Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
Faustine (Tina) McDonald was the only black student at Smoky Mountain Elementary School in the ’90s. Not only was she the only back student, her mother was a prominent educator in Jackson County, which often led to even more eyes and expectations on her. Growing up, McDonald experienced racism, that at the time she didn’t fully understand, but that didn’t make it any less real. Today, as a successful business owner and public speaker, McDonald is using her voice and her platform to be a part of systemic change in Western North Carolina.
“I can remember perfectly a boy in my class telling me he liked me but his parents would kill him if he dated me, a black girl,” McDonald remembered. According to McDonald, little jabs about her skin tone were common in her small elementary school on the outskirts of Jackson County. “Of course I was just in middle school when little boys and little girls are turning that corner into young ladies and men. I knew that was my reality. That doesn’t matter how about my personality and who I am as a person but my skin tone for some people.”
As she grew older, McDonald recalls history lessons being uncomfortable, with teachers and classmates tip-toeing around race issues or lessons.
“Social studies class in high school was always interesting because we would get to slavery everyone looks at me to see the response,” she said. “When covering different eras of which black people were involved being called the ’N’ word always came up. Civil rights movement was just skimmed over with a brief overview.”
In terms of “fitting in,” McDonald said that she always felt like an outsider, like she wasn’t ever fully accepted.
“In middle school I felt that I didn’t belong unless it had anything to do with sports,” she said. “I was always the first to be chosen during anything athletic, but not for social events. Not to say I wasn’t liked because of my skin color, because that wasn’t the case. I had an awesome circle of friends. But beyond that circle, I wasn’t much more than the sports I played.”
McDonald credits much of strength and confidence to her mother, Victoria Casey McDonald. Victoria is a staple in Jackson County history and is well known as being one of the greatest educators to call WNC home.
To know Victoria was to love her. She commanded a respect in her classroom that didn’t ignore race or privilege. She didn’t pretend that everyone was equal. She was upfront and honest that there were advantages and disadvantages in everyone’s life, including because of the color of their skin – but despite the societal stereotypes associated with your skin color, or your social economic status, Victoria made sure that her students understood that it was the content of your character that determined success in life. For decades serving as the only black educator and coach in Jackson County, Victoria instilled a value of self worth in her students that implored an understanding that differences didn’t define you, they elevated you.
“There is no debating with myself on this [who her biggest influence is] because my mother was and is not only my local influence/inspiration black woman in my life but my hero,” said McDonald. “Victoria Casey McDonald is that because she is my mother; it’s despite being my mother this woman influenced thousands of kids in the course of her coaching and educator’s career. While being a single mother with not one but two sickle cell children.”
While her white classmates idolized the biggest pop stars or celebrities because they were who were depicted in the media, McDonald found inspiration in the women within her own community.
“Aunt Minnie Casey was most Godly woman I knew,” she said. ‘And every elder in the African American community in Sylva gave me some influence because they were amazing women.”
Although her mother passed away, McDonald remembers the lessons in racial equality and justice she was taught at a very early age.
“Marching with my mother in Selma, Ala., on the 49th anniversary of Bloody Sunday is one of my greatest memories and moments,” said McDonald. “Even though Bloody Sunday happened 49 years ago at the time, you could feel spirit of those people. As we marched singing old gospel songs across the bridge, I felt every bit of what those African Americans went through that day. Why we marched that day is bigger than one person. It’s about equality for not just African Americans but for all people.”
Now, 55 years after Bloody Sunday – McDonald said the Black Lives Matters Movement is still having to fight for the same equality.
“Black Lives Matter movement is an amazing moment that is meant to be about how black people in American are in danger in several different ways,” she said. “It’s not saying white lives don’t matter or any other lives. It’s bringing awareness to the injustice happening in America every day to the black community and wanting equality for African Americans.”
The challenges McDonald has faced throughout her lifetime extends beyond the stereotypical struggles. According to McDonald, being a successful business owner was twice as hard. Not only is success difficult in a small rural town, but success for a black woman was even more difficult, but still something she was able to accomplish.
“Being a business owner in small town can be difficult but very rewarding in general,” said McDonald. “Success is very rare in our communities for one reason is location, location, location. In the small town of Sylva, you want to be in certain areas and for me it was downtown Sylva. You want to position your business location in Main Street downtown because backstreet doesn’t get the attention and care from the town that front street gets. We had to fight for diagonal parking for years before the town approved, just to give customers more places to park. Being the first and only African-American business in downtown Sylva was an amazing experience and I loved every second of it. From the kids getting out of school and wanting to come straight down to my store to see what was new this week. Tourists saying I wasn’t expecting to find a store with such an awesome brand and cultured store to shop downtown. I built so many amazing relationships with the community and everyone that came to the store. Closing the store for evolution to mobile store for Survivors Journey Clothing was hard because I was this unspoken staple for the black community. Everyone was sad to see me leave downtown Sylva, but happy for the evolution of the brand. Thankful for my awesome business owner neighbors that we always rallied together and lifted each other up.”
