Great Smoky Mountains National Park drips with the wonders of ecological mysteries and human history.
But while the nearly 90-year-old park is world-famous for its research and documentation of plant and animal species from fungi to fireflies, bees to black bears, archaeological digs of Cherokee and other Native American sites, and preservation of white settlers’ homes, churches and mills, there has been a gaping omission.
Long-missing from the rich palette of the remote Smoky Mountains wilderness is the story of Black Americans, many of whom were forcibly brought to the region as enslaved people.
Researchers at the national park, which spans a half-million acres across the rugged, forested border of eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina, are finally aiming to right that wrong through the African American Experience Project.
“It’s so important to tell the African American experience as a story of equity, but it’s also a fabric of this park,” said Antoine Fletcher, the Smokies science communicator and director of the Appalachian Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob.
A trained anthropologist who has been with the National Park Service for 15 years, Fletcher was raised in the foothills of northeastern Alabama and earned a degree from the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. He took over in August as the lead on the Smokies project, which began in 2018 and picked up steam last summer.
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That’s when a team from Western Carolina University performed ground-penetrating radar at the Enloe Cemetery near Oconaluftee and Mingus Mill, where enslaved African Americans are known to be buried. The findings, which will help fill in blank spaces in the park’s knowledge base, are due this spring, he said.
The project is a collaboration with partners Great Smoky Mountains Association, Greening Youth Foundation, universities and community members, to document and share the stories of African Americans who lived in the region, both inside and outside what is now the park.
“We’re looking at telling a complete story, not one that is fixated step by step from 1619 to current time, but from a 30,000-foot level we can say enslaved people lived in this area,” Fletcher said.
“We can talk about how slaves got here, what they were doing, and then come down to the park level say, we have these grave sites or we have these accounts from owners about these slaves, and we can build a story,” he said.
Other artifacts can tell stories, too, Fletcher said, like the George Washington Turner homestead on Meigs Mountain in Tennessee, where only a partial chimney remains today.
“We know that his mother, who was enslaved, lived in the park. He had a couple of acres and a stone house. And we know he lived around the area of the park well into the 1960s,” Fletcher said.
Telling more complete stories will be no small feat, and a project that Fletcher says will never end as park staff and partners search listen to oral histories of descendants, comb through odious documents known as slave schedules and use old-fashioned archaeological techniques as well as new technology like radar and DNA.
“From day one, this has been a little tougher story to tell because we’re not finding a lot of journal entries,” he said.
Who were the Black people who lived in the Smokies?
Fletcher said having no written accounts from enslaved people is the norm, since they mostly passed down oral histories. He said it’s hard to estimate how many African Americans lived in the park region.
Today that includes parts of Haywood and Swain counties in North Carolina, and Blount, Sevier and Cocke counties in Tennessee. But the project is looking to find early inhabitants throughout WNC.
White settlers began bringing enslaved people into the Smokies region around 1790, Fletcher said, based on data from slave schedules – lists of people as property accounted for every decade by the U.S. Census Bureau. He said slaveowners’ names are listed and how humans they owned, but they were usually identified only by age and gender, without names.
“Sometimes if you have a name you can trace them every 10 years, but a lot of times, you don’t have a name and that name just disappears. So you don’t know if they were sold to another owner, you don’t know, if they died. That makes it a little bit more difficult,” he said.
Other significant tools for anthropologists are cemeteries and the revealing details on headstones, Fletcher said. There are dozens of cemeteries in the current-day park, including five African American cemeteries like Enloe – a family of slaveowners that dates back 200 years – and the O.E. Kerr (an enslaver) African Cemetery in Cataloochee.
But park researchers are once again stymied – the African American cemetery headstones only say a “Black man” or “6-month-old boy” or say nothing at all.
Stephanie Kyriazis, Smokies deputy chief of resource education, said visitors can find burial landscapes on the park website, with GPS coordinates, “so descendants, amateur historians and visitors can find them and pay their respect.”
