Cultural Sites in Downtown Morganton

Like many Southern Appalachian communities, Morganton has a rich and complex history. In September, 2019, we had the opportunity to explore Morganton with The Industrial Commons, to visit cultural and historic site that make up our community. Check out a few highlights below!


A LEGENDARY FIGURE

Legendary Piedmont Blues guitarist, Etta Reid Baker, learn to play the guitar at the age of three.

Born in Caldwell County, in 1913, Etta Lucille Reid was one of eight children in a musical family. Hymns, rags, parlor music, and Tin Pan Alley songs were passed from her grandfather, to her father, and then to her and her siblings.

Etta didn’t receive notoriety for her contribution to Piedmont Blues until she was in her 60s but her work had a major influence on musicians such as Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Ray Charles. This was due to Paul Clayton who in 1956, while collecting field recordings, met Etta and her father. Clayton’s record Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians, one of the first commercially released recordings of African American banjo music.

Etta married and raise nine children, working 24 years at Skyland Textile Company, outside Morganton. At the age of 60, Etta retired to focus on her music.

Photo by David Holt www.davidholt.com

Photo by David Holt www.davidholt.com

I was so tiny when I started playing that I would ... stand up by the bed and play about three frets down on the guitar and look at daddy and he would have such a smile, I can just see it now, this smile he had on his face when I would make a good chord, you know, he would holler, that’s my girl. I was three.
— Etta Baker. Interview G-0253 from the Southern Oral History Program collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

IN MEMORY OF ETTA BAKER

The funding and creation of the Etta Baker Statue was lead by former CoMMA Directors Bill Wilson and Dr. Jim Smith, along with Burke Arts Council Executive Director, Deborah Jones, along with Ed Phifer, Cecelia Surratt, and former Morganton mayor Mel Cohen. Baker’s family and friends, along with community leaders and members, attended a the dedication ceremony, May 25th, 2017.

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Unveiling May 25th, 2017, at CoMMA. Family, friends, community members and leaders were on-hand for the dedication ceremony. Photo by Justin Epley courtesy of The News Herald

Unveiling May 25th, 2017, at CoMMA. Family, friends, community members and leaders were on-hand for the dedication ceremony. Photo by Justin Epley courtesy of The News Herald


Ka Ying Yang’s story cloth, made in Thailand by an unknown refugee, circa 1970

Ka Ying Yang’s story cloth, made in Thailand by an unknown refugee, circa 1970

While in the refugee camps, I ran a cooperative group of 7 - 8 sewers that created these story cloths and then we would split the profits equally. Originally, these intricate stories were drawn and sewn and then sold by refugee women to make money to support their families. They have become vivid, historical pieces that detail the Hmong exodus out of Laos, life in the Thai refugee camps, and our journey to the US.
— Ka Ying Yang, 2019

A WOVEN STORY

Story cloths often depict these events:

  • Long Chien as it appeared from 1967-1974, under operation by the CIA,

  • The flight of the Hmong from Laos into Thailand across the Mekong River

  • The refugee camp at Vinai

  • Hmong people studying English at Phanat Nikhom

  • Their arrival and departure from a Bangkok airport

The hardest decision I’ve had to make in my life was to leave my family in a war-torn Laos. I had to leave so I can help them. I came to this country thread bare - with no money and no education. I worked hard for many years in the textile industry. I married my wife and we both saved every penny we could put away. We are now the owners of several laundromats and house flip in our free time. Whatever your definition of success is, I say go for it - you have to do it. I didn’t and couldn’t allow myself and my family any other option.
— Phia Vue and Ka Xiong, owners of Family Coin Laundry, 2019

HMONG CULTURE IN MORGANTON

Out of 5,934 interviews in the Southern Oral History Program only 47 are tagged as "Asian American interviewee." Read more about Laos in the rural South:

Southern Mix- A collection of Asian and Asian American Voices in the South

“Home in a New Place: Making Laos in Morganton, North Carolina”

MA thesis project by Katy Clune, completed for the Folklore Program, Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in May 2015.

AN EVOLVING TRADITION

As a migratory people, the Hmong traditionally invested in craft that complimented their mobility, such as paj ntaub (pronounced pondouw), or flower cloth. This art form was produced through intricate needlework such as appliqué, reverse appliqué, embroidery, and batik on clothing and other fabrics. These articles were cherished and played an important roles in rituals and rites of passage.

