By Emma Castleberry

Last year, Western Carolina University’s Special and Digital Collections at Hunter Library completed the digitization of a collection of historical interviews with Black residents of Western North Carolina. The interviews were conducted between 1986 and 1989 with African American residents of Jackson, Swain, Haywood, Cherokee and Buncombe counties, all of whom were older than 69 at the time of interviewing. The digitization was completed by undergraduate WCU history interns and Elizabeth Harper, former Special and Digital Collections Librarian at WCU, spearheaded the project, which is part of the WNC Tomorrow Black Oral History Project. “This set of oral histories is an invaluable resource that captures the lived experiences of the Black families of the region,” she says. “Appalachians are stereotypically portrayed as white with Scots-Irish heritage and only rarely are Black Appalachians represented in histories of the region. They are, however, major contributors to the culture and through this intimate look into their experiences we can develop a richer understanding of Western North Carolina.”

Photos courtesy of Hunter Library

The interviews explore a variety of experiences, including segregation, life in the mountains as a Black person, sharecropping, service in the military and fighting in world wars and the civil rights movement. Dr. Wilburn Hayden, Jr., professor emeritus and senior scholar at the School of Social Work at York University in Canada, was a faculty member on the project committee and developed the items used in the interviews.​ “The project provides an historical snapshot of Black people living in WNC in early to mid-20th century,” he says. “The record of Black Appalachia is a rich history in the development of the region. The stories bear witness to the common lie that Black people have not been in the mountains. The reality is Black people have been here as long as White settlers.”

“Our sense of place is so important in WNC,” says Harper. “We tout our geography, our topography, our cuisine, our culture and our built environment. Without the inclusion of the Black experiences and contributions in these narratives, we are misrepresenting who we are as a region. This project is just one small step toward making resources available that show the true diversity of our mountains.”

For more information or to hear the project, visit bit.ly/3gd3j44.

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