We here at Universities Studying Slavery can attest: over the last decade, many prominent universities in the United States have begun to research and uncover their founders’ connections to slavery, but so have a host of smaller schools, including liberal arts colleges. This is not work confined to large research universities, nor just to schools in the South. At heart, the work at so many USS schools reminds us how slavery and racism remain powerful threads in American history—we cannot fully comprehend U.S. history nor appreciate each school’s past without coming to terms with those realities. Today, we are thrilled to announce that Mars Hill University in North Carolina has joined our growing movement and has begun sharing their student- and community-centered research and educational project untangling history from myth and memory in one southern community.
Like so many other American institutions of higher education, Mars Hill University was founded by both slave-owning and non-slave-owning families. Yet, the college has long maintained a very unusual relationship with local memory, antebellum and post-bellum histories, and, especially, the story of an enslaved man named Joe Anderson.
Originally called the French Broad Baptist Institute in 1856, when about a dozen local families established a college in the town of Mars Hill, North Carolina (near Asheville), the college that become Mars Hill University was literally founded with the compelled aid of a local African American man, who was known to be one of the best bricklayers in the area.
When the founders ran out of money to pay for their first building, investors Clayton and Shackleford took Mars Hill founder Jesse Anderson’s most skilled slave as payment for their investment. They handcuffed Joe Anderson and, without letting him return home to tell his wife and three children goodbye, carted him off to the Asheville city jail where he was to be sold at a slave auction.
Within days the founding families gathered up the necessary funds to re-purchase Joe Anderson and to return him to the town of Mars Hill, if not to freedom. Remarkably, Mars Hill University faculty and students celebrated Joe Anderson and this unusual founding narrative over the following century-and-a-half. Mars Hill became known for this historical narrative, relayed through half-truths, to such an extent that visitors to the school in the 1930s and 40s became familiar with Joe Anderson and his role in the college’s founding. In the early twenty-first-century, Mars Hill began to recognize Joe Anderson as a MHU founder, due in large part to the work of Oralene Simmons, who is both a direct descendant of Anderson and the first Black student to attend MHU.
Mars Hill University’s college archive holds dozens of examples of faculty and student narrations of Joe Anderson and a seemingly benevolent founding of MHU. In 2018, MHU faculty and staff began to research and analyze these sources, first to attempt to ascertain how much of this story can be empirically proven and, second, to revise and expand the college’s own foundational storytelling. In 2020, a MHU history professor and student collaborated to give a public presentation of their research, and President Tony Floyd assigned two MHU student Snelson Interns to study and assess MHU’s historical connections to slavery.
Because the Joe Anderson story also sheds light on local Black life, as well as the popular misconceptions about slavery’s relative scarcity in Appalachia, the Mars Hill University team hopes to continue this work in the coming years, and to publicize it though public presentations, community forums, and scholarly conferences. Mars Hill University is also committed to studying the wider effects of slavery on the local and regional communities and to link the college’s history to the local Jim-Crow-era Rosenwald School (officially named now the Mars Hill Anderson Rosenwald School, after Joe Anderson) and other facets of African American history in western North Carolina.
The stories that they know of Joe Anderson and Black life in and around Mars Hill during the Jim Crow era also calls them to explore the stories they do not know. The Mars Hill University team seeks a wider history of enslaved African Americans and their descendants’ lives, especially, in the Mt. Olive community, where the Rosenwald School still stands. As school faculty and students’ research local slave deeds, study archival records on and around campus, and produce new oral histories, Mars Hill University stands dedicated to exploring its interracial mountain past in the hopes of generating more goodwill and racial reconciliation throughout its wider campus communities.
As the fall 2021 semester speeds to an end and we prepare for 2022, please take a moment to congratulate the team at Mars Hill University for their fine work with students in revealing a fascinating story of slavery, race, and community in Appalachia.