The History of Race Relations in Our Area

Timeline: Racial Integration in Yancey County

Joyce Johnson, October 2020

  • Celo Community Inc. was founded by Arthur Morgan in 1937.  Its constitution states “No person is excluded from membership because of national or racial origin or religious belief.”
  • Camp Celo started in 1949 and it was integrated, drawing children from Chapel Hill and Raleigh. The local community was upset.
  • In 1957, as the Burnsville African-American community had for years pressed for school integration, John Alexander from AFSC visited to support the Yancey County school board to resist pressure from NC state officials to retain segregation. Elementary students had a one room school with an outhouse in Lincoln Park. The high school students had to take a bus to a segregated high school in Asheville. They left home at 6 am and returned home at 7 pm.
  • In 1959, Dr. Elpenor and Mary Ohle, with the Celo Health Center, joined with African-American Burnsville residents to file a lawsuit with NAACP, forcing integration. Mary was also a leader with Yancey Democrats. Celo Health Center held a health clinic once a week at S. Toe School, ended by the school board when the Ohle’s joined the lawsuit.
  • In summer 1960, the contract of Bob Barrus, who had been teaching at S.Toe Elementary, was not renewed. It was assumed anyone in Celo agreed with the lawsuit.  He moved to Asheville to teach.
  • In September 1960, the lawsuit was settled in the favor of integration.  That month, Yancey County became one of the first integrated school systems in NC, which happened without violent incidents.
  • In 1962, Arthur Morgan School was founded by Elizabeth Morgan and was integrated. Two local women who were the cooks got to know and care about the students and helped bridge communication with the local community.  Bob Barrus returned to Celo in 1962 to teach at Arthur Morgan School.
  • In the early 1990s, Barry Williams, an African-American who worked at AMS, was the first person of color to become a member of CCI.

Notes on the History of Slavery on Celo Community Land

by Clark Tibbits, Updated October, 2020

One of the earliest settlers on Celo Community’s 1200-acre land was James M. McDowell.  After the death of his first wife in Marion, James McDowell began buying land known as the White Oak Flats in South Toe that in 1839 amounted to over 1700 acres.  By the 1850 census he was listed as living with a second, common-law, wife, Hannah Haney, and their 6 children in a house just above Matt and Carrie’s chestnut log house.

At the time of James McDowell’s death in 1854, the estate inherited by his first son from his first family, William W, McDowell, included 12 enslaved people.  All of them were purchased by McDowell relatives, including one by Hannah.  Five of the enslaved people were identified by their first names, 2 of the unnamed were listed as “woman with child”, and the others unnamed were identified as “boy” or “girl”.  Only 3 of the 12 were further identified as “negro”, leading me to speculate that 9 were of mixed race.  

There is now a good bit of circumstantial evidence that Hannah was also of mixed race even though she and their children were listed as white on the 1850 and subsequent censuses.  She had their first child when James was 44; she was just 17.  He was from a very prominent, learned, slave-owning family in McDowell County; she was illiterate for her entire life.  One of her grandsons was identified as “colored” in genealogical notes from the Smith-McDowell House in Asheville.  An old NC historian recorded being told that James McDowell fled to the mountains with his slave mistress.  The curator of the Carson House in Marion has said that she would not be surprised to learn that Hannah was of African descent.  Local Celo Community lore has it that Hannah Branch was named for an enslaved or formerly enslaved woman.  

Hannah and the children may have remained on the McDowell farm for 5 years before moving to Madison County, where she remained for the rest of her life.  She appears to have finally received title to all of James McDowell’s land at the time of his death (then 1200 acres) in 1872 during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War.  As NC Reconstruction was being dismantled later in that decade, the land appears to have been reclaimed by William McDowell who deeded it to his wife.  In 1894, their son, James A. McDowell of Asheville, was the first McDowell to return to live on the South Toe land since Hannah left.

Clara Harris, a local McDowell descendent, recently told historian, Elaine Dellinger, that the formerly enslaved people stayed on the McDowell farm until long after the Civil War. That raises some questions for me about how they lived here and why they stayed on for so long.  It also increases the likelihood that the 6-8 unmarked graves found 30 yards behind James McDowell’s  tombstone on the ridge above Celo Cemetery were those of enslaved people.  Clara Harris has referred to it as the “McDowell/Haney Cemetery (white and colored)”.

A Summary of the History of Slavery in Western North Carolina

Many of my questions about the practice of slavery on Celo land are addressed in a general way in the book, Mountain Masters, Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina by John C. Inscoe (U of Tennessee Press, 1989).  Here is a summary of that book:

The thesis of Inscoe’s book is that although 90-95% of residents in WNC did not have slaves, slaveholding in 1860 was a very important part of economic and political life in the mountain region. The average percentage of enslaved people in WNC counties was 10%, ranging from a high in Burke of 32% to 2% in Watauga.  Yancey had 362 enslaved people that made up 4% of the county population.

