Exhibit on RiverLink: Asheville-Based Activism in the French Broad Watershed

The month of October is considered Archives Month across the nation and the theme for the upcoming year is Activism and Social Justice in North Carolina. The purpose of Archives month is to raise awareness in the Archives and what better way to do so than to spotlight Archival collections that illustrate a passion for local activism. Our Special Collections and Archives staff are members of the Society of American Archivists, as well as the Society of North Carolina Archivists, and we are excited to participate in Archives month as well.

Beginning stages of the RiverLink Exhibit in UNC Asheville’s Special Collections Reading Room for Archives month.

On that note, UNC Asheville’s Special Collections received a collection from RiverLink in 2017, and in 2018 the collection was processed by both staff members and interns. The collection has an online finding aid and is available for researchers to use. Special Collections will also be receiving additional material from RiverLink, which we will add to the collection soon. And since it is Archives month and this collection is an excellent example of a local activism group, let’s take a closer look at RiverLink and the new exhibit we just installed regarding their collection.

RiverLink Exhibit layout.

RiverLink is an organization in Asheville that for more than three decades has protected the French Broad River and its watershed. The non-profit environmental group was formed in 1987 by the Asheville Chamber of Commerce and thru the vision of Karen Cragnolin, who remained RiverLink’s director for 30 years. RiverLink’s history, based on the ties the Asheville area has had with the French Broad for thousands of years, is a rich story of community activism.

Tools of the trade- the Archival trade.

RiverLink’s primary goal is to provide permanent access to the river for the public and to educate individuals and groups on the importance of the river and its watershed. Since its inception, RiverLink has successfully promoted the environmental and economic vitality of the river through a variety of initiatives, including community-based projects such as the development of Greenways and Blueways, riverbank restorations, and watershed plans.

The big reveal!

Education of the public remains a core component of RiverLink’s program. The various educational programs they lead, including the French Broad RiverCamp and Voices of the River: Art and Poetry Contests, focus on hands-on learning in order to empower the next generation of youth to protect the French Broad. RiverLink also partners with various other groups in order to create a collaborative of educational opportunities, including groups such as the North Carolina Arboretum, Asheville GreenWorks, and in the past, groups such as the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition.

RiverLink’s important connection to the French Broad.

Another of RiverLink’s fundamental values is promoting clean water. In order to advance this project, they have adopted the practice of a “riverkeeper.” RiverKeepers were long employed in the British Isles and in the late 1990s, RiverLink added a fifth RiverKeeper to their program, specifically covering the French Broad River. This position was created in order to safeguard the French Broad and to act as a public advocate for clean water throughout the 5,000 mile watershed.

RiverLink Exhibit centerpiece- who is this environmental activist group? Come find out more!

At UNC Asheville’s Special Collections, one of our core drivers is documenting the diverse culture and history of Asheville and Western North Carolina. Some of our strongest collections which help to tell this story are those with ties directly to the land. In recent years, our mission has expanded in order to encompass those collections which are of interest to our undergraduate researchers, scholars, and general users- including those collections with strong environmental ties to our beloved mountain region. RiverLink’s collection is a vibrant example of the history of environmental activism in this area, and we invite you to come take a closer look at both the exhibit and the collection itself!

RiverLink Exhibit on display directly outside of Special Collections. Come and take a closer look!


RiverLink Papers, D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, University of North Carolina Asheville, 28804.

Exploring Local Archival Evidence of African American Expressions of Resilience in Asheville

The sixth annual African Americans in WNC and Southern Appalachia Conference, which will highlight the African American experience in Southern Appalachia with a lens towards history, culture, community, and enterprise, begins this Thursday, October 17 and runs through Saturday, October 19. This year’s theme is “Existence as Resistance: Expressions of Resilience.”

African Americans in WNC and Southern Appalachia Conference; https://aawnc.unca.edu/

UNCA’s Special Collections is assisting with the conference, and as such, revisiting some of our collections regarding this topic. One such collection is our Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection, a rich and vibrant African American collection which is helping to dispel the myth that Southern Appalachia owes both its society and culture to one homogeneous background.

E.W. Pearson Jr. First African American Disc Jockey, WLOS Radio, 1950; Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina Asheville, 28804.

This collection is a collaboration of donations from individuals such as Mrs. Lucy Saunders Herring, Mr. Johnny Baxter, and Mrs. Jean McKissick McNeil, and the former Southern Highlands Research Center, now UNC Asheville’s Special Collections and Archives, along with the YMI Cultural Center. The Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection focuses on material that illustrates how African Americans helped to build an environment that was integral to both the culture and economy of Western North Carolina, and whose lasting effects can still be seen today.

“Candy Land,” Business on Eagle Street, 1929-1930; Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina Asheville, 28804.

This Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection encompasses material from churches, schools, businesses and workers, portraits of people, civic, social, and political organizations, military service photos and records, and several other print and web resources. Over 200 photos in the collection have been digitized and are available for viewing through DigitalNC.

NAACP National Conference; From the Eugene Smith Scrapbook, Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina Asheville, 28804.

The University of North Carolina Asheville’s Special Collections and University Archives is excited to share in this resource, along with several others highlighting this scholarship, and we are looking forward to a conference which will help better illustrate the intrepid history and ventures of the African American experience in Southern Appalachia and Western North Carolina. We hope to see you there!