In 2018, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) started The African American Experiences in the Smokies (AAES) project. This project focuses on the experiences and stories of African Americans in the Smokies and surrounding areas to bring visibility to a historically overlooked population.
While the story of the Mingus Mill and the white settler Mingus family is well known in the Smokies, many people do not know the stories of the Black Minguses. Because Mingus is such a well-known name in the park, it is important that we acknowledge and be aware of those who have been previously left out of the story telling of the Mingus legacy. In doing so, a brighter light is shed on the social and racial climate in the late 19th century Smokies, as well as what life was like for African Americans in this area at the time.
The AAES project would also like to thank park volunteer Tom Powers for the research that he has conducted which connects the 20th century jazz musician and composer Charles Mingus’ ancestry to the Smokies. In doing so, he provides details of the life of his father Charles Mingus Sr., and his grandfather Daniel Mingus. This research has been invaluable in helping the AAES project take steps to conduct our own research and share this history with both the staff and public.1 The first mill was built around 1800 by the Mingus family.
Charles Mingus Sr.Dr. John Mingus, who replaced the Mingus Mill in 1886, was the great-grandfather of Charles Mingus who was born February 4, 1877 in Swain County.1 Charles’ mother was Clarinda Mingus (b.1862 -d.1926) and his father was a Black man named Daniel Mingus, he worked as a farm hand for Dr. Mingus. Clarinda was 19 years old when Charles was conceived; there is no certainty as to how old Daniel was at the time.
While there is no known documentation of where Charles was and what he was doing for the next couple of years, records of his life do re-emerge beginning in 1892 when Charles enlisted in the army in Knoxville, TN, according to Powers. His recorded or stated age at the time was 18, however he was actually about 16 years old. In 1897 he enlisted in the U.S. army at 20 years old. According to Gene Santora, author of Myself When I am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus, he likely served during the Spanish American War in the Tenth Calvary, a Buffalo Soldier regiment, in the Philippines.
Sergeant Charles Mingus, a Buffalo SoldierFor about the next 20 years of his life, Charles Mingus Sr. served in the 24th Infantry Regiment, a segregated Black regiment. The 24th Infantry Regiment was established in 1869 and was made up of African American men. Known as Buffalo Soldiers, they served primarily in the American West and were assigned with tasks that supported the United States’ efforts in westward expansion. This included fighting indigenous groups so that the government could take their land. It is believed that Native Americans called these men Buffalo Soldiers because of their fighting strength; it is also said that Native Americans gave them this name because of the texture of their hair which they compared to the fur of a Buffalo.
Buffalo Soldiers served as some of the United States’ first park rangers. Because the government wished to preserve the country’s natural spaces during westward expansion, Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872.2 At the time there was no government entity protecting National Parks as they were being established which is why the U.S. army was called to protect the parks. About 500 Buffalo Soldiers served as park rangers beginning in 1899. The soldiers served at National Parks such as Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant. Buffalo Soldiers performed tasks such as firefighting, trail blazing, and road building at these parks.
Mingus’ army career took him to various places such as Montana, New York, and various places throughout the Southwest. Some of his time was spent serving at the U.S. and Mexico border. According to Santoro, during his time in the service, he married a woman named Mary Taylor whom he met during his time in New Mexico. The couple had two daughters. Charles divorced Taylor around the year 1917 and their children remained in her care.
Life After the Army
Mingus Married his second wife, Harriet Sophia, nee Phillips on April 14, 1917. They had three children together, Vivian, Grace, and Charles. Harriet passed away on September 7th, 1922, of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. This was just five months after giving birth to their son and shortly after the couple moved to Los Angeles, CA. After serving over 20 years in the army, Mingus Sr. retired as a Staff Sergeant shortly after Harriet’s death.
Harriet was born in Texas in October of 1889. Her father was an immigrant named John Phillips from St. Helena, an island off the coast of West Africa that is a part of the British Overseas Territory. John’s Father was from China and his mother was also from St. Helena. He made his living as a stone mason. Harriet’s mother, Mariah Phillips, was a Black woman from Texas; her father was from Missouri and her mother was from Virginia. John and Mariah had 13 children. The entire family, a family of 11 at the time, is listed as Black in the 1900 census record for Kinney County, TX. However, John Phillips reflects much of his Chinese ancestry in an alleged photo of him found on FamilySearch.
Charles Mingus Sr. went on to marry his third wife Mamie Newton Carson on July 1, 1923 after Harriet passed away. Mamie is believed to have been a half Black and half Native American woman from South Carolina. She had one child named Odell prior to her marriage to Charles. The family moved to a home in Watts, Los Angeles, CA shortly after the couple’s marriage. According to the 1930 census, Charles worked as a janitor at the United States Post Office after retiring from the army. Charles passed away on February 14, 1951 at age 74 in Los Angeles. His occupation on his death certificate is listed as a carpenter and Daniel Mingus is listed as his father. He is buried at the Los Angeles National Cemetery.
Charles Mingus Sr.’s father was a Black man named Daniel Mingus who worked on Dr. John Mingus’ farm. He shares the last name Mingus with the white settler family because he was formerly enslaved by the Mingus family.3 According to Powers’ research, Daniel Mingus is referred to as “Dan Mingus” in a 1934 article which states that he helped build his former enslavers’ new home in 1877. This is the year that Charles Mingus was born and he grew up in the home that Daniel helped construct.
Charles Mingus Jr
Charles Mingus Sr.’s son, Charles Mingus Jr., was a great jazz composer, double bassist, pianist, and band leader popularly known simply as Charles Mingus. To avoid confusion, he will be referred to as Charles Mingus Jr. in this resource brief. Charles Jr. was born on a military base on April 22, 1922 in Nogales, AZ. He grew up in Watts, Los Angeles, CA where he developed his love for music.
“About the Cowee Community.” Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center, Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center, www.coweeschool.org/cowee-community. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.
“Buffalo Soldiers.” Nps.gov, The National Park Service, 4 Jan. 2023, www.nps.gov/subjects/buffalosoldiers/index.htm. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.
Clark, Alexis. “Why Buffalo Soldiers Served among the Nation’s First Park Rangers.” HISTORY, HISTORY, www.history.com/news/buffalo-soldiers-national-parks-rangers. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.
Johnson, Weldon B. “Nogales Celebrates Jazz Great Charles Mingus, Hometown Son.” The Arizona Republic, The Republic, 18 Apr. 2018, www.azcentral.com/story/travel/arizona/road-trips/2018/04/18/charles-mingus-jazz-festival-nogales-az/500545002/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.
Powers, Tom. “MINGUS MILL SLICES of HISTORY from the GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS.” MINGUS MILL, Word Press, 4 May 2020, mingusmill.wordpress.com/2020/05/04/the-charlie-mingus-connection/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.
Santoro, Gene. Myself When I Am Real : The Life and Music of Charles Mingus. 2023. New York ; Oxford, Oxford University Press, 29 Nov. 2001, www.amazon.com/Myself-When-Am-Real-Charles/dp/0195147111/ref=asc_df_0195147111/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=385655114864&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=804394474200583260&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9009974&hvtargid=pla-830740622319&psc=1&tag=&ref=&adgrpid=78303888906&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvadid=385655114864&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=804394474200583260&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9009974&hvtargid=pla-830740622319#detailBullets_feature_div. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.
Shubert, Frank. “Buffalo Soldiers: Myths and Realities.” Jstor.org, JSTOR, 2001, www.jstor.org/stable/26305152. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.
Last updated: March 15, 2023