By Lauren Stepp
Like many blue-collared folks living in Canton during the 1950s, 30-year-old Nathaniel Lowery earned a living at Champion Paper Mill. But at night, the Haywood County native moonlighted at WWIT (970 AM), spinning hit records by The Crew Cuts and the Coasters. “It’s five past five and time to jive,” he would croon. “This is your host that loves you the most, Nat the Cat.”
Peter Koch, education specialist at Western Carolina University’s (WCU’s) Mountain Heritage Center, notes that Lowery’s show was “very popular with all audiences.” Some historians credit his contemporary style with unifying an otherwise segregated town. “Through the use of a mutual interest in music, he helped to bring the black and white community together,” reads a WCU archive.
Lowery is one of several local African Americans featured in When All God’s Children Get Together: A Celebration of the Lives and Music of African-American People in Far Western North Carolina. The exhibit was inspired by When All God’s Children Get Together, a text by historian Ann Woodford, and produced by WCU public history students and associate professor Andrew Denson. The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, the North Carolina Humanities Council and the Cherokee County Arts Council provided funding. It runs through Friday, December 15, at the Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center in Waynesville.
Koch says the exhibit features businessmen and women, educators, veterans and historians from seven WNC counties—Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Macon, Swain, Jackson and Haywood. Besides “Nat the Cat,” there are community members like Purell Miller. A superb hog butcher, Miller solicited his work across Cherokee and Clay counties, even earning customers down in Georgia too. But folks best remember Miller for his storytelling. “He was well-known in Andrews because of his willingness to share community history with all comers,” says Koch.
Tommy Love’s legend goes beyond the Blue Ridge. Love was one of several African-American students from the Colored Consolidated School in Sylva to desegregate the allwhite Sylva-Webster High. Once at Sylva- Webster, he was quickly recruited by Michigan State University (MSU) for football. Quite tragically, he died of a heart attack in his sophomore year of college. MSU now hands out the Tommy Love Award for most improved player.
Love’s narrative is one of classic outmigration. With tensions rising amid desegregation, black individuals fled the mountains. Those who did not relocate to the North settled in places like Chattanooga and Knoxville. “There was added impetus to move to communities with more safety and increased opportunity,” says Koch. “Outmigration has constantly sapped the region of its youth, energy and promise for the future.”
Now, WCU and its community partners are vying to preserve the African-American culture and history that remains. “Ann’s book was the driving impetus of the exhibit,” Koch says. “But we also had a desire to celebrate African-American community survival and successes.”
The Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center is located at 450 Pigeon Street in Waynesville. Admission is free. Hours are Monday to Thursday, 1-6 p.m. For more information, call 828.452.7232 or find the Pigeon Center on Facebook.