Story cloths developed out of this tradition, illustrating the Laotian Civil War (also known as the Secret War) beginning in 1953. These tapestries chronicle the conflict along with the subsequent genocide, resistance, exile, and emigration of the Hmong to the United States. 

Ka Ying Yang’s story cloth, made in Thailand by an unknown refugee, circa 1970

Ka Ying Yang’s story cloth, made in Thailand by an unknown refugee, circa 1970

Ka Ying Yang: Details

I bought this from a lady in Fresno, California about 20 years back. She had purchased it from someone in the refugee camps. I love how it depicts our lives in Laos - we were farmers and grew rice, corn, and many fruits and vegetables. It was a community effort to survive in Laos and so we relied heavily on exchanging labor.
This story cloth is a piece of Hmong history that I treasure dearly.
— Mai Lao Chang, 2019
Mia Lao Chang’s story cloth, made in Thailand by an unknown refugee, circa 1970

Mia Lao Chang’s story cloth, made in Thailand by an unknown refugee, circa 1970

Mia Lao Chang: Details

 

Fact, Fiction and Lore

Map of Brown Mountain region, N.C., illustrating origin of Brown Mountain lights in the Geological Survey Circular 646, by George Rogers Mansfield. United States Department of the Interior.

Map of Brown Mountain region, N.C., illustrating origin of Brown Mountain lights in the Geological Survey Circular 646, by George Rogers Mansfield. United States Department of the Interior.

Leslie D. McKesson, Ed. D.

The Brown Mountain Lights, most often visible around dusk from the Jonas Ridge overlook just north of Morganton, is one of North Carolina’s oldest recorded unexplained scientific phenomenon and one of the State’s most famous legends. The presence of these phantom yellow lights has been recorded in these mountains for hundreds of years, yet they show up somewhat sporadically and are described by observers in a variety of ways. Some say they are stationary lights, others describe them as fast-moving blurs. Some see the lights appear suddenly and move erratically across the ridgeline, while others say they just appear and disappear.

No matter what observers see when they witness the Brown Mountain Lights, what can be agreed upon is that their appearance has not been conclusively explained. The mysterious globes of light often don’t appear for weeks at a time. When they do, they are visible from Blowing Rock in neighboring Caldwell County to Grandfather Mountain which straddles Avery, Caldwell, and Watauga Counties—some 15 miles distance as the crow flies.

These ethereal lights have spurred scientific inquiry since at least the late 1700’s and written records of sightings pre-date the Revolutionary War. Sightings are also the stuff of local lore with regional Indian tribes telling tales of the lights as long ago as approximately the year 1200 A.D.

Whether you are interested in natural or paranormal explanations, or whether you’re intrigued by the cultural norms and nuances of times-gone-by as revealed through the folk lore, the mysterious Brown Mountain Lights continue to cause us to ponder the breadth and depth of our human existence, and to reflect upon the unique history of the people of the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains.

— Excerpt from The Brown Mountain Lights: Fact and Fiction, Logic and Lore

The Sound of Brown Mountain

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Scotty Wiseman’s famous song “Brown Mountain Lights,” has been performed by Sonny James, Roy Orbison, Tommy Faile, and Tony Rice, The Hillmen (Vern Gosdin – Vocals), Kingston Trio, Country Gentlemen, Acoustic Syndicate and by Yonder Mountain String Band. In this narrative, the light is being carried by a faithful old slave who has come back from the grave, searching for his lost master.

Lulu Belle and Scotty's rendition of The Brown Mountain Light. Issued on "The Sweethearts Of Country Music" and recorded circa June 1962. Arthur Smith Studio, 5457 Monroe Road, Charlotte, NC - Lulu Belle (vcl duet/gt), Scotty (banjo/vcl solo/vcl duet), Arthur Smith (gt). others unknown.

Tommy Faile. The Legend Of The Brown Mountain Lights. May, 1966. Composer: S. Wiseman. Producer: Arthur Smith

Acoustic Syndicate, Brown Mountain Lights, 1996. Acoustic Syndicate is a rock/folk/bluegrass band from North Carolina formed in 1992. They have toured nationally in the US, including appearances at Farm Aid and the Bonnaroo festival. Their sound is characterized by three-part vocal harmony and complex polyrhythmic banjo playing. Lyrically, the group often discusses themes relating to subsistence, sustainability and quality of life.

