After the Fire: An African American Community Explores its History

A decade ago, I interviewed an African American woman named Miss Dorcas Carter in New Bern, North Carolina. Born in 1913, Miss Carter grew up to teach in the city’s African American schools for more than 40 years. Renowned for her exceptionally high standards for intellectual achievement and personal character, she was 88 years old when I visited her to learn more about the great New Bern fire of 1922. That fire reduced some of the most prosperous black neighborhoods in the American South to ashes and left nearly 3,000 people homeless, including Miss Carter and her family. By the time that I visited her, she was one of the last living witnesses to the fire.

This essay is adapted from Dr. Cecelski’s keynote lecture at a banquet in New Bern on June 20, 2009 celebrating “African American Voices between Two Rivers,” a community oral history project.

This is Judgment Day

In terrible, vivid detail, Miss Carter told me how a terrified crowd fled past her house on George Street to take shelter in Cedar Grove Cemetery that late autumn day in 1922.

The fire, she said, “leaped over Howard Street and was coming around Pasture Street, too…. On Pasture Street was the Presbyterian Church, so it was burned. Rue Chapel, AME Church, was also burned. The bells of our church, St. Peter’s AME Zion, started tolling. Some of the people coming up the street said, ‘St. Peter’s is on fire! St. Peter’s is on fire!”

She said: “I had heard people say that on Judgment Day the world would be all afire, and I’m thinking, this is Judgment Day.”

Miss Carter described the rest of that day and then told me what it was like to come back to George Street later and discover only chimneys standing. For a long time, her family lived with her aunt and uncle on Bern Street, the seven of them all in one room.

I asked her if, as a child, she had any sense of how her mother handled her losses and hardships. Miss Carter said that she thought not.

“Being an 8 year old,” she told me, “I wouldn’t know my mother’s distress…. For a child, it could be an adventure. My uncle had a horse and wagon, and he used to take us for rides. Things like that are all we children thought about.”

By the time that I visited her, Miss Carter realized of course that her mother had sought to protect her from seeing her loss and grief.

“In my mother’s heart and mind and soul,” she told me, “I know she was distressed. I’m sure she had a lot of days that she thought about a lot of things, but I wouldn’t know. Sometimes I just sit. I look at her picture and I wonder what went through her mind. I wonder what she endured.” Miss Carter added: “You don’t know what goes on in the hearts of people.”

African American Voices between Two Rivers

I thought often about my visit with Miss Carter when I recently had the privilege of listening to a group of interviews that were part of a community oral history projected called “African American Voices between Two Rivers.”

Led by Shaw University library director (and New Bern native) Linda Simmons-Henry and local historian and civic activist Bernard George, the project’s African American volunteers interviewed more than two dozen black elders in New Bern and other parts of Craven County.

The project received support from the North Carolina Humanities Council, the Neuse River Community Development Corporation and Shaw University. The interviews and transcripts were preserved at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at the Craven County Public Library in New Bern.

I had asked Ms. Simmons-Henry for a chance to listen to the oral history interviews prior to my speaking at the project’s culminating celebration in New Bern on the 20th of June 2009. I felt privileged to have a chance to listen to them. I found the interviews entertaining, enlightening and moving. I am always impressed when community groups have the audacity to seek out their own history and tell their own stories, but in this case I was also impressed by the professionalism of the interviews.

Above all, I was enthused to know that the memories of those African American elders will now become part of the cloth out of which our nation’s history will be stitched in coming years and generations.

Jim Crow Life

The interviews focused on African Americans born in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Most grew up there when Craven County was still primarily agricultural, marked in particular by hundreds of tenant farms where tobacco and cotton were the money crops.

Men also worked in the logwoods, floated great rafts of logs to mills—the lumber industry was by far New Bern’s biggest then—and there were still shipyards and a heavy shipping traffic on the city’s waterfront in those days.

The fish and oyster market at the bottom of Middle Street was still flourishing, though not quite like it had around the turn of the century when New Bern boasted one of the busiest wholesale fish markets below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Other parts of Craven County were more famous for, how should I say, their way with corn. I grew up in one of those places and had a great-uncle who was one of those legendary bootleggers, so I know a thing or two about that end of the county.

When these African American ladies and gentlemen were children, the color of one’s skin defined every aspect of social, economic and political life in Craven County, as it did across the American South. Race—Jim Crow racial segregation—determined what school you went to, where you worked, where you lived, what door in a man’s house you entered, whether you could vote, whether you could serve on a jury or run for political office, where you could eat, drink, use the restroom, spend the night and just about everything else.

