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The 1950 Protest

One Sunday in September of 1950, the residents of Old Fort were startled to see dozens of African-American children marching down the main street of town carrying signs saying “We Want Our School Back” and “What Happened to Our School”. The young students were protesting the decision to close the all-black Catawba View Grammar School in Old Fort, which meant that they would have to travel 15 miles to Marion to attend the“Consolidated Negro School”.

From our vantage point now- over 50 years later- this public demonstration is even more remarkable when we realize how early this act of defiance was within the context of what we now know as “The Civil Rights Movement”.

 The Old Fort demonstration was:

  • Just two years after President Truman had integrated the Armed Forces by executive order
  • Only two years after Martin Luther King, Jr. became an ordained minister, and seven years before he formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to fight segregation 
  • Four years before the Supreme Court Brown Vs. Board of Education decision that desegregated American schools

The all-black school that was torn down. Col. Daniel Adams is at far right.

Despite petitions by the parents and the protests by the children, the black elementary school was demolished and the orders to attend school in Marion remained. One of Old Fort’s most notable and respected citizens, Col. Daniel Adams (find out more about him here) published an opinion in the local newspaper calling the closing and razing of the black school “acts of aggression” and “disgraceful”.

After Catawba View School was destroyed, the African-American parents in Old Fort began to submit petitions to the McDowell County Board of Education for their children to be allowed to attend all-white Old Fort Elementary. The applications were denied, and the families tried every legal avenue available to them without success. Then came Brown vs. Board of Education.

The Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional but left the timing and speed of desegregation up to the states and to individual school systems. Therefore, change was slow in coming.

In the summer of 1955, with their children still having to travel to Marion to school, the Old Fort parents decided to make a bold move. They would attempt to register a group of black children in person at Old Fort Elementary on the first day of the new term.

Albert Joyner was a nurse at the VA hospital in Oteen and had only recently moved to Old Fort. At the time, he had no school-age children. He knew of the plans for some leaders of the black community to escort a group of children to the elementary school on the morning of August 24th, but he was not involved.

This full page photo of Albert Joyner and the Old Fort children appeared in Look Magazine in 1956. Col. Adams, walking cane over his shoulder, looks on.

However, when Mr. Joyner looked out his window that morning as he was getting dressed for work, he saw the children standing there alone. There had been threats and warnings from some whites in town, and the designated escorts had gotten cold feet. They didn’t show up.

Without a second thought, Mr. Joyner put on his best suit, walked outside, and led the children through town. A mostly hostile crowd lined the route, but he felt no fear. He felt that he had been called by God to step into this role, so there was no need to be afraid. Some members of the crowd at the schoolhouse were reportedly armed, but there were no incidents. Albert Joyner politely asked that the children be registered but was told by McDowell County School Superintendent Melvin Taylor that “integration will not be begun this year”. In addition to coverage in area newspapers, a full-page photo of Mr. Joyner and two of the children appeared in Look magazine, and Jet magazine also followed the story.

Shortly after the attempt to enroll the children, Mr. Joyner was in downtown Old Fort when white railroad worker W.W. Arney punched him, knocking him into the town fountain. Mr. Joyner’s sister went across the street to a drug store to call the police, but the store personnel would not allow her to enter. The police came anyway, arresting Mr. Joyner as well as Arney. (The charges against Albert Joyner were eventually dropped.) Many times over the ensuing years as the Old Fort integration case wound its way through the court system, Albert Joyner would be subject to threats and intimidation. He never backed down, and always appeared in court. (more…)

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The Burgin House was a center of social life in the community for many years. (Photo courtesy Peggy Silvers)

The Burgin House was a center of social life in the community for many years. (Photo courtesy Peggy Silvers)

The Burgin family looms large in McDowell County history as well as in the history of our nation.  Along with the Greenlees, Carsons, and McDowells, they were among the first settlers of what is now McDowell County. Phillip Burgin arrived in America in 1677, and his son Benjamin “Pioneer Ben” Burgin made his way to the Old Fort area around 1770.  He built a two-story walnut log home in 1779 that was a local landmark until it burned to the ground 150 years later. The Burgin family sent over 30 of its men into service in the Confederate Army, with nearly a third losing their lives. union

In the years just before his death, George Aden Burgin (1874-1959) wrote down many of his own memories as well as stories told to him by his father and grandfather. McDowell resident and Burgin family chronicler Peggy Silvers reads one of his heartbreaking Civil War stories for us and then talks about the forgotten victims of the Civil War- the families left behind in these mountains to battle raiders, deserters, outlaws, and starvation. (Peggy is author of Echoes in the Mist: The Burgin Family 1677-1989 and is beginning work on a book about the homefront in the Civil War based on diaries and letters from that era.)

Leaving HomeListen to Peggy Silvers here: (There is much, much more to learn about the Burgins.  A good place to start is their astonishingly detailed family history website.)

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The men in Mildred Kelly's family worked with the railroad for generations.

The men in Mildred Kelly's family worked with the railroad for generations.

