Black and nearly nameless in the Swannanoa Valley

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News


History tells us that in 1784, the first non-indigenous people crossed the Swannanoa Gap from Davidson’s Fort in what is now Old Fort to settle the valley. The story is one of tragedy, in which the first white man to settle Western North Carolina dies violently and becomes a fixture in the region’s history.

However, not much is known about the slave who accompanied Samuel Davidson and family to the valley, the woman who made the 16-mile trek back to the fort with Rachel Davidson and her young daughter after Samuel was killed by Cherokee Indians.

Like countless other slaves and their descendants throughout the history of America, the name Liza does not exist in historical documents. All that is known about her comes from an interview that a former Asheville Citizen-Times reporter, Maggie Lauterer, did with one of her descendants, according to Katherine Cutshall, Swannanoa Valley Museum and History Center's assistant director.

The descendant, a man named Johnny Baxter, recalled the story of his grandmother’s grandmother, passed down through generations. He describes Liza as a teenager who helped deliver the Davidson widow and child safely back across the gap.

Based on what is known about the roles of slaves at the time, the woman would have been responsible for tending to the child as they made the trip, according to Cutshall, who has spent years researching slavery in the region.

Cutshall, a native of the region, often heard that there weren’t many slaves in Western North Carolina. Her research has proven that to be untrue.

“The truth is that slavery was just as essential in many places in Appalachia to the economy as it was in the plantation South,” she said. “It just wasn’t as visible. It didn’t look the same. It looked like tourism.”

Slaves in the mountains would have served the region’s tourists or would have worked on large farms, she said. But there is no doubt they were here. Census records indicate that, in the years leading up to the Civil War, 2 percent of the people in Buncombe County owned 15 percent of its residents. That means that in 1860, there were about 2,000 slaves in Buncombe County, Cutshall said.

That population is vastly underrepresented in historical accounts, however, which makes the story of Sarah Gudger an important one. In 1937, Gudger told an interviewer with the Federal Writer’s Project that she was born into slavery, just outside of Old Fort, in 1816.

“She provides a really fascinating anecdote that captures people’s attention,” said Cutshall, who researched Gudger’s story to create a digital narrative of her life titled “Sarah Gudger’s Journey to Freedom: A Digital History Project/Exhibition" (find it online by Googling "Sarah Gudger's Journey to Freedom").

The project was presented at the African Americans in Western North Carolina Conference at UNC Asheville in 2016, in honor of what would've been Grudger's 200th birthday.

Gudger’s stories provide otherwise non-existent insight into the life of a slave in the Swannanoa Valley, where she spent much of her life. Her detailed recollections show how the threat of being separated from family and sent to the Deep South was used to  keep slaves in line.

“Oh man, Lordy, my old boss was mean but he never sent us to the cotton country,” she said in her interview with Marjorie Jones, the writer who told Gudger's story for the Federal Writer's Project.

Gudger also recalls the pain of not being permitted to see her mother, who she said was sent to a family member of her owner in Reems Creek, before her mother was buried. She also speaks of her relationship with her father, Smart Gudger, who she said lived in Oteen, where he was owned by a man named Joe Gudger.

Sarah Gudger died in 1938, purportedly 122 years old. Her longevity provides a modern connection with what is often thought of as the distant past. “The fact that she lived so long connects us to people who are still alive today,” Cutshall said. “We’re no so far removed from that part of history.”

Gudger told others that when she died, she chose to be buried in the Swannanoa Valley. 

Many residents of the Valley know that the Original Thomas Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church was established in 1892 by freed slaves. The current structure, erected in 1922 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, sits in the middle of the Oak Grove Cemetery, overlooking Cragmont Road. 

It exists because Martha Stepp, whose father Joseph Stepp fathered 10 children with a slave named Myra Stepp (as well as 10 children with another slave), bought the land from her father before his death and donated it for the establishment of a black church. 

The Swannanoa Valley Museum has extensive information about the Stepp family, many of whom remained in the area after the Civil War. Edward Stepp, Joseph and Myra's son, was born April 10, "the year of the surrender," as he put it in a letter he wrote to The Black Mountain News and published Sept. 27, 1945 in the newspaper's fourth issue. He was the only one of his siblings not born into slavery.

Edd Stepp  wrote a series of articles for the newspaper, recalling local history from memory. In 1886, his brother, John Myra Stepp, helped establish Flat Creek School, the first school for black children in Black Mountain. The Stepps are one of several black families who have lived in the Valley since the late 1700s to early 1800.  

In 1880 the Valley was changed forever by the arrival of the railroad, which connected Black Mountain to places east of the Eastern Continental Divide, which runs between the town and Old Fort.  Few of the 500 men who blasted the nearly 2,000-foot-long Swannanoa Gap Tunnel through the mountain were local, but many were black. In the wake of the Civil War the state authorized the use of convict labor to expedite the project. 

The names of the  100-plus men who died during the construction of the tunnel are lost to history.