Integration in the Swannanoa Valley, Featuring Swannanoa Valley Museum
By Roberta Binder
The Swannanoa Valley includes Riceville, Swannanoa, Montreat and Black Mountain. A quiet sleepy area that began primarily as a farming community, it became a thriving popular summer resort as the stagecoach and train systems expanded, and remains an active suburb nestled in the mountains, close to downtown Asheville. The Swannanoa Valley Museum in Black Mountain holds an amazing historical collection of the region. Housed in the old firehouse, the museum focuses its exhibits each year on different areas of Swannanoa Valley history, enabling new stories to be told from their collection. The focus this season is on the history of the African American population and its contribution to the culture of the Valley, as well as looking at the challenges of segregation and the struggle for equal education.
“We have always had a small exhibit focusing on some of the major African American families who lived here, and the museum has wanted to expand that cultural aspect for some time,” notes Anne Chesky-Smith, former museum executive director. “The first African American person that we know of [in the valley] was the servant or slave of Samuel Davidson. According to an interview with John Baxter, her name was Liza. Ever since, the Baxter descendants have named a female in their family Liza, thus her memory lives on through the family tree. According to the story Baxter tells, Liza was the one who gathered up Samuel’s hysterical wife and children, helping them down the mountain [when her husband was murdered].” The museum exhibit highlights Liza’s story.
White families brought the majority of the early African Americans into the valley as slaves or servants. There weren’t large slave holdings here, but rather small farms only needing the help of one or two extra hands. Additionally, there was early tourism. Bill Alexander, descendant of original Davidson and Alexander families who settled here, noted that his Alexander family had the first stagecoach inn in Swannanoa. No longer a hotel, the original log cabin continues to be lived in by an Alexander family member. In its heyday, there were two cottages on the compound for the African American staff.
With the end of slavery, many African Americans stayed on with the families they came with. Outside jobs continued to be limited and challenging to find. Employment in factories remained off limits. Railroad work was sought, and the bell staff in local and regional hotels hired. Kitchen positions, which produced some excellent chefs, and agricultural work, also continued. Women were hired in local guesthouses, in health care, and in the care of children for wealthy locals and visitors.
Black communities began to spring up and at the turn of the 20th century, there were several small African American communities surrounding Black Mountain. They included Cragmont, Ridgecrest and Brookside. One of the highlights of the Brookside community was Roseland Gardens, opening its doors in 1918. Owned and operated by Horace Rutherford, Roseland became a social gathering place for his friends and neighbors during a time when they were prohibited, by segregation, from frequenting public establishments. As early as the 1940s, the white community began to come and enjoy the fun, films and dancing, making it one of the early, integrated public facilities in the area, albeit whites in a Black establishment rather than the reverse.
Chesky-Smith shared a story from her museum research with Kat DeBrow, granddaughter of the original owner. “In the 40s… I found this guy who would repair the jukebox and come back in the evenings to enjoy the music and dance. At that time there weren’t many places in the Valley that you could go and enjoy music and dance. Soon, word spread and more and more of the white community would go, have a cold beer and enjoy the music. Thus Roseland was quietly integrated.”
Many artifacts from Roseland Gardens, which continued operations until 1976, are on display at the museum and are always a hit with the locals, producing fond memories of their patronage. With integration, the local community wanted to reach out and enjoy new entertainment opportunities so Roseland closed its doors, happily remaining in memory and history.
Also highlighted in the museum are sections of the 1937 WPA Writers Project interview with Sarah Guder when she was 121 years old. She worked in Oteen, near Riceville. A couple of the other fascinating histories include: George the Tanner, an African American slave ‘willed’ to the founders of Riceville Presbyterian Church, and Elizabeth “Lib” Greenlee Harper who spent her life working for many Social Services in the valley.
An Evening with Inez Daugherty was presented at the Black Mountain Library in 2005. Her topic, Growing up Black in Black Mountain, was originally delivered to a full house. She spoke of early school memories of attending a small community school called the Primary, which served the local African American community. “One teacher taught from primer (kindergarten) through seventh grade. You completed seventh grade and that was the end of your schooling, which was unfortunate for many in the valley.”
John Myra Stepp, who received freedom when he turned 15 years old, worked as a farm hand and veterinarian until he could purchase land and start his own farm. He donated land and helped establish the first school for African-American students. Later, Mr. Willie Fortune gave money to build an upper grades school in the Cragmont section of Black Mountain.
Mrs. Daugherty continues: “Books were bought and later handed down from the white schools. Some years later, students were told they could attend Stevens-Lee high school in Asheville, but they had to provide their own transportation.” Once again the African America community came together and provided a bus. It transported students from Brookside, Cragmont, Ridgecrest and Swannanoa to Asheville. Although the Supreme Court declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional in 1954, it took until 1969 for full integration in Western North Carolina to find a tenuous peace.
