| By Marie Cochran |
Victoria Casey McDonald passed away on Sunday August 17, 2014. At her homegoing service, a diverse assembly of family, friends and former students from every walk of life, paid their respects to a phenomenal woman and shared stories about her work as a teacher, preacher, community activist and author.In the lingering shock of her absence, it is difficult to articulate her impact upon this region. Her story goes beyond the bounds of a woman who grew up during the era of racial segregation in a small community within a small community. Although Victoria never lived outside Jackson County her curiosity and appetite for knowledge granted her citizenship to the world.
A biography would best reveal chapters of an ordinary, extraordinary life. Born 1943, in Peter’s Bluff, a black community of Cullowhee, NC, Victoria was one of ten children of the late Estus and Derosette Casey. In her early years, she worked at the telephone company. Later in life, she earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a Master’s degree in education from Western Carolina College, while raising her son Creighton and daughter Faustine (better known as Tina).
She began her teaching career at the National Teacher Corps, Log Cabin School, then gave 30 years of service in the Jackson County school system. Before very long, she returned as a substitute teacher determined not to lose touch with the next generation.
Before the term multicultural was a word, Victoria incorporated African American and Native American voices into her classrooms. Yet another aspect of her interaction with youth was her love affair with sports. As a coach, Victoria was a fierce competitor but her goal was to instill character and self-esteem, not simply put points on a scoreboard.
I met Victoria almost a decade ago, when I was a faculty member at Western Carolina University involved in community activism, she was my ambassador to the region. Soon she became a mentor and close friend. For those who only briefly met Victoria, her presence was unforgettable. Diminutive in stature, often adorned in eclectic clothing with her hair in graying dreadlocks, she possessed a deep, dramatic voice that captured attention. For those who knew Victoria well, she could be a contrast of personality traits; reservedly shy and courageous—intently serious yet, the most mischievous person in the room.
Undeniably, Victoria distinguished herself through a life of service. She was a devoted member of God’s Holy Tabernacle of Sylva. As an ordained minister, her distinctive singing style resonated as a “sermon in music.” She played a vital community role, holding memberships and offices in organizations including: Bridging Jackson County Communities, Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, the Jackson County Arts Council, One Dozen Who Care, and most recently charter membership in the NAACP of Jackson County.
The most vital aspect of Victoria’s legacy is her groundbreaking research that documents African American communities of Western North Carolina. She authored the following books: African Americans of Jackson County: From Slavery to Integration, A Pictorial History (2006); Just Over the Hill: Stories of Black Appalachians in Jackson County Western North Carolina (2012); Under the Light of Darkness: Love and Marriage in the Antebellum South for Slaves (2013) and Living in the Shadow of Slavery (2014).
In the foreword of her first book, Victoria recounted the origins of her journey into community history.
“In 1981, Dr. Clifford R. Lovin, a friend and history professor at Western Carolina University gave me the opportunity to (fulfill) my dream of researching the African American history of Jackson County. “Cliff” told me about the North Carolina Humanities Council mini-grant to individuals that could be presented to the adult population in the area. He gave me the form and I submitted it. Weeks later… I was awarded funding. Through the sponsorship of the Black Community Development Club of Jackson County, which was under the auspices of Mountain Projects, I was given the task of presenting slide talks based on this research… which spanned the years from 1865 to 1967.”
With the fulfillment of the dream, she became a grassroots historian. Victoria’s contributions made her a local treasure. Hence, she has been the subject of a wide range of articles, and involved in various documentaries and exhibitions including “A Lasting Legacy: Appalachian Women and their Creative Labor” which was organized by the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University. She also conducted oral history interviews for the radio show, “Stories of Mountain Folk.” on WRGC 540 AM which are part of an online archive in the WCU Hunter Library Digital collection.
When AT&T unveiled the 2017 Edition of The Heritage Calendar: Celebrating the North Carolina African-American Experience, Victoria was selected for inclusion posthumously. The publication highlights individuals from across the state who have made a lasting impact in North Carolina and across the country. The Class of 2017 represents a wide variety of fields, including education, architecture, youth programs, philanthropy, local government, athletics, media, and community service.
“Today’s North Carolina is a product of the lives and accomplishments of many extraordinary individuals,” said Venessa Harrison, president of AT&T North Carolina. “Some of the honorees in this year’s calendar could be considered unsung heroes, while others are more well-known. But all have made a difference for our state and we are privileged to help tell and preserve their stories for future generations.”
As with previous editions, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) convened a team of educators to prepare lesson plans based upon the lives of the honorees. This material will be available online as a resource for teachers across the state.
“As students look at the accomplishments of the calendar honorees, teachers are able to put those accomplishments in the context of history and highlight the diversity which contributes so much to our state’s character and heritage,” said June Atkinson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Yet, it is difficult to fully articulate Victoria’s impact. Best described as a native daughter of Appalachia, the unspoken motto of her life was that she refused to accept boundaries imposed upon her. Most of all, Victoria Casey McDonald will live on in the legacy of her untiring labor and her unwavering love for others.
Upcoming events will celebrate Black history month and serve as a tribute to Victoria’s life’s work. A program titled “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” on Saturday, February 25, 2017, 2 – 4pm at the Jackson County Public Library Community Room, Sylva, NC, will include musical guests, a Story Circle of shared memories and a short film tribute. A companion exhibition of archival and contemporary photography by Chris Aluka Berry and narrative text by me will be displayed in the Rotunda Gallery of the library February through March. The exhibition is by grant from We Shall Overcome Fund under the auspices of the Highlander Center for Research and Education.
Both are free and open to the public. For additional information about the purchase of books and/or calendars, please contact Victoria’s daughter, Faustine McDonald Wilson, owner of Survival Pride clothing. Lear more at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.survivalpride.com.
Marie T. Cochran was born and raised in Toccoa, Georgia in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. She received degrees from the University of Georgia (BFA) and the School of the Art Institute in Chicago (MFA). As a visual artist, educator, and writer, she convenes community partners for conversation and collaboration that continues throughout the process of creation.
Cochran is the founding artist/curator of the Affrilachian Artist Project, a creative network of individuals, which celebrates the intersection of cultures in Appalachia—in particular the unique perspective of people of African descent in the region.
This essay is adapted from a tribute, which was previously published in the Sylva Herald.