The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Wednesday, 05 April 2023 12:06

The Mingus music mill: Tracing a mountain family’s history from slavery to stardom

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Charles Mingus Jr. 1976, cropped Charles Mingus, the descendant of slaves from the Smokies, is shown chomping a cigar and playing bass at the U.S. Bicentennial celebration in Lower Manhattan, July 4, 1976. Creative Commons Mark Tom Marcello 

Smokies African American studies trace a great musician with roots in Oconaluftee 

GATLINBURG ­— Black history, let alone jazz history, isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when most people think about the Smokies.

But famed jazz musician Charles Mingus Jr.’s family has roots in what is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

At the recent virtual Discover Life in America Colloquium, previously reported on by Hellbender Press, Appalachian Highlands Science Education Coordinator Antoine Fletcher was the sole presenter on social sciences. He went into the Mingus family history and Black history in the Southern Appalachian region.

Fletcher said the Mingus story derives from the African American Experiences in the Smokies Project, which he described as “a project that is focusing on the untold stories of African Americans in the park and the Southern Appalachian region.”

“There’s a huge story to tell,” he said of his research. “There are stories of the human vestiges that we have from 900-plus years.”

He called looking at the history, including Jim Crow Laws and segregation, “a daunting project.” Still, he expressed pride at what researchers have learned.

“To be able to connect the dots. To be able to put faces to names in census record,” he said about the most satisfying part of the research.

Before delving into the Mingus family, Fletcher spoke at the seminar about overall Black history in the Appalachian Mountains. He said it was unclear when the first West Africans arrived in Appalachia, but he said Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto’s expedition was a likely possibility. Later in the 1600s, captured Africans traveled from Guinea to the Carolina colony. 

The information from the talk on the Mingus family is also available in some detail on the official park website.

The name may be familiar to people who have visited Mingus Mill in Oconaluftee Bottoms. Dr. John Mingus replaced that mill in 1886. He was Charles Mingus Jr.’s great-great-grandfather. 

Charles Mingus Jr. later composed jazz music, led bands and played double bass and piano. Born on a military base in Nogales, Arizona, he spent his childhood in Los Angeles. His career led him to work with Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Kid Ory, Lionel Hampton and Lois Armstrong. He toured in Europe, South America, Canada and Japan and also worked with Jimi Hendrix.

Daniel Mingus, a Black man, worked as a farmhand for John in the post-Civil War era. Before that he was a slave to the Mingus family. Daniel followed the custom of ex-enslaved people taking a former enslaver family’s last name. He helped build a house for the Mingus family, in which his son later lived.

Daniel had a child with a member of his boss’s family, Clarinda Mingus. She gave birth to their son, Charles Mingus Sr. on Feb. 4, 1877 in Swain County, North Carolina. Charles was the result of an extramarital affair, as Daniel was married to a different white woman, Sarah, at the time.

While mixed-race couples may seem unusual considering the infamous later Jim Crow era’s anti-miscegenation laws, Fletcher said at that time and place interracial marriage “seemed pretty common.” He added that early settlers in Southern Appalachians married African Americans frequently.

Fletcher said the 1880 census record listed Charles Mingus Sr., age 3, as white and a member of John Mingus’s household. He said the child’s grandfather, Abraham Mingus, was the census taker.

“He chose to identify his grandson as white,” Fletcher said. He said this decision may have had to do with Charles Mingus Sr.’s role in the community.

“Based on accounts from his family members, Charles did not speak about the place where he grew up often and when he did there were often inconsistencies in his storytelling. One detail that remained constant, however, is that he was not comfortable at his family’s home due to racial issues,” the park website states.

Charles Mingus Sr. enlisted in the US Army in 1892 and reenlisted in 1897 and 1907. He may have served with the 10th Cavalry in the Philippines, but in later years served in the West in the 24th Infantry Regiment, an African American regiment. Regiments like his fought against various indigenous groups as well as serving as early park rangers. These regiments had the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers,” which indigenous people gave them, according to legend. Mingus served in New York, Montana and the US-Mexico Border. 

He married his second wife, Harriet Sophia Phillips, in 1907 and had three children with her, including the younger Charles Mingus. Mother Harriet’s family was from Africa and St. Helena, a then-British-colonized island off the coast of West Africa.

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Last modified on Sunday, 21 May 2023 18:25