September 2017

Victoria Casey McDonald

Victoria Casey McDonald

Victoria Casey McDonald was passionate about bringing people together.

A talented listener who was gifted at spanning ethnic differences, she invested a lifetime in helping North Carolinians of multiple racial and cultural backgrounds better understand and appreciate the rich history and culture of Western North Carolina.

McDonald’s larger-than-life persona helped her forge relationships across racial, social, and economic lines as she conducted groundbreaking research that resulted in three books and remains foundational to the body of knowledge about African Americans in the region.

Born in 1943 in Cullowhee, NC, McDonald’s mountain roots ran deep. She was the descendant of slaves held by William Holland Thomas, a white Haywood County merchant who was a prominent activist for the rights of Cherokee Indians and who later served as Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and personally purchased 50,000 acres that would form the nucleus of the Qualla Boundary, home of the Eastern Band.

McDonald was a strong believer in education. She graduated from what is today Western Carolina University, only the second African American to do so, with a bachelor’s degree in history, later earning a Master’s in education.

She spent much of her 30-year teaching career at Smokey Mountain Elementary School, located near the Qualla Boundary. There, she incorporated both Native-American and African-American history into her classroom, enriching the educational experience for generations of students long before multicultural curricula were commonplace. As her daughter, Faustine Wilson, recalls, “she had the biggest heart you would ever meet,” a trait which endeared her to her students and their families.

Her retirement in 2008 was short-lived. Determined to remain in touch with a new generation of students, she returned to the classroom as a substitute teacher, work she enjoyed for the remainder of her life.

McDonald also had a deep religious faith. Initially reluctant to become a minister, she began to embrace this calling in the 1990s. Around 2004, she was ordained at God’s Holy Tabernacle in Sylva where she served as a minister for nearly a decade. Her unique preaching style combined sermon content with music, resulting in messages that inspired her congregation. Away from the classroom and pulpit, McDonald was active in a number of community-based organizations, including the Jackson County Chapter of the NAACP and Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, a group focused on the preservation of Appalachian culture. She often used her extensive knowledge of local history to add important cultural context to conversations on community or social issues

McDonald passed away in 2014, leaving behind a legacy as a historian who touched countless lives.

“Mom thought of herself as just an ordinary person, but she was truly a humanitarian,” Wilson said. “She wanted everyone to succeed, and she wanted the best for everyone.”

Author: Joshua Wilkey