The growth of the Episcopal Church in Western North Carolina rests in large part on the labor of enslaved people from most of the churches founding families. So many of these unnamed men and women are lost to history but their contributions are honored. Likewise, in the aftermath of the Civil War and Emancipation, white church leaders, guided by complicated motivations of pastoral care and the growing sentiment of “separate but equal”, helped establish and build several churches for black Episcopalians. St. Matthias in Asheville, the first black congregation in the diocese, was founded in 1867 through the efforts of Rev. Buxton and several prominent lay members of Trinity Episcopal Church, Asheville. Years later, standing at the front door of St. Matthias, Bishop Horner gazed westward on Mt. Pisgah and commissioned the Diocesan seal.
Bishop Atkinson led the church through the various challenges following the Civil War. Notably, Atkinson was a leader in placing the Church at the forefront of The Episcopal Church’s Freedman's Commission, which had been established following the Civil War. In addition to founding St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina, he also led the attempt to build a high school and college for freed male slaves in Morganton. The funding began in the early 1870's and construction a few years after that. It was called the Wilberforce School, so named for William Wilberforce, who led the end of slavery in England. Unfortunately, while one building was under construction, the work was halted "due to lack of funding", surely an indication of both the resistance of white Episcopalians and the bleak economic realities of Reconstruction in the south.
Alongside the missionary contributions of the Rev. McDuffey, another clergyman who contributed significantly to our diocesan life is the Rev. J. T. Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy was originally hired as a layman and called by Bishop Lyman to teach and manage a school for black children in Franklin. This particular school operated a carpentry workshop where the students and Deacon Kennedy constructed church furniture for several churches in the diocese. In 1890, Bishop Lyman ordained Mr. Kennedy a deacon and he faithfully served both St. Cyprian’s in Franklin and St. Matthias in Asheville. Rev. Kennedy was ordained a priest in 1915, and in 1920 was appointed Archdeacon For Colored Work to assist Bishop Horner with oversight of diocesan ministry among black Episcopalians.
The Diocese of Western North Carolina played a significant role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. As integration spread across the South mandated by changes in Federal laws, the southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church began to deal with the effects of racism in their own parishes and institutions. Sadly, many diocesan summer youth camps closed for a time rather than address the controversy. Western North Carolina Bishop Matthew George Henry insisted that our diocesan summer camp at the In-the-Oaks Conference Center in Black Mountain would remain open and would welcome all children, regardless of race. Bishop Henry had previously surprised the people of the diocese when, upon his consecration as bishop in the early 1950’s, he moved the diocesan office to a log cabin in his back yard. Black members could not enter through the front door of the Asheville office building proposed for the new diocesan office, so Bishop Henry built the log cabin for his offices so that everyone would enter through the same door.
The diocese remains committed to the radical inclusion of persons systemically disenfranchised due to race largely through the ongoing efforts of the diocesan Commission to Dismantle Racism. Although we recognize there will always be work to do, in 2011, we held a service of Repentance, Healing and Reconcilliation, a powerful capstone event following almost two years of study and reflection on the legacy of slavery in our diocese.
Today, the Diocese continues to be blessed with the vibrant ministry and leadership of 5 historically black congregations - located across our region in towns from Morganton to Franklin -- two of which intentionally merged with neighboring white Episcopal churches, in 2015 and 2014 respectively.