WNCHA Program to Explore Swannanoa Tunnel and South Asheville Cemetery

Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection at Asheville’s Pack Memorial Public Library

On Saturday, April 14, the Western North Carolina Historical Association (WNCHA) presents The Role of African-Americans in the History of WNC: Building the 1870s Swannanoa Train Tunnel and The South Asheville Cemetery Project. The two-part lecture will be held at the Reuter Center on the UNC Asheville Campus from 2–3:30 p.m. Attendance is $5 at the door and free for WNCHA members.

The first part of the lecture, presented by Dr. Kevin Kehrberg, explores the use of African-American convict labor to build the 1,832-foot Swannanoa Gap Tunnel. “The completion of the massive Swannanoa Gap Tunnel in 1879 is responsible for Asheville’s legacy of growth and tourism,” says Kehrberg. “This sounds like a great success story, but the story is actually complicated, messy and tragic. Many of the laborers were in prison on trumped-up charges brought on by North Carolina’s “black codes” and other legislation that unfairly targeted black citizens. The work was extremely harsh and hazardous, and many lost their lives.” The program will include the songs and music of the laborers.

Dr. Jeff Keith will present an overview of the South Asheville Cemetery, the oldest public African-American cemetery in Western North Carolina, which began in 1840 as a burial ground for slaves. Keith will also discuss a community project currently under way by the South Asheville Cemetery Association in efforts to preserve the historic site. Keith and Kehrberg are both professors at Warren Wilson College.

The Reuter Center is located in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at 1 Campus View Road in Asheville. For more information, visit wnchistory.org.

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