SCOUTING AROUND: Exhibit makes black history come to life
When Ann Miller Woodford started her research for When All God’s Children Get Together: A Celebration of the Lives and Music of African American People in Far Western North Carolina, she had no idea her book would not only be used for students learning Appalachian history, but inspire an exhibit for anyone in the area to view.
“I’m very excited. Our people have been basically invisible,” said Woodford, who is from Andrews. “This is the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
The exhibit was designed by Pam Meister and Peter Koch of the Mountain Heritage Center and Dr. Andrew Denson and his Appalachian studies students at Western Carolina University. It was curated by Woodford. The traveling exhibit opened Saturday night at Murphy Art Center.
Before the opening, the Texana Community Development Club – with One Dozen Who Care Inc., Western Carolina and the Cherokee County Arts Council – celebrated the exhibit with a Gospel Fest Program that appropriately opened with Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church singing “When All God’s Children Get Together.”
Attendees were treated to Amara Leak’s moving performance of “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. Church choirs – including St. John Baptist of Asheville and St. Peter’s Primitive of Alcoa, Tenn. – each got to sing three songs during the program. The Rev. Charlsie Sweat, Jan Allen, the Rev. John Webb and the Rev. Denise Pickens Johnson graced the crowd with inspirational messages.
A highlight was seeing a group of special needs educators from Botswana, Africa, enthusiastically participating and singing three spiritual songs after marching to the stage while announcing themselves. The group of 12 educators were visiting Western Carolina for the week as part of a collaboration with the school, and spent the day in Murphy to view the exhibit, sightsee and learn more about the area.
During the program, Woodford and Meister talked about the importance of the project to build an exhibit inspired by Woodford’s work.
“It’s powerful to know your history,” Meister said to the crowd. “It’s even more powerful to see that history on the wall.”
The exhibit in the MAC includes 2-D history panels that explain the origin of the black community, the roles of churches, information on schooling, and features athletes, veterans and entrepreneurs of the area. It also includes several paintings by Woodford, and other personal items, like the stuffed toy rabbit she made when she was 13 before heading to boarding school in Asheville.
Part of the traveling exhibit is to display local historical items at each stop, and Woodford’s are just the start of what will be displayed at the MAC.
“Little by little we’ll add to the exhibit during its course here,” said David Vowell, executive director of the Cherokee County Arts Council.
Vowell said he is welcoming school field trips to the exhibit. Woodford said she also would like to speak at schools about the exhibit.
“Black history is something that is basically forgotten,” Woodford said.
She explained that when schools were segregated, black students learned the black history of the area. However, when schools were integrated, the history was not. She wants to break down barriers, and thinks everyone learning and talking will do that.
“All the people need to hear this. We’re all related in this area,” she said. “White kids need to know about this. They also need to not feel guilty. Don’t be embarrassed. Ask questions.”
While the exhibit at the MAC will only be on display through Sept. 30, history panels also were permanently installed at Texana Community Center. Eurial Turner, president of the Texana Community Development Club, said the panels are a reminder of the roots and heritage of the families in the area.
“It’s important for us to get together to share that history,” he said.
The “When All God’s Children Get Together” exhibit is funded by the N.C. Arts Council, Cherokee County Arts Council, Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Partnership and N.C. Humanities Council.
Samantha Sinclair is Scouting Around columnist for the Cherokee Scout. You can reach her by email, email@example.com; fax, 837-5832; or by leaving a message in the office at 837-5122.