© 2024 Blue Ridge Public Radio
Blue Ridge Mountains banner background
Your source for information and inspiration in Western North Carolina.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Race Informed The Creation And Construction Of The Blue Ridge Parkway

National Park Service
Crews clear the way for construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Stone Mountain State Park, NC, on November 11, 1936.

America’s Favorite Drive. That’s what the National Park Service calls the Blue Ridge Parkway. And they have the numbers to back it up: 14 million visitors last year on nearly 500 miles of meandering two-lane road from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smokies in North Carolina.  But like the rest of the South through which it winds, the Blue Ridge Parkway wasn’t always welcoming — or even accessible — to all of America.

"Lots of people have become much more cognizant that so many of our institutions are shot through with racist assumptions, racist policies, all the things, and the National Park Service was no different," said Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Blue Ridge Parkway historian and director of the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Duke University.

Credit Evan Whisnant
Anne Mitchell Whisnant

In the early 1930s, the plan was to build the road through rural Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, Whisnant said. But the city of Asheville wanted a piece of it. They pushed hard for and pitched an alternate route that bypassed Tennessee entirely, and they won thanks in large part to Josephus Daniels, the former publisher of the News and Observer and renowned white supremacist.

"If you're looking at the parkway from the standpoint of how it turned out, it's beautiful. It was absolutely a fabulous route to pick for the parkway," said Whisnant.

"And then you see that Josephus Daniels is kind of the heroic figure of that struggle, and you also try to reckon with Josephus Daniels' many other involvements in North Carolina, especially at the News and Observer with the white supremacy campaign of the 1890s," she said. "That's one of these moments where you are struggling to square these things or to figure out how to think about this person."

Whisnant said a wider view of the United States in the early 20th century also informs how the parkway was created.

"It is also important not to lose sight of the fact that the whole country was deeply racist, and has been deeply racist," she said. "The whole National Park Service is needing right now to reckon with the history of the National Parks writ large base of the ideals of white supremacy."

"So I think it's important not to just situate this conversation, in other words, in the South," she said.

Unearthing The Stories Of People Of Color

For Cheryl Dong, her interest in the Blue Ridge Parkway piqued when she took Dr. Whisnant's public history class as a graduate student in 2012.

Cheryl Dong

"Part of it was actually, I think, seeing and feeling the way that race seemed to inform all of my experiences when I was up there," said Dong, who is now Director of the Public History Program at the University of Northern Iowa.

"As someone who loves to hike, you go up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and there are really no people of color who use those facilities," Dong said. "Oftentimes, if I'm on a trail, I am the only person of color there, and that was something that I was really kind of interested by."

Dong has just returned from a trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway archives, and is still piecing together the ways that race informed the creation of the Parkway.

"I started researching this one area of recreational area called Pine Spur, which was going to be a segregated site on the Blue Ridge Parkway," Dong said. "It was also located in a historically Black community, and that would affect the value of the price that they were going to offer the landowners."

On one particularly large tract of land, Dong said, an appraiser praised the scenic view from Pine Spur, but that Black residents nearby would diminish its resale value.

"They offered the landowner, who was white, a much lower price and really what he thought was fair. I think they offered him something like $1,500, and he came back and asked them for $10,000. And I have yet to figure out what happened with that story," Dong said.

"There's this larger history of controlling Black movement through wilderness through rural areas," she said. "And this goes back to enslavement where the wilderness was often seen as a resource for enslaved people, a place where they could run, they could seek refuge or they could resist. And so this idea that the wilderness, in essence, is people of color are to be excluded from that, I think is very deep in American history."

Dong pointed to another sign of the Old South at mile marker 422.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway just south of Waynesville. It’s a Confederate monument, a plaque that reads in part “The United Daughters of the Confederacy planted this 125 acre forest as a living memorial to the 125,000 soldiers North Carolina provided the Confederacy …”

The original plaque was stolen in 1979. The one that stands there now was put up in 2001.

The National Park Service Reckons With America's Past

Earlier this year, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland helped dedicate 16 new listings on the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network.

"Our country is facing a moment of reckoning that requires us to learn from history, to heal and grow. Today’s announcement reminds us of the dark pages in our history books, but also highlights the incredible strength and resilience of Black communities," Haaland said.

Her address happened two days after Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr., in Elizabeth City, N.C.

"We need to look no further than the news of this week to know that our work is not yet done," Haaland said. "Serious inequities still exist in this country. We must acknowledge the pain that African American communities in this country and around the world feel during these turbulent times and commit ourselves to real progress. To do that, we must start by recognizing the history that brought us here."

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Will Michaels started his professional radio career at WUNC.