Wilmington, North Carolina, ca. 1858. A 12-year-old boy named William runs toward a camp of men, women and children that had fled slavery. "I had heard it told so often at my father's fireside that I knew almost directly where they were."
Francis Asbury, the first Methodist bishop in America, feels old and worn down tonight. He is sore from having ridden a gimpy nag all day through swamps and forests. His arthritic joints ache. His legs have swollen from tick and chigger bites. A chronic diarrhea has weakened him. "I die daily," he mutters to himself.
I’ve been reading an old memoir about Pitt County that I hadn’t thought about in years until yesterday. A UNC-TV reporter was interviewing me, and he asked me if I could think of any white Southerners in eastern North Carolina that had stood up against slavery and racial oppression during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era.
Today my Black History Month tour of eastern North Carolina’s civil rights history concludes with a look at Pamlico County and a historic civil rights lawsuit that was filed in 1951. Few people today remember this part of our history, but African American citizens in the little coastal village of Oriental filed one of the first lawsuits in the U.S. calling for black and white children to go to school together.
Tonight’s Black History Month post is about another forgotten moment in eastern North Carolina's civil rights history: a historic voting rights movement in Halifax County, N.C., in 1964. It was called the Halifax County Voters Movement. I stumbled on it when I was going through some of my old notes from The Carolina Times, the African American newspaper that has been published in Durham, N.C., since 1921.
Today my Black History Month tour of eastern North Carolina's civil rights history continues with a look at Washington, N.C. in the 1960s and '70s and the words of Joan Little, a young African American woman at the center of one of the most controversial human rights trials in 20th-century America.
Today I’m looking at several historical photographs of fishermen, fishing boats and fishing gear on the Roanoke River. The photographs mostly date to the period from 1870 to 1910, though one that I'm especially fond of was taken in the late 1930s. That was an exciting period in the history of the river's fisheries. If you had launched a boat in Weldon, at the falls of the river, and drifted down those swift waters all the way to the river's mouth on the Albemarle Sound, you would have seen many fishermen and many different kinds of fishing gear, including weirs, bow nets, stake nets, drift nets, wheels, seines and slides.
When it comes to the history of the civil rights movement in eastern North Carolina, my deepest sympathies and respect have always been with the local men and women that stayed in their hometowns, come hell or high water, and worked to make this a better world. One of those people is the topic of my “Black History Month” feature today. His name was William Claudius Chance, Sr., and he was born in Parmele, in rural Martin County, N.C., on the 23rd of November 1880.
The stern paddle wheel steamer Tarboro on the Tar River, probably during her maiden voyage in 1898. She is coming into the town of Tarboro, in Edgecombe County, N.C., and a crowd waits at the town’s public dock to celebrate her launching. After calling at Tarboro, she will proceed on to Old Sparta, Greenville and, finally, Washington, N.C., a seaport 45 miles downriver. She is heavy with freight, almost certainly cotton or cottonseed.
In 1895 a young mother sang this lullaby to her children while she nursed them at a church in Kinnakeet, a village on the Outer Banks. The rest of the congregation was singing “Come Thou Fount of Many Blessings,” but she must have stepped into the back of the church to soothe her two little ones. It’s not the kind of moment that usually makes it into history books.
One other historic use of oyster shells was especially important to farm women on the North Carolina coast and beyond in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Building roads, fertilizing fields and making cement, mortar, plaster and whitewash out of oyster shells were all big parts of coastal life. But so was using crushed oyster shells in poultry yards.
Earlier this week, I wrote about the historic use of oyster shells for constructing roads on the North Carolina coast. But coastal people didn’t only use oyster shells for road building. Particularly before the Civil War, they also used oyster shells as an important source of lime. Burnt down in kilns, an incredible tonnage of oyster shells was used in making cement, mortar, bricks, wall plaster and whitewash.
Last night I saw a scene on PBS’s drama Victoria in which the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind sang for Queen Victoria. That was an actual event: it happened on April 26, 1846. But of course I thought immediately of the little community called “Jenny Lind” that is located 10 miles west of Kinston, in Lenoir County, N.C. According to legend, Jenny Lind sang there, too.
Children, a bicyclist and a toll keeper visiting at a toll station on the Shell Road between Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, N.C., circa 1900. Oyster shells had been used for building and improving roads and cart paths since earliest colonial times, but the oyster boom that began on the North Carolina coast in the 1880s drastically increased the tonnage of shells available for road construction.
A friend sent me a new book called A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland. The author is a black poet, scholar and Air Force veteran named DaMaris B. Hill and her book—her soul stirring and deeply moving book— is part poetry, part history and part memoir.
Here on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I thought I’d share a historical document from one of the most famous civil rights events in American history, the campaign to end racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama-- and also talk a little about Dr. King's visits to North Carolina.
I recently visited with Gerret Warner and Mimi Gredy at a coffee shop in Durham, N.C. I had sought out the couple because I had learned that they were making a documentary film about two legendary collectors of American folk music who visited singers and musicians on the North Carolina coast beginning in the 1930s-- Gerret’s father and mother, Frank and Anne Warner.
All week I have been thinking about our trip to Greene County. Me, him and Tim. A summer day. The Reverend’s VW convertible. The top down. The small towns and old tobacco fields of eastern North Carolina. The wind and the sun on our faces. The joy of it all.
“I remember when the biggest joy of Christmas for me was getting to ride the mail boat over to Beaufort and just look at the five and dime and the drugstore. We'd go down on the shore, bundled up, head and ears, and the mail boat came from down at the center of the island. We'd get in the broom grass and watch for it, and they'd come pick us up.”
I am remembering a research trip to the Providence Public Library in Providence, Rhode Island. Built in the style of the Venetian Renaissance, the library is an exquisitely beautiful old building. But when I ascended the Italian marble staircase and opened the door into the special collections room, I thought I had discovered Hogwarts Castle’s Room of Hidden Things from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
The climax of Susan Johnson’s diary was her journey to a remote outpost on the Black River, in the southeastern corner of the North Carolina coast. After spending 4 weeks at Peter and Sarah Mallett’s rice plantation, she left Wilmington in a stagecoach on February 9, 1801. Her husband, Samuel, had gone 10 days earlier. He was waiting for her at the Black River.
On January 24, 1801, Susan Johnson's diary describes a visit to a Methodist church in Wilmington, N.C., that was a strange new experience for her: enslaved Africans and African Americans made up the large majority of the congregation. In addition, she may have been sitting near a young boy who would grow up and become one of the most important voices for freedom and justice in American history.
My daughter Vera Cecelski just told me that Historic Stagville in Durham County still has a few tickets left for its Jonkunnu Lantern Tour! The Tour will include a Jonkunnu procession featuring incredible local drummers, some amazing dancers and lots of schoolchildren and it’s this Saturday, December 8th, at 5:15 PM! You can get tickets by calling (919) 620-0120.
This is the 9th part of my series on Susan Edwards Johnson's diary of her travels on the North Carolina coast in 1800 and 1801. I found the diary last spring at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, Conn.
Susan Johnson arrived at “Mr. Mallett’s rice plantation opposite Wilmington” on the 9th of January 1801. Here her diary’s entries began to give me a dark, foreboding feeling like that in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as Susan entered a part of the North Carolina coast where most of the people were enslaved and her route followed what was called “Negro Head Road.”