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The stories of Black, enslaved people in the Great Smokies are lost in history. The national park wants to tell them.

  • March 01, 2021

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Great Smoky Mountains National Park drips with the wonders of ecological mysteries and human history.

The nearly 90-year-old park is 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.

But 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.

A 32-year-old man died in the Oconaluftee River June 27. The river runs behind the Mountain Farm Museum in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee.

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.

That’s when a team from Western Carolina University performed ground-penetrating radar at the Enloe Cemetery, a graveyard in the park 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.

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Antoine Fletcher, science communicator for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is leading the park's African American Experience Project.

“We can talk about how slaves got here, what they were doing, and then come down to the park level and 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.

The remains of George Washington Turner's homestead lie in the Meigs Mountain area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cades Cove. Park research shows that Turner's mother was enslaved.

Telling more complete stories will be no small feat. It will be a never-ending project, Fletcher said, as park staff and partners listen to oral histories of descendants, comb through documents known as slave schedules and use old and new archaeological techniques.

“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 in the Smokies? It’s not easy to find answers.

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,” he said.

The Great Smoky Mountains African American Experience Project relies on slave schedules, such as this one from the 1860 Census in Jackson County, which list the slaveowners' names and the people they owned only by age, sex and color, to research early Black people in the Smokies region.

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.

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.”

‘They didn’t want Blacks up there in the park system’ – even after slavery

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 needed by white settlers and slaveowners.

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Some of those skills came into play in the building of the Smokies in the 1930s, said Lewis Oats Jr., who has been assisting in the park’s project with stories from his family.

He said Black people built park roads and structures on Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet, one of the most popular spots in the Smokies, which is the most visited park in the country.

Visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park check out Mingus Mill April 11, 2019.

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 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 tried  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.

Follow Karen Chávez on Twitter: @KarenChavezACT

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