Fletcher said enslaved people were not as commonly found amid the forested terrain of the Smokies and Blue Ridge Mountains as they were on the massive agriculture operations of cotton and tobacco plantations of the Deep South.
But through their forced labor, African Americans toiled on farms, ran sorghum mills, fished, logged forests, did masonry work and made moonshine, Fletcher said, basically learning and performing all the mountain skills white settlers and slaveowners needed.
Some of those skills came into play in the building of the Smokies in the 1930s, said Lewis Oats Jr., a native of Haywood County, who has been assisting in the park’s project with stories from his family.
He said Black people built park roads and structures on the world-famous Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet elevation, one of the most popular spots in the Smokies, which is today the most visited park in the country.
But even after slavery ended, the Smokies was a racist area. Black workers were not welcome to eat or sleep in the closest major town, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Oats said.
“They had guys out there with guns and everything else and they didn’t want Blacks up there in the park system. They didn’t want them anywhere near Gatlinburg,” Oats said. That forced Black people to commute from Haywood County, where they could find lodging.
National parks, especially the Smokies, are still not known for attracting visitors other than white people. According to a 2008 Smokies visitor use study only 1% of visitors to the park identified as Black or African American.
Cassius Cash, superintendent of the smokies since 2015, is the first Black person to hold that position. He has actively trying to increase visitation of underrepresented people, for example with his “Smokies Hikes for Healing program” launched in 2020 to provide a safe space for people to discuss racism, diversity, and inclusion.
Cash is on President Biden’s short list to become the next National Park Service director.
Oats, 64, of Clyde, is known across Haywood County as a storyteller with a quick smile, a friend always ready to lend a hand, and a history buff who can trace his family tree to Black Americans who built WNC, starting with slavery.
Oats is a Vietnam-era Army veteran who started the nonprofit Everyday is Veterans Day, which assists local veterans with everything from haircuts to housing and obtaining federal benefits.
A Haywood County native, Oats is one of the rare people who knows the names of his enslaved ancestors, his father’s grandparents – Harriett and Willie Watson – who lived in Jackson County.
“A lot of the Blacks here, their families were slaves. Everybody needs to know their roots. My family was brought from across the world to a new land and this is my roots,” Oats said.
Oats said he doesn’t know much more about his great grandparents, like when they were married, if they were ever freed, or where they are buried, but he said the Smokies project has spurred him to dig deeper into his family’s stories.
Oats is a font of genealogic knowledge, however, and willing to talk for hours about the lives of his father, Lewis Oats Sr., and his parents, Carrie Sue and Willie Oats, and his mother, Virginia Moore, and her parents, Ruth and Fred Moore.
Both families have deep roots in Western North Carolina, worked as sharecroppers, bootleggers, loggers and business owners and all had a propensity for craftiness, resilience and compassion to any and all, which lives on in his family today, Oats said.
He said his father’s father was from Dillsboro and his father’s mother from Bryson City and his maternal grandparents came from Blue Ridge, Georgia. Both of his grandfathers found work in the southeastern Haywood County town of Sunburst, which at the turn of the 20th century “was the largest logging operation east of the Mississippi,” Oats said.
He said the town, owned by Champion Lumber Co., was unique at the time – a hidden-away, self-contained enclave with its own homes, schools and churches, where Black and white people lived and worked together doing the dangerous job of logging timber on the steep slopes around the Pigeon River.
Black people in the South at the time weren’t allowed in many establishments, or to work for them. While his grandparents found employment at Sunburst and did the same backbreaking work as white folks, they still faced racism, Oats said.
“The men worked on the mountain. They were loggers. They built the railroad tracks. They didn’t allow the Blacks to work on the machines at Champion. They didn’t make top of the line as the white men, but at that time, it was good money for them. The learned skills and they prospered,” Oats said.
“The women cooked at the company store, in the cafeteria. They were midwives, they delivered babies and some were nannies and maids.”
During the 1918 influenza pandemic, Oats said his Moore grandparents played a lifesaving role at Sunburst.
