Letter: Harriet Tubman statue resonates with WNC family’s history

Graphic by Lori Deaton

Apparently Sylva is leading the way by counterbalancing statues of the Confederacy with Symbols of Freedom. I loved the emblem of Harriet Tubman with her right hand protectively spread across the chest of a frightened little girl [“Long Overdue: Harriet Tubman Statue Comes to Sylva,” Sept. 1, Xpress]. It speaks volumes to me.

Three of my great-grandparents and three of my grandparents were born into slavery. My maternal grandmother, born in 1849, was manumitted around 1850, along with her mother and three older siblings. My freeborn maternal grandfather, born in 1838, and his six siblings were the children of a Cherokee mother and an African slave father. She had married him and subsequently identified herself as “mulatto” to escape the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of her people to Oklahoma Territory in 1830.

Both of my paternal grandparents were born on plantations near Grey Eagle, a place known as the town of Black Mountain for the past 128 years. My grandfather told my mother that he, his parents and their four other children were freed at the “Surrender” of 1865, when he was 16 years old. My grandmother repeatedly told me that she remembered hearing the Emancipation Proclamation read at her mother’s cabin door by a man seated on a horse. In January of 1863, she was only 5 years old.

Granny lived another 93 years, but neither she nor any of her siblings or their offspring —nor I — ever celebrated the reading of “that paper,” as she called it; nor did we know anything about Juneteenth, the date on which slaves in the Southwest were said to have been told the Civil War had ended and they were free. Neither “that paper” nor Juneteenth meant anything to us.

I have written about these former slave settlers and their early descendants in my debut memoir, self-published in August of last year: The title is Lige of the Black Walnut Tree: Growing Up Black in Southern Appalachia. Most of its 22 chapters portray the lives of special characters I grew up with; the last chapter depicts the life of my paternal grandmother, “Aunt Mary Hayden: My Grandmother’s Prophecy.”

Mr. Thomas Calder has published a fine article about the book in Mountain Xpress [“90 Years in the Making: Mary Othella Burnette Writes of Growing Up Black in WNC,” Feb. 24]. I believe the article was read widely in Black Mountain, as I have heard that copies of your paper disappeared rapidly in my hometown that week. I trust that my memoir also will interest many other readers in that area of WNC particularly.

— Mary O. Burnette
St. Clair Shores, Mich.


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