GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — A historic church in the Smokies played a central role in the 19th century as freed people of color were able to establish places of worship for their communities. One of the largest rural Black populations west of the Balsam mountains around that time was in the Cowee West’s Mill community in Macon County, North Carolina.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park shared in celebration of the Juneteenth National Independence Day federal holiday that the historic Pleasant Hill AME Church in the Cowee West Mill community was one such place; where a community of free people founded it in 1870, five years after the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Juneteenth began June 19, 1865, in Texas after enslaved people in Galveston found out about the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years after President Lincoln delivered it amid the Civil War. Juneteenth, which has been celebrated in Texas for decades, has gained more interest within the last few years and recently became a federal holiday.

Last year, President Joe Biden signed a bill that was passed by Congress making Juneteenth a federal holiday – now known as Juneteenth National Independence Day.

In the Smokies, Juneteenth wasn’t celebrated on record, but freedom was. Many gathered in places of worship to celebrate occasions and more. The Pleasant Hill AME Church was listed on the National Register of HIstoric Places in 2001 and was remodeled by the Cowee Community Development Organization with much help from African American community members, according to GSMNP.

Smokies Park officials shared how the church was preserved “in order to recognize the important legacy left by free persons of color and ex-slaves who once lived and worked in Cowee,” according to artist and historian Ann Miller Woodford in her book “When All God’s Children Get Together: A Celebration of the Lives and Music of African American People in Far Western North Carolina.”