Valley history brought to life at Black Mountain Elementary

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

The Swannanoa Valley has a rich history. The world’s most famous evangelist lives here (Billy Graham). It was the site of a revolutionary experiment in education (Black Mountain College) and has been home to a Super Bowl winner (Brad Johnson), NBA Draft lottery pick (Brad Daugherty), three-time NCAA champion basketball coach (Roy Williams). It's where Davy Crockett, the “King of the Wild Frontier," met his wife (Elizabeth Crockett).

Blankets used in World War II and aprons collected to this day were made in the valley, which is also the birthplace of the state’s first woman legislator.

Pearl Hall, right, wears an apron made by Claudia McGraw, who she played in "Visions of the Valley 2017," while meeting McGraw's niece and Black Mountain resident Charlotte Arrendell, left, after the show.

On Dec. 19, Jim Griffin’s fourth-grade class at Black Mountain Elementary School brought the history of the region to life with “Visions of the Valley 2017.” The production looked at the history of Black Mountain, Swannanoa and Montreat through the eyes of 9- and 10-year-olds.

“The kids wrote their own scripts,” said Griffin, who has taught at the school for 15 years. “We were focusing on point-of-view, which is a fourth-grade skill. We wanted them to tell the stories as ‘I’ instead of in the third person.”

Narrated by professional writer and Black Mountain resident Donna Marie Todd, who was also credited with assembling the students’ original historical presentations into a show, “Visions of the Valley” featured students portraying some of the most recognizable figures in the community’s history. Todd, who Griffin met when her son Torey Todd was in his fourth-grade class 13 years ago, has been involved with the productions from the beginning. 

Malayah O'Neil dressed up as Carol Tyson to tell the story on the historic Owen Warlassies dynasty basketball team, on which the latter played. The team won 90 straight games from 1964-70.

The two have produced different presentations yearly, like "Tarheel Tales," based on historical figures in the state, and a show about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Dec. 19 presentation of "Visions of the Valley" included five scenes, which were broken up by a rendition of the holiday classic “Silver Bells,” tweaked to give the song a local feel.

“It’s Christmastime in the Valley,” the 20 cast members sang between scenes, accompanied by Todd’s vocals and the live acoustic music of Andy Gwynn.

Wearing a tie once worn by Billy Graham himself, James Fals opened the second scene by channeling the Montreat resident, who is recognized worldwide.

James Fals, a fourth grader at Black Mountain Elementary, passes out programs at the entrance of the school's auditorium in a tie worn by Billy Graham. Fals portrayed Graham in the presentation that followed.

“I’ve preached to over 215 million people in 185 countries,” Fals said, in character as Graham. “I’ve met with 12 United States presidents, and I recently turned 99.”

As applause erupted for Fals as a Graham, Madilynn Banks stole the show as the minister’s late wife Ruth.

“I was an author, I wrote 14 books total,” Banks said. “While he was on world tour, I raised five children all by myself.”

Madilynn Banks plays Ruth Graham in "Visions of the Valley 2017" at Black Mountain Elementary School on Dec. 19.

The play opened with Ella Harkey telling the story about Rachel (Alexander) Davidson, one of the first white settlers in the Swannanoa Valley. Davidson and her husband Samuel traversed the Swannanoa Gap in 1784, the year after the United States of America won its independence from Britain.

Harkey recounted Rachel Davidson’s tale of hiking 16 miles east to Davidson's Fort, in present day Old Fort, after a Native American hunting party lured her husband to the top of Jones Mountain and killed him.

Black Mountain native Roberta Flack was known for her hit song "Killing Me Softly," which was released in 1973, well before Black Mountain Elementary student Sydnee Nixon-Snell was born. Nixon Snell portrayed Flack in the "Visions of the Valley 2017" presentation at the school on Dec. 19.

Black Mountain native Roberta Flack is the only solo artist to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in consecutive years (1973 and 1974). At 80 years old, she remains active in the music scene.

Sydnee Nixon-Snell was introduced as Flack in "Visions of the Valley 2017" by Todd's rendition of an excerpt of "Killing Me Softly With His Song," perhaps the five-time Grammy Award winner's most recognized work.

The song was retitled "Killing Me Softly" in 1996 and released on "The Score," the Fugees' debut album, with Lauryn Hill singing the lead vocals. The song picked up a Grammy Award in 1997 for Best R&B Performance. 

"I was born right here in Black Mountain, North Carolina," Nixon-Snell said as Flack. "I'm a famous singer-songwriter, and one of four children. I'm still alive today."

Flack was one of many women recognized for their contributions in the Swannanoa Valley and beyond. Another was Claudia McGraw, whose niece Charlotte Arrendell was among those in the audience. 

"I'm impressed and overwhelmed by how great of a job the children did up there," Arrendell said after the performance. "I had no idea the turnout would be so big."

McGraw, who passed away in 2001, became known for the aprons she made at her State Street home, which is currently the site of the Black Mountain Bistro. In 1932 she opened a tearoom in the building that is home to the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce. 

"I can't help but remember her," Arrendell said of her late aunt. "I think what I remember most about her was how talented she was. I also remember how hard working she was, and of course her aprons."

Pearl Hall portrayed McGraw in "Visions of the Valley," wearing an apron made by the woman affectionately known as the "Apron Lady." Hall met Arrendell after the show. 

The first female mayor of Black Mountain, Margaret Slagle, was also represented in the performance. Katlyn Wheeler spoke as Slagle, who won the office in 1975. 

This was the first year Griffin tackled history so close to home, which helped inspire this year's production.

"This is my last year teaching; I'm retiring after my 40th year," he said. "I'm a Kiwanian, and I heard they were giving out different grants for educational organizations. I thought it would be a great opportunity to do something focusing on the Swannanoa Valley."

The Swannanoa Valley Museum was the class's primary source for research.

"We visited (assistant director) Katherine Cutshall, and she spent a couple of hours with us during a tour of the museum and showed us photos and memorabilia," Griffin said. "The kids already had their characters they were going to research."

Griffin asked the kids to write their own scripts.

"That was part of working on writing skills," he said. "So it was like 'I want you to write about a historical character, but you're that person."

The experience is one many of the children will likely take with them well beyond the doors of their elementary school. 

It's Griffin himself who helps make the learning experience a good one, according to Torey Todd, who is now in college. He was in the audience watching his mother and former teacher, and congratulated Griffin following the show.

"Thank you for being such a wonderful teacher," Torey said. "Any kid who has you is lucky."