The African Americans interviewed by the project’s volunteers also lived in the aftermath of one of the worst disasters in North Carolina history, the great fire of 1922, the conflagration that left Dorcas Carter and so many others homeless.

For all those reasons, I was literally on the edge of my seat as I listened to their stories and waited to discover what they had to teach us about that remarkable era in our history.

Hard Work and Thrift

One of the things that struck me most forcefully about the oral history interviews was the dedication of these African American elders to touching young people’s lives in a positive way. An interview that I remember especially well is that of Beatrice R. Smith, who was interviewed by volunteer Shirley Guion.

Growing up on a tenant farm near Vanceboro, Ms. Smith began her education in a little four-room school where the grades were crowded together and the only source of heat was a potbelly stove. Yet Ms. Smith ultimately graduated from Winston-Salem State College (now Winston-Salem State University), earned an advanced degree at East Carolina University, returned home to teach at the Pleasant Hill School and taught and served as a principal in the local schools for more than 30 years. Now, in her retirement, she serves on the board of education.

I was also taken by Linda Simmons-Henry’s interview with Arabelle Bulluck Bryant. When Ms. Bryant and her husband first came to New Bern in 1944, she earned $98 a month as a math teacher and librarian at West Street School—she soon became the school district’s first full-time African-American librarian. Her husband, also a teacher, made a little extra money as the school’s band director and by performing at neighborhood dances with his swing band.

“You might be interested to know,” Mrs. Bryant told Ms. Simmons-Henry, “that, in spite of that … people were able to save money.”

Mrs. Bryant went on to say, “Times were hard, but people could get things cheap. We could buy eggs for 25 cents a dozen, sugar for 15 cents. Everything was reasonable and that little money that you got went a long ways.”

That ethic of working hard, spending carefully and sacrificing for their children’s futures can be heard in all the interviews.

Not some Jitterbug Girl

Another interview that made a deep impression on me was Simmons Henry’s interview with Mary Randolph. According to the interview, Ms. Randolph was born in 1920 and is 88 years old now. She may be up in years, but she continues to have a stunningly good memory. As I listened to her stories, I felt as if she was holding out her hand to take mine and was ushering me through some magic door into the New Bern of her childhood. Like the Ghost of Christmas Past in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” she walked me through the streets of a now long-gone world, the African-American community in the 1920s and ‘30s.

In my mind’s eye, I took Mrs. Randolph’s hand and we re-appeared at the J.T. Barber School’s boardinghouse, where she used to wash dishes and clean for her teachers on Saturday mornings.

Then we disappeared and re-appeared at Five Points during the Great Depression years. She led me past fish markets, butcher shops and a host of other flourishing black-owned businesses. We visited Dr. Hill’s Drug Store, Sarah Murphy’s Restaurant and, facing Kilmarnock Street, the Palace Theater, the city’s first black-owned cinema, where she was once a cashier.

We browsed Mr. Steve Roberts’ vegetable stand and then crossed the street to look at the wares at the big fish stand run by a man originally from James City. On the corner of Broad and Kilmarnock, we sauntered by The Beer Garden, where I think that I might have liked to spend more time, but she was not, as she told me when we met at the banquet, “some jitterbug girl.” She knew, though, that on weekends you would find big crowds drinking beer, eating sandwiches and dancing to the piccolo there.

Listening to Mrs. Randolph, I could see her and her neighbors walking up to dances at the old armory to hear big national acts like Dinah Washington and Ruth Brown performing on hot summer nights. Other times, they piled in a car and drove to Kinston to bigger dances. She remembered going to Kinston to hear Jimmy Langston, Erskine Hawkins and other jazz and swing orchestras led by the great African-American band leaders of the day.

When I listened to her voice on the tape recording, I could practically hear the piccolo at The Beer Garden, see the crowd at the Palace Theater on a Saturday night and taste the back bone stew and collard greens at Sarah Murphy’s Restaurant.

New Bern Prospered at the Turn of the Century

Another one of the ladies interviewed, Ms. Jessie Mae Annette Davie White, made me feel the same way about the section of Bern Street where she grew up.

Raised in New Bern during the 1940s and ‘50s, she had two college educated parents, a father who was a prominent dentist and a mother who owned a beauty shop. The fire of ’22 destroyed many of the more fashionable black avenues in New Bern, but Ms. White’s words taught me that a significant part of the city’s black professional and business class eventually recovered from the fire and continued to grow and prosper.

