A project is underway to add a new, and up-to-now-hidden dimension to Great Smokies National Park, America's most visited National Park: the history of its Black people, first as slaves and then as citizens.
Since it opened in the 1930s, the Park has actively preserved and documented plant and animal species, explored Native American archaeological and other sites, and preserved remnants of white settlers' civilization in the hollows and mountaintops of the park. But the two hundred years of African-American history in the area was never included.
White settlers moving into the area in the 1790s brought slavery with them, and slavery continued in the area on the border between the Carolinas and Tennessee until the Civil War, and there were communities of free Black people throughout the area which is now the half-million acres of park land.
Antoine Fletcher, director of the Appalachian Science Learning Center in the park, told USA Today that “We're looking at telling a complete story, not one that is fixated step by step from 1619 to current time, but from a 30,000-foot level we can say enslaved people lived in this area,” Fletcher said. "We can talk about how slaves got here, what they were doing, and then come down to the park level and say, 'We have these grave sites or we have these accounts from owners about these slaves,' and we can build a story.”
Even the building of the park is part of the story; Black workers who built important parts of the park's facilities had to travel long distances to and from work because they were not allowed to stay in nearby towns that had 'sundown laws' banning African-Americans from the town after dark.
Over time, as the project develops, listens to oral histories, searches out documents and photos, we can expect a much fuller sense of the area and how it developed.