Exhibit spotlights hidden local African-American history

The below article and video has been culled from text and information on the Buncombe County website and YouTube page. The above photo is a screen shot from the video.

The Buncombe County Register of Deeds Office has opened an exhibit to commemorate the 150-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and to remember those who were enslaved and their immeasurable contributions to our community.

The exhibit, located in the lobby of 35 Woodfin Street in downtown Asheville, will be on display through April 30. It will move to the North Carolina Collection of the Pack Memorial Library from May 1 – July 31.

In every county in North Carolina, the Register of Deeds played a role in cataloging the transactions of slavery in handwritten books. Contained in these handwritten files from the early 1800s are deeds documenting the trading of slaves as property.

One of the stories highlighted in the Slave Deed exhibit is of a slave named Sarah Gudger. Ms. Gudger was born into slavery in Old Fort, N.C., but spent the majority of her life in Reems Creek. Her story is one of the only first-hand accounts that we have of slavery in Buncombe County.

Buncombe County displays this documentation for the purpose of historical research, family genealogy, education, and to acknowledge that slavery was a part of our county’s history.

Along with the exhibit, the county has produced a short documentary, Forever Free, which features historians and descendants of slaves speaking on the significance of these records and the importance of acknowledging our past. Watch it here:

Here’s more information on the exhibit and video via a press release from the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office:

The genealogical history of African-Americans remains tucked away on the bookshelves of courthouses throughout the nation. Only in Buncombe County, North Carolina, have those original records been opened, scanned, and published online for review by descendants, historians, and educators around the world.

Those slave deeds are central to the poignant exhibit Forever Free, which honors the history of enslaved people and commemorates the 150-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Forever Free was 13 years in the making and opened this month. It includes a moving documentary and handwritten deeds that archive the trading of people as property, such as: “Know all men by these presents that J. Abner Jervis of the State and County aforsaid have this day bargained and sold unto Andrew Hemphill of the County of Burke, a certain Negro woman slave, named Sarah aged about 20 years old, for the consideration of two hundred and fifty dollars…”

A simple request sparked collaboration between an elected official and a university, and has resulted in the posting of slave deeds online, an exhibit honoring President Lincoln, the Forever Free exhibit, and a challenge that government can do more to acknowledge our history of slavery.

“It was the government that allowed slavery to exist from the very beginning. So it is important for a government agency to begin to be in the forefront of acknowledging the past,” said Dr. Darin Waters, a scholar featured in the documentary. “I think that it says to those who are descendants from the people who were slaves, ‘we are finally recognizing the humanity of your ancestors and the important role that they played in helping to create the society that we now live in.’”

In 2012, the Center for Diversity Education at UNC Asheville asked Drew Reisinger, the Register of Deeds of Buncombe County, for one of the original slave records to use in the exhibit Lincoln: the Constitution and the Civil War.

Reisinger was initially “floored that these records existed,” and, recognizing their value to families and academics, took steps to make them readily available to the public. In North Carolina, county Register of Deeds offices cataloged the transactions of slavery. In Buncombe County, those handwritten files date from the early 1800s.

At Reisinger’s request, the Center for Diversity Education gave the county their compilation of the county’s slave records which a group of students had painstakingly pulled together 13 years ago. Reisinger’s staff set out to upload all of the images of Buncombe County’s slave records and put them online. The images are now available on the county’s website.

Cataldo Perrone of the county’s public relations department helped bring the project alive by producing the Forever Free documentary. The documentary features historians and descendants of slaves speaking on the significance of these records and the importance of acknowledging our past. Perrone also produced the audio history of the Sarah Gudger story and the reproductions of the slave deeds, all of which are on display as part of the exhibit.

A few counties have compiled slave deeds and made hard copies available within their county offices for public review. A few more counties have put an index of their slave records online. “All these efforts are steps in the right direction,” Reisinger said. “I am thrilled to be able to add the ability for people to view the actual record without having to drive to the physical office to see them. Historians, educators, and descendants of those who were enslaved have greatly appreciated easier access to the documents.”

Forever Free is on display through April in the southeast corner of the lobby of 35 Woodfin Street in Downtown Asheville.

To research Buncombe County’s slave deeds, go here.


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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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