Tabernacle United Methodist Church to dedicate headstone for unmarked grave of slave

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
In the archive room at Tabernacle United Methodist Church, Robert Goodson shows pastor Lisa Beth White the center growth ring on a section of a hemlock tree that used to mark the grave of Coleman Stepp.

Hundreds of stories are represented by the gravestones dotting the Tabernacle United Methodist Church Cemetery. For nearly 200 years its grounds, which offer sweeping views of both the Swannanoa and Black Mountain ranges, have served as the final resting place for men and women who called the Swannanoa Valley home.

Yet it's the story of the unmarked grave of Coleman Stepp that has long stood out to local historian Robert Goodson, who will share it at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, when Tabernacle United Methodist dedicates a gravestone in his honor. 

To anyone interested in the history of the area Jesse Stepp is a key figure. Born in 1810, less than two decades after the establishment of Buncombe County, he purchased 100 acres of land in the Swannanoa Valley in 1832, more than 60 years before the town of Black Mountain was incorporated. 

According to Goodson, who published "On the North Fork of the Swannanoa River: 1800-1950 " with his late wife Joan in 1997, Jesse owned land in what is now the Asheville Watershed to the peak of what is now Mount Mitchell. He was a pioneer in the tourism industry in Western North Carolina. 

Robert Goodson and Tabernacle United Methodist Church pastor Lisa Beth White stand near a stone in the cemetery that marks the original location of the church. Just feet away is the final resting place of Coleman Stepp, who the church will honor by unveiling a headstone in a ceremony on April 14.

"If you used modern terms to describe him, I would describe him as an outfitter," Goodson said of Jesse, who grew up exploring the Black Mountains. "Parties would assemble in Asheville, come to Alexander Inn in Swannanoa, spend the night, and then head to Jesse Stepp's. He would outfit them with whatever they needed and take them up to Mount Mitchell."

Jesse, like many of the early white settlers in the Valley, was a slaveholder. Coleman was his sole servant. 

"Coleman had his own house on Jesse's land and they were always together," Goodson said of the relationship between the two men. "Coleman went with Jesse to guide groups up to the mountain."

While there are no known photographs or descendants of Coleman, the 1848 rolls from Tabernacle United Methodist confirm his existence. 

"Jesse and his family were members of the church," Goodson said. "On Sundays, when they hitched up the wagon to make what would've been a two-hour trip to the church. Along the way they picked up a woman named Rose, who was a slave of the Burnett's. Coleman and Rose didn't just go to the church, they were bonafide members."

Goodson began recording historical accounts of Valley residents more than 60 years ago. 

Robert Goodson clears away a small bush in front of the headstone marking the grave of Cora Doula McKee, the granddaughter of Jesse Stepp, who rests just feet away from the grave of Coleman Stepp at the Tabernacle United Methodist Church Cemetery.

"Mrs. Cora Dula was the granddaughter of Jesse Stepp," he said. "Sometime in the late 1950s, when Mrs. Dula was quite elderly, I picked her up on a warm, sunny day. I brought a lawn chair and we went down to (Tabernacle United Methodist). She described it as it appeared when she was a kid."

Dula, born in 1881, was the daughter of George Stepp who served two terms as the mayor of Black Mountain in the early 1900s. She described the first of the three structures that housed the church since it was formed in the 1830s. Her account was used to create a detailed painting of the original log structure. 

Dula also told Goodson the story of a large Canadian Hemlock that stood just feet away from the front door of the original site of the church, which is now commemorated by a large stone.

"When Coleman died, even though there was a black cemetery in the watershed, he wasn't buried up there. He was buried in the cemetery of the church where he was a member," Goodson said. "On the way down, someone in that party that brought his body down plucked a hemlock seedling and planted it at the head of Coleman's grave."

The final resting place of Coleman, who Goodson estimates passed away in the 1850s, would've been prominent on the church grounds then. 

"Everyone who came in and out of the church would've passed directly past the spot where he was buried," he said.

The tree, which "was in a bad situation" by the end of the 1950s, according to Goodson, had to be taken down. 

"I got a fellow to cut a cross section out of it," said Goodson. "I varnished it, and all that, and counted the growth rings."

The section of the tree, which marked the grave of Coleman for a century, is displayed in the archive room of the church. 

Goodson, who has administrated the cemetery since 1976, relayed the story of Coleman Stepp to fellow church member David Madden. 

"I immediately knew we needed to put a stone here," Madden said. "Robert telling the story made me feel a connection to Coleman, and I felt like his grave should be marked. The tree was the marker for so long but it's gone, so we needed a stone here."

That day, Madden spoke to his Sunday school class, led by Lois Nix, about marking the grave of Coleman. 

"Everybody thought that was the appropriate thing to do," he said. 

The church worked together to acquire a marker from Harwood Home for Funerals and will unveil it during the ceremony. 

Church pastor Lisa Beth White will consecrate Coleman's gravestone. Coleman's story holds a special historical significance, she said. 

"He was a fellow member of this church," White said. "Many denominations were segregated at that time, so whites gathered in one congregation and the (Christian Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal) churches separated because of racism.

"When the Methodist Church merged in 1939, they wrote segregation into their structure and that wasn't resolved until 1968, when we merged and became the United Methodist Church," she continued. "You can see throughout history that when institutions were segregated, this church was not."

Jesse left the Swannanoa Valley for Aquone in after the death of Elisha Mitchell in 1857. Jesse died in 1873; his body rests in the Aquone Baptist Church Cemetery. 

"Unbeknownst to Jesse and Coleman, they were some of the earliest pioneers of the hospitality industry in these mountains," Goodson said. 

Coleman's grave, one of over 250 unmarked graves in the cemetery, contains the body of a man who made significant contributions to the community. 

"All of those people buried there are important," Goodson said. "There are people in there whose resources might've been nothing, but he may have been a really good blacksmith. You can read a lot into stones, but sometimes you're totally wrong."

It is our obligation to honor those who came before us, he continued. 

"These are the people who have handed us today," Goodson said. "We can never repay the debt."