ASHEVILLE, N. C. — Great Smoky Mountains National Park drips with the wonders of ecological mysteries and human history. The nearly 90-year-old park is famous for its research and documentation of plant and animal species from fungi to fireflies, bees to black bears, archaeological digs of Cherokee and other Native American sites, and preservation of white settlers’ homes, churches and mills. But there has been a gaping omission. Long-missing from the rich palette of the remote Smoky Mountains wilderness is the story of Black Americans, many of whom were forcibly brought to the region as enslaved people.
Researchers at the national park, which spans a half-million acres across the rugged, forested border of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, are finally aiming to right that wrong through the African American Experience Project.“It’s so important to tell the African American experience as a story of equity, but it’s also a fabric of this park,” said Antoine Fletcher, the Smokies science communicator and director of the Appalachian Science Learning Center. A trained anthropologist who has been with the National Park Service for 15 years, Fletcher was raised in the foothills of northeastern Alabama and earned a degree from the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga.
He took over in August as the lead on the Smokies project, which began in 2018 and picked up steam last summer. That’s when a team from Western Carolina University performed ground-penetrating radar at the Enloe Cemetery, a graveyard in the park where enslaved African Americans are known to be buried. The findings, which will help fill in blank spaces in the park’s knowledge base, are due this spring, he said. The project is a collaboration with partners Great Smoky Mountains Association, Greening Youth Foundation, universities, and community members, to document and share the stories of African Americans who lived in the region, both inside and outside what is now the park.
“We’re looking at telling a complete story, not one that is fixated step by step from 1619 to current time, but from a 30,000-foot level we can say enslaved people lived in this area,” Fletcher said.“We can talk about how slaves got here, what they were doing, and then come down to the park level and say, ‘We have these grave sites or we have these accounts from owners about these slaves,’ and we can build a story,” he said.
Other artifacts can tell stories, too, Fletcher said, like the George Washington Turner homestead on Meigs Mountain in Tennessee, where only a partial chimney remains today.“We know that his mother, who was enslaved, lived in the park. He had a couple of acres and a stone house. And we know he lived around the area of the park well into the 1960s,” Fletcher said.“From Day One, this has been a little tougher story to tell because we’re not finding a lot of journal entries,” he said.
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