In Their Own Words

Four uniquely gifted members of the Western Carolina University community describe from their rich personal experience the importance of history, diversity, language and a sense of place in the formation of the Cullowhee culture. In the essays that follow, the granddaughter-in-law of WCU founder Robert L. Madison, the university’s Cherokee language coordinator, a pioneer of desegregation and an award-winning novelist and poet share their perspectives on facets of WCU history.

Ron Rash

Ron Rash is the Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Culture at Western Carolina University. He is the author of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner finalist and New York Times bestselling novel “Serena,” in addition to four other prize-winning novels – “The Cove,” “One Foot in Eden,” “Saints at the River” and “The World Made Straight.”

It should come as no great surprise that the vast majority of my writing is grounded in this place we call the Southern Appalachian Mountains. As someone whose family roots run deep into the mountains, particularly Buncombe and Watauga counties, going all the way back to the mid-1700s, I know the mountains of Western North Carolina extremely well. The mountains are in my blood; it’s only natural they also would be in my writing.

So, it is true that I have centered most of my work in the mountains of North or South Carolina. That’s the landscape I am the most familiar with, but it also seems to be the landscape that I cannot exhaust. The characters and the stories from this place are endless. Eudora Welty, who is one of my favorite writers, once said, “One place understood helps us understand all other places.” I do not see writing about one specific region as any kind of limitation, because ultimately what I am going after is revealing the human condition. My focus on the mountains is more than simply showing what makes this area distinctive. It is ultimately to show how, at the core, all people are more alike than they are different, no matter what the culture, no matter what the country.

That is why I haven’t strayed very far from the mountains for settings for my books. However, in “The Cove” I did have some scenes set in New York City, and I have, in some short stories, had characters who were from outside the region. Perhaps one day I’ll even write a novel set outside of the region, but for right now I just have too many stories that are here, that are of this place and the people of this place. Knowing a landscape intimately allows the writer to really get into the particulars. It’s out of those particulars that a reader comes to believe the big lie that a novel is.

I am far from alone. I have found that Appalachian writers tend to ground their work in a particular place; that’s one aspect of the genre noted by critics. I think in some ways that it is part of a larger Southern tradition of a strong sense of place. But for me, place is very often a character. I want the reader to feel as if he or she were in that landscape. I want that landscape to be a dominant feature of the book, sometimes even a sense of human destiny being controlled by the landscape. The characters are almost caught within the landscape or the place, particularly in the mountains, with a sense of the mountains brooding over them or limiting them.  Sometimes, it is in a more positive way, as if the mountains are protecting them, almost womblike. I find that very fascinating, because I am quite interested in the way landscape affects human psychology. I am absolutely convinced that people who grew up in the mountains have a different sense of being than people who have grown up on an island, on the coastline or in an urban environment.

For those of us at Western Carolina University, we are fortunate enough to find ourselves working and studying in a place our chancellor often refers to as “a little slice of heaven.”  I’m reminded of an old bumper sticker from back in the 1970s that read “Cullowhee is not a place, but a state of mind.” And while that sentiment was viewed by many as a back-handed compliment referring to the fact that WCU is located in an unincorporated area, I prefer to embrace the positive nature of that saying. Cullowhee is a special place. Since WCU’s founding in 1889, Cullowhee is a place where the sons and daughters of the people of Western North Carolina have come to get an education. It’s a place from which those sons and daughters, armed with their university diplomas, have become contributing members of society and leaders in the region. And today, those sons and daughters come from beyond the region as well.

I think a lot of people – including students, faculty and staff– have fallen in love with this area when they come here. I certainly have. And yes, part of it is the sheer physical beauty of this place. After all, how wonderful is it to have a campus with a trout stream flowing through it? I don’t know of many universities that have that. But there’s more here than physical beauty alone. There also is an innate sense of community that I think one gets in this place called Cullowhee. Much of that sense of community comes from the people here, more like neighbors in a small town than colleagues on a college campus. But such a feeling is a direct result of being located in the mountains. Some have referred to Cullowhee as isolated, but I tend to view that more positively. The mountains shelter us from some of the outside noise and give us more of a chance to learn and to live, to reflect and to grow. It gives us that different sense of being.