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SUPER MARIO AND AN URBAN MONK

Brown Mountain Bottleworks commissioned Marcus Thomas (the Urban Monk) to paint a two-story mural behind the downtown pub, based on the Brown Mountain Lights legend. In an interview for Strange Carolina, he explained the imagery:

...the lights symbolize the women’s lanterns looking for the lost souls. The silhouette with clouds is the lost warrior souls and the woman represents the women looking for them. The fish are symbolic of brown mountain trout, the only indigenous trout in the area. The Super Mario theme ties in some symbolic meanings, but I leave that to the viewer.
— Muralist, Marcus "The Urban Monk" Interviewed for Strange Carolina, 2017

Past, Present, Future

Gaston Chapel AME Church, named for Rev. Mose Gaston, an early AME minister, recently celebrated its 153rd anniversary. The church, built at the turn of the century by the congregation and Philo G. Harbison is the oldest in the Burke County to be built for an African American congregation. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is the second oldest church building in Morganton.

Rev. Mose Gaston lead the church through its early years from 1863-1866 during some of the most difficult times in our nations history. The Church was named for Gaston in 1912, after former North Carolina governor Tod Caldwell gave church elders land to replace the wood-frame church with a brick structure at 102 Bouchelle St. in Morganton.

Before the Civil War, the African American congregations were prohibited, as slaver holders feared it would stir dissension. It was common for slaves to use clearings in the woods to worship, but sometimes, slaveholders would allow their slaves to worship in their churches. The “Methodist Episcopal Colored Church” evolved out of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, an all-white religious organization which allowed black communities to worship- either accompanying whites or in separate congregations, as in Morganton.

The Legacy of Rev. Mose Gaston

American television journalist Ed Bradley, 1981. Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

American television journalist Ed Bradley, 1981. Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

The legacy of Rev. Gaston is carried forward in Morganton, and abroad by the Gaston family. One of his descendants, highly-esteemed journalist Ed Bradley, beloved for his 26 years as a correspondent on CBS News’ 60 Minutes, was recently memorialized in a mural in the West Philadelphia, where he grew up. Bradley, who passed away in 2006, was the first black television correspondent to cover the White House and the recipient of dozens of prestigious journalism awards, including Emmys, Duponts, Peabodys, and both the George Polk and Paul White awards.

The Ed Bradley Mural in Philadelphia was completed by Ernel Martinez in June 16, 2018. Photo Courtesy of Steve Weinik.

The Ed Bradley Mural in Philadelphia was completed by Ernel Martinez in June 16, 2018. Photo Courtesy of Steve Weinik.

Unlike other immigrants to these shores, we did not come voluntarily. We came in chains, and we came in tears, and we brought with us a culture from another land. A culture that many tried to take from us...
Because I listen to the “Amens” and the “Hallelujahs” and the “Yes Lords”, I am reminded of the call and response that is traditional in African culture. It could not be killed, It has survived. We have survived...
And as I listen to the words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, I heard a few lines that kind of summed up, I think, the history of our people, in this county and this society, our adaptation to this society. It summed up our past, our present, and our future:

Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has tought us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
— Ed Bradley during the Gaston Chapel Commemorative Service, February, 24th, 1985
Ted Alexander submitted this photo to Picture Burke, a digital photo preservation project of the Burke County Public Library.

Ted Alexander submitted this photo to Picture Burke, a digital photo preservation project of the Burke County Public Library.

African American Voices in Morganton

An Oral History of the Black Experience, compiled by the Burke County Cultural Arts Coalition, 1979

Black and White: The Story of Harriet Harshaw and 'Squire' James Alfred Dula by Leslie D. McKesson, Ed. D. recent appointee to the African-American Heritage Commission.

My Story: This Is How It Was by Helen Phillips Hall, the first African-American associate superintendent of Caldwell County Schools

Glimpses of Fonta Flora, by sisters Helen Norman and Patricia Page, who grew up near Lake James

Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists by Valaida Fullwood, a writer and project consultant who grew up in Morganton

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Jimmy Carter and Ed Bradley, 1978

Jimmy Carter and Ed Bradley, 1978

VIDEO FOOTAGE

Gaston Chapel Commemorative Service
February 24th, 1985

Video footage of Ed Bradley (intro begins around 5:60 "The Times They Are A Changin”); Members of the Ocean Wave Club ca.1926 at Gaston Chapel AME Church, 100 Bouchelle St.

