Making the invisible visible: Smokies marks three years of research effort in African American history project
Combing through the dustiest tomes of park history, Great Smoky Mountains National Park researchers have since 2018 been working to elevate a plotline that so far has been relegated only to the smallest of small type — the history and contributions of African Americans within the park and in its outlying communities.
In a trio of virtual town hall meetings this month, Smokies researchers shared what the African American Experience Project has uncovered so far, and the work that still lies ahead to fully tell the stories that have spent decades and even centuries buried in file cabinets, graveyards and individual memories.
“Our research has really taken it from the 1540s all the way to contemporary periods,” said Smokies Science Communicator Antoine Fletcher, who is heading up the project, during an Oct. 22 virtual meeting hosted by University of North Carolina Asheville. “When we think about African Americans in and around the Smokies, we’re looking at the artifacts that they left behind. We’re looking at the policies that impacted or affected them. We’re looking at the oral histories and really capturing their voices. We also want to make sure that we have those photos that tell those stories as well.”
From slavery to the Civil War
The first Africans to arrive in the Great Smokies region came as slaves accompanying Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s 1539-1543 expedition, which took him north through South Carolina into Asheville, and then west through modern-day Bryson City and Fontana into Tennessee, before returning south via northwestern Georgia. As white settlers began to populate the mountains over the following centuries, enslaved Africans from the coast of Guinea in West Africa arrived in the mountains, imported through major cities like Charleston, South Carolina.
The steep terrain and cold climate of the Great Smokies region meant that the plantation-style farming common in the low country, where hundreds of slaves might work a farm owned by a single white family, simply wasn’t practical in the mountains. Most farms ranged from 80 to 700 acres and had between one and 20 enslaved people working them. During the colder months, slaves would be loaned out for other purposes, including working at hotels or mining for gold.
It’s near impossible to say exactly how many enslaved people lived in the mountains prior to 1850, the first year that the U.S. Census counted them. That “slave schedule,” as it was called, showed an average of about 80 slaves in rural counties like Sevier, Blount and Cocke counties in Tennessee or Jackson and Haywood in North Carolina, with larger counties such as Buncombe recording over 1,000. However, even this data gives little information about the individuals it represents. The “slave schedule” lists only each person’s age, sex and skin color. The only names listed are those of the slaveholders.
The Civil War was a turning point both for African American history as a whole and for the way that history was recorded. When Black Americans fought as soldiers, they showed up on both enlistment documents and pension records. No longer viewed as property, death certificates were issued when they passed away.
Not all Black people living in the Smokies during the 1850s were slaves, said Research Assistant Atalaya Dorfield. That year’s census shows Cooper and Ellen Clark, free people of color, living in what is now the Cades Cove area of the park. By the 1860s census, they’d disappeared from the area. Nobody knows exactly where their homestead was located, what kind of work and lifestyle they had there, or were they went next.
“Now you’re really getting a glimpse into African American lives other than a slave owner name or a first name of a family,” said Fletcher.
Fletcher and Dorfield have already combed through some of those records, especially those relating to the formation of the U.S. Colored Troops.
“They really had to make this choice. Could they escape to Union lines like in Eastern North Carolina and become contraband and eventually fight in the war, or could they just take up arms themselves?” said Fletcher.
On Jan. 17, 1862, the Second Confiscation and Militia Act allowed President Abraham Lincoln to enlist Black people into the military, and the Emancipation Proclamation issued the following January authorized use of these soldiers in combat. Outside of Knoxville, members of the U.S. Colored Troops helped move artillery and fought on the front lines alongside white soldiers.
“A lot of these enlistments are what we’re looking at within the Union military,” said Fletcher. “However, our next step in our research is to really look at in what capacity African Americans fought for the Confederacy.”
While the Confederacy never officially approved the enlistment of African American soldiers, there are stories about Black people serving in that capacity, said Fletcher. However, it’s unknown in what context that service occurred, including whether they were forced to do so.
Pension records, too, are another potentially rich source of information about the lives of Civil War-era African Americans. The pension process involved going before a judge and divulging information about your spouse, your children and your hometown, for instance. While many such records are available for well-known units such as the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, which inspired the movie “Glory,” that’s not the case for other units, such as the USCT regiment that served in Knoxville. Fletcher and Dorfield hope to learn more as they dig those records out.
Race riots and chain gangs
Looking at the beginning of the 20th century, Dorfield found herself wondering what the racial climate was like in Western North Carolina. It was hard to find much information on the topic, but eventually she found newspaper reporting on what was dubbed the Bryson City Race Riots, beginning Dec. 29, 1907, and continuing into 1908.
According to the newspaper accounts, said Dorfield, African American railway workers began attacking white railway workers, as “bad blood” had existed between the two groups for some time. Five white men were injured — with no statement as to the number of Black people injured — and a 9 p.m. curfew was placed on African American community members. In response, Black citizens burned down the courthouse in Bryson City, leading to several arrests and national coverage.
In relating the incident to town hall attendees, Dorfield cautioned her listeners that the newspaper accounts were written by white reporters during a time when racism was the rule rather than the exception. It’s likely that the reports erred on the side of portraying the Black workers as aggressors and white workers as victims. During the late 1800s, she said, a similar instance occurred during the construction of the Biltmore House when a story began to circulate that drunken Black workers had staged an uprising against white workers. Eventually, she said, representatives from the Biltmore House said that nothing like that had ever happened.