We should all be grateful for Robert Lee Madison, whose vision 125 years ago has given us Western Carolina University.

Levern Allen title

Levern H. Allen became the first African-American student to enroll at any of North Carolina’s all-white, state-supported collegiate institutions when she signed up for a nine-week summer course at what was then called Western Carolina College in 1957. Allen also served as a WCU trustee from 1987 to 1995.

It has been 60 years since the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which ordered an end to racial segregation in public schools. In 1954, I was a sophomore at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) majoring in speech correction. Three years later, I was the first Negro student to enroll at Western Carolina College. This was the summer of 1957.

Levern Allen

In the spring of 1956, I had been hired by the Mecklenburg County School System as a speech correctionist. After graduation and a summer of preparation, I moved to Charlotte in the fall. Teacher certification requirements in the state of Virginia, where Hampton is located, were different from the requirements for North Carolina. To gain permanent status as a speech correctionist, one had to be certified in special education. I had not taken any special education courses. I was living near Johnson C. Smith College, but they did not have a special education department. I wrote the State Board of Education seeking schools I might attend. I received a list of courses at several colleges and universities. Western was the only one with the courses I needed for certification. I applied. After the administration and the Board of Trustees satisfied themselves with the fact that I represented no one but myself, I was accepted. Probably, I was a test case to see if the college and the community would accept this change – for it was a big one. 

In 1954, the city of Greensboro announced it would carry out the Supreme Court’s decision. In 1955, Washington, D.C., integrated its school system. Public education, as I knew it, had changed. School systems were challenged. In many Southern states there was a swift and negative approach to integration. A climate of “massive resistance” in Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi prevailed. Yet, there I was on this June day in 1957, about to register for the summer session at Western Carolina College. 

It is difficult to describe my first day. I left my home in Roanoke, Virginia, very early and arrived at Western about 3 p.m. It was a very hot day. My Chevy did not have air. I was tired, sweaty and had cramps in my feet and legs from the long drive. There was a lump from my throat down to my stomach from the thoughts of what might happen. I persevered. I had no thoughts of turning back. I went directly to the office of the director of summer session, registered for three classes and paid my fees. I drove up the hill to Robertson Hall.

My single room was large and comfortable and directly above the resident manager – the Brown family. I did not spend much time with them but knew they were there for my safety. There were rumors that a Negro was scheduled to enroll for the summer session. Neither the town’s people nor the press knew that I would arrive the day following registration. The director of public relations was in charge as well as in control. Her name was Lillian Hirt ’69. She interviewed me. All photographs were taken at her direction. She released one photograph to the local paper along with her article. She was my lifeline to this very different world. 

Every effort was made by everyone to make me comfortable. My professors seemed eager to have me as a student and other students welcomed me. Mrs. Hirt’s son, who was about 7, asked “Why is your skin so dark?” Before I could answer she seized the opportunity to talk with him about different races. An African-American family with a daughter about my age called to offer assistance if I needed it. We became friends. I felt very comfortable with them and would ask the difficult questions like, “Where can I get my hair done?” They took me to Cherokee to see “Unto These Hills.” It was their home where I had dinner each Sunday night. 

Cullowhee is located in the mountains about 50 miles south of Asheville. Western is Cullowhee. Most of my needs were satisfied on campus except banking. I drove to Sylva to cash a check. While standing before the teller, I realized that everyone in the area, not just on campus, knew who I was. She was very cordial. She did not ask for identification and called me by name. There might have been some who feared change, but it appeared to me that most had resigned themselves to the fact that change had arrived. 

Thirty years later in 1987, I was invited to a weekend celebration at Western as a guest of the Ebony Club. My story was well-received. A few months later, Chancellor Myron L. Coulter asked me to serve on the Board of Trustees. My mother had passed, but my dad was very proud. He pulled out the article that had been published in the Asheville newspaper to relive my story. He remembered how he and my mother did not sleep very well until I returned home. I served for two terms on the board, I was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

As we celebrate Western’s 125 years, allow me to say thank you for making my life richer. We each took a risk and we both won.

Tom Belt

Tom Belt, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is the Cherokee language coordinator at WCU, which offers one of two university Cherokee language programs in the country. A new law requires the University of North Carolina system to have a plan for Cherokee language instruction.