Most of the enslaved people in WNC in 1860 were held by a relatively few professional and business people, not by small farmers as I had always thought.  These slaveholders were among the most well known and influential citizens in their counties.  Examples in Buncombe are Woodfins (176 enslaved people); Pattons (167); McDowell/Carson (80); and in Burke, Erwins (149); Issac Avery (103).  Milton Penland was the largest slaveholder in Yancey County with 31.

According to Inscoe’s sources (newspapers, letters, dairies, census and court records), some of the enslaved people worked as household servants and on farms of a slave-holding elite, but most worked in their businesses, including retail stores, small manufacturing, and service work in hotels and resorts.  Many were rented out to others in the slave-holding class for construction, mining, and railroad building.

At a time when the wealthy class had relatively few options for growing their surplus capital, they turned to land speculation and slave-holding as investments.  Slave-holding was an especially good investment that increased in numbers as well as value.  Young children, ages 2 to 10 and separated from their mothers, were especially prized as less-expensive, long-term investments that grew in value with age and grooming.  In WNC young men might have been taught trades or reading/writing/numbers for future supervisory positions; young women, I suspect, might have been groomed to be bred and raise the slaveholder’s unacknowledged children.  There have certainly been accusations of that as a way to supposedly upgrade the value of enslaved people, but nothing of that is mentioned in Inscoe’s book.

Inscoe did, however, speculate that enslaved people in the mountains might have been given more responsibility and treated better than those in the rest of the state and South because they represented a smaller percentage of the population and an uprising was seen as less of a threat.  Many more WNC slaveholders stipulated in their wills that enslaved families be keep together than did slaveholders in the South where most enslaved people were unskilled plantation laborers, but very few enslaved people in the mountains were granted freedom upon the slaveholder’s death.  The general attitude of both slaveholders and non-slaveholders in WNC was that freed slaves were not welcomed.  This was confirmed by none other than Fredrick Laws Olmsted when he was visited the mountains (including Burnsville) as a newspaper correspondent (before he took up landscape design and environmentalism).

In a chapter entitled, Privilege, Power and Politics, Inscoe describes influential power cliques of slaveholders that controlled economic and political life in regional of the mountain highlands as far back as the original land grants following the Revolutionary War.  He cites as an example of a ruling clique, the Averys, McDowells and Erwins.  These land grant families bought and sold property with each other, socialized and intermarried for generations.  James M. McDowell of Marion and later of Yancey County married an Erwin from Morgantown and bought his land in South Toe from Averys, which McDowell descendants later passed on to Erwins, who eventually sold most of it to Celo Community and still own 6 acres in the midst of the community.

The slaveholder clique in WNC was able to control local politics as well as the local economy.  In 1860, 94% of state legislators representing the mountains were slaveholders, even though less than 10% of the population had slaves.  The percentage of WNC slaveholders in the legislature was greater than that of the rest of NC and any other state, including in the deep South.  Ironically, the most influential and pro-slavery politician leading up to secession did not own slaves himself.  That was Thomas Clingman, the in, out and in again congressman from WNC, and the same hotheaded, fiery orator whose challenge of Professor Mitchell’s identification of Mt. Mitchell as the highest peak in eastern US led to the Professor’s death.

The rest of Iscoe’s book is devoted to an in-depth look at how the slavery and secession  issue played out in WNC.  In brief, he sees the self-identification of NC westerners in opposition to NC eastern domination as being critical.  It sensitized WNC people to the US South’s domination by the US northern states.  That identification and the established trade relations with southern States, made WNC folks feel “awfully Southern” in their defense of slavery and in particular in their fear of emancipated Blacks.  Although there were strong unionist in WNC, like slaveholder Zebulon Vance, the region ended up supporting secession, was one of the first in NC to recruit volunteer rebel fighters, and sent more men off to fight in the Civil War on a per capita basis than eastern NC and many more southern states.

Interview: Gib Barrus on Quakers and Racial Justice in Yancey County

On Friday, October 16, 2020, I interviewed Gib Barrus while sitting on the front porch of his and Annie’s new home, looking out over the mountains. The purpose of the interview was to gather Gib’s perspective and stories about Celo and his parents Bob and Dot Barrus’ participation in civil rights and integration activities in Yancey County over the years and his own experiences at Camp Celo, for possible use with the CFM ARE Committee’s proposed November 2020 session on Quakers and Racial Justice in Yancey County. -Jennie Boyd Bull

Gib was born in 1958, so much of his information is secondhand from his parents, since he was only two years old when Yancey Schools were integrated and four when Arthur Morgan School (AMS) was founded.

Yancey Schools Integration
The effort to integrate Yancey County schools, initiated in the 1950s by Selelia Griffith and other Black residents of Burnsville, was supported by the Celo Community, especially Mary Ohle, who was a leader in the local Democratic Party. Celo Friends Meeting was much smaller then, meeting in the Community Center (then the Clinic run by Elpenor Ohle) and in local barns in the summer, including one that is now Becky Gray’s studio.

Gib’s experience with SAYMA as a child was that few people of color attended yearly meeting. The 1957 American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) presentation by John Alexander at the Yancey School Board to support integration was likely initiated by Mary Ohle, who had AFSC connections, since AFSC originally held title to Celo Community Inc. (CCI) lands when Arthur Morgan founded it in 1937.

