Press release from the Western North Carolina Historical Association:
The Western North Carolina Historical Association’s (WNCHA) 2021 Outstanding Achievement Award will be presented to The Railroad and Incarcerated Laborer (RAIL) Memorial Project for their work telling the story and memorializing the work and sacrifice of the thousands of incarcerated laborers who were forced to build the railroad through our region under brutal conditions. The ceremony will be held on Sunday, June 26 at 3:00pm in the Manheimer Room at UNC-Asheville’s Reuter Center. The event will also be live-streamed.
WNCHA is committed to understanding the history of the western region of NC in a more complete way and to calling attention to stories that have not always been heard, told and shared; many different groups in our region are working to the same goal. Members of WNCHA’s Outstanding Achievement Award Committee – James Bradley, Jim Buchanan, Geoff Cantrell, and Catherine Frank – were elated that they had a hard job choosing which groups, projects, and individuals to honor with this year’s award.
“We are excited by the many worthy projects and committed individuals who are working together to help us recognize and bring to light the ‘whole truth’ about the history of our region. We have chosen The RAIL Project for the 2021 Outstanding Achievement Award because we particularly value the coalition of historians, researchers, community leaders, and musicians who collaborated to tell the story and memorialize the work and sacrifice of the 3,000 incarcerated laborers who built the railroad from Old Fort to Swannanoa,” said Catherine Frank, Chair of the Awards Committee. “The Memorial, located at Andrews Geyser, is one part of an ongoing effort to understand, uncover and share the complete story of the creation of the railroad that transformed our region at the cost of great human sacrifice.”
According to The RAIL Project website, “The construction of the Mountain Division of the Western North Carolina Railroad is widely considered one of the greatest human accomplishments in regards to both engineering and construction ever undertaken. Many people are aware that the railroad provided the first dependable access to and from much of Western North Carolina for the rest of the state as well as much of the nation. However, most people are unaware that at least 95% of the labor which built the railroad across the Blue Ridge Escarpment was completed by inmates from the North Carolina State Penitentiary and approximately 98% of those inmates were African-American men, the majority of whom were unjustly imprisoned. The RAIL Project was created to share the true story behind this human endeavor.”
In 2021, thanks to the generosity of donors from across the state, the group erected a memorial to honor the memory of those who labored and died on the mountain. In 2022, the group is working to identify potential grave sites on the mountain and erect informational panels about the people who constructed the railroad. To learn more or donate to the project, visit therailproject.org.
The in-person ceremony and live-streamed webinar are free to attend and will include brief remarks from the Awards Committee Chair, Catherine Frank, WNCHA’s Executive Director, Anne Chesky Smith, and WNCHA’s President, Ralph Simpson. The ceremony will also include a program highlighting the stories of the incarcerated laborers who worked and died to build the railroad into Western North Carolina alongside the achievements of The RAIL Project and the group’s plans for the future. The program will conclude with the presentation of the Outstanding Achievement Award trophy and a $1,000 monetary award to further the mission of The RAIL Project.
The Western North Carolina Historical Association is located in Asheville’s Smith-McDowell House. Though the house is currently closed to the public for renovations, when the association reopens in late 2022, their renovated gallery rooms will feature a new exhibit on the lives of the people who built the railroad up the steep grade from Old Fort into Asheville. The exhibit will be curated by historians, academics, and community members dedicated to helping the public understand the influence of the construction of the railroad in the 19th century on 21st century life.
“Although we chose only one award winner, we wanted to highlight several groups working to the goal of a more complete understanding of our past and present,” said Frank. “We are grateful to the team of the Buncombe County Remembrance Project who have joined the national work of the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice to ‘acknowledge and remember individuals lynched in Buncombe County’ as a way to reflect the history of racial and economic injustice and inequity that continues to have an impact on our community. We value the work of the Buncombe County Special Collections and collection manager Katherine Calhoun Cutshall and her colleagues to remove barriers and to encourage all library patrons to discover and contribute to our understanding of our shared past. We are grateful for the work of the Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger, collaborating with Cherokee counterparts, for the Cherokee Land Acknowledgement website ‘As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,’ the first step in building relationships built on an understanding of how land was taken from the Cherokee people to create Buncombe County. We are impressed by the work of the Nikwasi Initiative in present-day Franklin, NC, to ‘preserve, protect, and promote culture and heritage in the original homelands of the Cherokee people’ as part of a vision to ‘make intercultural understanding universal.’”
Since 1954, the Western North Carolina Historical Association has presented its annual Outstanding Achievement Award to individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to the preservation and promotion of our regional history. Recipients have included Sadie Smathers Patton, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Ora Blackmun, Johnnie Baxter, The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, the South Asheville Cemetery Association, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and Ann Miller Woodford.