Although the Junaluska community is located near downtown Boone and has a unique and continuous history dating back to the mid-1800s, with descendants of its original families still living in the neighborhood today, some Boone and Watauga County residents remain unaware of its presence.
The brothers of the Mu Upsilon chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Incorporated hosted a forum April 17 featuring people from Boone’s historically black community, Junaluska, with hopes of raising visibility.
Nick Byers, senior business marketing major and vice president of the Mu Upsilon chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Incorporated, said Junaluska is one of Watauga County’s oldest communities and probably one of the oldest black communities in western North Carolina.
Junaluska is still sometimes referred to as “The Hill” or “The Mountain” and was originally settled by approximately 15 African American families. Today, the community shares a partial boundary with the Watauga County Public Library and is home to 103 people.
Originally from Boone, Byers sat alongside his three great aunts and uncles – Anthony Hagler, Sandra Hagler and Roberta Jackson – to present what life was like growing up as an African American in a predominantly white town.
Sandra Hagler said although there were few slaves in Watauga County, there were some and now the Junaluska community is trying to preserve and potentially make the graveyard behind Cone Residence Hall where many black community members were buried a historical landmark. It is believed that the land was first given to the slaves.
At one point, a lot of the land was desecrated by students because they didn’t know slaves were buried there. It has been suggested that people go before the town council to try to get the land fenced on both sides to preserve the land.
“I think it goes back to what my brother [Anthony] says, if people don’t know or ever thought about that kind of thing it just hasn’t been done,” Jackson said. “Now that it’s been brought to people’s attention they’re more than willing to work.”
Before the twentieth century, Boone also had a great need for an orphanage because many people had died either at war or due to Tuberculosis. A teacher named Emily Pruden called for Mennonite missionaries to help establish an orphanage. Once here, the Mennonites had to decide whether to teach the black or white children and they decided on the black children.
The orphanage closed in 1912, but the Mennonites began establishing churches and one was established in Junaluska in 1918. Before the Mennonite church, blacks held services in their homes and then the Methodist church allowed them to attend a service on Sunday evenings.
Eventually, some property was sold to the blacks in the area after some councils saw a need for their own church and in 1900, the first African American church was established, Sandra Hagler said.
She said Junaluska did its best to be a self-sufficient black community. She recalls having two seamstresses, a man who did repairs, hairdressers, two or three grocery stores and more.
“It’s significant to know that even after the Civil Rights movement there were restaurants in Boone where blacks weren’t allowed,” Anthony Hagler said. “There were businesses that didn’t want our money so we had to reach out to people in our community.”
Junaluska even had its own adult baseball team, the Boone Mountain Lions. Sandra Hagler said she doesn’t recall much, because she was a young child but some preserved equipment can be found on the fourth floor of the Belk Library in the Appalachian collection.
“They had a good team they say,” Sandra Hagler said. “We were and still are very proud of them. We have managed to collect some of their equipment and tried to preserve it.”
When schools integrated, all three siblings recall feeling uncomfortable, because they were more or less forced to integrate. Sandra Hagler said she loved school before integration, because it was their school with black teachers and they were free to put on plays or anything else they wanted.
“[Integration] was not a joyful experience for me and probably one of the most traumatic experiences of my life,” she said. “I left before graduation and had to come back to finish high school, but not here. It’s always been that problem throughout our history, that black kids do not enjoy high school as much as whites.”
As late as 2000, Byers recalls his experiences with racism, such as being told by a kid that black people belonged in a cage and being told by a bus driver that he was going to slap Byers white if he didn’t stop playing around in the back of the bus.
Sandra Hagler said one of the reasons they decided to form the Junaluska Heritage Association is because they felt like their history was important and they needed to get it out so people would know they existed and that they were a big part of the community and of the town of Boone.
Both Sandra Hagler and Jackson once worked on Appalachian’s campus. Hagler worked as a nurse and Jackson worked at the Physical Plant, but they have now retired and work with the Junaluska Heritage Association to preserve their traditions and create awareness of their presence.
Byers explained that there is a low black population in Boone due to the lack of industries that would bring blacks here. Originally, the English and Scottish settled in Boone because it reminded them of their home, so they would farmed their own land and grow their own crops, setting aside the need for slaves to tend to their tobacco or cotton.
“I wish more people on this campus [would come to events like this], because I know I’m personally tired of defending black people saying we’re actually from here,” Byers said. “We do exist and we do have history here.”
STORY: Chamian Cruz, News Reporter