KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As a reporter, I’ve covered hundreds of stories, sharing the highs and the lows of the communities I’ve served.
Because I cover a new story every day, many become faded memories. Some good, some not so good.
But there are times that I come across a few that stick for hours, maybe even days.
But this story, in particular, stuck with me for months. I just can’t shake it.
Slaves in the Smokies? No Way!
I learned about the Enloe Cemetery while covering another story in November 2018. Brent McDaniel, with Friends of the Smokies, told me that someone from the University of Tennessee was doing a research project about cemeteries in the Smokies. Eventually, he mentioned that there were slaves buried in the park.
I was shocked! It was hard to believe that bodies were buried between the mountains, especially slaves. (I had never been to the Smokies before. Shocking, I know.)
So, I stored that information away in my memory bank, waiting for the perfect time to do some research and pitch the story to my newsroom.
I pitched the story in January, hoping that it would air during Black History Month. My bosses loved the idea, and so did I.
The Government Shutdown nearly shut down my story
But a week later, the partial government shutdown almost put a hold on the project.
National Parks across the nation were closed or partially closed, including the Smokies. For five weeks, I could not access furloughed workers or several records that I wanted for research.
But I still wanted to do this story. Plus, I had a hard deadline, so I started looking for other resources. Who else knew about these graves?
Upon a lengthy Google search, I found a newsletter called ‘The Great Smoky Mountains Colloquy.’ It’s published by the University of Tennessee. The front-page article was on the early settlers of the Smokies, and it mentioned slave. It wasn’t exactly what I needed, but I figured it’s a good start.
I didn’t see an author’s name in the byline, but two co-editors were listed on the right-hand column with a phone number and an email address. I called and left a message. The next day, I got a call back. That’s how I met Ken Wise.
Meeting the scholars
Ken Wise works at the John C. Hodges Library at UT. He’s also a volunteer with the park and wrote a book about his research there.
I told Wise about the graves and the story I was doing. He was thrilled and happy to help. If it wasn’t for Wise and his friends, I couldn’t have told this story. He emailed me a list of people to call, who knew about the graves and the settlers in the area. Frank March, Bob Lochbaum, Don Casada, and Wise are all researchers and volunteers at the park and published their own research studies.
We spoke over the phone for weeks, sharing information and documents about the park and the graves.
Something happened on the hill of Mingus Mill
Five weeks later, the shutdown ended. I could finally reach the National Park Service.
Each researcher agreed to an interview at the gravesite in Bryson City, NC. Unfortunately, Bob Lochbaum was unable to join us because he lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Photographer William Winnett and Digital Reporter Elizabeth Sims helped me tremendously on this shoot.
Before we went to the cemetery, I looked up a few pictures online, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw and how I felt standing on that hill in Mingus Mill.
I saw at least five unmarked, mounted graves. Graves of slaves were right in front of my face.
I marveled at the history, and my heart broke for them.
I cried. I just couldn’t help it. I cried for them. I cried for their families. I cried for their unsung stories.
Can you imagine living as a slave?
Working for your master from sunup to sundown.
No money. No rights. No freedom.
And when you died, no one even bothered to write your name on a stone. No one kept a record of who you were because you were viewed as property and not a person.
Something shifted when I left Mingus Mill. I finally felt like my story was coming together, and it was. But I was more determined than ever to work every angle to see if I could tell their stories and honor the lives they lived.
Pushing for Answers
I called the National Park looking for all the information they have on record about the Enloe Slave Cemetery. The next week, I made a trip to Collections Preservation Center in Townsend, Tennessee.
When Winnett and I arrived, we were given three large folders of information about the Mingus and the Enloe families, some of the first white settlers. But there were only five sentences about the Enloe Slave Cemetery.
Just. Five. Sentences.
Still, no names of the people buried in those graves.
I searched the Haywood County North Carolina Census Records of 1830. Still no names.
Then I found a deed from the Haywood County Records Office in North Carolina. And on file, there was a handwritten letter (deed) from slave owner Abraham Enloe to John Hyde in 1815. Enloe sold four slaves to Hyde for $1,200. And Enloe lists the slaves by name!
It was a good discovery, but not enough.
I made another round of calls to the researchers I met, and we came to this conclusion.
We need more than just a name. We need more evidence to determine the slaves buried in the cemetery.
But the graves are more than 200 years old, and the kind of evidence we need-- we may never find it.
Not going to lie, I was disappointed that I couldn’t figure it out.
But I had to remind myself that not every mystery can be solved overnight.
But, as a journalist, it will always be my duty to dig as deep as I can to answer tough questions. It will always be my honor to speak out for those who can’t and to educate my community and myself.
In the end, this story still matters.
So… I dedicate this piece to us.
To the slaves buried beneath the trails, to the national park we love, and to our community.
May we never forget our past, and may we continue to dig for answers and share stories that matter.