Heritage Lifestyle

The African American Experience in the Smokies

By Emma Castleberry

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is working to create a more complete picture of its history with the help of Adam Xavier McNeil, a research fellow at the park. McNeil is the head researcher for the African American Experience in the Smokies project. McNeil has a Master’s in History and is studying for his PhD in history at Rutgers University. “National Parks are supposed to tell stories about us and bring more people into loving the beautiful spaces they inhabit,” he says. “Unfortunately, African Americans do not always have their full story told in national park spaces.”

The African American Experience in the Smokies

McNeil says there are a number of reasons for this lack of coverage, including staffing and budgeting challenges, as well as the incorrect but prevalent assumption that African Americans don’t like the outdoors or national parks. McNeil explains that leaving the African American story out of the park’s history is “not a benign gesture. The GSMNP is the most visited national park in the United States and when visitors travel from far and wide and do not see anything about the history of African Americans, they lose out on what could be a tremendous learning experience.”

The research project has been a transformative experience for McNeil, himself an African American. “The institution of slavery infected virtually every section of the American body politic, even in Southern Appalachia,” he says. “When you learn how the largest landholders doubled as the biggest enslavers in a community, you cannot—at least, you should not—see the physical landscape the same anymore.” Part of McNeil’s research has traced specific surnames to a connection with slaveholding, however loose. “Then you see local African Americans with the same surname and you have the obvious question of, so how and why did they receive or choose that name? The answer is probably somewhere in the post-emancipation era. Learning these local histories and providing opportunities for the public to learn them is the most important quality of this project.”

While visiting Western Carolina University’s Special Collection in search of archival materials about enslaved people, McNeil was surprised to find that none of the data was tagged to indicate information that dealt with slavery or African Americans. He says the lack of these tags as “finding aids” prevents the community from accessing that knowledge, and also perpetuates “the myth about Southern Appalachians not enslaving people. Slavery occurred in each county the park intersects with. The beauty of the national parks should not cover up the brutality that also occurred there.”

The scope of this project is enormous and will take many years, but the park expects to incorporate the research into exhibits, park waysides and education programs. “I want the result of my research to be that I helped push community conversations about the history of slavery and freedom, and that African Americans have been and still are lovers of the environment,” says McNeil. “Telling fuller and more comprehensive stories is the right thing to do.”

For more information about the African American Experience in the Smokies project, email Rhonda Wise at rhonda_wise@nps.gov.

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