Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Although plans have been sidelined because of COVID-19, more historically significant women will eventually be added to the Women’s History Trail (WHT) to convey important contributions to Franklin and Macon County. One of those women is Nan Ray.
“There will be a plaque honoring Nan Ray at Ray’s Chapel,” said Mary Polanski, who is on the Women’s History Trail leadership team. Nan, a former slave, moved to Franklin after the Civil War to attend a school for black children. She married her husband, Matt, in 1879 and together they were influential in the AME Zion church, currently an abandoned structure on Green Street in Franklin.
AME Zion was just one of several black churches that cropped up in Macon County and became the center of social life, around which many activities revolved in the later 1800s to early 1900s, according to “The Heritage of Macon County North Carolina.” The church was known as Ray’s Chapel AME Zion because Matt, a former slave, was able to give land on which the church building would be built. The Rays’ children were well known in the community.
The most nationally recognized descendant of Nan and Matt Ray is their grandson, Eddie, now in his 90s and living in Gastonia, who made his mark in the recording industry. In spring, before the pandemic led to weeks of mandated shelter-in-place, Eddie planned to attend an event honoring his grandmother and her plaque on the Women’s History Trail. Eddie’s illustrious career as vice president of Capitol-Tower Records in Hollywood, Calif., reportedly the first African-American to hold such a position, is detailed in a book, “Against All Odds: The Remarkable Life Story of Eddie Ray, A Pioneer Music Man.” Because of his roots in Macon County, Eddie’s book is available at the Macon County Historical Museum. Eddie worked in the recording industry with such greats Fats Domino, Ricky Nelson, Slim Whitman, and many more, especially during his time with Imperial Records.
In the autobiography, Eddie shares the poignant moment when he left Franklin: “The day finally came when I was to leave home for the first time. I was 16 years old, on my way to Connecticut for the summer. I felt a mixture of both excitement and fear. My father took me to the bus station at the town drug store in Franklin to catch the 6 p.m. bus to Asheville, where I’d then take the nighttime train headed north.”
“The Ray family was planning to be in town for a reunion over Memorial Day, but thanks to COVID, that got squashed,” said Town of Franklin Vice Mayor Barbara McRae, adding that she hopes the Nan Ray plaque – and others – might be unveiled sometime in the near future. She also expressed hope for “traction” regarding the effort to restore the Green Street Ray’s Chapel structure, which in 1949 replaced the original 1865 Harrison Avenue church.
Macon County News reported on March 8, 2018: “Restoration [of Ray’s Chapel] would honor the black residents whose lives were once entwined with the church and show that the town values the contributions and uniqueness of all its citizens,” said McRae.
Another eventual stop on the Women’s History Trail will be to see Ethel Kennedy Mills’ plaque at All Saints Episcopal Church – St. Cyprian Chapel in Franklin and to learn about her importance in the African American community.
“She was an admired educator,” said Polanski. According to “School Segregation in Western North Carolina: A History, 1860s-1970s,” Mills began her career as teacher at age 15 and she taught during her 50-year career at Arden Colored School, Brevard Rosenwald School, and others. Her father was Rev. James Thomas Kennedy, who helped build St. Cyprian, which was a focal point of education for African Americans in Macon County for many years.
In the book, “School Segregation in Western North Carolina: A History, 1860s-1970,” by Betty Jamerson Reed, Ethel Kennedy Mills is featured.
“In Franklin, North Carolina, there existed a strong black presence even though the population was not large in Macon County. Early schools existed in various communities. Following the ‘separate but equal’ ruling, schools were established for black children.” According to the book, Mills gleaned from her father the importance of a well-rounded education, teaching life skills, such as cooking and sewing, as well as academic subjects. Even after retirement, Mills worked in various education capacities, such as Head Start and with libraries.
Although there is no set date to unveil the Nan Ray and Ethel Kennedy Mills plaques for the ongoing Women’s History Trail effort in Franklin, there is information about the two women at the Historical Museum of Macon County. In fact, Women’s History Trail currently features an informational and photo display in the museum’s front window.