Roseland Gardens thrived in the face of segregation

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

It's hard to believe that a grassy, nondescript lot near Flat Creek Road was, for the better part of a century, a buzzing cultural hub.

Roseland Gardens closed in 1976, but the building, at left and seen here in 2006, remained standing until it was demolished in 2015.

But Roseland Gardens didn't just enduresegregation. It thrived during the days of Jim Crow South.

In 1896, a mere 31 years after the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of segregation by affirming the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the “separate but equal” tenet that dominated the South, including North Carolina.

The dance floor at Roseland Gardens in Black Mountain's old Brookside community was one of the few places locally where black residents and visitors could cut loose over a couple of beers.

A businessman from Swannanoa named Horace Rutherford had an idea, around 1918, to fill a need in the black community that had formed to serve the people who came to the area by railroad. Rutherford built a large wooden building on his property in Black Mountain and welcomed African-American patrons to socialize and to drink and dance. Rutherford, the son of a black man and Cherokee woman, didn’t discourage white people from stopping by. His was likely one of the first integrated establishments in Western North Carolina. 

Kat Debrow, granddaughter of Horace Rutherford, talks to The Black Mountain News in 2006 about the "Farewell to Roseland Gardens" event. The dance hall, behind here, was torn down in 2015.

The story of the man and his juke joint is well documented at the Swannanoa Valley Museum, largely through transcribed interviews with Rutherford’s granddaughter, Black Mountain resident and native Kat Debrow.

Debrow believes her grandfather got the inspiration for the name of his place from the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan, which began as an all-white ballroom dance venue before it started hosting jazz performers. 

"Just going through some of his personal things, we know that he went to New York and visited the Roseland Gardens (there)," Debrow said in a 2012 interview with Stacy Edmonds on file at the museum. "It's very sketchy information, but I think that's probably how he got the name for his place here, because if you look at some of the old pictures of Roseland Gardens in New York, he had some of the same features in the building."

Rutherford’s establishment, built on land he inherited from his mother, featured a chandelier above the dance floor and a juke box with music that was rotated monthly. 

There was also a piano in the building, which blues performers would play while touring the southern circuit. Longtime Black Mountain resident Don Talley, who frequently researches local history, became friends with Debrow in the early 2000s. Her Roseland Gardens stories inspired him to find out more about the place.

"It basically provided all sorts of entertainment - music, dancing, film - basically everything that black people could not access at segregated venues," Talley said last week. 

Rutherford acquired a movie projector for the venue in the 1930s, and a glass ticket booth was on site, according to Debrow. 

"I think it was probably 10 or 15 cents (to see a movie) when I was a kid," she told Edmonds. Reels would arrive in tins and included "all the classics." 

While the center of Black Mountain for white residents was downtown, Rutherford's spot was the gathering place for the black community. 

A lot of people were coming to Montreat, Ridgecrest and Blue Ridge Assembly, Debrow said in her 2012 interview. "They brought servants with them, and most of those servants were black people, of course," she said. "There was no other place for them to have entertainment."

Ironically, the segregation that made Roseland Gardens necessary helped it stay open for 58 years. The venue closed in 1976. The building was demolished in 2015 after Rutherford's heirs sold the property. 

Talley was given access to the building by Debrow when it was still in the family's possession. In 2006, Talley and Debrow organized a "Farewell to Roseland Gardens" event to celebrate the history of what was once the Valley's social center for many black residents.  

"Farewell to Roseland Gardens" featured live music from blues performer Mac Arnold, famous for his gas can guitar. "Mac sat out in the yard and played music, and local musicians joined him," Talley said. Debrow sold some items salvaged from the Roseland Gardens building.

The legacy of Rutherford and his establishment, built a century ago this year, is an important one, according to his granddaughter, who spent much of her time observing Roseland Gardens as a child from a window of her house next door.

"I believe that it plays a vital role in this community," Debrow said. "All of the evidence of the black people that lived here has completely vanished. Pretty soon there won't be any of us left."