The McDowell community of Graphite, or Graphiteville, is located just down the mountain from Ridgecrest and takes its name from the mining activity that took place there around 1900.
Mildred Kelly has lived in Graphite her entire life,  as did her mother and grandmother before her. Her home is located just across the yard from the house where she was born.
A few miles southeast of Graphite, the citizens of Old Fort dig out after the 1916 flood. (Photo courtesy of Peggy Silvers)

A few miles southeast of Graphite, the citizens of Old Fort dig out after the 1916 flood. (Photo courtesy of Peggy Silvers)

Mrs. Kelly welcomed us to her front porch to talk about the 1916 flood, the depression years,home remedies, the railroad,  and the observations she has made in her 80+ years. (You’ll also hear the sounds of a late summer morning, the chickens in the yard, and Buddy the dog doing battle with a persistent flea…)

To drive up to Graphite or to see it on a map, you’d be forgiven for thinking that  it is one of the most isolated places in western North Carolina. But as you can see in the photo to the left, which was taken from Mrs. Kelly’s porch during our interview, she has had good reason never to feel isolated at all.

Listen to Mrs. Kelly using the media player above.

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We’ve all heard the old saying “A woman’s work is never done”, and that was especially true on a farm or plantation in the old days. Dr. James Haney of SpinningWheelthe historic Carson House takes us on a tour of an exhibit in one of the upper rooms of the home devoted to “women’s work”.  He talks about the use of the loom, spinning wheel, quilt press, and even a somewhat intimidating-looking tool called a shuck hackle.

(As you will note if you spend much time exploring this website, Dr. Haney was very generous with his time and expertise for this project. We thank him profusely.)

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In the schoolyard in the 1930s. Mr. Burgin is third row, second from the left.

In the schoolyard in the 1920s. Mr. Burgin is third row, second from the left.

Willard Burgin makes his home on land originally cleared by his great-grandfather in the upper reaches  of the Crooked Creek community, barely this side of the Buncombe County line.  He’s just up the road from the old Mount Hebron Bible Institute where his parents met and where he briefly went to school himself.  Nestled peacefully at the foot of the mountain, his home is a refuge from the rush of the modern world.  We visited there for almost two hours, and only one car passed the entire time!
Mr. Burgin proudly displays his medals from WWII.

Mr. Burgin proudly displays his medals from WWII.

Mr. Burgin is a treasure-trove of memories and stories:  from cutting wood for the tannery in Old Fort when he was a child, to seeking emergency assistance from the “snake doctor”, to searching the hillside behind his house so he could milk the family cow, to planting by the signs, to loading ammunition boats in Iceland during World War II.

Listen to our conversation with Willard Burgin here:

(It may take a moment for the audio to load.)

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Members of the CCC from Camp Jim Staton on Curtis Creek

Members of the CCC from Camp Jim Staton on Curtis Creek (Photo courtesy Dee Daughtridge/Old Fort Library)

When Franklin Roosevelt became President in 1933, nearly one-fourth of Americans were unemployed. FDR set about immediately establishing the programs of the “New Deal” to address this critical problem. Two of the most successful were the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). The WPA put men to work constructing public buildings, parks, bridges and roads while the CCC concentrated on natural resources conservation.  Terrell Finley, Administrator of the Mountain Gateway Museum in Old Fort, talks about the profound impact that both organizations had on McDowell County:

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MarioManBldgIn 1929, strikes began to break out at textile mills across the American South.  The mill workers’ discontent stemmed from long hours at low pay, deplorable working conditions, and the general callousness with which they were treated by their employers.  In the spring of ’29 a strike began in Elizabethton, TN followed by Greenville, SC and Gastonia, NC.

In May of that year, workers at Marion Manufacturing sought assistance from the United Textile Workers Union after they were ordered to work additional time each day without additional pay.  In about a month, the union was strong enough in Marion to hold an open meeting at the county courthouse with employees from Marion Manufacturing and nearby Clinchfield Mill attending.  Officers were chosen and soon the organization boasted several hundred members.

The strike was so divisive that no church would hold services for the slain workers.  Instead, their coffins were placed on saw horses in a field near the mill.

The strike was so divisive that no church would hold services for the slain workers. Instead, their coffins were placed on saw horses in a field near the mill.

Differing opinions about the unionization of Marion’s textile mills tore families and the community apart.  Tensions escalated through the summer and confrontations increased. 

In the early morning of October 2, 1929, workers who had “walked out” and other workers picketing outside Marion Manufacturing soon found themselves in deadly conflict with the sheriff, six of his deputies, and seven anti-union employees who had been deputized on the spot.  Tear gas was released and a flurry of shots followed.  Three mill workers died immediately and three more died of their wounds over the coming days.  Dozens of workers were wounded.  The events at Marion Manufacturing became front page news across the country, and famed author and columnist Sinclair Lewis came to town to write about the situation.

In 2004, Mike Lawing published his book The Marion Massacre, the most comprehensive examination of the Marion events to date.  The next year, Kim Clark and Ellen Pfirrmann of public radio WNCW produced “Strike”, a week-long series about the Marion strike largely based around Lawing’s work.

WNCW and its license holder Isothermal Community College have granted permission for all five segments of this program to be made available here:

Part One: Part Two: Part Three: Part Four: Part Five:

In segment 2 of “Strike”, we hear about the discovery of the union-related personal effects of Roy Price, an early organizer at Marion Manufacturing and the first president of the union. In the video below you can see many of these materials along with related photos and newspaper articles.  The song that accompanies the images is “Cotton Dust” by The Carburetors, written by Jay Goree and used by permission. To hear a happier account of life in the Clinchfield Mill Village, listen to our interview with Mrs. Glenys Gilbert, lifelong Clinchfield resident, by clicking here.

An interview with Sam and Vesta Finley, union members at Marion Manufacturing during the strike, was conducted in 1975 by the Southern Oral History Project. A transcript is here.

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