This is the third post in my special series “The Color of Water.” In this series, I am exploring the history of Jim Crow and North Carolina’s coastal waters, including the state’s forgotten history of all-white beaches, “Sundown towns” and racially exclusive resort communities. You can find the other stories in the series here.
At the turn of the 20thcentury, one of Currituck County, N.C.’s leading white citizens, Henry Beasley Ansell, recorded his memories of Knotts Island, the broad, marshy peninsula where he was born in 1832.
Now preserved at the Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill, Ansell’s “Recollections of Knotts Island and More” is one of our most important manuscripts for understanding coastal life in North Carolina in the 1800s.
Written between 1904 and 1911, Ansell’s account is fabulous. He wrote about everything—politics, religion, family life, the environment, women’s lives, hunting and fishing, folk medicines, midwifery, hurricanes, witchcraft and on and on.
In his “Recollections,” Ansell also wrote about a side of the North Carolina coast’s history about which most other memoirists and chroniclers remained silent: the history of race.
He did not mince words. Knotts Island was, Ansell wrote, “no place for negroes.”
Farming, Fishing & Waterfowl Hunting
The island that Henry Ansell called home is located in North Carolina’s far northeastern corner, right on the Virginia line. Ever since a hurricane closed New Currituck Inlet in 1828 and cut the region off from the sea, it’s been one of the more remote corners of the state’s coast.
To me it’s also one of the loveliest. Surrounded by Currituck Sound, North Landing River and two broad bays, the island is actually a pastoral peninsula, bounded by broad freshwater marshes. Reaching south out of Virginia, that peninsula is 7 miles long and 2 miles wide.
In Ansell’s lifetime, a scattered population made its living there by farming, fishing and waterfowl hunting.
Today the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge makes up a large part of the island.
A state ferry connects Knotts Island with the mainland of Currituck County, N.C. The island has an elementary school, but the island’s middle and high school-age children take the ferry every morning during the school year and go to school on the mainland.
You can drive onto the island by road, however, if you cross the marshes from Virginia Beach, Va.
The Legacy of 1898
The history of Jim Crow and Knotts Island is not only a local story. In his “Recollections,” Ansell described how the white islanders drove African Americans away from the island, but he makes clear that those events were part of a much bigger story.
That story is the saga of one of the most tumultuous periods in North Carolina’s history—a white supremacy movement that swept into every corner of the state in 1898.
Consequently, if we want to understand what happened to African Americans on Knotts Island, we need to take a detour away from Ansell’s old home and the rest of Currituck County. At least briefly, we need to look at the history of North Carolina’s white supremacy campaign of 1898.
Once we’ve done that, we can return to Knotts Island and the local events that made the island, as Henry Ansell wrote, “no place for negroes.”
Democrats, Republicans & Populists
Understanding the white supremacy campaign of 1898 can be a little dizzying at times because the political parties have changed so much today, but in the late 1890s and early 1900s, Democrats in North Carolina proudly called themselves the “party of white supremacy.”
The Democrats had largely held sway in North Carolina since 1870. That changed in 1894, however. A coalition of two parties—the Republicans and the Populists—came into power and won the governorship and eventually most other statewide elected offices, as well as the majority of seats in the N.C. General Assembly.
That electoral coalition was made possible by an extraordinary working relationship forged by African American and white voters in those two parties.
After four years of Populist-Republican rule, however, white Democrats grew determined to regain political power in North Carolina, and to do so at almost any cost.
Beginning in fall of 1897, the Democratic Party’s leaders planned a statewide campaign focused on driving a wedge between black and white voters.
In the 1898 election campaign, white Democrats resorted to racial violence, electoral fraud, economic blackmail and race-based propaganda in order to take power throughout N.C.
White Democrats not only endeavored to terrorize African Americans, however. They also strove to make it socially unacceptable for a white man to be seen as having struck a political alliance with his black neighbors.
Through social ostracizing and newspaper propaganda, they succeeded in making white participation in the black-white coalition appear to be both unmanly and a betrayal of the white race.
That combination of tactics worked: the Democrats swept the elections of 1898. “The Triumph of White Supremacy!” the Raleigh News & Observer celebrated. The Democrats would hold power for more than 70 years.
The Birth of Jim Crow
Taking a broad view, the victory of the white supremacists in 1898 was one of the most pivotal events in North Carolina’s history.
The Democratic victory led to the “Wilmington race riot of 1898” (often called the “Wilmington coup” now) and a wave of white racial terror in much of the state.
The Democratic victory also led to the birth of Jim Crow—a whole social order based on the forced separation of blacks and whites, like Apartheid in South Africa.
In addition, following the success of a state constitutional amendment in 1900, white Democrats succeeded in taking away the voting rights of the state’s African American citizens.
Around the same time (in case you were thinking there were any good guys here), the state’s white Republicans, chastened by their defeat in the 1898 and 1900 elections, banned African Americans from participating in their party, as well.
In 1900 the white Democrats elected Charles Aycock, one of the white supremacy campaign’s leaders, to the governorship. He would not be the last of them. For the next two decades, the state’s white citizens elected governors that were veterans of the white supremacy campaign.
Some, including Aycock, later acknowledged that the Democrats had stolen the 1898 elections. To my knowledge, none ever renounced what they had done in order to take power.
“Our march of progress and civilization”
In Tim Tyson and my anthology, Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy, H. Leon Prather quoted a speech that captured how Democratic leaders portrayed the stakes in the election of 1898.
