The Western North Carolina Historical Association is located in Asheville's oldest brick house - where at least 70 people were enslaved. Now the association is hosting an exhibit about the history of Black communities west of Asheville. Author and historian Ann Miller Woodford talks with BPR about why its important to learn about the region’s history – and how to apply it to the present.
“You can hear an old record playing: ‘When All God’s Children Get Together by Minister Keith Pringle.”
That’s the sound of the gospel song, “When All God’s Children Get Together” playing as part of an exhibit at the Western North Carolina Historical Association in Asheville. The exhibit is based around Ann Miller-Woodford’s book by the same name. Published in 2015, it chronicles Black history in what she calls, “the far west” of North Carolina – counties west of Asheville. The book includes over 600 pages of photographs, memories and research about local Black churches, families, and the region.
She says it started when she wanted to record her father’s memories.
“So I began to call him at night when he was alone at his home and just start recording what he was saying,” said Woodford. “And I encourage people all the time to write down information from their relatives while they're living, because we do start to forget things as well as sometimes the people just, as we used to say up and die, you know, and then you have lost the whole library.”
Woodford then decided to check the stories with her other family members and that grew into the book - plus lot more research.
Some chapters also chronicle Woodford’s life. Born in Andrews, she explains that her grandfather came to Cherokee County after fleeing a racist mob(“ethnic cleansing”) in Cumming, Georgia. Until high school she attended a one-room segregated school.
Woodford also is an artist, entrepreneur and community activist. She also helped found One Dozen Who Care, a women-led community development organization for western North Carolina.
“My job in my life is it's tearing down walls that divide people and building bridges. It's very important to me to feel that I'm doing something to make this life better for others. And when I do that for them, it makes it better for me as well. And for my people,” said Woodford.
Woodford has also been doing this by touring the book and exhibit (which she created in partnership with Pam Meister at Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University) across the region for the last 5 years.
It’s current place with the Western North Carolina Historical Association at the Smith-McDowell House is especially complex because the home was built by enslaved people.
“My name is Ann Chesky Smith.”
She’s the association’s executive director. Chesky Smith started her role in January 2020. Chesky Smith explains the organization has been working to expand the history that it shares through more exhibits like Woodford’s.
“I think a lot of organizations are doing the same thing to really help people to understand that: 1. Black history is Western North Carolina history. It's not something separate.” said Chesky Smith.
Chesky Smith says that the owner of the house, James Smith, enslaved at least 70 people.
“Our facility is the Smith-McDowell house, which is the oldest brick residence in Asheville. It’s built circa 1840. And as you would imagine for anything built prior to 1865, the only people who had money to do that kind of thing were people who enslaved other people,” she said.
Now the association is working to tell the stories of those people who built and worked at the house. One example on their website is George Avery who emancipated himself in 1865 and joined the Union Army.
“So we hope that when people come in and do the tour, they get this broader picture of the history of Western North Carolina,” said Chesky Smith.
The house is also on formerly Native American land. Upcoming programs will also explore the local Cherokee history. The website also boasts a timeline of important historical events in the region.
When it comes to the current racial justice movement, Woodford says it is important to know about the past but it is even more important what you do now.
“The whole nation is, well, I guess the word I could say is: it's guilty, of having built itself on slave labor. So when people are doing everything they can now to make a difference, I'm always pleased at that,” said Woodford.
She says when she presents to children they often ask if they are guilty.
“You didn't do this. You are not guilty unless you choose to be. And that means that if they want to be racist, now, then they are guilty and they need to be held accountable for it,” said Woodford.
The exhibit will run through April 30th. Woodford will be hosting a virtual LitCafe event to talk about her book “When All God’s Children Get Together” with the historical association on February 23rd.
A virtual exhibit of Ann Miller Woodford’s life and art is opening at the Mountain Heritage Center on February 22nd. Look out for another piece next week on how Woodford’s art is part of her activism.