Finding Edna Ferber’s Showboat

I don’t know how the great American novelist, short story writer and playwright Edna Ferber heard about the little river town of Winton, N.C.

But I know she did. In a collection of her research notes that I found at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale when I was in New Haven, Conn. last summer, she scratched the following:

Winton, N.C.—The Croatans, relic of the lost Roanoke Island

settlement. Tar River. White negroes.

 Winton is a no-stoplight town in Hertford County, on the Chowan River (not the Tar River), in a rural part of northeastern N.C., between the Albemarle Sound and the Great Dismal Swamp.

I was a surprised to find a reference to Winton in the notes of a New York writer like Edna Ferber.

Souvenir program from the world premier of the first Showboat movie in 1929. Courtesy, Beinecke Library, Yale University

Souvenir program from the world premier of the first Showboat movie in 1929. Courtesy, Beinecke Library, Yale University

I was also a little surprised to discover a reference to Winton in an archive like the Beinecke Library, a sleek, modern, glass-walled vault of literary and historical treasures in the heart of Yale’s campus.

So of course I had to wonder: why was Edna Ferber interested in Winton? And what did the Croatan Indians and the “lost Roanoke settlement”—the Lost Colony—have to do with anything? And last but not least, what did she mean by “white negroes”?

In today’s post, I’d like to explore those questions. By the end of considering them, I hope we will understand northeastern N.C.’s history a little better and understand where Edna Ferber found at least some of the inspiration for her most popular and enduring literary work.

Edna Ferber and Showboat

Let’s start with a little background on the nature of the collection of Edna Ferber’s papers at the Beinecke Library.

The collection that I found at the Beinecke was relatively small and only covered a single part of Ferber’s career: the research that she did in preparation for writing what became her most famous novel, Showboat.

Edna Ferber in the 1920s.

Edna Ferber in the 1920s.

The materials date mainly from 1925. At the time, Ferber had just been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her novel So Big. Another of her works, a play, was still on Broadway, and she was doing research for a novel that she intended to set on one of the last showboats in America.

That novel was, of course, Showboat, a grand story of love, deception and the oppressions of the heart among three generations of performers on a Mississippi River showboat called the Cotton Blossom. Ferber’s story unfolds from the 1870s to the 1920s, while the Cotton Blossom is moving up and down the river and staging shows in small town after small town.

Ferber’s Showboat proved wildly successful. In addition to being a bestseller, the novel inspired a popular Broadway play that many theater enthusiasts consider the first great American musical, composed and directed by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein.

Many Broadway historians also consider the musical a landmark for having a truly multi-racial cast and (for the time) a dignified attitude toward its black characters.

In addition to the Broadway musical, Ferber’s novel inspired three Hollywood movies. The second, the 1936 classic, Showboat, was adapted from the musical and featured much of the original Broadway cast.

Attorney, Hall of Fame athlete, actor, human rights activist and singer Paul Robeson in the 1936 movie version of Showboat.

Attorney, athlete, actor, human rights activist and singer Paul Robeson in the 1936 movie version of Showboat.

That movie has some unforgettable music. Even if you’ve never seen “Showboat,” you’d probably recognize Paul Robeson’s soul-stirring rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” a song about the Mississippi River’s indifference to our heartbreaks and losses.

You can find a link to Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River” in the movie here.

The singer, the great bass-baritone Paul Robeson, by the way, was the son of a slave who had escaped from a plantation in Martin County, N.C., not far from where I grew up, in 1860.

Paul Robeson's father, the Rev. William Drew Robeson, Sr., escaped from the Roberson plantation in Martin County, N.C., in 1860, when he was 15 years old.

Paul Robeson’s father, the Rev. William Drew Robeson, Sr., escaped from the Roberson plantation in Martin County, N.C., in 1860, when he was 15 years old.

If you’ve ever seen that 1936 version of Showboat, you’ll probably also remember the crazy-love feeling of Helen Morgan’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” You can find a link to Ms. Morgan singing that song here.

Morgan plays Julie LaVerne, one of the movie’s two leading ladies. In the story, Julie LaVerne is one of the showboat’s star performers. However, she is forced to leave the boat’s troupe of entertainers when she is exposed as being of mixed race ancestry.

