no better than its places

“Old Bob” was a horse that belonged to Blanford Barnard (“B.B.”) Dougherty, one of the founders of the school that became Appalachian State University, and its distinguished first president.

This is “Old Bob” in 1920, led by John Adams, who “worked for the Dougherty family.”

The accuracy of this photo is disputed, though. I am no horse expert, but elsewhere in the archives a similar image of a horse, against a similar background, is proclaimed NOT to be “Old Bob,” but instead a younger horse from a few decades later. Looks like the same horse to me. Mr. Adams does not appear in this photo, though given the identical size of the trees in the background, I imagine him just out of frame.

We seem to care a lot about “Old Bob” here. And there is concordance that “Old Bob” died in 1928, and that he was buried on campus, in the woods behind the Chancellor’s House at the time according to this image caption. This would mean his remains lie today roughly beneath the Watauga Residential College‘s kitchen garden, a synergy I am a little surprised our sustainability-focused campus has not yet noted.

John Adams is the single African-American I have found photographed in many hours of browsing Appalachian’s impressive online digital history archive. I have not yet read Dr. Susan Keefe’s magisterial Junaluska: Oral Histories of a Black Appalachian Community, which summarizes thirty years of oral history research into the community that has thrived on the mountain above the University for almost two centuries. But a search for “John Adams” in the Google Books version turns up nothing.

So John Adams is, for my purposes, invisible, as are the many many other Black people who are part of the story of this place. Unlike apparently every homecoming queen, pep rally leader, varsity sports player, or young thespian who ever got their photo in the yearbook, and subsequently in the archives.

Invisible, that is, until I look at the memorial stone placed three years ago on the 1/3 of Boone Town Cemetery, where Black people were buried for decades in unmarked graves. Dougherty himself is there too, in the white section fifty yards away beneath a tasteful marker, as are the rest of the founding fathers and mothers of this place. (The only three white people buried in the Black section are Union soldiers who died here during the war; they were placed in this section to show disrespect.)

The unmarked section lay in disrepair and disrespect for years, unfenced and uncultivated. Students stole the few stones that had been placed, and exercised their dogs there. But finally in 2017, archeological and archival work culminated in the dedication of the marker, which names as many people as can be identified who lie there. And a “John Adams” appears, 1893-1954, who may be the man in the photo.

I estimate the unmarked section of the cemetery is about two acres square, and contains the remains of more than 160 people.

The field behind where I think the chancellor’s house used to be is a bit smaller, and contains the remains of one horse.

What I am coming to is the realization that the final resting place of B.B. Dougherty’s horse may be more precisely known than that of the man who cared for him.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

My obsession with the history of Boone, North Carolina — my home of the last eleven years — sneaked up on me, and surprised me. Maybe it is just more evidence of my chameleonic nature. After all, when I lived in Chapel Hill, I became a college basketball fan; when I moved to a place where history is visible on every street, I became an historian.

But I think it is something deeper and more abiding than that compels me to care about history here. A few years ago I encountered Wendell Berry’s profound pronouncement about the sacredness of the exact ground beneath our feet:

No place at last is better than the world. The world
Is no better than its places. Its places at last
Are no better than their people while their people
Continue in them. When the people make
Dark the light within them, the world darkens.

And so I turned my attention to reading the streets and the buildings, seeking out old maps and photos, trying to piece together what used to be here or there and still is if you squint hard. In this I sometimes come across the history of segregation and institutionalized racism that remains written on our built environment, as on so many in the south. (Both our “consolidated” — read, “segregated” — school buildings still stand, as does the movie theater that stayed in business when the newer, bigger one opened because it allowed Black patrons into the balcony.)

But I also come across the fruits of the WPA’s deep investment in job creation up here, in buildings that still stand throughout campus as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway that lies ten minutes away. And everywhere I see evidence of this institution’s long-time requirement “do more with less,” as numerous chancellors have put it. Few public universities have the resources they need, but Appalachian’s remoteness from the big flagship universities, regionalism, and (say it) anti-appalachian sentiment have kept state funding of the place low for decades. So we don’t tear much down, considering. Everything gets refurbished and reclad to last another generation.

Which all means that the story of this place is so easy to find. It cries out to be read. I live in a house that appears in some of the first photos of Boone, built 1925. The history is in the floorboards, in the tag from the phone company in 1940 that hangs from an abandoned wire in the basement. I can’t help but see it.

I teach it too. Both to those who come to learn from me and those who don’t. I do local history in all my classes, especially of school segregation and how it played out in this community as a way to understand its echoes across the state. And I am a bore to anyone who will listen about what that building used to be, where this street used to run, the railroad and the lumber camp and the schools, the schools, the schools.

I am not just a pedant (though that too, probably). I really can’t help myself. I can’t stop from speaking the past into the present everywhere I have opportunity, because to do so suddenly gives so much depth to our experiences of this place today.

I mean something related to that uncanny sense we have when looking at “old photographs” of glimpsing someone who, through some trick of the lens or the light, does not look like they are “old’ but instead startlingly present, from right now. Those people were real people. (Spend a few minutes with this image of the graduating class of 1916 to see what I mean.)

I mourn the fact that so many of our photos are of “occasions” — birthdays and Christmases in our own photo albums, parades and football games. Because exactly what make “occasions” seem special enough to film in the moment are what makes them virtually indistinguishable in hindsight. Occasion images are the least interesting to find in the archives: this dance, that commencement. What fascinates instead are the images people took of things too commonplace to mention or document. What shoes people wore. What was on the front page of the newspaper in someone’s hand. John Adams’ hat.

To look at old images this way is to imbue today with a sense of mystery and meaning too. These shoes here, this hat I wore this morning, also mean something. This little life is being played out on the same ground, in the same halls, that those were. There is a kinship, a connection, not of fame or import but of merely being in parallel. Benevolent ghosts imbuing the present with something it lacks on its own. Others have been in these rooms, and others will be. That is okay.

And it is not. Because who is erased in all this seeing and noting? What casual violence is done in our own image-making and our own naming, as surely as was done to John Adams in the record? That we will see a hundred years hence and wonder how we could be so blind and so terrible in our banality?

Let us see now better than then.

A poem of my own, with obvious debt to Berry.

A place is sanctified a couple ways.

By what transpired there, now or long ago:
A battlefield, a hospital, a school.
Whatever its intent, its witnesses
Have made it something more than ever thought.
And so we monumentalize, inscribe.

Or what portends to happen there. Is hoped.
A temple — or a hospital (again)
A schoolyard (yet again): the holy truth
Of most of our humane pretending shown
By how we hope to care and hope to mend.

But by these lights: what isn’t sacred ground?
A bedroom — safe for resting, safe for love?
A kitchen — wrought for sustenance and health?
A highway — graded smooth to guide our path?
A storefront — where a family subsists?

A basketball, abandoned in a lot?
An empty can, reposing in a grate?
A river, in its form if not its stuff?
The line of thinking grows absurd: it’s all
Imbued with latent wonder. Power at rest.

The world is teaching mutely, if we look:
The present moment’s immaterial.
The pattern’s what ennobles and enshrines.
The ways that spaces and their objects shape
Our own intentions, turn and point our eyes

Our industry, our hopes for those to come.
The only sacred’s what we bring to bear.
If not, a rosary’s a bunch of beads,
A classroom just a warehouse for the young,
A hospital a catalog of pain.

No sacred save our ears, our glance, our touch.

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