Dr. Darin Waters (left), Deputy Secretary of the NCDCR Archives and History Department, and D. Reid Wilson, Secretary of the NCDCR.

Dr. Darin Waters (left), Deputy Secretary of the NCDCR Archives and History Department, and D. Reid Wilson, Secretary of the NCDCR. Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News

What Stories We Tell

The NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources is reclaiming, remembering, relearning, and teaching the remarkable history of the state and its people.

D. Reid Wilson, Secretary of the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
D. Reid Wilson, Secretary of the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News

Reflecting the wide diversity of North Carolina History.

On April 7, 2022 leaders of the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (NCDNCR) visited the Asheville area and met with The Urban News to discuss the department’s current and upcoming initiatives and its outreach to diverse communities.

The NCDNCR is a cabinet-level department within the state government of North Carolina dedicated to overseeing projects and history within the borders of the state. The department oversees the state’s resources for the arts, history, libraries, and nature. Its treasures include the state’s 39 parks and recreation areas, 27 historic sites, seven history museums, three aquariums, two art museums, two science museums, and the North Carolina Arts Council, Library, Symphony, Zoo, Preservation Office, Office of State Archaeology, and the African American Heritage Commission.

Staff dedicated to diversity and inclusion

Reid Wilson, Secretary of the NCDNCR, brings a wealth of experience in land conservation, environmental protection, and government and nonprofit leadership to the department. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Biology, and he held the position of Chief of Staff for the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton Administration. Secretary Wilson has set five major priorities across the department: expanding educational content for school-age children; protecting public health; boosting local economic development; strengthening our commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility; and addressing climate change and community resiliency.

Dr. Darin Waters, Deputy Secretary of the NCDNCR Archives and History Department.
Dr. Darin Waters, Deputy Secretary of the NCDNCR Archives and History Department. Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News

Among his colleagues is Deputy Secretary for Archives and History Dr. Darin Waters, who is also the NC State Historian. Dr. Waters is a well-known Asheville native and a long-time associate professor of history at UNC Asheville, where he also served as executive director of the Office of Community Engagement.

Dr. Waters previously held other teaching positions in research and community engagement positions at UNCA, UNC-Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University. His specialties include the history of race relations in both the United States and Latin America, and he has taught courses in American history, North Carolina history, and Appalachian, African American, and Brazilian history.

In his new role at NCDNCR, Waters will not only serve as North Carolina’s official State Historian but will also oversee the operations of the State History Museums, State Historic Sites, Archives and Records, and many other historical offices and commissions that are part of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Waters noted that as the state gears up to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the nation’s birth, the department will have three areas of focus: Visions of freedom. When are we “us”? What is our common ground?”

“This department is the first in the state to have hired a Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion officer. That role is being replicated in other departments around the country, and will focus on a three-part inclusion program. The drive is to increase diversity and appointments to state boards and commissions and nonprofit friends groups.

“The second part will aim to diversify the content that is included in the department’s range of operations, studies, and program—“what stories we tell”—reflecting the wide diversity of NC history that has so long excluded people of color,” said Secretary Wilson. “For example, the state’s African American Heritage Commission has connected with numerous organizations and groups around the state to better involve those organizations and the department in furthering their shared goals.”  Wilson acknowledged that “outreach must be active and broad-based.”

The third area of inclusion and accessibility, in Secretary Wilson’s words, involves “who do we engage with; how are we involved in their work, and how can they be better involved in our work? Also, how that engagement has been happening.”

Restructuring grants programs

For example, Wilson says, “Local Arts Councils get grants, and we’re engaging with lots of organizations through grants. But we’re aware that there are people and organizations that don’t know about the grant programs, or they don’t have the resources to pursue them. Some local Parks Departments have to put up matching money for grants, and that becomes an obstacle to smaller towns and departments. One approach the department is developing for small communities, or those disenfranchised by Urban Renewal, is to change the matching requirements. “Tier 3 [large, wealthy] counties will still need a one-to-one match, but for Tier 2 counties, maybe the match needs to be two-to-one. And for a Tier 1 county, that’s low income, rural, under-resourced, maybe 10 to one.” Such a different approach would equalize the opportunity to gain state funding for their projects.”

Another part of community engagement, notes Dr. Waters, is “getting out into communities. That’s a big reason for the secretary’s recent trip to the western part of the state.”

In addition to traveling to Cherokee country in the far western counties, Secretary Wilson spent time in Mars Hill recently for a tour of the historic Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School, which has undergone 12 years of renovation and restoration and is now listed on the NC Register of Historic Places.

The Friends of the Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School  stand in front of the restored historic school.
The Friends of the Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School worked for more than 12 years to rehabilitate the historic school. Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News

The Historic Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School

The school began by serving primary and elementary grades 1-8 for rural families from across Madison County. The school’s enrollment of 20 to 30 students per year depended on demographics—if there were no sixth-grade students one year, there was no sixth grade.

