Thirteen Little Known Black History Facts Connected To The Biltmore Estate
by Esme Addison
As a native North Carolinian with a deep passion for history, I have made it a point to visit numerous historical sites both near and far. However, there is nothing quite like exploring the rich history of my home state. During my recent visit to the Biltmore Estate, I was struck by the grandeur and opulence of the property. After my visit, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was more to uncover, particularly related to the African-American presence in the estate’s history.
My curiosity led me to embark on extensive online research, and I was surprised to discover a significant African-American connection to the Vanderbilt family and the Biltmore Estate that I was previously unaware of. As I delved deeper into my investigation, I uncovered a remarkable history of African-American celebrities, politicians, and activists who had close ties to the estate. I’m talking Du Bois, Booker T., Johnson and Bethune – real heavy hitters of Black History. From 1912 to approximately 1956, some of the most iconic figures in African-American history visited Asheville, NC.
For anyone not aware of what Biltmore is and the history behind the building… Biltmore Estate is a grand, historic mansion nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. It was built in the late 19th century by George Vanderbilt II, a member of the prominent Vanderbilt family of New York City.
For more background, please read my article Uncovering The Timeless Elegance of Biltmore Estate: A Journey Through History which covers my recent trip to the Biltmore Estate with images and a detailed history of the family and home.
Table of Contents
One notable figure with ties to Biltmore Estate is Paul Robeson. Robeson was a multi-talented performer and activist who rose to fame in the 1920s and 1930s. He was known for his powerful baritone voice and his work as an actor, singer, and social justice advocate.
Robeson visited Biltmore Estate in May 1936, where he performed a concert in the estate’s banquet hall. The concert was attended by members of the Vanderbilt family, as well as other prominent Asheville residents. Robeson’s visit to Biltmore Estate was covered by several newspapers, including the Asheville Citizen-Times, and is documented in the Paul Robeson Collection at Rutgers University.
Booker T. Washington
Another prominent African American figure with ties to Biltmore Estate is Booker T. Washington. Washington was an educator, author, and civil rights leader who founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881.
He visited Asheville in October 1912 to speak at the Young Men’s Institute, a community organization that was funded by George Vanderbilt II. Washington’s visit to Asheville and Biltmore Estate was covered by the Asheville Citizen-Times and is documented in the Booker T. Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.
Young Men’s Institute
This fact was not a surprise to me. The YMI is well known as a historical site in Asheville and is mentioned in most marketing materials covering the history of the town.
The Young Men’s Institute (YMI) established by a group of visionary African-American men, including Edward Stephens, Thomas Patton, and James Vester Miller. The group began to hold meetings at St. Matthias Episcopal Church, and in 1893, the YMI was officially incorporated as a nonprofit organization.
The YMI was modeled after similar organizations that were created by African Americans in other parts of the country. The organization offered a range of educational and cultural programs, including classes in reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as music, drama, and public speaking. The YMI also served as a social and political hub for the African-American community in Asheville, hosting events, meetings, and rallies.
The Vanderbilts became involved in funding the YMI in the early 20th century, with George Vanderbilt contributing $10,000 to support the organization’s programs and activities. The YMI continued to grow in popularity and influence, and by the 1920s, it had become one of the most significant African-American institutions in the state. The YMI still stands today, now branded as the YMI Cultural Center.
As a writer, I was probably most impressed with the fact that Harlem Renaissance’s own Langston Hughes visited Biltmore. I studied him in college and had a collection of his poems I use to read often.
Langston Hughes was a prominent African American poet and writer who was associated with the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that flourished in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s.
Hughes visited Asheville in 1931 and wrote about his visit to Biltmore Estate in his autobiography, “The Big Sea.”
In “The Big Sea,” Hughes describes the awe-inspiring experience of visiting Biltmore Estate. He notes that “the house and the grounds were the biggest I had ever seen” and that “the size and the splendor of everything made me gasp.” Hughes goes on to detail the opulence of the estate, noting that the “carpets and draperies were soft and thick” and that “the furniture was made of wood and gold.”
