On Thursday, dozens of people squeezed into a room in the Blount County Public Library to learn about and share the history of African Americans in the Great Smoky Mountains.

The result was a fellowship that only exists by sharing similar experiences — the goal of the Great Smoky Mountain Experience, the program that put on the Thursday evening event.

“We always have had a hunger to find out more about this special place that we call the Smokies,” said Cassius Cash, superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

The event, which doubled as a presentation and open discussion, was attended by nearly 50 people.

Several employees of the Park attended and spoke at the event, including Adam McNeil, who is interning at the Park for the summer as a part of his doctoral program at Rutgers University.

McNeil gave a brief presentation about the history of African Americans in the Smokies, but encouraged attendees to speak up about their personal memories of the Park.

“When we know, they’ll know too,” McNeil said with outstretched arms, clarifying that the “they” he was referring to was the world.

McNeil asserted that the plight of African Americans, particularly slavery, was no stranger to the Smokies or the counties in which they fall.

According to the 1860 Slave Census, Blount County had 1,281 slaves owned by 220 people. Sevier County had 538 slaves owned by 98 people.

McNeil said that the majority of slaves in the Park worked in hospitality, such as hotels.

A specific location referenced by McNeil was Montvale Springs. Part of this property is owned by Harmony Family Center and acts as a multifunctional camp and event site called Montvale.

However, before a 155,000-gallon pool and interactive playground claimed the property, Montvale Springs housed the famous Seven Gables Hotel.

This hotel served as a site for wealthy slave owners from many states throughout the South. It was also where a large number of slaves worked, according to McNeil.

McNeil also stated that while the Smokies have never had formal segregated areas, the gravestones in the Park differentiate substantially between races.

African American people were buried with gravestones facing North to South, while white people were buried with gravestones that faced East to West.

During the open discussion part of the event, people shared stories about their memories of the Smokies.

“My parents would take us to the Smokies, they would fish and we would play in the water,” County Commissioner Jackie Hill reflected as several people around her nodded as though remembering the same.

The goal of both the program and event is to compile people’s personal memories in order to establish an accurate history of African Americans in the Smokies — a history that could otherwise go untold.

Shelby is finishing up her master’s degree at the University of Memphis. She joined The Daily Times in 2019 as a reporter covering county government.

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