Asheville through my eyes: Rich in Black history

A DNA discovery led Letisha Bereola (aka 'Coach Tish") to Asheville, N.C.—and a legacy that includes one of the city's most prominent builders.

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For most of my life, everything I knew about Asheville, North Carolina was through the lens of someone else. At most, it felt like there was some kind of unofficial pipeline from my native Florida to Asheville because so many people I knew would take trips there for the mountains, the hiking, bars, and overall chill vibe. But the city came alive to me in a way I never expected in the summer of 2019 when a distant cousin, Allison Rivera found me on Facebook after she’d done DNA testing through ancestry.com. 

What she shared with me has filled in the gaps in my complicated family tree and has given me roots in an unexpected city.

A plaque honoring James Vester Miller, who built Mt. Zion Church in Asheville, N.C. (right)

What she discovered, after interviews with her DNA matches and a genealogist, is our ancestors have a rich history in Asheville, starting with my great-great-great-grandparents. One ancestor, in particular, James Vester Miller, is celebrated and acknowledged today for his achievements as a renowned chief brick mason, civic leader, contractor, and businessman. As soon as she shared this with me, I became a googling machine.

I confirmed I’m the great-great granddaughter of a man once known as one of the most important Black builders in Western North Carolina. His works include some of the oldest prominent Black churches that still stand today in Asheville, including Hopkins Chapel, Mount Zion Baptist Church, and Saint Matthias. His work also includes the municipal building that houses Asheville’s police and fire departments, the old U.S post office, private residences (including his own 12 to 14-room brick home in the Asheville community of Emma) and a cultural center in Asheville. Even more remarkable, he accomplished all of this during Reconstruction and Jim Crow; a man one generation from slavery was winning competitive contracts in a white-dominated construction industry. What a legacy!

James Vester Miller

Photo: Courtesy of Letisha Bereola

The Asheville Municipal Building

Photo: Courtesy of Letisha Bereola

A plaque in dedication to James Vester Miller on Asheville's Municipal Building

Photo: Courtesy of Letisha Bereola

James Vester Miller and his wife (Letisha's great-great-grandmother)

Photo: Courtesy of Letisha Bereola

James Vester Miller with his grandchildren

Photo: Courtesy of Letisha Bereola

James Vester Miller in front of home with family

Photo: Courtesy of Letisha Bereola

Andrea Clark and James Miller, III

Photo: Courtesy of Letisha Bereola

Allison Rivera, the distant cousin who found Letisha online

Photo: Courtesy of Letisha Bereola

St. James Episcopal Church theGrio.com

Photo: Courtesy of Letisha Bereola

Mt. Zion Church in Asheville, N.C.

Photo: Courtesy of Letisha Bereola

St. Matthias Church in Asheville, N.C.

Photo: Courtesy of Letisha Bereola

Letisha and husband Enitan at Omni Park

Photo: Courtesy of Letisha Bereola

James Vester Miller

Photo: Courtesy of Letisha Bereola

Unearthing this history was quite a paradigm shift for me. I only know a few relatives on my father’s side. He wasn’t in my life after my parents divorced as a child and, like most of us who grew up without a father in the home, I had a lot of questions about where I came from. Plenty of stories and pictures from my mom’s side, barely anything from my dad’s. 

I’m so glad my cousin found me. Now it was up to me to follow the trail she set before me—and that’s exactly what I did.

In 2021, I took my family to Asheville to see the Miller legacy for myself and to show my two children what’s possible for them. I was instantly welcomed by my family member Andrea Clark, Miller’s granddaughter, an esteemed photographer and someone I now consider the unofficial mayor of Black Asheville (she would laugh at this). She knows everybody and everybody knows her. She was the perfect guide because Clark is also the force behind the newly established James Vester Miller Historic Walking Trail.

Together, we walked the streets of Asheville and touched Miller’s bricks At Mt. Zion Baptist Church, and read the plaque hanging in his honor at the Fire Station. As we walked into these places, Clark would introduce me as Miller’s great-great-granddaughter. The locals knew exactly who he was and shook my hand. I stood a little taller in awe of the fact that my ancestor had helped build one of America’s greatest cities—and the city doesn’t hide who helped make it what it is today, no doubt thanks to the tireless work of Andrea Clark. 

For me, Asheville is now much more than the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and its laid-back eclectic vibes. It’s also a city rich in Black history. After Emancipation, James’ mother, Louisa Miller, moved from Rutherfordton, N.C. to Asheville. I know she wasn’t the only one. We have history in a city that’s grown to be one of America’ favorite getaways. So if you go, stop by one of Miller’s buildings; they’re not hard to miss. Touch the bricks. Be reminded of the beauty and excellence our ancestors contributed to society, despite the odds. If you’re like me, you’ll walk away believing if they can build a legacy their great-great-great grandchildren can be proud of, we can too. 

My recommendations for a visit to Asheville:

  • Be sure to get up in the mountains! We took the whole family on a hike to Catawba Falls. Have lunch near the waterfall. 
  • Even if you stay somewhere else, go walk the grounds of The Omni Grove Park Inn. The views are insane and you’ll want to take tons of pictures!
  • Take a road trip to Lake Lure. It’s the perfect little cove of mountains and a sandy beach. The memories we created on this mini trip were unforgettable! 

Letisha Bereola thegrio.com

Letisha Bereola is a life coach who helps ambitious women overcome burnout and reach their career goals so they feel great at work and happy at home. She’s a former Emmy-nominated TV news anchor, Podcast host of AUDACITY and speaker. Learn more: www.coachtish.co


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