Samuel Cooke

Roberta Jackson poses for a portrait at at the 105-year-old Boone Mennonite Brethren Church on January 30th, 2023. Jackson acts as representative for the Junaluska Historical Association.

Historically Black community looks to preserve, educate community

The Junaluska Historical Association aims to educate, preserve history of Junaluska.

February 14, 2023


unaluska, Watauga County’s single standing African American community, is ensuring they are remembered in the history books. 

 The Junaluska Heritage Association, founded in 2011, is a “community-based organization formed to preserve cultural heritage and assist in community growth” for Junaluska according to their website

Before the association was formed, however, members of the Junaluska community had been around for years preserving their history and trying to keep records. Once the JHA was established, this work received more attention and allowed family history projects to trace the earliest members of Junaluska.

 Through these projects, community members and local historians collected data on some of the earliest history of the Junaluska community, which is recorded on their website

The earliest recorded members of the Junaluska community come from 1850 census data listing Johnson Cuzzins and Ellington Cuzzins as free men of color living in Boone. Johnson Cuzzins was listed as a farmer with a white wife named Charlotta and nine children. According to 1860 census data, Ellington Cuzzins was a shoe and boot maker living with his white wife Margaret and their two daughters. 

Although uncommon for the time, in 1857 Ellington Cuzzins purchased an acre of land north of what is now the Mast General Store on King Street. Historians believe this purchase was the first acquisition of land for the Junaluska community as members continue to reside on this property to this day, just north of the general store. 

As demographics changed, younger members in the Junaluska community left Boone for different job opportunities which caused concern amongst members of the community, according to the JHA’s website.

In addition, concern grew for the preservation of the Junaluska community amid the 1996 demolition of the Methodist Chapel, a hub for community activities and engagement.

Due to the Mennonite Brethren Church being placed on a hill, the spire can be seen from almost around the neighborhood, the community meeting place where members gather every Sunday morning at 11 a.m. Photo by Evan Bates.

At the same time, the Episcopal Church was looking to provide reparations nationally for their participation in slavery said, Susan Keefe, a former professor of anthropology at the university. St. Luke’s Episcopal Church saw an opportunity to partner alongside the Junaluska community in order to form the JHA.  

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church partnered with the Boone Mennonite Brethren Church, a centerpiece of social engagement in Junaluska, and the university to preserve the community’s “unique, vibrant heritage” through the creation of the JHA, as stated on their website. 

Roberta Jackson is a Junaluska native and member of the JHA. She said she wanted to join the board because of how few people knew about Junaluska.

“I worked with people at ASU that didn’t even know we had a community so I knew we needed to do something to contribute,” Jackson said. 

According to the JHA’s website, the Boone Mennonite Brethren Church was a “beacon” for the community, allowing for centers of “lively public parties” and gatherings which “strengthened community ties and spiritual connections.” 

Keefe said the JHA’s formation was most successful as an interfaith partnership due to being a “natural extension” of the deeply held religious convictions amongst members of Junaluska. 

“There were members of the JHA from the Episcopal Church in the beginning,” Keefe said. “So there was a radical, open-acceptance of working together.”

 Starting in 2012, the JHA began hosting annual Junaluska Jubilees with funding provided by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina. The celebrations brought together members of the community for a church service at Boone Mennonite Brethren, parades and other live entertainment. The most recent jubilee was held in 2015. 

“Those were really important for bringing the community together and becoming known in the larger community with all the newspaper coverage,” said Keefe, who also serves on the board of the JHA. 

Jackson credits the grants given by the Episcopal Diocese for being able to fund the jubilees. 

“We would not have been able to do it without them,” Jackson said. “It made all the difference in the world to have the money from the church.” 

Jackson said she hoped the jubilees would bring recognition to the Junaluska community that was missing. 

“The problem to begin with is that a lot of people didn’t know we were here, and we’ve been here for centuries and we wanted people to know that we’ve contributed to the university and the town,” Jackson said. “ I worked at the university until I retired.”

Through the jubilees, the JHA was able to work as they “champion historical preservation projects across the town of Boone” in partnership with the Watauga County Public Library and the Watauga Historical Society

One of these projects includes a cemetery marker, unveiled in 2017, denoting names from unmarked graves in the segregated section of the cemetery, many of which contained members of the Junaluska community. 

Sandra Hagler, a member of the Junaluska community, is credited for committing herself  to discovering who might have been buried in the cemetery. 

“She had done a lot of research, looking with the county courthouse, looking through death certificates for members of her community to find out where they might have been buried,” Keefe said. 

Later, local historians, Eric Plaag and Michael Hardy, added other names based on the collection of newspaper clippings in surrounding areas. 

Another accomplishment of the JHA includes the historical marker at the corner of North Depot Street and Queen Street, which was provided by the town’s Historic Preservation Commission in 2021. 

The Junaluska marker is the second marker put in place by the town’s historical preservation district. The marker features a summary of Junaluska’s history and outlines the contributions of African Americans in Boone’s social, economic and cultural history. 

In addition, “Junaluska: Oral Histories of a Black Appalachian community,” an oral history book dedicated to Junaluska, was published in 2020 by Susan Keefe. The book is credited as the first “comprehensive” history of Applachia’s oldest Black community — told “in the resident’s own voices.” It has sold more than 6,000 copies since publication. 

“The book has crystallized for members of the community that they have a history worth preserving and they have a unique identity that they can be very proud of,” Keefe said. 

The book was the recipient of the North Carolina Genealogical Society award in 2021 as a collection of 36 life history narratives adapted from residents. 

“The book was the linchpin that really put us out there for visibility,” Jackson said. 

Jackson said the accomplishments of the JHA has given herself and members of the community a new sense of pride in their heritage and allowed them to learn things they might not have known before.

“They’re proud of it,” Jackson said. “They’re proud to be known.”

The JHA continues to operate and encourage its former and current residents to share memories or pictures to their website in an effort to continue preservation and record-keeping work in the community. 

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