In Ferber’s novel, LaVerne is a light skinned African American masquerading—or as people say, “passing”—as white. She is married to one of the boat’s white actors. Of course, the marriage of black and white people was a crime in the American South in those days.

The Winton Triangle

Which brings me back to the little town of Winton, N.C., and to the rest of Edna Ferber’s research note at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

The first thing we need to understand is that Winton isn’t just any town. Winton may be a small community (population today, less than 800), but its history resonates with one of the most important themes in Edna Ferber’s novel.

Winton is located in a swath of Hertford County that has long been home to a proud community of mostly landowning, mixed-race people that trace their ancestry to Europe, Africa and Native America.

Documentary photographer, filmmaker and researcher/writer Marvin T. Jones

Documentary photographer, filmmaker and researcher/writer Marvin T. Jones

That swath of Hertford County reaches from Winton to Ahoskie to Cofield– my friend, documentary photographer and filmmaker Marvin T. Jones, calls it the “Winton Triangle.”

Over the last couple of decades, Marvin (who is from Cofield) has been leading an important and incredibly interesting effort to document the Winton Triangle’s past and tell its story. You can learn more about that project, called the Chowan Discovery Group, at its web site here.

Marvin emphasizes that the mixed-race people of the Winton Triangle have a unique history. The community’s roots go back at least into the 18th century, and it has historically been home to landowning farmers, fishermen, trades people and merchants. Over the generations, many have been educational, church, business and political leaders in Hertford County and beyond.

C. S. Brown Cultural Arts Center, Winton, N.C. The center occupies one of the buildings that formerly made up the historic Calvin S. Brown School.

C. S. Brown Cultural Arts Center, Winton, N.C. The center occupies one of the buildings that formerly made up the historic Calvin S. Brown School.

One of the central institutions in the Winton Triangle is the C. S. Brown School in Winton, a high school for the region’s diverse community that opened in 1885. Founded by Shaw University graduate Rev. Calvin Scott Brown, the school was originally called the Chowan Academy and attracted young people far beyond Hertford County that otherwise could not have continued their educations beyond grade school.

The Lost Colony

And then there is this part of Edna Ferber’s note at the Beinecke Library—

The Croatans, relic of the lost Roanoke Island settlement.

This refers of course to the Lost Colony, the English colonists that disappeared from Roanoke Island in the 16th century. Roanoke Island is roughly 70 miles southeast of Winton.

Many historians and archaeologists have tried to determine what happened to the English colonists and where they might have gone after they vanished sometime between 1587 and 1590. One hears many theories, but the colony’s fate basically remains a mystery.

The Croatans—the other part of Ferber’s phrase above—were an Algonquian tribe that was located on Hatteras Island when the English colonists first arrived in 1584. Within two or three years, they seem to have been the only local native peoples that had not come to look at the English as their enemies.

Some theories and quite a few legends have speculated that the English colonists left Roanoke Island with the Croatans.

In those scenarios, the English colonists and the Croatans left Roanoke Island, found a new home inland and eventually inter-intermarried either with one another or with local native peoples, or both.

Chowan River from the Hwy. 11 bridge at Winton, N.C.

Chowan River from the Hwy. 11 bridge at Winton, N.C.

In addition, in some of those legends, free black people and fugitive slaves eventually joined those communities as well. They were supposedly drawn to them by their racial heterodoxy and by their willingness to accept outcasts, rebels and refugees in their ranks.

That, at least, was not merely a legend. Quite a few communities with those roots did—and do— exist in eastern N.C. I grew up near, and have family ties to, one of them.

Not surprisingly, in my experience, those Lost Colony legends tend to be associated with communities that have historically self-identified as tri-racial, of which there are quite a few in eastern N.C., like those in the Winton Triangle.

So, having said all that, I have to acknowledge that I am not aware of any theory, legend or piece of folklore that specifically links the Lost Colony and the Winton Triangle.

However, I have heard or seen written accounts of so many legends linking the Lost Colony’s fate and various other tri-racial communities in eastern N.C. that I feel confident in assuming that at one time such a legend did exist concerning the Winton Triangle.

Clearly Edna Ferber heard such a story, and that is what’s important for us today.

Winton, N.C.—The Croatans, relic of the lost Roanoke Island settlement.

