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The Role of African-Americans in the History of WNC

Convict workers on the Swannanoa Tunnel.

Join Warren Wilson College professors Jeff Keith and Kevin Kehrberg on April 14th as they present public memories about slavery and the Jim Crow South through the story of the Swannanoa Tunnel and efforts to maintain the South Asheville Cemetery.

While often associated with southern Appalachia, the “myth of racial innocence” is lost in the exclusive use of African American convict labor to build the Swannanoa Train Tunnel that connected the previously isolated mountains of Western North Carolina to the NC Piedmont.

The Swannanoa Tunnel opened on March 11th, 1879, at a length of 1,800 feet and was the longest of the seven railroad tunnels constructed between Old Fort and Asheville. The hazardous construction process involved drilling holes in the mountains of solid rock, blasting the rock and removing the rubble. One hundred and twenty-five men lost their lives during the construction of the Swannanoa Tunnel. This tragic construction story is highlighted by professors Keith and Kehrberg through the conversations and music of the laborers.

In addition, an overview of the current community project to cultivate and protect the oldest public African American cemetery in WNC, the South Asheville Cemetery, will be developed. The South Asheville Cemetery began as a slave burial ground and its first known caretaker was a slave, George Avery. Mr. Avery was owned by William Wallace McDowell whose family resided in the historic Smith-McDowell House (circa 1840). Mr. McDowell entrusted George Avery to be the manager of the cemetery located on McDowell family property. Mr. Avery continued to oversee burials at the cemetery until his death in 1938.

The South Asheville Cemetery is the final resting place for nearly two thousand people – many of them slaves. The cemetery was closed after the City of Asheville annexed the South Asheville neighborhood with the last burial in the cemetery taking place in 1943.

Over the past thirty years, the South Asheville Cemetery Association has worked to maintain the cemetery as a historic site to promote greater public awareness of African American history in Buncombe County.

Tickets will be sold at the door for a $5.00 donation. The lecture is scheduled for Saturday, April 14th, from 2:00 pm to 3:30 pm at the Reuter Center on the campus of UNC Asheville.

The program is sponsored by the Western North Carolina Historical Association.