An Oral History of the Black Experience
Part One
Burke Cultural Arts Coalition, 1979

Still: Jettie Crisp McGimpsey. Photograph take on her wedding day, November 5, 1918

An Oral History of the Black Experience
Part Two
Burke Cultural Arts Coalition, 1979

Still: Preservation North Carolina Historic Architecture Slide Collection, 1965-2005 (PNC slides), Preservation North Carolina


Center Square

In 1830, the General Assembly authorized the Burke County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions to replace the “shabby, weather-beaten” plank courthouse, built in 1791, with the existing building, made with native stone quarried on the Forney plantation, four miles north of Morganton. James Binnie, a Scottish builder and Frederick Roderick, a German stonemason completed the Courthouse in 1837.

From 1847 until 1862, the North Carolina Supreme Court held its August session in the Historic Courthouse for the convenience of lawyers from the western part of the state who were arguing appeals from the Superior Courts of their respective counties.

Monuments

A monument to confederate soldiers of Burke County was erected in 1911, on the northwestern corner of the Square. The bronze statue of the solider was added in 1918, as a gift from Captain William Joseph Kincaid, a Burke County confederate soldier. Knowing it represents a deeply painful past, there are current conversations in the community about what to do with the monument and the possibility of having it removed. These conversations are also happening around other racist symbols, in particular, the confederate flags hanging along I-40. For an example of these conversations and efforts read this editorial in our local paper, The News Herald.

Additional monuments include a memorial rose garden given in memory of Bob Byrd (1930-2001), a prominent Burke County attorney, a statue of Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr., Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities during the Watergate Scandal, and The Charters of Freedom, located to the north of the courthouse, installed by Foundation Forward. These include The Declaration of Independence, The United States Constitution, and The Bill of Rights.

Excerpts from Form 10-300. National Register of Historic Spaces Inventory- Nomination Form. July 1969

Activities on the Square

Mimosa Trees (1941) Intersection of South Green and Concord Streets. Photography by Floyd Alden Conley

Mimosa Trees (1941) Intersection of South Green and Concord Streets. Photography by Floyd Alden Conley

From the 1920s -1940s, Morganton was known as "The Mimosa City." At that time, Green Street was divided by a median of these trees, in fact, they covered the city! Trees dotted the town from the railroad depot all the way up to the Burkemont Hotel (now Sun Trust Bank near Coin Laundry).

In June 1938, the first Mimosa Festival was held during the first day of summer, high noon for the the mimosas’ bloom. A baseball game, dancing and other activities were capped off by the crowning of the Mimosa Queen and a merry ball. This shindig grew over the years to include Soap Box Derby running from the historic courthouse square down South Sterling Street and general frolicking and dance in the street, just below the courthouse on Sterling. The last Mimosa Festival was in 1941 as World War II postponed the festivities.

First Mimosa Festival – June 23, 1938. Left to right: Sarah Lou Davis, flower girl; Nancy Harbison and Ann Huffman, attendants; John Wilson, crown bearer; Benedict Bristol, Mayor of Morganton who crowned the Queen; Margaret Chaffee, the first Mimosa Queen; David Wilson, page; Elizabeth Sharpe Erwin and Betty Gaither, attendants; Martha Fuller Chaffee, (sister of the Queen) flower girl; Frank C. Patton, master of ceremonies. Photo contributed by the Burke Co. Pub. Library

First Mimosa Festival – June 23, 1938. Left to right: Sarah Lou Davis, flower girl; Nancy Harbison and Ann Huffman, attendants; John Wilson, crown bearer; Benedict Bristol, Mayor of Morganton who crowned the Queen; Margaret Chaffee, the first Mimosa Queen; David Wilson, page; Elizabeth Sharpe Erwin and Betty Gaither, attendants; Martha Fuller Chaffee, (sister of the Queen) flower girl; Frank C. Patton, master of ceremonies. Photo contributed by the Burke Co. Pub. Library

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Looking Forward

Two North Carolina companies out of Winston-Salem have been hired by the City to redesign the Courthouse Square. Stimmel Associates is the landscape architect, while Stitch Design Shop is the architecture firm for the project. The City has also partnered with artist Miki Iwasaki, of San Diego, California, for this project. Iwasaki has completed numerous pieces of public art in Colorado, California and Maryland. The artist was secured through a SmART initiative grant made available by the NC Arts Council and contracted for through the Burke Arts Council.

Future of the Square: Community members share ideas for old courthouse project

 
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County roadmaps spanning 1930-2000. By 1930, the State Highway Commission maintained "road maps" for each of the one hundred counties within North Carolina to assist in their planning of future highways and thoroughfares across the state.