Exploring Asheville’s Archives

The assignment for this blog post was to find out what we could about our local archive that may have information about migration or immigration in our locale. Asheville, North Carolina is home to three locations that we needed to look into: University of North Carolina-Asheville’s own Special Collections (housed at our university), the Pack Memorial Library, and the Western Regional Archives of North Carolina. I investigated the first two online while visiting the third. UNC-Asheville’s Special Collections contains a couple of different collections that I found particularly interesting. The Agudas Israel Synagogue Collection pertains to the Jewish Synagogue located in Hendersonville, a town not too far from Asheville. I was not aware of a sizable Jewish population in this area even though I was born and raised here. Special Collections also has two related collections that I would like to explore: the Black Highlanders Collection and the Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection. Both of these collected works concern African Americans in Western North Carolina. Finally, perhaps the most sensitive, is the William Dudley Pelley Collection. Pelley was a pro-Nazi individual who was a member of the Silver Shirts, a pro-Nazi organization that was present in a few states. Pelley also founded the Galahad College in Asheville, a short-lived institution that espoused Pelley’s beliefs. I had no idea that such a thing existed within my city! What is even more surprising to me, Galahad was founded in 1933… the same year that Black Mountain College (BMC) was founded in the neighboring town of Black Mountain. BMC could not have been more different from Galahad. Where the latter supported racist ideology, the former believed in complete equality. Where Galahad was pro-Nazi, BMC took in refugees from Nazi occupied countries. The fact that these two establishments existed so close to each other is very interesting.

I found the Pack Memorial Library’s collection size to be absolutely intimidating. There was over 400 pages on the website containing information on collections! I did find some content that could be used as supplementary information to support collections housed elsewhere. Pack Memorial houses Buncombe County Pamplets, some of which advertise Pelley’s Silver Shirts and his Galahad College. Others information that I located supported a topic that we came across at the Western Regional Archives, and so could be used to support researching concerning this subject, the Blue Ridge Parkway, which I will explain more detail below.

In the end, however, Liz and I visited the Western Regional Archives (WRA for short) and, after speaking with lead archivist Heather South, unearthed multiple subjects that fascinated us. We are particularly drawn to three of them. Heather suggested we look into the German internment camp that was located in Hot Springs, North Carolina. German migrants came into this area prior World War I. After war broke out, these individuals were rounded up and placed into an internment camp located in Hot Springs. Because of this gathering and placing of so many Germans into one area, the town of Hot Springs was created with a strong German influence. This year is the centennial commemoration of WWI and the internment camp, so Hot Springs will be having multiple events happening from September 15-17.  These events include documentaries, guest speakers, panels on relevant topics, exhibits of internment camp and military memorabilia, and tours of homes and locations related to the camp. Heather believes there may be a sizeable collection with which we can create a robust website.

The second topic that we were interested in was the Alexander Family Collection at the WRA. The Alexander Family settled in Swannanoa (another nearby town located in between Black Mountain and Asheville) and opened up an inn among many other things. They were entrepreneurs whose businesses acted as one of the few stopping points for travelers before roads and railroads ran through the area. Anyone coming across nearby mountains would need to stop for a rest and to replenish supplies. Liz and I felt that the Alexander family played a big role in enticing those migrating to or through the area to stop. In addition to the substantial amount of materials at the WRA, Alexander Inn is still standing and inhabited by the Alexander family! This could give us a chance to talk to descendants of these entrepreneurs who helped to alter the local economy and culture. Perhaps they could give us special information that no archive could have, such as personal stories that were passed down generation to generation. This collection also had some really cool guest lists from the inn as well as ledgers from the other Alexander businesses. The guest lists even included where each guest traveled from. So… pretty awesome.

The third and final area that we considered focusing on was perhaps my favorite—the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although the Parkway is an inanimate object, its very presence here has and continues to change the local economy, politics, and culture in so many ways. To begin with, the creation of the Parkway displaced many locals (some of who are still unhappy about having their family’s land taken away…). It brings in thousands of tourists each year (including leaf-lookers in the autumn, cyclists, runners, bikers, and water/land conservationists). It is the filming location of more than a few commercials and movies and serves as a conduit that connects various towns, parks, and points of interest. The Parkway plays an instrumental role in local music, architecture and crafts. Basically, it is a place where all migrants—regardless of whether they remain or just pass through, of whether they are new to the area or their families settled here long ago—can gather regardless of ethnicity, interests, culture, background, or beliefs. This one particular road has completely altered how migration takes place in Western North Carolina and it is for this reason that we hope to focus on the Blue Ridge Parkway for the website we will be creating. Also, full disclosure, we have already begun looking at other histories of the Parkway. For the most part, they all focus on the Parkway itself and not on the people that the Parkway brings to the area.