During the 1959-60 NAACP lawsuit to integrate Yancey schools, Elpenor and Mary Ohle joined in the suit, with support of CCI. Gib remembers the family living in Asheville where Bob taught from 1960-62, after his father’s contract teaching at S. Toe Elementary was not renewed in 1960. Gib says the principal pressured Bob to pad his student attendance records, which he refused to do, which was the reason given for his termination, although the Celo community’s support of integration is assumed to have also been a factor. The lawsuit was settled in September 1960 and schools peacefully integrated that year.

Bob was a conscientious objector (CO). He and Dot worked with an AFSC post WWII reconstruction project in Italy. through AFSC and Pendle Hill. They were married in Rome, where their first daughter, Rommie, was born. They then moved to UNC Chapel Hill and worked at the campus YMCA, then came to Celo along with other COs. Barb was born in 1951 and Gib in 1958. Bob spent 12 years at AMS as a teacher.

Camp Celo
Camp Celo was founded in 1948 by Doug and Ruby Moody. The goal of the camp was to share their family farm with children in a natural continuation of their life the year round. Farm chores and a large garden have always been an integral part of the camp. The camp group is co-educational. We feel that girls and boys working and playing together develop real friendships and regard for each other as people. For this same reason, a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds have always enriched the camp group. While the camp has always been nonsectarian, the directors are members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), maIntaining an atmosphere of spiritual serenity through appreciation of the wholeness of life.

Ernest and Elizabeth Morgan and Bob and Dot Barrus worked with the Moodys in the early 50’s. When the Moodys moved to another community, Bob and Dot and Ernest and Elizabeth became partners in running the camp. Dot ran the camp off-season, keeping the books and recruiting staff and campers. She recruited a racially balanced group from Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. Most of the early Black campers were from professional families. Bob worked as a full-time teacher in the local schools at this time while co-directing the camp during the summers.

Arthur Morgan School
Elizabeth moved her focus to Work Camps with older campers in the late 50’s. Work Camps and Family Camps helped develop the area which would become the campus of the Arthur Morgan School. In 1962 Elizabeth Morgan founded the Arthur Morgan School and Bob joined her as the head of the academic program. Elizabeth named the school after her father-in-law whose educational philosophy was well established at Antioch College in Yellow Springs OH. AMS is a living, learning community for 7th, 8th and 9th graders that emphasizes the development of the whole person through a combination of study, practical experience, community living and personal responsibility. Adding Quaker values
of simple living, consensus decision making and nonviolent conflict resolution creates a unique educational environment. Bob was the main academic teacher for the first 12 years of AMS. At that point he retired from teaching and dedicated himself to Camp Celo full time.

Camp Celo has been run by the Barrus family for three generations. In 1982 Barb became a partner with Dot and Bob. She shared the off-season work with Dot. Gib and Annie Barrus joined her in 1988 when Bob and Dot retired. Gib and Annie became the full time on site directors, while Barb continued running the senior camp in addition to the off season work. In 2014 Barb’s son Drew and his wife Carly joined the staff and took increasing responsibility for Barb’s job until she retired fully in 2014. Drew became full director with Carly as program director of senior camp when Gib and Annie retired in 2018. Maintaining an ongoing integrated staff and campers has always been an effort, mixing privileged white children with now mostly lower income children of color identified by the Bruce Irons Camp Fund nonprofit from Charlotte-Mecklenberg County schools. Rachel Weir identifies local Latinx children to attend. Current Black and Latinx participation is about 25%.

Gib identified the following ongoing issues and goals:

  • Recruiting a racially diverse staff. Many young people of color need to earn more income during the summer, so many counselors are privileged white young people whose parents support their education.
  • Helping Black campers to integrate with the group, so they don’t feel “othered” based on race, class, education, and culture.
  • Identifying behavioral issues separate from race, beyond assumptions.
  • Main emphasis is on normalizing friendships by
    • Mixing campers in small groups
    • Structured learning activities
    • Learning varied skills
    • Making their own music by singing together from varied traditions (no ipods or phones)
    • Activities taking everyone out of their comfort zone for learning about self and others.

Gib remembered a story from when he was 16 and a helper at Camp Celo, with David Salstrom as counselor. They were on a campout with 9 to 10-year-olds. One Black camper was having a hard time fitting in but brightened when it came time to fry bacon for breakfast, since he did that at home. However, he’d never fried bacon over a campfire and burned the bacon. He was mortified and ran away! Gib was sent to find him. The boy wanted to go home, said “nobody likes me.” Gib patiently listened to him, told him we all make mistakes. The boy came back to the group and stayed at camp. He even got a chance to fry more bacon.

Friends of Camp Celo
In 2008, Gib and Barb planned a Memorial Day reunion of early former staff, in preparation for their retirement. These annual reunions have built into the chartered nonprofit, Friends of Camp Celo, which receives contributions for tuition assistance for campers. In the past, eligible campers only received a discount. Now there is more flexibility, and assistance is need-based. Friends of Camp Celo includes people of color.

Questions for the future: How to build on Celo history to work against white
supremacy? What’s the next step?