One man named William Trotter was arrested during the alleged race riots in Bryson City, said Dorfield, and thought to be the ringleader. But he escaped and fled toward Buncombe County. That county’s sheriff then requested papers allowing Trotter to be placed under his control.
“Of course this immediately sounds like the claiming of property,” said Dorfield. “It sounds like slave papers that would have only existed a few decades prior to the Bryson City Race Riots.”
That leads into the “new form of slavery” inflicted on African Americans at the time, she said — the chain gangs that built most of the railroads in Western North Carolina. The chain gangs were made up of incarcerated men, many of them African Americans whose conviction was the result of dubious legal processes.
Still, some African Americans managed to overcome the odds and earn respect from Black and white neighbors alike. Dr. Dennis Branch is one such example. Originally from Raleigh, Branch studied medicine at a historically Black college in West Memphis and moved to Newport, Tennessee, just outside the park, where he treated both white and Black patients using traditional medicine as well as plants and herbs.
“He was a pillar of the community,” said Fletcher. “He evan ran for mayor at one time. And so he really was a part of that community.”
A young girl dresses in a Valentine’s Day costume. Blount County Library photo
A decade of firsts
In the park itself, most of the infrastructure was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a work relief program that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created in 1933. The first Smokies superintendent, J. Ross Eaken, advised against including African Americans in the CCC crews, but just a few decades later, the Job Corp program was founded. A residential education and job training program for youth ages 16-24, the nationwide program still includes a site in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Oconaluftee and used to have a site at Tremont as well. Fletcher and Dorfield have interviewed two African American men, Johnny Baker and Frank Spann, who joined the Smokies Job Corps at Tremont in the 1960s — both reporting positive experiences.
“I just think it’s so cool that in a program modeled after the CCC you get these African American men who wouldn’t have been able to work in the park 30 years prior coming in and contributing to the park and finding their careers in the park,” said Dorfield.
The 1960s was a significant decade for African Americans in the Smokies, as it was for African Americans nationwide. Just prior to its start, in 1958, Mary Carr Clowney graduated from Maryville College after becoming one of the first four Black women to attend the school — later writing a book about that and other experiences titled “Our Place in Time: Blacks in Blount County.” In 1967, Alabama native Joe Lee was hired as one of three men to serve as the Smokies’ first Black naturalists, and Ron Davis Sr. — spurred by a love for the outdoors emanating from childhood visits to Elkmont — joined Waynesville native Hilliard L. Gibbs Jr. as one of two African Americans enrolled in Haywood Community College’s inaugural forestry class.
As Baker, Spann, Lee and Davis were starting their careers, the generation that remembered the Civil War and days of slavery had all but vanished. The Oct. 24, 1962, issue of the Asheville Citizen-Times reported the death of Minnie DeHart Parrish, a woman who was born into slavery on the Thad Siler Farm in Macon County, moving to Maryville, Tennessee, in 1918 and Swain County shortly after that. Parrish, who gave birth to 18 children, was thought to be as old as 110 at the time of her death.
“The elderly colored woman’s home had long been the gathering place for meetings in connection with religious matters, oftentimes drawing folks from three states,” read the news story. “These gatherings are called ‘associations.’ And the main items on the programs used to be a large share of Aunt Minnie’s famous cooking — hot corn pone, yams, catfish or ‘redhorse,’ greens and hog jowl.”
An ongoing project
When the research project launched in 2018 with funding from the Great Smoky Mountains Association and Friends of the Smokies, it was envisioned as a three-year effort to research and tell the story of the African American experience in the Smokies.
But three years later, the work is by no means done, and the two organizations continue to fund the project. Fletcher and Dorfield still have a long to-do list of documents to comb through, people to interview and gravesites to investigate — and they’re hoping that list will grow as more people learn about the project and add their family stories to its archives.
The Reconstruction Period — the decade or so immediately following the Civil War — is a time period that Fletcher is especially passionate about exploring further. Before Southern power structures found a way to clamp down on the new freedoms African Americans were exercising, Black people were holding public office, founding schools and leading their communities in ways that would have been unthinkable 20 years before or after.
Dorfield said she plans to focus on the stories of African Americans who lived in the park itself, prior to its formation, and on the contributions of African American women.
The team hopes to work with churches and local Black organizations to turn up more stories, and additional investigation is planned for the various African American cemeteries scattered throughout the park. Researchers have been using ground-penetrating radar to learn more without disturbing the gravesites and is also working with cadaver dogs, which can decipher between animal and human decomposition — even when the death occurred long ago — and are easier to take to remote places than the heavy ground-penetrating radar equipment.
Communicating newfound knowledge to the public is just as important as gathering it. The team is working to populate its website with all manner of stories and resources and plans to load that information into the National Park Service App as well. They also just finished writing the first drafts of four wayside interpretive panels that will be installed at the Enloe Slave Cemetery, Tremont, Elkmont and Clingmans Dome. Fletcher hopes to have those signs in the ground around February.
“This project is definitely important,” said Fletcher, “because our staff, our superintendent, and even other national parks are really pushing to make sure that everyone knows that African Americans were in these areas, in these spaces, and continue to be in these spaces.”
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Just returned from our annual visit in enjoy the fall color at our annual "down time" near Bryson City. This year, brought my 9-year old grandson to Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Oconoluftee Village. Thanks for this great research.