In an intriguing convergence of history and art, the YMI Cultural Center is presenting Ties That Bind, a series of exhibits, performances and talks illuminating the role of African-Americans in building and operating the railroads that linked Western North Carolina to the world beyond the mountains. Rail service arrived in Buncombe County in 1880 via the notorious Swannanoa Tunnel, near Ridgecrest. The bulk of the construction credit belongs to the black convicts who performed the backbreaking, dangerous work, tunneling through 1,832 feet of granite. Hundreds lost their lives to illnesses and accidents, 120 or more on the Swannanoa Tunnel alone.
Asheville resident James “Cherokee” Harrison, who worked for Southern Railway from 1965 until he retired in 1996, explains that after decades of false starts, Civil War-related interruptions, corruption and the extreme challenges posed by the mountainous terrain, the effort to build a rail line simply “ran out of money. So they said, ‘Get the black convicts, because they don’t have a choice’ — and all you have to do is look at someone wrong and you’re a convict.” Those forced into service were often serving time for petty or trumped up charges; many of the prisoners listed Africa as their birthplace.
Ties That Bind, funded by grants from the Community Foundation of WNC and the Dandelion Fund, begins Saturday, Oct. 19 and will continue through April. “We wanted to bring African-American history to schools and bring methods of teaching besides … lecture,” explains project co-organizer Pat Berkley, a retired teacher who serves on the YMI board. “We’re going to have professors, teachers, students, story tellers, improv playback, video making … learning through the arts.”
YMI staffer Margaret Fuller says the project will “show the children that there was legal segregation, but they were able to overcome. It will show how people worked at eradicating the inequality through A. Philip Randolph,” an early civil-rights leader who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Being a conductor, says Harrison, was often “a headache.” Despite the prestige, he worked 16-hour days and was constantly on call. The union got the shift reduced to 14 hours and later to 12 hours, where it remains today. The conductor, explains Harrison, “is in charge of the train and everyone thereon. … Anything that goes wrong, they come to the conductor for the answers.” The job was not even available to African-Americans until the civil-rights movement forced Southern Railway to integrate.
In 1968, Harrison (who was originally hired as a trainman) was sent to Atlanta to be trained as a conductor. Both in school and on the trains, he remembers encountering some resentment from whites who didn’t want him on the job. But to work in the Asheville area, he continues, “You had to be very good because of the mountainous terrain. If you can railroad in Asheville, you could work anywhere in the nation — you knew you were good.”
To Asheville Middle School art teacher Shirley Whitesides, the railroad represents hope and freedom. “I’ll never forget how we used to walk the railroad tracks as a shortcut to get to high school during segregation, and I know how I felt when I looked at trains. They used to stop traffic, and when you sat in the car you could watch and feel like you were moving with the trains.” Whitesides is collaborating with music teacher Angie Benton and language arts/social studies teacher Barbara Groome to use the visual arts and music to teach history to their eighth-grade students.
To that end, Whitesides will focus on three noted African-American artists: Romare Bearden, John Biggers and Jacob Lawrence. Bearden, who died in 1988, hailed from Charlotte; Biggers is a native of Gastonia, N.C. Lawrence’s first teaching job was at Black Mountain College, but he left because he felt he was a victim of racial discrimination. All three artists used the railroad as a theme in their work, linking it both to everyday life and to the greater themes of Africa, slavery and the Underground Railroad.
Whitesides plans to tackle the complex subject from a multicultural perspective. She believes this will help the kids begin to understand how their own lives are part of history. “When kids start learning to think outside the box, outside the classroom, then they can focus on other subjects they learn,” she maintains. Her Feb. 15 presentation will spotlight student art projects (such as collages and quilts) which will also be exhibited at the YMI.
But music will be the primary focus on Oct. 19, with performances by Johnny Moon and Wayne Erbsen. There’ll also be presentations by local teachers and a lecture by Dr. Scott Nelson, titled “The Plantation South Meets the Mountain South: How Asheville and Other Railroad Hubs Became the Birthplace of American Music.”
Nelson’s interest in railroads was sparked when, as a graduate student, he read a collection of letters by a Princeton, N.C., bridge builder who worked for Southern Railway. Writing and traveling between 1882 and 1887, the man observed and commented on the varying characteristics of different parts of the South — from hot and swampy Mississippi and Louisiana to Atlanta, where he found the people unpleasant. Nelson explains: “I got interested in how these railroads joined places together and how, in the 1880s when this guy wrote, the South did not seem so unified. I became fascinated with how the railroads did this and how they helped sell the idea that there was a common Southern history.”
Johnny Moon is an 82-year-old jazz-and-blues legend. Moon’s band, The Kentucky Gentlemen, was the first black band to perform at an event for the Southern Railway’s Piedmont Division, recalls Harrison, who booked the show. Moon doesn’t claim to know much about railroads; the musician says he generally traveled by bus or plane. “The only railroad tunes I know is ones my grandmother played when I was little. She could play three-chord tunes on the guitar and sing every word; instead of telling us stories, she would play for us.” Moon says his grandmother came to Mississippi from Mexico when she was 12 with her sole possession: a guitar. His grandfather played professionally, and his parents were also musicians. By age 10, Moon had already learned guitar just by watching and listening to his elders.
Warren Wilson College Professor Wayne Erbsen has produced three albums and two books about railroad music. The appeal of the railroad, he says, is its association with “travel, freedom and the open road.” On Oct. 19, Erbsen plans to sing “Swannanoa Tunnel,” among other numbers. His rendition of the song, which is more than 125 years old, is different than the more widely known version. Erbsen says he uses a melody taught to him by Buckey Hanks, whose family passed it down from the time when their ancestors actually worked on the tunnel.