Filling in the Canvas

Henderson County heritage as told by some of its earliest families

First Family
Crystal Cauley, right, with her daughter Tiara Channer. Cauley’s mother, Marilyn Anita Mills, shares her stories of Civil Rights era Henderson County as part of Crystal’s multimedia exhibit the Black History Collective.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

It all started with a sketch. The image had been bouncing around Crystal Cauley’s head for a while: the outline of the county of Hendersonville, upheld and supported by varying shades of black hands. 

“Black people built this county — we should receive recognition for it,” says Cauley, founder and manager of the Black History Collective of Henderson County. She mentions physical and agricultural labor, then the rise of the county’s black business owners, who operated beauty parlors, cafés, and a taxi service. 

“Barriers [prevented] blacks from having jobs other than maids, cooks, and servants … so they created their own economy,” says Cauley. 

She reached out to Hendersonville-raised artist Diamond Cash to create “Legacy,” based on her vision of the upheld hands. A Kente cloth pattern and Blue Ridge backdrop complete the theme. “I love her artwork, and I have a lot of it in my home. So she was my first choice to see if she wanted to do the first painting.” 

Legacy, a painting by Diamond Cash, inspired Crystal Cauley to highlight Henderson County’s black history in year-round exhibits.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

The two debuted “Legacy” at the launch exhibition of the Collective in March 2019, organized with the support of Henderson County matriarch Etta Robinson at Emmanuel’s Corner (now Agape World Outreach Church under Senior Pastor Scott Elliott). With displays of local artwork, traditional African crafts, and additional vendors, it marked the first-ever show in Hendersonville dedicated to Henderson County black artists. 

“In most galleries here, you don’t see black art, and if there is black art, there’s not a good chance that [the artists] are from here,” explains Cauley. “I want to see more people from my county be exposed through their artwork and through their crafts.”

Cauley has since gone on to host a second exhibit, as well as installing cabinet displays at seven locations across the county, including at City Hall and at the Henderson County Public Library (items in the cabinet have included Cash’s “Legacy,” carvings from Ghana, a Bolga fan, cowrie shells, and a mud cloth from Mali). Her efforts earned her a certificate of commendation from Mayor Barbara Volk. 

According to the most recent statistics from the Census Bureau, just 3.4% of Henderson County’s current population is African American. But Cauley’s mother’s family dates back to the 1800s here. “The Mills and Brooks have roots here since the early settlers arrived in the present-day Clear Creek community, as well as in Flat Rock,” she notes. At her shows, she shares the stories of her family, including the story of her mother, Marilyn Anita Mills, who attended the former Ninth Avenue School. Mills was a student in the Edneyville district at the time of desegregation and graduated from former Edneyville High School in 1973. 

“She said it was traumatic. From riding the school bus, getting beat up, and getting picked on, what we’d know as present-day bullying, is what she experienced for many years.” To say her mother was a minority in the school would be an understatement, as Cauley explains, “She was the only one in many grades.”

It’s safe to say that many local residents don’t know much about the black history of their own county, as there is little established to commemorate it. Cauley hopes to change that. 

“I think it can start with a blank canvas, and I think we can start painting the picture. If it wasn’t for the labor of the past, then the prosperity enjoyed by many present-day residents would not have manifested.”

The next exhibition of the Black History Collective of Henderson County is set for Saturday, Feb. 15, 2pm at Morris Kaplan Auditorium at the Henderson County Public Library (301 North Washington St.). “Rise Up! A Celebration of African American History of Henderson County” will feature reflective speeches, expressive dance by Indián Jackson, singing by Yashara Lynch and the Agape World Outreach Church praise and worship team, and art by Diamond Cash. Free admission. For more information, see “Black History Collective of Henderson County, NC” on Facebook. 

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