When you stand on parts of the main campus at Western Carolina University, you are in the downtown of a Cherokee village that existed here for thousands of years and, according to Cherokee legend, the home of a giant. The giant’s responsibility was keeping vigilance over the animals and plants of the area before and during the emergence of the Cherokee people as a tribe. The entity’s name, in the phonetic style of the Cherokee syllabary, was “Tsu-tla-ka-la” or, in simpler phonetic form, “joolth-cullah.” The giant was believed to be responsible for the petroglyphs on a rock – Judaculla Rock – and the name of the giant’s home and surrounding area would have been pronounced “joolth-cullah-wee.” With more non-Cherokee speakers populating the region and the unaccented first syllable dropped, the name evolved to “cullah-whee” – Cullowhee. 

In this video, Tom Belt expresses some of the thoughts from the article in the Cherokee language.

My job here at WCU in Cullowhee is to teach Cherokee language. When you come from an oral-tradition-based culture, language is very, very important. How we think, how we interpret the world and how we understand who we are, are embedded in our language. We have a verb-based language as opposed to English, a noun-based language.  A verb in our language is a whole sentence. If we say “A-gi-yo-si,” it means three words in English, “I am hungry.” We use verbs to make the most precise interpretations of what we see happening.

I remember sitting outside the student union at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, talking with other students when it occurred to me we were talking Cherokee and the world we lived in spoke English. I asked, “Has it ever occurred to you that we, here, right now, those of us our age, may be the last speakers of our language? Because I don’t think the other kids are speaking it.” It stopped everybody cold, and then we laughed and went back to drinking coffee. We grew up in families where everyone spoke Cherokee, and it never occurred to us the language would go away. But today, less than 200 of the 13,000 members of the Eastern Band (near campus) are fluent Cherokee speakers and almost all are over the age of 55. 

Language death in Native Americans can be attributed to a lot of factors. In the 1800s, the government opened boarding schools across the country – hundreds of schools – and forced tribes to send kids to these schools to integrate, to socialize and to make them “Americans.” Their Native languages were forbidden there. I didn’t really begin to learn the English language until I entered public school in Oklahoma at age 6. I did not understand anything. I remember at recess sitting on the steps and watching. No one talked to me. When my parents realized I would have to repeat first grade, they began a conscientious effort to expose me to more English. Then, much like anyone who starts to pick up another language, I had an accent, and I realized the way I spoke English was a point of humor among the teachers. I thought, “Well, OK then, I am going to learn to speak better than they can,” which I laugh about now because I never did. I think they regarded my speaking Cherokee as unique but unimportant.

Now, more and more members of our tribe and educators are increasingly aware that speaking Cherokee is important – critical. In 1991, I came to North Carolina to Cherokee. This being our homeland, Cherokees in Oklahoma want to come here and see what it’s like. I was 40, and I was one of the younger people here who still spoke Cherokee. That seemed odd to me. If no one is speaking the language, the language is lost. If you take away language, you take away culture. 

Half of the people who were sitting outside that student union in Oklahoma speaking Cherokee in 1971 or 1972 are involved today in language revitalization. I became the Cherokee language coordinator at WCU in 2006 after Tom Hatley helped make Cherokee language courses part of the Cherokee Studies Program. We have full capacity in the “Cherokee 101” class every fall – at least 26 students, and, under a law passed last year, all universities in the University of North Carolina system recognizes the Cherokee language as “a language for which a student may satisfy a foreign language course requirement for degree completion.” It shows after all these years it has become important to the university system to recognize its connection with Native tribes – the historical connections and the need to offer educational services that serve the needs of Native people, too.

My director, Hartwell Francis, and I also work with Cherokee language classes at high schools, and are directly involved in the Cherokee language immersion school in helping develop curriculum. The very first certified teacher at the immersion school was a product of WCU. What drove this student was not just her ability and her desire to teach. She realizes the importance of trying to save a language, and she is not the only teacher at the immersion school who studied at WCU. When the older Cherokee speakers are gone, the only ones left able to speak fluently may be these teachers and the children that WCU is working with in the immersion school. The hope of the tribe rests on them.