Joan Brown taught at Black Mountain Primary from 1951-1995 (the white school at that time), when integration was finally settled. She told me, “When integration in the schools finally arrived in Black Mountain, it was a smooth transition. Both teachers and students meshed into one unit as though it was nothing more than a group of new students and teachers. We all became one unit and were happy to have that happen. Mr. James, who taught Social Studies and PE, was assigned to my group. He was a great asset, as were all the other teachers who came to us.”
I spoke to the mother of one of those students and she stated, “Joan Brown taught all of my children. She was an excellent teacher and everyone was treated as equal.”
In the Swannanoa Valley, the African American, Hispanic, Russian and white communities often lived in cooperation together. When Mrs. Daugherty was a youth, only whites could go to the library. One of her playmates would take out books for her to read. It was many years before a black library was established.
“Healthcare was available only through healers and midwives. One midwife was [my aunt] Annie Daugherty; she delivered many children in Black Mountain and surrounding communities. We could not go to Mission of St. Josephs. In 1927, French Broad Hospital was established to serve our needs,” explains Mrs. Daugherty.
“Integration of schools helped. Children developed wonderful friends of both colors. I’ll say this for this community, and for Western North Carolina, you will find a certain relationship between whites and blacks here that you are not going to find anywhere else. If you have troubles, sickness, death, problems here in your family, there are many white people who will come to your aid and help you and we do the same for them.” Powerful closing wisdom from a wise woman, Inez Daugherty died four days after her 95th birthday in 2007. She remained an active Civic Leader throughout her days.
Several other quiet examples of integration in the Swannanoa Valley highlighted in the museum can be found in the history of Black Mountain College, 1933-1957. Early in its history it began the debate on integrating the school. The general consensus of the faculty was, “…not to exclude qualified students because of race or color.” The main concern was that since the community already considered the college radical, there would be serious backlash. During the summer term of 1944 an African American woman attended the Summer Institute. “It is important to recognize the BMC’s role in the history of integration in America… it was willing to take a risk to bring me into the community… they gave me the freedom to learn beside them and to be myself.” Alma Stone Williams.
That decision opened the door to integration in the college. Roland Hayes and Carol Brice participated in the 1945 Music Institute and BMC accepted Sylvesta Martin as the first full-time black student. Black faculty members joined the 1946 staff.
Integration continues to be an issue in the Swannanoa Valley, as it does in America as a whole. The law no longer segregates communities, yet the demarcations are clear. Schools attempt to fill the needs of all students, regardless of skin tone, yet children of color are more likely to lag behind because so many simply do not have the learning tools available to most white children, in part due to the cultural and economic effects of slavery. Yet, elementary school playgrounds are filled with all colors laughing, playing and learning together, so progress continues.
I think Chesky-Smith does a great job of summing up the Museum’s feature exhibit for the season.
“African Americans have been in the Swannanoa Valley since the late 1700s and have played a major role in shaping the valley. Despite this, the African American community has been largely unrepresented in our history. We hope this exhibit will begin to rectify that and encourage people to share their memories and stories about this important part of our history.”
In addition to the feature exhibit, the Swannanoa Valley Museum contains a plethora of valley artifacts. Some of my favorites include the history of Beacon Blanket Manufacturing Company, the washing machines in the back room, the bell from Gustavino’s home…! I can only imagine Swannanoa’s heyday as the star business community of the Swannanoa Valley – bustling with commerce, shops, employment and constant activity, thriving with life and wealth.
Many things have changed during the history of Swannanoa Valley and many things have stayed the same. It remains, for the most part, a group of communities that live together and take care of each other with respect for our individual differences, but there in times of need. I hope we cross paths at the Swannanoa Valley Museum, learning more about the history of Western North Carolina and building bridges to tomorrow.
Swannanoa Valley Museum, 223 West State Black Mountain. SwannanoaValleyMuseum.org. Hours: April 1 thru October 31 Tuesday through Saturday 10:00 -5:00pm. Phone: 828-669-9566
My thanks to: Anne Chesky Smith, former Executive Director of the museum, and Sally Biggers, Black Mountain Digital Media for copying the DVD of excerpts from Mrs. Inez Daugherty’s presentation, enabling me to share her wisdom. Thanks to Bill Alexander for sharing his family history and always being willing to answer the endless questions of this transplant from the greater northeast; to Joan Brown for her first hand experience with school integration in the valley, and Caroline Copeland for her wisdom, and to the many other individuals I questioned along the way doing research for this article.
Roberta Binder, Facilitating Clarity through Mindful Editing Keeping the Author’s Voice, Always at RobertaEdits.com. She is also a writer and photojournalist who enjoys all of her writing adventures with WNC Woman – Women Nurturing Change.