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Sunburst's Forgotten African-Americans

Cory Vaillancourt
Both of Louis Oats' grandfathers worked at Sunburst

Beneath the placid waters of a small Haywood County lake lies what’s left of a century-old logging camp. Although Sunburst’s history is well-documented, there’s very little available about the African-Americans who labored there under relative equality during the Jim Crow era.

Just outside the community of Bethel in rural southeastern Haywood County, sits Lake Logan.  It’s now home to an Episcopalian conference center as well as the Cold Mountain Music Festival.

But a hundred years ago, before the lake was created, the area was a narrow mountain valley home to a major logging concern that spawned an isolated company town called Sunburst.  “Sunburst had actually two locations, one was adjacent to where Sunburst Campground is today,” said Evelyn Coltman of the Bethel Rural Community Organization. “That was the original Sunburst.”

Shortly after it was established, Sunburst was uprooted and moved four miles closer to its biggest customer, Champion Fibre in nearby Canton.  “That’s where the – as it was known by a lot of the locals – ‘bastard Sunburst’ was,” Coltman said. “Lake Logan, if you were to take the water away, that is where Sunburst sat.”

At its peak, Sunburst produced 250,000 board-feet of lumber each day, enough to stretch more than 47 miles laid end-to-end. But that lumber wasn’t going to cut itself, and with the promise of good paying jobs, workers came from across the region and began settling in the vicinity.  “There were numerous houses, a whole community, 500 people lived there,” she said. “There were businesses, stores, a boardinghouse, a school.”

Actually, two schools – one for whites, and one for African-Americans. It was the Jim Crow era, and segregated public facilities were the norm in much of the United States. Drawn to the same good-paying jobs as whites, African-Americans began to establish a sizeable community at Sunburst.

Or so it’s said; as in much of Western North Carolina, African-American historical resources are few and far between and of all the photos taken at Sunburst before it closed for good in 1925, not one shows any African-Americans.  There are still some alive today who can testify to the impact African-Americans had on Sunburst, and the impact Sunburst had on African-Americans, generations later.

“Sunburst was like a boomtown,” said Louis Oats Jr. Both his grandfathers – both African-Americans – worked at Sunburst during its heyday.  “You had a variety of people coming in and then at the same time you had all these different personalities, and they had to gel, they had to gel together as a unit,” said Oats. “It wasn’t, ‘Well okay he’s black and we’re going to have static.’ They all worked together as a team, and that’s how they lived.”

Despite the segregated schools, people were judged by their work, Oats said, and not the color of their skin. Having a good job in rural Southern Appalachia at the time was rare, especially for African-Americans who routinely faced hiring discrimination. At Sunburst, they earned, and they learned.  “The African-American Community that was at Sunburst, it was a strong community,” he said. “They had a lot of knowledge when they left there, and they were able to expand once they left Sunburst.”

Both Oats’ grandfathers left Sunburst with a greater degree of financial freedom and social mobility than their African-American peers. One opened a Waynesville drive-in and later purchased a farm, while the other opened a Canton drive-in and became a trader. Oats himself spent his career with a top-secret clearance in the military, conducting nuclear overwatch and cryptography in the European theater.  “On both sides of my family I’ve had a lot of successful people come out,” said Oats. “So the foundation for good roots was set at that time.”  

Louis Oats’ Sunburst story – along with dozens of others – was recently chronicled in an extensive new DVD released by the Bethel Rural Community Organization, which regularly produces a variety of award-winning books, films, and art related to local history.  To learn more, visit www.bethelrural.org.