Smoky Mountain News
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
Many plotlines weave through the story of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but if the park were a book, some of those plotlines be written in bold, with others buried in small type.
“We probably go overboard in telling the story of the white Appalachian settlers to this area,” said Susan Sachs, the park’s acting chief of resource education. “We do a better job of telling the stories of the Cherokee, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. But then when it comes to the African-American story, we know that we are failing there.”
Sachs spoke during a public meeting held Aug. 5 at the Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center in Waynesville as part of a concerted effort by the park to correct that failing, part of a research effort funded by the Great Smoky Mountains Association.
It’s an important project, not only from the perspective of better understanding history but also from the perspective of making the national park a welcoming space for all people, agreed Adam McNeil, who is leading the research project.
McNeil, himself an African-American, is a Ph.D. student in history at Rutgers University whose love affair with the outdoors began in the Smokies when, as an undergraduate student, he found himself on a one-week spring break excursion there through a program of the Student Conservation Association called NPS Academy. Ever since then, it’s seemed like there’s always been one reason or another — a job, a trip, an academic research project — to return.
But when he would try to find himself in the faces of the people posed in old-timey photographs, displayed at visitor centers and roadside exhibits, he’d come up short. The reason, he was led to understand, was that black people just didn’t have much history in the mountains.
“Then I started to peel back the layers historically,” he said. “I’m a scholar of slavery. I’m a scholar of the 18th and 19th century. I felt like people kept saying that there were no enslaved people here, there were no black folks here during that particular time. It would have been a post-Civil War phenomenon. I was like, I don’t think so.”