Ask someone to name the groups of people most closely associated with Western North Carolina’s past, and you’re likely to hear about native Cherokee, plus Scots-Irish settlers. But there is and has been much greater racial and ethnic diversity in the region than many realize, notes Anne Chesky Smith, executive director of the Western North Carolina Historical Association.
A new exhibit, When All God’s Children Get Together: A Celebration of the Lives and Music of the African American People in Far Western North Carolina, honors that legacy by illustrating what Chesky Smith calls “active communities of African American residents” through “stories and images of early Black churches, schools, baptisms, family groups, businesses, sports teams and veterans.” Now open at the Smith-McDowell House Museum, the collection will remain on display through Friday, April 30, for visitors who purchase house museum admission.
Oral history tradition
When All God’s Children Get Together emerged from the 624-page book by the same name, written in 2015 by Andrews-based artist and public speaker Ann Miller Woodford. The work chronicles Black history west of Buncombe County but includes a few Asheville-area stories. In Woodford’s words, its aim is to “make the invisible visible.” The same holds true for the traveling exhibit, which arose from a 2017 partnership with Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center.
“This winter and into the early spring, the Mountain Heritage Center is exhibiting a series of Ms. Woodford’s paintings in a new exhibit entitled ‘Ann Miller Woodford: The Artist as Storyteller,’ so we have been working with them to bring [When All God’s Children Get Together] to Asheville and link our two sites,” Chesky Smith says.
Several of Chesky Smith’s favorite images from the exhibit are of Woodford’s father, Purel Miller, including one of him posing with his hunting rifles and another in which he gives a child a ride on his saddled, 1,100-pound English hog, Charlie. A third photo of Miller shows him sharing stories during an oral history interview, which Chesky Smith notes is how community history was passed on for generations.
“Many people, especially people who were born into slavery, were never able to learn to read or write. It was illegal,” she says. “And as the elders in the community passed away, that knowledge was lost — which is why [Woodford’s] book and this exhibit are so important. She documented things in writing that have not been written before, creating a wealth of materials for future researchers to delve even farther into.”
February and beyond
In addition to the lives mentioned in the exhibit’s title, the music element is likewise represented, including various gospel singers and such pioneers as Nathaniel Lowery (aka “Nat the Cat”), who worked as a DJ at Canton’s WWIT radio station in the 1950s. According to Woodford, Lowery “had a large, multiracial fan base during the height of the segregationist sentiment in the South.” Following a summer in which the Black Lives Matter movement raised significant awareness of the ongoing battle for racial equality, Lowery and other prominent figures from WNC’s past are primed to educate and inspire area residents hungry for lasting change.
“We certainly scheduled the exhibit opening to coincide with Black History Month but hope, too, that it leads to an understanding that documenting and celebrating Black history doesn’t end on Feb. 28,” Chesky Smith says. “Black history is Western North Carolina history, and one cannot be separated from the other.” wnchistory.org