A Portrait from Down East

William Proctor Davis, Davis Ridge, N.C. Courtesy, Phyllis (Davis) Holliday

William Proctor Davis, Davis Ridge, N.C. Courtesy, Phyllis (Davis) Holliday

This is a portrait of an African American fisherman named Proctor Davis. He was born a slave on Davis Island, in the Down East part of Carteret County, N.C., ca. 1839. Some of his family escaped from slavery during the Civil War and made it across North River and all the way to James City, a settlement of fugitive slaves outside of the town of New Bern.

While his brother Sutton and his family definitely made that journey, I have not been able to confirm that Proctor and his family went with them, though it seems likely.

What is sure is that Sutton’s family and Proctor’s family returned after the war and made a new home at Davis Ridge, a marshy hammock just north of Davis Island.

One of Proctor Davis’s great-grandchildren, Phyllis Holliday, gave me this copy of his portrait six years ago. She lives in Massachusetts, far from my home, but she brought it to me when she attended a lecture that I gave at the New Bedford Free Public Library in New Bedford, Mass.

Ms. Holliday had first contacted me after seeing an article I wrote called “The Last Daughter of Davis Ridge.”  That article focuses on the history of Sutton and Proctor Davis’s families and the story of an African American community of fishermen, boat builders and sailors that flourished at Davis Ridge from the time of the Civil War until the great 1933 hurricane.

Ms. Holliday and I talked on the phone several times before we rendezvoused in New Bedford. I felt lucky that my lecture gave us a chance to meet and talk face to face for the first time.

The Story of Davis Ridge

In the story I wrote about Davis Ridge, I focused especially on Sutton Davis, about whom I found significantly more documentation. A master shipbuilder born into slavery, he built two sharpies, the Mary E. Reeves and the Shamrock, and fished them on Core Sound in the last half of the 19th century.

I don’t know as much about his brother as I would like to, however. Documentation of the inhabitants of Davis Ridge is sparse, and Proctor Davis appears in relatively few historical documents.

I do know some things, however. I know, for instance, as I mentioned above, that he was born on a plantation at Davis Island in or about 1839. And I know that the African American men and women in the Davis family included accomplished fishermen and boat builders and people who knew how to be self-reliant and live off the land and the sea.

Davis Island is located at the north side of the mouth of Jarrett Bay, so that one side of the island is on the bay and the other side is on Core Sound. The closest town is Beaufort, N.C., 10 miles W/SW.

Map showing Davis Ridge, Davis Island, Core Sound and nearby parts of the Down East section of Carteret County, N.C. The town of Beaufort is not on this map, but is located 5 and 1/2 miles W of Gloucester. Courtesy, Coastwatch magazine

Map showing Davis Ridge, Davis Island, Core Sound and nearby parts of the Down East section of Carteret County, N.C. The town of Beaufort is not on this map, but is located 5 and 1/2 miles W of Gloucester. Courtesy, Coastwatch magazine

Proctor Davis apparently stayed close to home. Some of the Davis Ridge men did not. Some were seamen and traveled far and wide, but no historical evidence indicates that he followed in their footsteps.

In fact, he may not ever have gone any farther than Beaufort, which is the seat of Carteret County and formerly the capital of the state’s menhaden fishing industry.

In the early 1900s, many of the Davis clan left Davis Ridge and worked on menhaden fishing boats that sailed out of Beaufort. They included the big menhaden companies’ first African American captains.

According to Phyllis Holliday, her great-grandfather always stayed in and around Davis Ridge and died in or about 1904.

The Rush Camp at Quinine Point

I know very little else about Proctor Davis. I do know, however, that a Down East memoir, written more than a century ago, says that he lived for a time in a “rush camp” at Quinine Point, the northwest corner of Davis Ridge.

A mullet fishermen's camp on Shackleford Banks, N.C., ca. 1880. It's very possible that Proctor Davis and/or other fishermen from Davis Ridge were part of this crew. From George Brown Goode, ed., The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Commission of Fish and Fisheries, 1884-87), sec. 5, vol. 2.

A mullet fishermen’s camp on Shackleford Banks, N.C., ca. 1880. It’s very possible that Proctor Davis and/or other fishermen from Davis Ridge were part of this crew. From George Brown Goode, ed., The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Commission of Fish and Fisheries, 1884-87), sec. 5, vol. 2.

On that part of the North Carolina coast, local men often lived in those round “rush camps” while they were fishing away from home for extended periods of weeks or months.

The fishermen thatched those huts with salt marsh grasses, and they held the frame together with the wiry strands that run along the outer edge of yucca leaves.

Core Sound fishermen stayed in those kinds of camps on Shackleford Banks during the striped (jumpin’) mullet runs in the fall of the year, for example. In late winter, when the shad came into the Lower Neuse River on the way to their spawning grounds, many Core Sounders moved up there and lived in similar camps.

Tax and property records indicate that William Proctor Davis (his full name) also owned at least 10 acres at Oyster Creek in the 1880s.  If you’re at Davis Ridge, Oyster Creek is 4 and ½ miles N/NE.

 A Gift from “The Ridge”

I was thrilled to meet Proctor Davis’s great-granddaughter when I gave that lecture in New Bedford.

Joel Davis, Phyllis Holliday's father, singing at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Roxbury, Mass. A graduate of the Queen St. School in Beaufort, N.C. in 1930, he moved north during the Great Depression. He was a devoted gospel singer and sang in his church choir and in gospel groups throughout his life. He died in 2010, at the age of 100. Courtesy, The Boston Globe, Sept. 29, 2010.

Joel Davis, Phyllis Holliday’s father, singing at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Roxbury, Mass. A graduate of the Queen Street School in Beaufort, N.C. in 1930, he moved north during the Great Depression. He was a devoted gospel singer and sang in his church choir and in gospel groups throughout his life. He died in 2010, at the age of 100. Courtesy, The Boston Globe, Sept. 29, 2010.

Ms. Holliday had recently returned from a Davis Ridge family reunion in Carteret County and she was just bubbling with excitement over all that she had learned about her family and its roots at “the Ridge.”

Her father, Joel Davis, was born in Carteret County in 1910, but he had left and moved north during the Great Depression, when all the county’s banks closed and things got so bad.

I was deeply grateful to Ms. Holliday for sharing Proctor Davis’s portrait with me. Historical documents and photographs related to Davis Ridge are extremely rare.

I find this portrait interesting too because of the photographic process used to make it. That process explains the image’s somewhat unusual visual quality.

The portrait of Proctor Davis was made with a device called a Woodward Solar Enlarging Camera. It was the first technology that made it possible to enlarge photographs.

That technology had a downside, though. The process of enlarging a photograph weakened the image. As a consequence, the photographer or an artist would then go back and enhance the enlarged image with crayon or another artistic medium– in this case, charcoal.

Those so-called “crayon portraits” were a popular kind of photography between 1860 and 1905.

(Special thanks to Kim Andersen for educating me about crayon portraits and the Woodward Solar Enlarging Camera.)

As you can see, the portrait has sustained some damage. Nonetheless, I still think it is of great historical importance.

To my knowledge, this is the only surviving portrait of Proctor Davis.

This may be, in fact, the only surviving portrait of any of Phyllis Holliday’s ancestors who once were slaves on Core Sound, gained freedom during the Civil War and who now make up a part of the remarkable heritage of Down East.

* * *

To learn more about Down East, be sure to check out the programs, exhibits, library and storytelling at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harkers Island, N.C. It’s one of my favorite museums in the world.

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