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.”
On the 21st of December 1800, Susan Johnson left New Bern, N.C. Her husband, Samuel William Johnson, had re-joined her, and they traveled together. Three days later, on Christmas Eve, they arrived in Fayetteville. Though the state’s largest inland town, Fayetteville was still not home to more than 2,000 people, including both free citizens and the enslaved.
This is part 6 of my series on the diary that Susan Edwards Johnson wrote on the North Carolina coast in 1800 and 1801. At this point in her story, she's spending time at her cousin Frances Pollock Devereux's home in New Bern while her husband is overseeing the construction of gristmills and lumber mills on Peter Mallet's lands on the Black River.
After her husband returned to the Black River on Nov. 27, 1800, Susan Johnson remained in the town of New Bern, N.C., for nearly a month without him. She was the guest of her first cousin, the wealthy heiress Frances Pollock Devereux, and her husband, John Devereux. Susan’s diary describes many of the ways that she spent her time in New Bern during that month. Above all, Susan read. She read constantly. She read on her own, aloud to others and practically at all hours.
This is the 4th part of my look at the diary of Susan Edwards Johnson, a Connecticut woman that visited the North Carolina coast in 1800-1801. I found the diary at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, Conn. Susan Johnson remained in the town of New Bern, N.C., from the 24thof November until the 21stof December, … Continue reading “Immigrants– We get the job done!” — Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 4
At the Connecticut Historical Society, I continued to read Susan Johnson’s diary from her visit to the North Carolina coast in 1800 and 1801. Today, in part 3, I'm looking at her visit with Aaron Burr's aunt Eunice in New Bern.
After leaving her home in Stratford, Conn., Susan Johnson arrived in Suffolk, Va., on the 22ndof November, 1800. The next morning, she re-boarded the stagecoach and headed south into North Carolina for the first time.
Last spring I visited the Connecticut Historical Society when I passed through Hartford, Conn. I was headed to my niece’s home in New Haven, but I couldn’t resist stopping for a few hours: the Society’s holdings include an extraordinary collection of early American historical manuscripts and I wanted to see if any of them might shed new light on coastal North Carolina.... I was only there for a day, but I found a real treasure that I would love to share here— a remarkable diary that was kept by a Connecticut woman when she stayed in coastal North Carolina in the very first decades after the American Revolution.
Tonight I am a long way from home. My wife and I came to Japan so that I could give lectures at Senshu University in Tokyo, but now that I am done there we are exploring the country for a few days. Guided by a Japanese friend, we have visited ancient Buddhist temples, hiked to a mountaintop Shinto shrine and explored back alley shops where a single family has made a certain kind of cookie or indigo dye or sake for centuries. Today we are in Hiroshima, where we visited memorials to the victims of the atomic bomb that fell on the city on August 6, 1945.
I found Annie Hooper’s masterpiece in a warehouse in a small town in eastern North Carolina: thousands of hauntingly beautiful Biblical figures made out of driftwood, seashells, putty and plaster. All of them are part of large, elaborate scenes depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments. I had been hoping to see them for decades, and when I finally found them, they were together for probably the last time.
This weekend my family and I are in Tryon, N.C. and we are listening to Nina Simone. This is a small town on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and her music just seems to be in the air in this place where she was born and first learned to make music and discovered who she was.
Thirty years ago, Lu Ann Jones and Amy Glass wrote one of my favorite books on the history of the Outer Banks: “Everyone Helped His Neighbor": Memories of Nags Head Woods. Long out of print, the book is now available again, thanks to its original publisher, The Nature Conservancy, and to its new distributor, the University of North Carolina Press.
The whole world is underwater. The places where I grew up, the places where I lived as a young man, the places I have been writing about all my life. The places where people I love live. The places that fill my dreams. Richlands and Trenton, Newport and New Bern, Wilmington and Lumberton, Engelhard, Belhaven, Washington. I am thinking about you all. I am keeping you in my prayers. I am holding you all in my heart.
Last Sunday, on September 2nd, my wife and I attended a wonderful celebration of the Hyde County school boycott’s 50th anniversary. We gathered in the old Davis School’s gymnasium in Engelhard, a fishing village on Far Creek and it was an unforgettable day: full of storytelling and memories, good food and much fellowship.
Before I went to Hyde County and wrote Along Freedom Road, I think I thought the civil rights movement happened some place besides eastern North Carolina.
This is the 5th part of a series celebrating the 50thanniversary of the Hyde County school boycott, a remarkable chapter in the history of America’s civil rights movement and the subject of my first book, Along Freedom Road. Today, I re-visit a shoot-out with the Ku Klux Klan that demonstrated how profoundly Hyde County had changed during the school boycott.
As I look forward to the celebration of the Hyde County school boycott's 50th anniversary this weekend, I am remembering how much Golden Frinks and the county's black activists taught me about the history of the civil rights movement in America.