Her personal life was also an area of contention as her interracial relationships were not always well received.
“Unfortunately, as much as the world would like to believe marrying outside your race isn’t an issue, it is,” said McDonald. “My ex-husband and I saw different looks from the older generation when out in public. You always saw the a little shock and pause when people realized we were married. Getting married in Sylva brought an unforeseen challenge because of a church but it didn’t stop us. I knew there would be bumps in the road. Either from white people or from black people. I can only speak for myself as a black woman talking to black people. They didn’t care as long as I was treated right. My family welcomed him at the annual Casey family reunion with open arms and let him into the family.”
McDonald also struggled with proper health care at a young age due to being diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, a rare disease that affects African Americans.
“Everything was new for the doctors treating the only pediatric sickle cell anemia patient within five counties when I was growing up,” said McDonald. “My brother Creighton was the only other sickle cell patient seen and he was 14 years older than me. Needless to say my amazing local doctors Dr. Penny O’Neil took the bull by the horns with me. My life expectancy was very unsure. Doctors were praying that I made it to my 11th birthday. Treatment, to say the least, was very difficult with blood transfusions, fluids, pain meds, endless tests and the list goes go. Sickle cell research funding wasn’t there either in the 1990s. My mother had to direct the emergency room doctors on what to do for treatment because I was either the first sickle cell patient they had treated or they just didn’t know exactly how to treat me.”
McDonald said that the challenge in health care is something she still faces today, with little advancements in the science and research surrounding the disease. “Unfortunately, I still run into the same issues today at any hospital, wouldn’t matter where,” she said. “Sickle cell isn’t exactly on the top subject list for doctors unless you are a hematologist. I have been blessed to have the best team of doctors around me now, a world renowned sickle cell doctor, local hematologist plus a primary care physician that understands sickle cell as well.”
McDonald said that her interaction with law enforcement has been uneasy, but not something that would lead to her supporting abolishing police.
“I got pulled over for speeding over Balsam like everyone does… passing that slow vehicle that doesn’t know how to drive on the mountains,” remembered McDonald. “As the state trooper pulled me over, I immediately placed my handgun on the front dash of my car, so that it’s in sight and away from me and so the officer would be able to see that as well. I put both my hands on the steering wheel. He came up to the window and I told him my name that my firearm was on the dash in plain sight for him. He said, ‘yes ma’am I see that.’”
Despite her immediate compliance, McDonald said she remembers the trooper flipping the strip off his gun like he was about to pull it on her. “Then he told for both our safeties he was going to take my handgun and put all the bullets out — like I was a threat. He proceeded to take the magazine out of my gun and push out every single bullet in the magazine out into the floorboard of my vehicle. I was just in shock and disoriented on what exactly just happened. Little me was just seen as a threat to the police after even telling him about the firearm in the vehicle. I didn’t understand at the time. But now, when I think back on it, tensions were high because of an recent fallen trooper in the line of duty. I have gotten to know that officer after the interaction and he is a good person and state trooper in our community.”
Even with such experiences as herself, McDonald said that the call to “Defund the police” isn’t the answer.
“We need law enforcement but think there is reform that needs to happen across the board in law enforcement,” McDonald said. “They are in high stress situations that impact their lives on daily bases One experience can affect their view on a situation. I think officers need more training on interacting with the community they are sworn to be protecting. They need to work together with community leaders to make our communities safer. We need programs in the communities where officers aren’t just exposed to bad, but to the good in the community. Let communities see that law enforcement isn’t in the community to harm them but protect them and uplift them. I have never seen law enforcement as anything but men and women here to protect the community. I have family members that are retired state troopers and law enforcement, both very amazing examples of how an officer of the law should be seen as. I know when I’m driving in my hometown of Sylva that I’m safe and the law enforcement are good people with good hearts.”
McDonald said that she believes that before as a society before we will see meaningful change, we need to be willing and open to having the uncomfortable conversations.
“Before we can make changes in our communities we have to be able to sit and have these hard discussions about racism and systematic racism with black people and white people,” said McDonald. “It’s not about slavery, it’s about the injustice and how America has been built over the years to suppress the black community and the changes that need to be made for equality for all.”