Despite his admiration for the grandeur of Biltmore, Hughes also acknowledges the darker side of the estate’s history. He writes that “it was impossible to forget that a lot of Negroes had worked and sweated and died so that the Vanderbilts could have their great house.” This statement acknowledges the fact that many of the paid laborers who built and maintained the estate were African American, a fact that may not be evident when initially discussing of Biltmore’s history.
Hughes also reflects on the economic and social inequality that was rampant in the United States in the 1930s, noting that “there were many people in Asheville who were hungry, cold, and jobless” while the Vanderbilts lived in opulence.
W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois was an African American sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist who was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In May of 1920, W.E.B. Du Bois, an esteemed African American scholar and activist, visited Asheville and was “feted” at the Battery Park Hotel, a luxury hotel in the city, according to “W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography” by David Levering Lewis. It is unclear whether African Americans were allowed to stay at the hotel at that time, given the widespread segregation of the era. During his visit, Du Bois also visited Biltmore Estate and, as noted in his autobiography, “Dusk of Dawn,” wrote about his experience in a letter to his wife, Shirley. The letter is now part of the W.E.B. Du Bois Papers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Autumn Is Amazing At Biltmore Estate In Asheville, NC
While I was familiar with the song, Lift Every Voice, I did not know a lot about this pioneering performer. I know her now, though.
Her story and her talent is amazing. Marian Anderson was an African American contralto opera singer who was born in Philadelphia in 1897. She is widely considered one of the greatest singers of the 20th century and broke numerous barriers for black performers. In the 1930s and 1940s, Anderson gained international fame for her incredible talent and her performances at major concert halls throughout the world.
Civil Rights Icon
Despite her many achievements, Anderson was often subject to racial discrimination. In 1939, she was denied permission to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. due to her race. The incident received national attention, and Anderson was eventually invited to perform at the Lincoln Memorial in front of a crowd of 75,000 people. This performance is widely regarded as a turning point in the civil rights movement, and Anderson became an icon for black performers and activists.
Anderson continued to perform throughout the United States and Europe, and in 1940, she visited Asheville to perform at the Grove Park Inn, a luxury hotel in the city. While she was in Asheville, Anderson also visited Biltmore Estate and sang in the estate’s banquet hall. Her visit to Biltmore Estate was covered by the Asheville Citizen-Times, and her performance at the Grove Park Inn was attended by more than 2,500 people, including many African Americans who were inspired by her groundbreaking work.
James Weldon Johnson
Another writer! I’m definitely familiar with his work. After seeing George Vanderbilt’s library, a gorgeous room filled with books, it makes perfect sense why he’d have some of the most celebrated writers of his time to visit.
James Weldon Johnson was an African American writer, educator, and civil rights activist whose contributions to literature and the fight for civil rights continue to be celebrated. Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1871, Johnson graduated from Atlanta University in 1894 and went on to become a teacher, principal, and then a professor at Fisk University. He was also a prolific writer, with several books of poetry, novels, and anthologies to his name.
In 1900, Johnson wrote the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song that would come to be known as the “Black National Anthem.” The song was first performed at a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in Jacksonville by Marian Anderson (pictured above) , and it quickly became a symbol of hope and resilience for Black Americans during the Jim Crow era. Johnson also co-edited the influential anthology “The Book of American Negro Poetry,” which helped establish a canon of African American literature and provided a platform for Black poets to share their work with a wider audience.
In 1917, Johnson visited Asheville. At the time of his visit, Johnson was an executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and his work as a civil rights activist was gaining national attention. During his time in Asheville, Johnson likely continued his efforts to promote racial equality and justice, both through his work with the NAACP and through his writing. Johnson’s legacy as a writer and a civil rights leader continues to inspire and influence people today.
Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune was a prominent African American educator and civil rights leader, who dedicated her life to the advancement of African Americans, particularly women. Born in 1875 in South Carolina, Bethune was one of 17 children of former slaves. She went on to become the founder of the National Council of Negro Women, an organization that aimed to empower African American women, and was also appointed as an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In addition to her advocacy work, Bethune was also a respected educator, founding the National Training School for Women and Girls in Daytona Beach, Florida. The school eventually became Bethune-Cookman University, which still operates today. Throughout her life, Bethune received numerous awards and honors for her contributions to education and civil rights, including being the first African American woman to receive a major government appointment.
