Want an Asheville women’s history lesson? Take a walk with Brenda Williams. It beats a classroom by a mile.
by Janet Hurley . photo by Matt Rose
The husband made a deal with his wife: go with him to Bass Pro Shop and he’d do the Herstory walking tour. He got the best out of that bargain. “He told me the stories were just fascinating,” says Brenda Seright Williams, 46, founding owner of Herstory, a company that leads women’s history walking tours around downtown Asheville. “Men come to please their wives and then get drawn in.” At presstime, on the website Trip Advisor, Herstory was #2 on a list of 91 Asheville attractions. Williams, a Texas native who landed in Asheville just four years ago, leads 90-minute tours several days a week, telling stories of Asheville’s “famous, infamous and unsung heroines.” After a year as communications director for the fitness company ChiLiving, the single mom dove into local history and launched Herstory in 2007. VERVE recently sat down with Williams to learn more about, ahem, her story.
Is this your full time job? Hopefully by next year. The number of tours doubled from year one to year two and then tripled over the past year. I also do the Grove House Ghost tour and a tour of Biltmore Village, and I’m developing a new tour, Women of the River Arts District.
How do you find and research the stories? Local reference librarians were so helpful. I went to UNC-Chapel Hill and explored the Women in Western North Carolina collection at Ramsey Library. Lots of interviews. New names come up all the time.
What do you like best about leading walking tours and why are they unique? Learning by listening to a story is a different kind of process. I really feel so connected to the women I talk about that my passion comes through and affects people. Still, sometimes my stories fall flat onto a blank canvas.
Why is that? A walking tour is intimate—it’s not for people who fear eye contact. Storytelling is a two-way street.
For more information or to arrange a tour, go to www.herstoryasheville.com.
Can’t Take the Tour? Here’s Brenda’s Brief Compendium of Asheville’s Coolest Historic Women
• Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell: (born 1821) First woman accepted into med school, as a faculty joke—but she had the last laugh.
• Julia Wolfe: (born 1860) Not just the mother of Asheville writer Thomas Wolfe.
• Lillian Exum Clement: (born 1894) Deputy sheriff, then criminal lawyer, then North Carolina’s first woman elected to the state General Assembly—in 1920, before American women could vote.
• Nina Simone: (born 1933) Internationally renowned jazz singer and pianist, known as “the High Priestess of Soul.” At age 11, she refused to begin her concert in Asheville until her parents were allowed to sit in the front row—they’d been ushered to the back because they were black.
• Florence Ryan: (born 1894) Charter member of the League of Women Voters who drove the streets on Election Day offering women a ride to the polls.
• Thelma Caldwell: (born 1912) Led the way to an integrated YWCA. She and Florence Ryan arranged for Eleanor Roosevelt to speak at the Y.