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.
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.
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
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
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: Details
Mia Lao Chang: Details
Fact, Fiction and Lore
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
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.
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:
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
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.
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
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
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
Burke Cultural Arts Coalition, 1979
Still: Preservation North Carolina Historic Architecture Slide Collection, 1965-2005 (PNC slides), Preservation North Carolina
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.
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
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.
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.
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.