When history goes unchronicled, its details become even more elusive and eventually lost in the shadows of time. As George Santayana said in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it!”
Frustrating as it may be, serious researchers must wade through handed-down stories, sketchy lore, exaggerations, inaccuracies and revisionism. What’s more, government statistics (census, birth, death records) at times mislead or delude us through human error and omissions, particularly in the case of our African-American history.
Thankfully there are those who devote their time and energy to preserving this heritage data — and getting it straight — before it forever disappears. One of those dedicated individuals is Hendersonville’s Ronnie Pepper, who spearheaded the revival of Henderson County’s Black History Research Committee.
From 1986 to 1996, several individuals devoted their time to the BHRC. The members included Louise H. Bailey, Alberta Jowers, the Rev. William Judson King, Willie Mae Hogue King, Estelle Maxwell, Paul McMinn Jr., Mary Valentine Mims, Libby Viola Russell Payne, Ruby Rivers, Emmie Lee Standifer, Beatrice Summey, Johnnie Washington, Cleo Waters, Kathleen Featherstone Williams, Jessie Jenkins Wilson, Neil Woodson and Cora J. Young.
The group produced the book “A Brief History of The Black Presence in Henderson County” edited by Robert McDaniel Copeland, Ph.D., and published it in 1996.
As stated in the book, “So often histories written about African Americans attend excessively to the growth of intellectual currents and ideological debate, leaving readers without a clear, concise and comprehensive understanding of what actually occurred. This book avoids such limitations, because it makes difficult, if not impossible, for readers not to understand how politics, power, perseverance and ideology shaped the framework and opportunity structure of the African-American presence in Henderson County, North Carolina.”
Ronnie Pepper, a Hendersonville High alum, served in the U.S. Army and on boards and with several organizations. Those include the American Red Cross, Hendersonville YMCA, Flat Rock Playhouse, Blue Ridge Community College, Hendersonville Housing Authority and the NAACP.
He works at the Henderson County Public Library and participates in countywide programs as a storyteller.
As an educator, Pepper worked more than 25 years with the Head Start program. He has served on the Walk of Fame committee and currently heads up the BHRC.
Pepper has received multiple awards for his civic volunteerism, including the Spirit of Diversity Award by the Latino Advocacy Coalition of Henderson County and the Scholastic Early Childhood Professional Award. He was honored as Citizen of the Year by the Hendersonville Civitan Club in 2018.
Despite his impressive credentials, ceaseless volunteerism and boundless energy, Pepper remains humble. He gives credit where due, always reminding us of his collaborators’ contributions. To date Pepper’s team includes Shirley Davidson, Suzanne Hale, Melinda Pilgrim Lowrance, Ron Partin, Johnny Washington, Jerome Williams and Terry Young.
The group has developed an informative website. Additionally, the committee hosts programs and workshops on interviewing techniques and editing skills concerning videography.
Pepper said, “Looking back at the gifts we have taken for granted, what we have forgotten, this is what we are at last documenting for posterity.” Pepper applied for and received a grant from the Dogwood Foundation — the seed money for the group’s website development.
“This website is just the beginning,” Pepper said. “We will persist in our mission, adding to the site as we gather more information. The site and the programs will continue to evolve.”
The Community Foundation is a major sponsor of this worthy effort. The BHRC also collaborates with Henderson County Public Schools, 9th Avenue alumni, the city of Hendersonville and Joseph Knight of the People’s Museum.
“Everyone’s story is important and the key to understanding those stories is learning what came before us that led us to where we are today,” says Community Foundation of Henderson County President/CEO McCray V. Benson. “The Community Foundation of Henderson County is honored to be the fiscal sponsor for the BHRC. Is it inspiring to be part of celebrating and learning from our history as well as supporting the connections that will be formed from this collective work.
"Knowledge of both our past and present is influential to what we are yet to become. There is power is taking the time to learn each other’s stories.”
To date, the site includes the categories of Cultural, Food, School and Spiritual Life; Community Groups; Cemeteries; Community Maps; and Black-owned Businesses.
Researchers and other interested parties will find useful the timelines: Before 1865, 1865-1900, 1900-1950, 1950-1970 and 1970-Present, as well as Education in Henderson County from 1865-1916.
The site’s many photographs hail from the collections of Baker-Barber (Henderson County Public Library), local families and other contributors.
About the website, NAACP local chapter president Melinda Lowrance said, “On reviewing the work of the Black History Committee, I was so inspired. The committee under the leadership of Mr. Ronnie Pepper will make a significant impact on the community. It is so important to have our stories told and for them to be put into a format that will last for generations to come.
"The contributions and achievements of Blacks in Henderson County hopefully will inspire future generations to do the same.”
Who can benefit from the Black Histories website? Among the many would be those studying African-American history, families with local genealogical ties, and the public at large. The website is well-planned, easy to browse and includes research projects. To visit the site, go to blackhistories.org.
The group’s “Purpose” statement reads, “Henderson County’s Black History Research Committee was first established in the 1990s to document the accomplishments and challenges of African Americans in Henderson County, North Carolina. After publishing the pioneering book 'A Brief History of the Black Presence in Henderson County' in 1996, the group remained dormant for 25 years.
“In 2020 a group of local citizens came together to reconvene Henderson County’s Black History Research Committee. We are a diverse group that includes educators, entrepreneurs, a U.S. military veteran, a communications technician, a librarian and a diplomat, all of whom share a common belief that we can better understand our community today by building a stronger understanding of its past.
“Our purpose is to gather information concerning the lives, achievements and contributions of Blacks, AfricaHenderson County group devoted to preserving Black historyn Americans and Negros, past and present of Henderson County, North Carolina.
"The information collected will include photographs, video recordings, documents, family histories and veteran records. This information will be shared with the community, particularly young people, through written materials, a new website, audio and video recordings and storytelling.
“With a small grant from the Dogwood Trust, and the support of modern technology, we are working to collect, develop and share further information about the history of African Americans in Henderson County.
"This website, which includes much of the original material from 'A Brief History of the Black Presence in Henderson County' is our first project. The website will evolve and expand to include new research, oral histories, more recipes and more photos. This is a community project, by people of Henderson County, for the people of Henderson County.”
How to help
To help (with transcription, research, recording sessions): blackhistories.org/help/-us/. To donate: blackhistories.org/donate. To volunteer: firstname.lastname@example.org or Pepper@BlackHistories.com.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Historical photos with this column came courtesy of the Baker-Barber Collection; Community Foundation of Henderson County; Henderson County Public Library.
Terry Ruscin has authored several books on local and regional history including “Hidden History of Henderson County.”
This article originally appeared on Hendersonville Times-News: Henderson County group devoted to preserving Black history