Sara Sutton Madison

Sara Sutton Madison ’54 MAEd ’60 is the granddaughter-in-law of WCU founder Robert L. Madison and granddaughter of one of the institution’s first students. Her family lived on campus when she was a child, and she went on to earn two degrees and teach at WCU.

Never would I forget that Jackson County had local culture before Western was founded – the ballads; the musical talent, particularly singing and playing instruments; the telling of stories and acting out of plays. Many homes prided themselves in setting a pretty spread and using manners at the table. The Mountain Heritage Center seeks to save this culture. 

Sara Sutton Madison

Quite a few natives had traveled afar and brought back with them cultural practices of those who had had more opportunities to learn and practice ideas from other people and places. Thankfully, my mother thought we should visit these people, which included the Davies and Coxes (mining engineers from Wales, whose children went to Ivy Schools); the David H. Browns, the Frank H. Browns, the Halls, the McKees and many others. My grandmother had come from both the Shelton and Shook families, and my grandfather was a descendant of the Zachary and Norton families.

It was when Professor R.L. Madison came to Cullowhee and established Cullowhee High School that outside culture began to be important. Mr. Madison’s original plans included the teaching of music and art, Latin, declamation and literature. He advertised for a music and art teacher, and fortunately one of the Davies’ daughters was at the same finishing school in New York as Ella Richards of Galveston, Texas. So Ella came to Cullowhee to teach, and she married Mr. Madison. She was both an artist and a musician, and continued to teach both subjects. They eventually lived in Webster, and Joe Rhinehart honors the two of them with his Sunday nights in Webster, when Mr. Madison would come out on his porch and play his flute for the whole community.

When I lived on the campus of Western Carolina Teachers College, it was magical. We were the recipients of all kinds of culture by the students and faculty, and we had the really good fortune to have Mrs. Lilian Buchanan ’34 on the faculty. She had been a person to go to Mr. C.J. Harris and tell him Sylva needed a library, which they got; and she had been the one to start a women’s organization called The Twentieth Century Club, which supported the arts. The club’s 30 members entertained and provided edifying programs of culture, serving members with their best silver, china, crystal and linen. They also did a good cultural deed in the county each year and bought a piece of art by a WCU student to put in the art museum. When she came to Western, Mrs. Buchanan was determined to add culturally to the college. She played classical music each night from the library in Joyner as the students came from Moore and dinner.

She instituted the Lyceum Programs at Western. Each year she went to Columbia University in the summer and each year she set up programs for the next year at Western. Some of the people who came for programs were Charles Laughton; Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy; Ted Shawn, the protégée of Martha Graham; Walter Carringer; Margaret Truman; and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. In the archives, there is even correspondence with the New York Symphony as to the possibility of their appearance.

Since she lived next door to us, I was often invited into her apartment to see her beautiful art books, her Metropolitan framed prints and autographed pictures of important people such as Thomas Wolfe. She played opera day and night at the highest decibel. I was fascinated, and we called her “Cannie,” my brother’s choice. When we were ill, she brought us vegetable soup filled with cabbage.

The arts were well-represented at Western. My friend Dorothy Dodson ’53 MAEd ’56 and I both had parts in “Carmen” and “Faust.” I played in the orchestra taught by Miss Rachel Rosenberger, who left to play in the Kansas City Symphony. Mrs. Inez Gulley ’37 did triple duty – the high school chorus, the college chorus and the May Day program, in addition to individual lessons. Miss Winnie Murphy (Killian), Miss Maybel Tyree (Crum) and Mr. Deans were in charge of the drama productions. At one time, the North Carolina High School drama competitions came to Cullowhee for state finals. I remember that “Riders to the Sea” and “Juno and the Paycock” won the competition.

I heard my first opera and saw my first ballet, my first modern dance and my first stage productions in Cullowhee. It wasn’t until later that I analyzed how absolutely magical it was to grow up on the campus of WCU.

Culture has flourished and still is flourishing at WCU, not only with the Broadway-caliber productions and plays, but also the opportunity to watch wonderful students learn and practice their arts until they are highly sought after for internships and positions all over the U.S.A. 

We are now being led and entertained by our highly educated chancellor and his wife. Dr. David Belcher is a performing pianist and his wife, Susan, is a former member of the Chicago Lyric Opera.

How fortunate we are.