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Originally published: 2012-01-16 12:18:00
Last modified: 2012-01-16 12:20:53

Junaluska project unearths Boone's black history

To this day, many Watauga County residents are not aware of the rich history contained in the historically black community of Junaluska, tucked at the base of Howard's Knob in Boone.

In fact, some residents are not even aware the neighborhood exists.

But for the last year, an ambitious group of people from inside and outside the community has been working to collect, protect and celebrate the history of the area that was for too long an invisible sidekick to the town.

Now, the Junaluska History Project is planning a celebration for Saturday to reflect on its first year and plan for the year to come.

As the project progresses, group members hope it will hold continued research and study, a “Junaluska Jubilee” in April to build community cohesion, a walking tour and the possibility of designation by the town as a historic district.

The project in fall 2010 began as members of St. Luke's Episcopal Church embarked on a project to unpack the racial history of the parish and surrounding community, said Faith Wright, a member of St. Luke's.

The group soon formed alliances with the Junaluska Heritage Association, especially historians Virgil Greer and Sandra Hagler, who for years had been studying the people and places in their community.

In February 2011, the Junaluska History Project was born.

Residents estimate that the community now includes about 75 structures, including anchors such as the Mennonite Brethren Church on Church Street and the Old Junaluska School, now home to Western Youth Network.

But decades ago, before desegregation, the community was much larger and contained a barbershop, general stores, two or three churches and a restaurant known as the Chocolate Bar, Greer said.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the community even had its own adult baseball team, the Boone Mountain Lions, that competed against other communities and prison teams.

“Almost anything that was offered in the segregated section of Boone was offered in the black community,” Greer said. “It was a city within a city.”

Roberta Jackson, a facilitator of the Junaluska History Project and sister to historian Sandra Hagler, recalled that the area used to be referred to as “The Hill,” and the areas above simply were “The Pines” and “The Mountain.”

“I don't remember how many years ago, suddenly we were the Junaluska community,” Jackson said.

As members of the community have combed through census data, courthouse records, ASU library collections and individuals' documents, the research hasn't always been easy.

Blacks were not named in the U.S. Census until 1870, making it difficult to track family lines, said Hagler, chairwoman of the research group that meets every other Thursday.

“We have a little more work to do than the average person doing his history,” she said.

In other cases, the research must be approached delicately to avoid opening old wounds and pointing fingers as race relations are examined.

“I think that's a lot of times why history does get lost,” Jackson said. “Our fathers or grandfathers didn't want to talk about unpleasant incidents, so we didn't know. We lost a lot of that.”

But those untold stories are what make the project so compelling to researchers.

As the project moves forward, the group is looking for ways to chronicle those historical gems and maintain the neighborhood.

A neighborhood improvement association formed recently, and a complete annotated bibliography of local sources of information is being compiled. The group also dreams of books about the area's history, a walking tour of historic sites and the festival in April called the “Junaluska Jubilee.”

Residents are also examining whether they would be interested in becoming a historic district, as designated by the Boone Historic Preservation Commission.

The commission held a public planning session Dec. 6, 2011, to explain how a historic designation might impact the community. That day, residents presented a petition with more than 90 names encouraging Junaluska as a possibility.

Residents have expressed interest in protecting the valuable area — within walking distance to ASU — from encroachment without overly limiting homeowners' abilities to alter their homes.

When the history project is complete — (“We've decided we'll never be done,” Jackson said) — participants hope the Junaluska community will be stronger and more visible than ever before.

“I think we've got a great community, and we want people to know it,” Jackson said. “We want people to know that we're proud of who we are and where we live and that we're making a difference and playing a part.”

The Junaluska History Project celebration begins at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 21 at the Mennonite Brethren Church, located at 161 Church St. above the Watauga County Library. Anyone interested in attending or becoming involved with the project can reach Roberta Jackson at (828) 773-2540.