Marvin tells me that he has heard such legends a few times, but they are not at all common in the Winton Triangle. He is also not acquainted with any evidence that would support such stories. Consequently, he does not take the possibility of the Lost Colonists and the Croatans settling in the Winton Triangle very seriously. If Ferber heard such a story, as I believe she did, she almost certainly heard it from people outside the community.

The Chowan Discovery Group

Marvin does emphasize, however, that the people of the Winton Triangle are proud of their Native American heritage, which they usually trace to several tribes that in the 16th century were located in what later became northeast N.C. and southeast Virginia. Those include the Chowaneoic, Meherrin, Nansemond, Nottoway and Tuscarora.

Marvin tells me that at least one important scholar also believes that some of the Winton Triangle’s people descend from the Machapunga, another of the coastal Algonquin tribes. That scholar, Dr. Arwin D. Smallwood at N.C. A&T University, believes that it is quite possible that the other “Lost Colony,” the hundreds of North Africans and Sub-Saharan Africans left at Roanoke Island by Francis Drake in 1586, merged with the Machapunga.

This group of Choanoac Indians gathered for the dedication of the Chooanoac Indian historical marker in Harrellsville, N.C. in October 2011.

This group of Choanoac descendants gathered for the dedication of the Choanoac Indian historical marker in Harrellsville, N.C. in October 2011. Marvin T. Jones is sitting on the far left. Courtesy, Chowan Discovery Group

Watercolor drawing of the village of Secotan prepared by John White from observations that he made in 1585-86. Secotan was located near present day Bath, N.C. Aquascogoc was located at or near the site of modern-day Belhaven, and Dasemunkepuec was located on Roanoke Sound, in the vicinity of where Mann's Harbor is today. John White's drawing courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

Watercolor drawing of the village of Secotan prepared by John White from observations that he made in 1585-86. Secotan was located near present day Bath, N.C. Aquascogoc was located at or near the site of modern-day Belhaven, and Dasemunkepuec was located on Roanoke Sound, in the vicinity of where Mann’s Harbor is today. John White’s drawing courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

Marvin and his colleagues at the Chowan Discovery Group have been playing a critical role in getting historical recognition for the region’s Native American heritage. Among other things, they have led efforts to have historical markers erected at the former sites of three important native villages in northeastern N.C.

Those have included the sites of Choanoac, the principal village of the Choanoac Indians in the 16th century, and two Secotan villages, Dasemunkepeuc and Aquascogoc. The English burned Aquascogoc in 1585, and they attacked Dasemunkepeuc in 1586 and 1587.

 

Passing for White

That leaves only the final part of Edna Ferber’s little note for us to examine: the phrase “white negroes.”

            Winton, N.C.—The Croatans, relic of the lost Roanoke Island

settlement. Tar River. White negroes.

 By this part of our discussion, the meaning of that phrase should be rather self-evident: it refers to Winton’s mixed-race community—or more specifically, it leaves out the community’s Indian roots and refers to many of the local people’s light skin and two other strands of their ancestry, the African and European. .

When I spoke with Marvin recently, I asked him if outsiders had historically referred to the residents in his neighborhood as “white negroes,” as Ferber’s note seems to.

He confirmed what anyone who has visited that part of Hertford County can tell you: that local people are often light skinned. He had heard the term previously, as well as read the term once or twice in historical records.

He also confirmed that many of the Winton Triangle’s residents had historically been light skinned enough that, if they left Hertford County, they could pass for white, as Julie LaVerne did in Showboat.

According to Marvin, more than a few of the Winton Triangle’s people have historically chosen to leave the area and pass for white as a way of gaining opportunities and a freedom from racial discrimination that would not otherwise have been possible.

Whether the term “white negroes” was common or not, we can imagine how Ferber might have heard such a term in reference to the Winton Triangle’s mixed-race people in the 1920s.

One might expect that some outsiders used the term at least somewhat pejoratively, but racial lines have always been remarkably complex and entangled on that north side of the Albemarle Sound and I would resist reaching any conclusion on that point without more evidence.

The James Adams Floating Theatre

Our final question, and perhaps our easiest to answer, is: how did Edna Ferber hear about Winton?

Baring evidence to the contrary, I think we have to assume that the famous novelist learned about Winton and its proud, mixed-race people when she was on the James Adams Floating Theatre in the spring of 1925.

