At the Denver Public Library's Western History Collection, I also found an even more surprising set of documents bearing on the history of the North Carolina coast— a collection of letters and maps from the 1930s that provide insight into the origins of some of our most beloved coastal wildlife refuges. I found them in a collection of papers that had belonged to John Clark Salyers, a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture biologist who is remembered as “the father of the national wildlife refuge system.”
Today I’m in Denver, Colorado, and while I’m here I’m visiting the Western History Collection at the Denver Public Library. I wouldn’t usually expect to find manuscripts about my special interest—the history of the North Carolina coast— in a collection that’s devoted to the Rocky Mountain West.... But this library also has Edwin R. Kalmbach’s field diaries. I was interested in Kalmbach because one of his diaries describes an 11-day trip that he made to an especially interesting part of the North Carolina coast—the old rice plantations along the Lower Cape Fear.
My favorite part of Ammie Jenkins’ Healing from the Land is the last chapter, where she describes a tradition of older African Americans endeavoring to live up to Leviticus’s call to share one’s harvest with “the needy and the stranger.”
I was recently in Spring Lake, N.C., to do an oral history interview with Ms. Ammie Jenkins. Ammie is a leading advocate for black farmers and black landownership there in the Sandhills. As the (now retired) executive director and driving force behind the Sandhills Family Heritage Association, she is devoted heart and soul to African Americans and their relationship to the land in Lee, Harnett, Cumberland, Richmond, Moore and Hoke counties.
"At this point in my research, I was wishing that I could write something about my beloved home state’s history—anything—and not have it come around to race and white supremacy.... So much for telling an innocent little story about a family of bird egg collectors and the popular passion for oology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries."
The incident that led me to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago was the tragic death of a young bird egg collector in 1909. His name was Richardson P. Smithwick and he was from a family of amateur bird, bird egg and bird nest collectors that lived in Bertie County, N.C. late in the 19th and early in the 20th century.
Tomorrow night-- Thursday, Nov. 9-- the Pauli Murray Prjoject's exhibit “Finding Jane Crow in Pauli Murray’s Contacts” opens at Duke University! If you’re in the area, I sure hope you get the chance to see it! It's free and open to the public. Curated by my daughter Vera Cecelski, the exhibit explores the life and times of one of the most extraordinary human rights activists in 20th-century America....
While I was in Chicago, I also made a quick trip to the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center. I had never been to the city before, so just getting to the university was an adventure. As I rode the CTA rail line downtown, I marveled at the diversity of the neighborhoods through which I was passing and the exuberant beauty of the murals and graffiti that I could see from my seat on the train. I changed onto a bus downtown that carried me south along the shores of Lake Michigan. After a long ride, I got off at Hyde Park, the historic neighborhood on the South Side that has been home to so many great Americans, including Mahalia Jackson, Muhammad Ali and President Obama.
My head spins when I am listening to Stan Riggs and Orrin Pilkey. They are legendary geologists. Both have been studying coastal N.C. for more than half a century. Last week I spent a couple days with the two of them on Ocracoke Island and Portsmouth Island. When I listen to them, my whole sense of time changes. History to them is a whole other thing. They look at the state's coastal plain and what they see is a quarry near the small town of Fountain, in Pitt County. The quarry’s rock is the same rock that you’d find in Dakar, Senegal, a relic of a time more than 200 million years ago when what’s now eastern N.C. and what’s now West Africa nuzzled together....
At the Newberry Library in Chicago, I also found Edward Price Bell’s diaries from Wilmington in 1898. They are different than his reporter's notebooks that I wrote about a few days ago. Bell used his notebooks to record bits and pieces of interviews. Sometimes he also sketched passages of writing that he later used in dispatches to his newspaper, the Chicago Record. The diaries are of a more personal nature.