Junaluska Neighborhood Park

The importance of Black history close to home

One of the predominant stereotypes that exists about Appalachia is that the region has always been home to monolithic, white communities. Not only is this stereotype false, but according to Associate Professor of History Robert Turpin, perpetuating it erases the contributions of many individuals who have equal claim to an Appalachian heritage.   

“A lot of Appalachia history glosses over that there are Black people in Appalachia,” Turpin said. 

African Americans migrated from southern states to the Appalachian area for economic opportunities that weren’t granted in other places. At various times throughout history, there were large communities of African Americans in the Appalachian area. In William Turner’s book, “The Harlan Renaissance,” he goes into detail about the coal towns in Harlan County, Kentucky that were a hotbed for coal production in the postwar era. Boone, North Carolina is home to Junaluska, one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in North Carolina. African Americans not only existed in these areas but were vital contributors to the economic success in the region. 

“One thing that I always encounter when I talk to people and tell them where I’m from is shock—‘there are black people in western North Carolina, what?’” said Chief Diversity Officer Charles Gibson. “In a lot of these communities, people have lived and worked alongside different groups for generations, and I want to make sure people know that.” 

As time went on, many African Americans would eventually end up leaving the area for better opportunities that would allow them to take care of their families, causing many people to forget that Black people lived and prospered in the Appalachian area.  

“These intelligent, hardworking, entrepreneurial Black people have left the area and are taking their talents someplace else. The whole community suffers,” Turpin stated.  

He said that Appalachian history often fails to capture the full story of all people that lived in the region and contributed to the area in many ways. He believes it should now be the responsibility of the current generation to bring attention to the parts of history that sometimes get forgotten.  

“The numbers may not be what they once were, but the history is still there and it deserves to be told,” said Gibson. 

Turpin is passionate about making sure that history of all kinds is taught and accepted at Lees-McRae. Up until 2016, African American history was not a course offered at the college. Turpin made it his responsibility to ensure that this vital history was something students could take part in.  

“The reason why we need to talk about this in a place like Banner Elk is to highlight the fact that there have been Black people in the region,” Turpin said. Learning more about African Americans in the Appalachian region and in general helps people understand and empathize with those in different demographic groups.  

“History maybe doesn’t repeat itself, but there is a phrase that says history may rhyme,” said Turpin.  

The inability to learn about certain things from the past can inevitably create issues for the future. Good historians want the upcoming generations to learn about African American history with no filter over what really happened.  

Turpin describes his education pertaining to African American history growing up as very surface level.  

“We would learn about MLK. We never learned about more controversial figures,” he said. This style of education can in no way be beneficial to the next generation, who need to understand the events that created the present society. Turpin’s belief that it is best to study African American history with no restrictions drives his approach to teaching the course.  

All these factors help explain why having Black History Month and celebrating the accomplishments and lives of African Americans is so important. Understanding the past can help prevent harm from happening again in the future. 

Accepting history as it actually happened might not always be enjoyable, but it is beneficial to the overall historical context of how the world is shaped today.  

African American history is not meant to be a history that always makes people feel comfortable—after all, Black History Month celebrates a group of people that were once not even seen as human beings. People can be opposed to learning about certain things because it makes them feel bad, but that is often the history that deserves the most attention.  

“We need to not tiptoe around the violence and how brutal it was. We need to face that and come to terms with it,” Turpin said.  

It is important to study African Americans as a whole, but it is also important to study the history of African Americans in areas such as the Appalachian region and Banner Elk, where their stories might not have received as much attention in the past.  

“Anything we do as historians, we are talking about or writing about someone we cannot fully identify with,” Turpin said, but only by putting in the work can we understand what people in the past lived through. Studying African American history is just one example of understanding a time in human existence that did not treat a certain group the same as the majority. Learning about this special history can only better the world for future generations to come. 

Learn more about the Black experience in Appalachia, specifically in the High Country, at a special Black History Month panel discussion on Friday, Feb. 25 

By Brian Sims ’22February 21, 2022