“The only people who were up and able were my grandfather and grandmother and some kids. They were having to take care of all these people that were down and ended up with a limited supply of food and had no medicine. My grandmother told my grandfather, ‘Fred, you’re going to have to make a run,'” Oats said.
“He left Sunburst, two days in a wagon down and back to Canton to the company store. He got medicine and supplies and brought it back. And my grandmother and the kids and few that were able to get up on their feet and nurses, give the people the aid and medicine they needed and were able to get the logging camp back up on their feet.”
A couple of devastating fires – the same ones that created the burned-stump, cemetery-like scene in the 1920s at nearby Graveyard Fields – brought logging at Sunburst to a close. The river was later dammed, burying the town beneath current-day Lake Logan.
But the money earned at Sunburst allowed both sides of the family to thrive, Oats said. His mother’s father, who had been a sharecropper, went back to farming in the Waynesville area with their 14 children.
In the 1950s they opened Moore’s Drive-in in Waynesville and ran a boarding house, “for Black entertainment on that end of the county,” since Black people weren’t allowed in other theaters or restaurants.
Great minds thinking alike, his father’s parents opened a drive-in on the other side of the county, in Canton. Oats said both were still operating into the ’70s.
But before that, Oats said his grandfather Will Oats was a “wheeler and dealer.”
“He was a trader. My grandfather would acquire land, cars, dogs, and they traded for dogs and cars. He had traded two blue tick dogs and a truck or a cow for some land. Hunting dogs were really expensive,” Oats said. “They hunted and fished and would trade out.”
He said his grandfather also grew sugar cane. He remembers the grinding, done on the East Fork of the Pigeon River, with a mule harnessed to a grindstone that would walk round in circles until the cane liquified. Then they’d cook it down and make molasses to sell above-board.
And also used it to make moonshine at stills hidden on the mountain.
The Moores were also in the liquor business, but made theirs from the corn Fred Moore grew on his Waynesville farm, Oats said. Moore put his 14 kids to work picking corn and then had corn shucking parties where he would play the banjo, for which he was well known.
The music tradition – singing and making and playing traditional African instruments like the banjo – is another element of the African American Experience in the Smokies being explored, Fletcher said.
Atalaya Dorfield, a researcher with the Greening Youth Foundation, which works to engage underrepresented youth and young adults to outdoors careers, will be working on that angle.
“I look forward to speaking and learning from people throughout the region so that we can share a more realistic image and understanding of how African Americans contributed to Southern Appalachian culture and history,” Dorfield said.
Fletcher said he hopes to connect her research to Asheville, a “music city,” and people who were inspired by African music and instruments like the banjo, passed down through the Smokies.
Oats and his younger sister Dewanda Coleman, attended the all-black Reynolds High School in Canton, which has now been turned into a community center by one of his cousins, William “Billy” McDowell and his wife, Gladys Knight, who live in Asheville.
The famous couple started a nonprofit, RHS Foundation, that offers community programs and recently hosted a COVID-19 vaccination clinic.
It is an example, Oats said, of the good works his family has performed for their neighbors for generations.
Oats’ family also established the Pigeon Community Multicultural Center some 20 years ago in Waynesville, which, much like his grandparents back at Sunburst, have helped the community back on its feet during the COVID pandemic with food drives.
Oats served on the board of directors until stepping down to launch Everyday is Veterans Day. He had served in the Army, breaking codes for nuclear release orders, wanting to follow in the footsteps of his Grandfather Moore, who served in World War I, and his father, who was a Marine in the Korean War.
Oats experienced PTSD and subsequent addiction himself, and now works daily to help veterans who need support.
Oats said he was raised “not to see color” and “not to judge a book by its cover.”
“My family on both ends have been very successful. It was due to hard work and being honest,” he said. “Now it’s not about making money. It’s what can I do to help my fellow man?”
Karen Chavez is an award-winning outdoors and environment reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times and USA TODAY Network. She is the author of “Best Hikes with Dogs: North Carolina,” and is a former National Park Service ranger.
Reach me: KChavez@CitizenTimes.com or on Twitter @KarenChavezACT
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