Including its predecessor, the Mars Hill Colored School, over 2,000 African American students were educated there. Among them were sisters Dorothy Koon and Charity Koon Ray, who taught Art and Music at Mars Hill and privately for many years; student Sarah Roland Weston Hart, who was the first Black graduate of Mars Hill College in 1965; Oralene Simmons, the Civil Rights leader who was the first Black student enrolled at the college and whose great-grandfather, Joseph Anderson, was an enslaved master mason whose bricks were used for the earliest college buildings—and who was imprisoned as collateral for an overdue debt owed by the college’s founders.

The Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School is a rare survivor. Nearly all the 5,000+ Rosenwald schools across the South have been lost or destroyed since the beginning of desegregation in the 1960s.

Originally a project of Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee University, and his friend Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck & Company, the schools depended on local initiative, funding, and labor to be built. The descendants of enslaved people who lived in these communities were responsible for raising money to acquire the land, buy the supplies, and build the schools.

The Mars Hill school was saved by a variety of coincidences, among them that the Madison County School Board owned the property. As a result, after desegregation, the school building stayed intact for many years, used for everything from neighborhood basketball games to curing burley tobacco. Finally, however, the structure became unusable for any purpose until the restoration project began in 2010, spearheaded by a group of local friends, alumni, and historians.

The Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School anticipates a few final touches before its grand opening in the fall, and Secretary Wilson promised the schools advocates, “Whatever challenges you have on the grounds, you’ll meet them. What you’ve done with the building you’ll be able to do with the property.”

He continued, “The fact that everyone was able to come together and persevere, from the right paint color to the smart-screens of today, our department should tell this story everywhere we go. For this school building to be returned to what it used to be, it’s just an incredible opportunity to tell people what Rosenwald Schools were.”

That is part of the mission of the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources: to engage the public in every way possible so as to reclaim, remember, relearn, and teach the remarkable history of the state and its people.

J Hackett and Bruce Waller, the founders of Black Wall Street Asheville.  Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News
J Hackett and Bruce Waller, the founders of Black Wall Street Asheville. Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News

More people, more engagement, more knowledge

Another goal is to build on present efforts to engage the public in our culture. During their tour, Wilson and Waters also met with the founders of Black Wall Street Asheville. The organization was founded by entrepreneurs J Hackett, Bruce Waller, and other local business owners to celebrate the history of African American enterprise while supporting current, nascent Black businesses.

Historically, many small Black-owned businesses were not registered with the state, but all were well known in the community. As part of its enterprise, Waller and Hackett have begun to host “story time” with community elders such as Matthew Bacoate. By bringing together younger residents, new business owners, and elders, Black Wall Street Asheville will be instrumental in sharing with NC folks the rich and diverse history of the state.

Strengthening the DCNR’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility

When The Urban News asked Secretary Reid about his vision for the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources in the coming years, he said, “Our Department is 50 years old this year. We take care of lots of things NC loves, from A to Z—from the Arts to the Zoo. What’s important is to create a shared history, common ground.”

The officials described the five existing priorities of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources:

Education of children—field trips, videos, and live-streaming to reach and teach children

Protecting public health—getting state residents outside for the health of the body, mind, and spirit, and securing more money for parks, trails, and greenways, land and water protection.

Economic development. The NCDNCR’s 41 parks, 27 historic sites, seven history museums, and sites found in almost every county, drive economic activity, as can historic preservation. Grants help libraries, museums, nature centers, the arboretum, and strengthen local institutions.

Resiliency to climate change. The department has a role to play in educating people as well as reducing the state’s own carbon footprint.

Always new projects

Waters pointed out that the state is big in underwater archaeology, including the archaeological site of Blackbeard’s ship Queen Anne’s Revenge, which had previously been used as a slave ship.

In addition, the NCDNCR includes the African American Heritage Commission and will soon have an American Indian Heritage Commission. And in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the NC African American Heritage Commission was the first in the country to transcribe documents from the post-Civil War Freedmen’s Bureau. Approximately 20,000 pages have been transcribed, and Dr. Lonnie Bunch, the first Black Secretary of the Smithsonian and Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, has approved the allocation of staff to transcribe an additional 5,000 or so pages.

Education is magical

Secretary Wilson concluded, “The most important thing our department provides is magical moments for children when they visit programs, museums, etc. When a child from a Title I school goes to an aquarium, sees sea turtles, sharks, jellyfish, their eyes pop open. It’s the same with state historic sites: maybe they’ll understand the connection to their own great-grandparents. Or getting to experience the NC Symphony, or seeing dinosaur bones at a science museum.

“Those magical educational moments are most important, just watching the children undergo such a a transformative moment. I want every kid in this state to understand this state’s diverse, complex history and culture, how we got to where we are today; respect science; appreciate the outdoors, get outside, and to help them develop a respect for nature.”

“Together we look forward to remembering and renewing our knowledge of and commitment to our nation’s founding ideals,” said Wilson.


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