By Emma Castleberry
The Western North Carolina Historical Association (WNCHA) has been headquartered in the Smith-McDowell House since 1981. The WNCHA is well aware that the Smith and McDowell families enslaved more than one hundred people, but very little is known about the individual identities of the enslaved people. Anne Chesky Smith, executive director of the WNCHA, is working to change that with an in-depth study of the association’s archives.
It has been relatively easy for the association to tell the stories of the white people who owned the house over the years because there is plentiful written and photographic documentation of their lives. This is not the case for those who were enslaved at the Smith-McDowell House. “We know statistically how many people the families enslaved in 1850 and 1860 from federal census data, but beyond these statistics it gets much trickier to talk about their individual lives,” says Chesky Smith. The written documentation normally used by historians either doesn’t exist, or exists in a different format. In North Carolina, it was illegal to teach an enslaved person to read or write beginning in 1818, and severe penalties for this “crime” were enacted in 1830, so first-hand sources are virtually nonexistent. “So much of what we know about the lives of the Black people who lived on the grounds of our facility and were forced to work and serve the family who lived here comes from documents written by their enslavers or from oral tradition,” says Chesky Smith.
Chesky Smith is currently completing the bulk of this research alone due to COVID-19 restrictions. Much of what she has been able to learn has been from wills of the white people who passed enslaved people down as property to family members and from slave schedules, which report the purchase and sale of human beings from this time. “In 1850, James M. Smith enslaved at least 44 people,” says Chesky Smith. “In his will, he names almost all of them and sometimes lists their occupation and/or family relationships. In one section of his will he bequeaths ‘Joe (the waggoner) + his wife Tilda + her children, Alfred, Joe, Mary, Jane + Vina’ along with ‘the new brick house near the road’ to his son John P. Smith.” Chesky Smith also learned that when John died a year later, Tilda’s children were separated and sold to the highest bidder on the steps of the Buncombe County courthouse.
The inconsistency of naming has presented a unique challenge to the research. “It is very challenging to connect a person who is only identified by their first name while enslaved, to that same person after 1865 with a sufficient degree of certainty,” says Chesky Smith. “What’s even more difficult is to tell the full story of that person, to know what their life was like, because historically we haven’t tried to collect that type of information. So now we really have to dig and make some leaps of faith to try to cobble together these important and compelling stories.”
On the WNCHA website, visitors can see the stories of some people who were enslaved by the Smith and McDowell families, including Carolina Spears Cope, Rebecca Bailey and her daughter Charlotte, George Avery and the family of Joe and Tilda. When restrictions are lifted, WNCHA hopes to partner with the South Asheville Cemetery Association to put together an exhibit on the cemetery, where many of the people who were enslaved by the Smiths and McDowells are buried. “As an organization rooted in the interpretation of our regional history, we recognize that there is an ongoing need to better represent the diversity of voices that have shaped and will shape Western North Carolina,” says Chesky Smith. “In a region that has been influenced by and benefitted from the contributions of these diverse voices, we want to equitably reflect our heritage, history and aspirations.”
To see the online exhibition, visit WNCHistory.org/Deep-Dive.