So. This blog post was a little longer than the required length. In my defense it was a really exciting day! I love the feeling that I get once the initial overwhelming sensation of a new project has worn off and I begin to find a sense of direction. I am utterly enthusiastic about the rest of the semester and confident that Liz and I will turn out a great project.

American Exceptionalism, Assimilation, the “American Creed,” and Other Such Ideas

This week’s readings gave me a lot to consider as Liz and I prepare to undertake the task of telling the story of a group of migrants. Reconsidering the “immigrant paradigm” was an interesting exercise. I do, of course, know that certain immigrants have a position of privilege in American history, but I thought the Social Darwinist theory about the over-heated melting pot in Is Everywhere Nowhere? Nomads, Nations, and the Immigrant Paradigm of the United States History by Donna R. Gabaccia was particularly interesting. There was already so many different groups of people that some groups just couldn’t be absorbed…  Then I wondered, what are the effects of this refusal to fully embrace certain groups of people? I’m sure it causes a certain level of alienation, but—as Gabaccia points out—complete acceptance and assimilation into a new society leaves little to no room for homeland loyalties. If a group fully integrates into a society, does that cause a loss of cultural identity? Would it make a project like ours more difficult? If a group is not embraced by the new society, does this push them to form the enclaves that we are about to study?

I also thought it was kind of funny that one individual identified in Gary Gertle’s American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century called the ideas of democracy, equality, and inalienable rights the “American Creed.” Talk about American Exceptionalism. Gertle’s theory of civic nationalism vs. racial nationalism made me think deeper about the immigration policies of those who have lead the U.S., the presidents and congresspeople. Even when they were “liberal” they walked a fine line between the two “nationalisms.” All humans were equal, but since some were supposedly lesser humans or lesser groups, it was not problematic that these folks weren’t treated as equal. At least until they won their (what I will call) whiteness, as the Italians did in Gabaccia’s essay.

Again, plenty to think about as we begin this journey. Something that I will bear in mind—at least more than I already did—was the whole “us vs. them” issue, of being careful not to letting the immigration paradigm version of history become more important or prevalent than the history of the group whose story we tell. I thought this idea, from Adam Goodman’s Nation of Migrants, Historians of Migrants, served as a good warning for what to be careful of. As with writing any history, there are biases that one must be aware of so they can try to avoid them to maintain neutrality (at least, as much as one can). This is one of those biases that one may unwittingly fall into, especially because this is how the nation has wanted its history written in times past.


Today Liz and I had our first meeting to discuss the project. She isn’t as familiar with the history of this area as I am, but I had a few suggestions as to groups of migrants that we could focus on. We also thought it prudent to visit UNCA’s Special Collections and the Western Regional Archives, the western branch of the state archives. It may be that the archivists at these locations will have the perfect collection for us to explore. If not, I am hopeful that they will be able to point us in the right direction of another institution that can help us. I am sure we will get these meetings nailed down within the next week.

As far as ideas that I had for groups that we can research, perhaps one of the biggest groups of people to settle in Western North Carolina is the Scotch-Irish. There is an annual event that takes place in WNC called the Highland Games, where descendants of these families gather. As luck would have it, the organizers of this event have kept records of the families and games, so this could potentially be a very large collection to work with. There is also a sizable Latin American population around Asheville, but I am not sure if a collection exists that would give us the evidence we need to create a robust site. There is also the possibility of working with the Black Mountain College collection. This particular school was active from 1933-1957 and was revolutionary, to say the least. During World War II it took in many refugees from Nazi occupied countries as well as many other countries from Europe, Asia, and South America. We thought that there may be a story here as well.

Liz and I were also curious about how far out in North Carolina was considered local enough. Would Charlotte be suitable? Or somewhere equally as far?

Finally, I wanted to reflect a little on the reading for tonight. Reading about the struggles that immigrants faced when trying to gain U.S. citizenship was… astounding. The ways that our government created to discriminate against others is amazing to me. Taking away a woman’s citizenship because she married a non-citizen? Deciding that Indians weren’t white enough and revoking their citizenship? As bad as attitudes toward immigration may seem today (and there is no denying that blatant xenophobia fuel the views of many on this topic), it is still apparent the progress that has been made. I’m sure I will keep this reading in mind when we finally decide on a topic. Was it hard for our migrants to gain citizenship? Were they ever in danger of having their citizenship stripped away? Regardless, I am looking forward to telling their story, whatever that story may be.