Black Mountain: The People Who Fed MeRoundup
tags: African American history, North Carolina, food history, Appalachian history
Cynthia Greenlee holds a PhD in history from Duke University and is at work on multiple projects including a rethinking of Black American foodways. She is a 2020 winner of the James Beard Foundation Award for food writing.
It was at Aunt Lene and Uncle Marvin’s wood-paneled two-bedroom home that I learned everything I needed to know about Appalachian food: its inclination toward preservation, its hunting-forward larder, home gardens and home cooking, a do-it-yourself ethos because the government often paid no-never-mind to what happened in the hills.
The refrigerator in their Black Mountain home was perpetually and neatly stacked with full Tupperware; the outdoor refrigerator in the garage, stuffed with trout and venison (when I wrote a viral New York Times piece about second fridges, I was thinking of my Black, mountain or otherwise rural kinfolk). I’d sit at the kitchen table, crumble cornbread and mix it with strawberry preserves, my ad hoc cobbler. You could sit on the back porch and see Uncle Marvin's cucumbers bulging green in the summer light.
I've often quipped to friends that the "Black" in Black Mountain didn't apply to us, the small community of African-Americans in this hamlet about 20 miles east of Asheville (it refers to the surrounding shadowy peaks).
But every generation reclaims words and place names for itself, and I tell myself that we — my family, the descendants of enslaved people — made Black Mountain and its surrounding towns the cute, tourist-pandering area that it is. For the Black Mountain you know, if you’ve been there or you’ve bought pottery bearing its name, this picturesque hamlet of breweries, pottery, and gift shops aplenty is not quite the place I know.
If labor and love make a place yours, surely we qualify as spiritual owners, even in this place that is not urban but gentrifying. My great-great grandmother, Myra, was enslaved by one Joseph Stepp, and in bondage she served visitors to his inn — and bore his children. The Black Mountain of my forebears, including the largely Black district along Cragmont Road, is now a curving street of tony houses — $400,000 and up — that replaced the modest homes Black residents built or expanded by hand and help. Up the street is the Thomas Chapel AME Zion Church site, now on the National Register of Historic Places and founded by formerly enslaved people who shared my DNA; a sky-blue Masonic lodge where our family often had our holiday pigouts; and a Montessori school that was once the segregated Carver elementary school for “Negro” children. Streets bear the names of Black families who held court in the town, and the skate park was similarly named after my aunt, Elizabeth “Lib” Harper, for her decades of community voluntarism.
In some ways, Black Mountain — vibrant, artsy town it is — is a ghost town for me: buildings that once housed my people and instead hold a history that is, like in many other Black Appalachian communities, in danger of being wiped away by new development and outmigration.
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