The James Adams Floating Theatre. From the NC Historic Site's Historic Bath web page.

The James Adams Floating Theatre. From the NC Historic Site’s Historic Bath web page.

The James Adams Floating Theatre was a legendary showboat whose troupe of actors and musicians performed plays, vaudeville acts and minstrel shows in the little ports along the Chesapeake Bay and the Carolinas for decades in the early 20th century.

As part of her research for writing Showboat, Ferber came south and joined the crew of the James Adams Floating Theatre on a 4-day voyage along the inland waterways of the North Carolina coast. She ultimately set the showboat part of her novel on the Mississippi River, but the James Adams Floating theatre was the showboat closest to her home in New York City and the only one that she ever visited.

Ferber came south in the spring of 1925 and rendezvoused with the James Adams Floating Theatre in Bath, an old town (the state’s oldest) on the Pamlico River. From Bath, she accompanied the crew and acting troupe on their passage to Elizabeth City, on the Pasquotank River, near the river’s mouth into the Albemarle Sound.

Ferber’s voyage on the James Adams Floating Theatre is an oft-told story. You can find a very interesting and thorough account of it here at the Bath Historic Site’s web site.

As I mentioned above, Ferber never intended to set her novel on the North Carolina coast, presumably because she considered the Mississippi a more romantic setting, at least in the popular imagination.

In fact, the bulk of Ferber’s research notes at the Beinecke Library concern riverboat life on the Mississippi so that she could convincingly move the story there without ever having visited. The collection includes a letter from an old river boatman from the Mississippi and correspondence with a librarian in one of the Ohio River ports, among other things.

The important point for us, though, as we think about Ferber’s reference to Winton, is that Ferber spent several days on a showboat that regularly stopped at ports on the Albemarle Sound and its tributaries.

One of those tributaries was the Chowan River, and one of those ports was Winton.

We know from Ferber’s memoir, A Peculiar Treasure, that she didn’t just bask on the deck when she was on the James Adams Floating Theatre, either. She talked at length with crewmen and the acting troupe. At times, she worked side by side with them, selling tickets, for instance, at performances.

The Showboat in Winton

While the James Adams Floating Theatre did not pass Winton or any of the other ports on the Chowan River while Ferber was on board, she certainly talked extensively with the boat’s crewmen, including black hands, as well as with the members of the acting troupe.

They had all spent many weeks in Winton—a typical port call for the boat was a week. They could not not know about Winton’s mixed-race, light-skinned people.

They may also have been familiar with a legend about the community’s historical connection to the Lost Colonists and the Croatan Indians.

When I spoke with Marvin Jones, we even wondered if Ferber had actually met an actor or actress on the James Adams Floating Theatre that was passing as white.

As Marvin pointed out, the theater is all about deception and masquerade, and one can’t help wonder if an individual adept at one kind of acting might use his or her craft in another.

A first edition of Edna Ferber's novel Show Boat

A first edition of Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat

All of which makes me think: we know that Edna Ferber was inspired to write a novel set on a riverboat long before she visited the N.C. coast.

But her decision to make race central to the story, and to put the light-skinned, mixed-race heroine, Julie Laverne, at the book’s center—that’s another question.

So I can’t help wondering: Is it possible that Ferber got the idea for her novel’s most poignant story from Winton, a proud, mixed-race community on the Chowan River?

The Most Dreamlike of Journeys

We may never know to what extent, if at all, what Edna Ferber heard about Winton shaped her novel Showboat, and the play and movies that it inspired, but I find it irresistible to ponder.

My look at Edna Ferber’s papers at the Beinecke Library was the end of my trip to New Haven last summer, when I went up there to visit with my new grand-niece and took a little time to explore what I might learn about coastal North Carolina’s history in the local libraries and archives.

As I left the Beinecke Library and walked back to my niece and nephew’s apartment, I thought about Ferber and her riverboat and the experiences in life that provide the seeds for art and literature.

I also remembered one of Ferber’s notes at the Beinecke. I think that she might have just been trying it out to see how it might sound in Showboat. It was, she wrote, “the most leisurely and dreamlike of journeys.”

One thought on “Finding Edna Ferber’s Showboat

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