William A. Guthrie, the Democratic mayor of Durham, N.C., made the remarks at a political rally of some 8,000 whites in Goldsboro.
Standing side by side with Charles Aycock and Furnifold Simmons (a future U.S. senator), Mayor Guthrie declared:
“The Anglo-Saxon planted civilization on this continent and wherever this race has been in conflict with another race, it has asserted its supremacy and either conquered or exterminated the foe. This great race has carried the Bible in one hand and the sword [in the other]. Resist our march of progress and civilization and we will wipe you off the face of the Earth.”
Guthrie’s words are significant because they help us to see how local Democrats in places like Knotts Island came to be convinced that the Republican-Populist coalition was an almost existential threat to Western Civilization and to the survival of the white race.
We can also see how, in a political climate in which that kind of rhetoric prevailed, local Democrats in places such as Knotts Island felt few restraints on their actions against black people.
Indeed, as is usually the case with the instigators of atrocities, those white Democrats had been convinced that they were on the side of justice, righteousness and God’s will.
“Another Nat Turner War”
Now we can return to Knotts Island and Henry Ansell’s “Recollections of Knotts Island and More.”
According to Ansell, the white supremacy campaign of 1898 gave Knotts Island’s white Democrats the opportunity to declare the island off limits to black visitors and to warn off any new black families that might have wanted to make a home on the island.
Ansell supported the Democratic Party in Currituck County. He was a Democrat, and soon after 1898 he was rewarded for his loyalty to the party with a local political post, the clerkship of the Currituck County Superior Court.
In his reminiscences, Ansell wrote that local white Democrats saw few problems with the older black families on the island. He said that African Americans “born and raised” on Knotts Island “were well behaved” and the white majority did not find them threatening.
However, he declared that the arrival of any black visitors from “Morse’s Point or Princess Anne,” two communities north of the island, in southeast Virginia, stirred what were clearly deep and historically rooted fears of black insurrection and violence.
At those times, Ansell wrote, “The women and children were much alarmed for fear of another `Nat Turner war.’”
Ansell was referring of course to Nat Turner’s slave revolt in Southampton County, Va., which is not very far to the west of Knotts Island. In the summer of 1831, Turner and his supporters killed more than 60 people in a bid to gain freedom for themselves and other slaves.
The Things We Inherit
Ansell, who was born the year after Nat Turner’s revolt, wrote that the slave uprising had left a deep psychological scar on the white people of Knotts Island.
Much has been written about the psychology of slaveholding and the fear of the white South in general of retribution for slavery, but those subjects are probably too complex for me to discuss today in any depth.
Suffice it to say, though, that the white dread of black rebellion reached much farther back in history than Turner’s revolt. It also did not stop with the Civil War and the end of slavery.
Ansell was writing more than 70 years after Turner’s insurrection. Yet, in his eyes, the fear that white Knotts Islanders had felt in 1831—when they believed that Turner’s slave rebels might come into their homes and communities—had not disappeared.
According to Ansell, white Knotts Islanders had inherited the terror that their ancestors felt in 1831.
I see this phenomenon often in the historical record, and one can’t help but find a heavy measure of irony in it.
Historically, the vast, vast majority of racial violence in North Carolina—and the rest of the American South—was white violence against black people. Black violence against whites occurred, of course, but it was a rarity.
The white fear of black violence sometimes subsided, but never vanished. As in 1898, that fear might smolder for long periods like banked coals, only to burst forth again into flames of panic and hysteria when stoked by a political campaign or some local incident.
In addition, white memory of any actual black violence—such as Nat Turner’s insurrection—never seemed to dim or be forgotten.
This white fear of people of color is of course a paradox not unique to Knotts Island or the North Carolina coast or the American South. I do not understand it fully myself, and I very much wish I did.
But of this I am certain: understanding that paradox would put us close to understanding something essential about the American historical experience.
I suspect that it might also help us to understand better where to go from here.
“The edict has gone forth”
In the shadow of 1898, North Carolina’s cities, towns and rural communities all took away black voting rights.
They all also constructed high social walls, reinforced by law and the threat of violence, so that blacks and whites could no longer live on the same streets, attend political meetings together or sit next to one another at ballgames.
This is only an hypothesis, but I suspect that during—or just after—the Democratic victory in 1898, many coastal whites also seized the political moment to expel African Americans from their communities.
At the very least, they used that historical moment to create such hostile local racial climates that African Americans chose to leave their homes and go in search of better places to make a living and raise their families.
As I said, this is only an hypothesis, but the history of Knotts Island is instructive.
“Knotts Island is no place for negroes,” Ansell wrote a few years after 1898.
In his “Recollections,” he explained that after 1898 whites had allowed two African American families to remain on the island, at least until the old people passed away and their children grew up and moved away.
But, he said, “No strange ones can domicile themselves on this Island; the edict has gone forth.”
The edict had indeed gone forth. Ansell does not say how this threat was communicated to local black families or conveyed into the surrounding African American communities.
However, every black man and woman alive in 1898 understood that this edict was not an idle threat.
Across the state in 1898, they had seen a campaign of racial violence directed at black communities. They knew, too, that the state’s most powerful political leaders had instigated and supported that campaign.
The bottom line was clear to those African Americans: they were on their own. There was no governor to call, no president that would listen, no appeal to be made. Help was not coming.
According to the latest U.S. Census report, Knotts Island’s population remains all white to this day.
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Next up– The Color of Water, part 4– A World of Silences