In a way, they sought to protect the city’s African American children from the indignities and humiliations endemic to Jim Crow society. By providing alternatives within the black community, they made sure that children did not have to go downtown and get meals at cafes where they would only be served out the back door. The children did not have to patronize movie theaters where they were confined to the balcony, and they did not have to drink water out of spigots next to “whites only” water fountains.

Listening to Mrs. White’s stories, I felt as if she, too, was holding out her hand to lead me into the past—onto her block of Bern Street. Stepping out her front door when she was a girl, you would find Whitley’s Funeral Home and, across the street, the three homes of “the Whitley girls,” brilliant, refined ladies who were elderly women at that time.

“Hermione sang most of the time and she would get out and hang the clothes up in the morning and sing, and Juanita would do the same,” Mrs. White remembered.

There was also a host of black-owned businesses up and down the block—Roy’s Grocery Store next door and, around the corner, Hayes Cobbler Shop, Mrs. Bell’s barbershop and, on New Street, Jones Brothers.

“One of the things I want you to know is that New Bern prospered at the turn of the century,” Mrs. White told Shirley Guion, who interviewed her for the project. “The young people went to college. They came to New Bern, a lot of them, from the colleges and they would walk in the afternoon to the river and back home…. Everybody would dress up.”

In Mrs. White’s words a host of New Bern’s most memorable black men and women seemed to come to life again: Miss Henrietta Pickens, who ran a Bible school at St. Peters every summer, was one of them. Mrs. White memorized her catechisms there—“Who made you? God. What else did God make? God made everything.”

And, as she said, “we all knew that Christ was first in our lives… [and] we knew…that life was centered around the heavenly father and [that] we have been blessed because of it.”

There was also Miss Esther Powell, her 5th grade teacher at West Street School. Miss Powell taught her a poem that she has not forgot to this day. She recited the poem’s first lines in her interview—

A summer’s day, I lost my way, and wandered through the hills afar, the hours fled and the daylight sped and in the heavens there gleamed a star….”

A Community that Loved each Other

She remembered, too, how Miss Powell and two other teachers, Mrs. Houston and Miss Eva Adams, took crepe paper and made bumblebee outfits and taught them dances.

She also spoke fondly of Dr. Lula Disosway, a pioneering physician, a white woman, at Good Shepherd Hospital, the city’s black hospital. Dr. Disosway, she remembered, “took care of every baby coming in this world.” She also admired two midwives, Miss Mary Strong and Ada West.

“It was a community that loved each other and loved the children of each other,” she emphasized.

I marveled at how Mrs. White had held onto the smallest, most ordinary details of her childhood. She described how her family always sang and prayed before supper. She remembered how she was queen of J.T. Barber School when she was in 8th grade because she and her girlfriends had raised the most money in the school’s fundraising drive, and how she, Thelma Staton and Ollie Simmons wore big cowboy hats and rode on a truck in the school parade.

She also recalled how, one night when she and her mother were sitting in the balcony at St. Peter’s watching another class’s high school graduation, she looked down at one of the graduates, Lee Alphonso White, and told her mother, “I’m going to marry that man.”

They have now been married 50 years.

Everything had Turned

Mrs. White also recounted how much her life changed when her father died unexpectedly when she was in the 9th grade and her mother died only a few years later. In her words, “I began to take on family when I was 17, 18 and 19 and make sure that they were fed and clothed and clean, because everything had turned.”

“Everything had turned.”—I thought about those words long after I finished listening to Mrs. White’s interview.

When she talked with Shirley Guion, she did not really say anything more about how her parents’ premature deaths shaped her life or what it was like struggling at that age to take care of herself and her younger siblings.

But after she had described so fully the happiness and richness of her early years on Bern Street, those few words said a lot. Everything had turned.

All the interviews to which I listened were similar in that way. You could read a lot into the few words that they did say about life’s hurts and disappointments—words such as polio, the great fire, whites only, the back of the bus, riots and bombings—but they did not dwell on such things.

Instead, these African-American elders seemed to be taking a lesson from their own childhoods, when their parents, teachers, preachers and neighbors worked so hard to insulate them from the harshest edges of life in the Jim Crow South and to envelop them, to borrow Mrs. White’s words, in “a community that loved each other and loved the children of each other.”

Miss Dorcas Carter’s mother was the same way with her after the fire of ’22. These African Americans raised in the Age of Segregation could have talked to no end about loss, injustice and the evils of the world, but when this project’s volunteers knocked on their doors and came into their homes and asked them about Craven County’s African American history, they wanted them to know, above all, about that community and they wanted them to know about that love.

 

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