, and the significant role played by African-American heritage in the shaping of our community.
One of the nation's most prosperous African-American commercial districts after the Civil War was right here in Asheville, which has always been ahead of its time when it comes to cultural acceptance. Recognizing the need for a social hub to serve the flourishing community, George Vanderbilt commissioned in 1892 the construction of an 18,000 square foot Tudor-style building, originally named the Young Men's Institute. Today it is the YMI Cultural Center, offering enlightening programs, events, and exhibitions.
YMI Executive Director Harry Harrison notes the challenges it faced at the end of the 19th century: "Support for a free-standing African-American community center was rare 30 years after the Civil War... What is so unique about this center is that it had rental or lease Goombay YMIspace on the lower level, for other businesses... there were medical offices, libraries, a dentist's office, a drugstore, all within this cultural center facility-truly a catalyst for economic growth in the African American community. There was also a night school for adults, a day school and kindergarten, a Sunday school, library, gymnasium, swimming pool, and meeting and reading rooms. It served the entire African-American community of Asheville."
YMI's location made it a permanent fixture on Eagle Street, also known as "The Block" because it was the center of African-American commerce and culture in Asheville. Each year the YMI Cultural Center presents Goombay, an annual celebration of cultural expression that originated in Bermuda during the days of slave trade.
To explore other sites of cultural significance, take a walk along Asheville's Urban Trail, a self-guided tour of the stories that compose our community.