In the summer of 1935, Bethune visited Biltmore Estate, where she met with Edith Vanderbilt, wife of George Vanderbilt, and other members of the estate’s staff. The reason for her visit is not entirely clear, but it is believed to be related to her work in government or education.
Ethel Waters was an American singer and actress known for her dynamic performances that showcased her powerful, emotional singing style. Born in 1896, Waters grew up in difficult circumstances, but she soon found her calling in music and began performing in vaudeville shows in the 1910s. In the 1920s and 30s, Waters achieved success on Broadway and in films, becoming one of the first African American women to receive top billing. She was known for her signature songs, including “Stormy Weather” and “Heat Wave,” and her unique blend of blues, jazz, and pop music.
In 1956, Waters visited Biltmore Estate, where she performed at a concert to benefit the United Negro College Fund. The UNCF was founded in 1944 to support African American students seeking higher education and has provided scholarships to thousands of students over the years. Waters’ performance was held at the estate’s picturesque outdoor amphitheater, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and is situated on the banks of the French Broad River. The concert was attended by a racially mixed audience, highlighting Waters’ appeal to audiences of all backgrounds. Waters’ visit to Biltmore was just one of many performances she gave to support the UNCF and other charitable organizations over the course of her career.
The Shiloh community is a historically significant neighborhood that was home to many of Asheville’s Black residents. The community was founded in the late 19th century, well before the construction of the Biltmore House. At the time of its founding, the area was largely rural and was primarily used for farming. The community was named after the Shiloh Baptist Church, which was one of the first Black churches in the area.
When the Biltmore Estate was being built in the 1890s, the community, like many others filled with both black and white land owners found itself in the way of the planned construction. George Vanderbilt purchased the land and homes in the community. The graves of those buried in the community’s cemetery were moved to a new location, and the land was used to expand the Biltmore Estate.
Despite the relocation of its residents, the Shiloh community remains an important part of Asheville’s history. Several notable figures from the community have connections to the Biltmore Estate, including Dr. James V. Miller, who worked as a butler at Biltmore before pursuing a career in medicine and William E. Pearson, a former chauffeur and butler who established an African-American newspaper.
While the Shiloh community no longer exists as it did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the legacy of the community lives on. Today, the Shiloh Community Association works to preserve the history of the community and promote its cultural significance. The association maintains a small museum in the neighborhood and hosts events that celebrate the community’s past and present.
Dr. James V. Miller
Dr. James V. Miller was a pioneering African American physician and leader in the local Black community of Asheville, North Carolina.
Born and raised in the Shiloh community, Miller initially worked as a butler at Biltmore Estate before deciding to pursue a career in medicine. He went on to become the first Black physician in Asheville, practicing for over 50 years and delivering thousands of babies in the community. Miller was also a prominent civil rights activist, serving as the president of the Asheville NAACP and working to desegregate local schools, hospitals, and other public facilities. His legacy as a trailblazing physician and community leader continues to be celebrated in Asheville and beyond.
When you visit The Biltmore Estate, the African-American presence on the estate and in the community might not be evident as you walk along the grounds and tour the property, but its past with African-Americans is actually quite illustrious especially for the times.
The Biltmore family were progressive in their attitudes and values, welcoming entertainers of colors, championing minority causes and furthering the advancement of the African-American cause. While I would love to see an exhibit sharing this information on the estate, I’m also gratified to know the history exists. Eight pioneering African-Americans and one hometown boy makes good is quite inspiring – certainly during the time period of their visits and now as a reader of history.
The African-American connections to the Biltmore estate are a fascinating and important part of the estate’s history. From the Shiloh community to notable figures like Paul Robeson, Booker T. Washington, and Ethel Waters, these individuals and groups left their mark on the estate and helped to shape the broader history of America. While their stories have not always been widely known, they are an important part of our shared history.
You must log in to post a comment.