The first time that an African American group called the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina attracted national attention was a winter night in Brooklyn, New York, in 1897. It was the 26th of January, and the group, which was made up of migrants from the state of North Carolina, was holding a memorial service in honor of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
On that night, the group’s members, who were part of a historic, century-long wave of black migration out of North Carolina, welcomed the general public to the Fleet Street AME Zion Church in Brooklyn.
Stowe had died six months earlier, on July 1st, 1896, at the age of 85. Her 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was widely credited with playing a pivotal role in building white northern support for the abolition of slavery in America.
On that night in Brooklyn, the Fleet Street AME Zion Church (now known as First AME Zion Church) was full. The crowd came from all over New York City. Newspapers from Boston, Mass., to Vicksburg, Mississippi, reported on the event.
“The edifice was crowded with colored people, many of whom had formerly been southern slaves,” a correspondent for Brooklyn’s Standard Union wrote.
Standing in front of portraits of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass, the chair of the evening’s program, David Bryant Fulton, welcomed the crowd. Born in Fayetteville, N.C., in the last days of slavery, Fulton had grown up and been educated 75 miles farther down the Cape Fear River, in Wilmington, N.C., after the Confederacy’s fall.
As was the case with so many other black men and women, Fulton had left North Carolina in the decades after the Civil War. In 1887, he moved to Brooklyn, where he first got a job as a Pullman porter but eventually made a name for himself as a writer and as a social justice advocate.
Fulton actually got his start in the writing business as a New York correspondent for The Wilmington Record. As many of you will know, the Wilmington Record was one of the few black-owned and operated daily newspapers in the southern states.
As part of the Wilmington massacre and coup d’etat in 1898, white supremacists burned the Record’s offices to the ground.
Fulton never lived in Wilmington again, but he remained in touch with his boyhood home. Only three years after the Brooklyn gathering, in 1900, he wrote a novel that was the first book to tell the story of the Wilmington massacre, albeit in fictional form.
That novel was called Hanover; or The Persecution of the Lowly.
Fulton was one of the leaders of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina. He had co-founded the Brooklyn chapter in 1895, and he remained an active member of the group for at least 40 years.
In a letter to the New York Times on June 16, 1900, Fulton explained that he and other black migrants had organized the group “to foster a feeling of friendship and brotherly love among the North Carolinians in the North.” (New York Times, 16 June 1900).
At that time, Fulton was telling the truth, but he hardly touched on the breadth of the group’s mission. As we’ll soon see, the chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina in Brooklyn, as well as those in at least five other northern cities, did do a great deal to foster a sense of community for African Americans making their way in a strange new land for the first time.
But they also did more. In Brooklyn and elsewhere, the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina were mutual aid societies, providing funds for when members got sick and could not work or pay medical bills.
They were a burial society too, making sure that every member’s family could afford to lay their loved ones to rest with dignity.
Going Home to Wilmington
Many years after the memorial service for Harriet Beecher Stowe, a New York City newspaper recalled that “Death brought to life the Society of the Sons of North Carolina.”
According to the New York Age (30 Nov. 1940), an African American man named Henry Forman died in a workplace accident in 1895. At the time, Forman lived in Brooklyn, but he was originally from Wilmington, N.C.
Foreman’s family apparently could not afford to send his body home for burial. To assist the family, “a group of native Wilmingtonians gather[ed] together, pooled contributions and raised the money to ship Forman’s body home to North Carolina.”
Other chapters of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina had been organized elsewhere in the North as early as 1888 (and possibly earlier). By all accounts, however, the effort to send Henry Forman’s body home for burial was the beginning of the chapter in Brooklyn.
In addition to those good works, the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina also held charity events, visited the aged and infirm and raised funds for black schools and colleges back in North Carolina.
At the same time, the members of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina, wherever they were, kept a close eye on events back in North Carolina and did what they could to support their kindred that were struggling to overcome Jim Crow, racial violence and oppression.
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On that night in Brooklyn in 1897, Fulton, who was never less than enthusiastic in his prose, referred to Harriet Beecher Stowe as “an inspired writer.” According to the Boston Evening Transcript, he declared, “Mrs. Stowe will live in history crowned with lilies of white, and her name will shine with the brightness of the stars forever.”
Every man and woman, Fulton went on to say, should follow in Stowe’s footsteps and be an “ambassador of freedom at all times.”
Throughout the evening, black leaders gave speeches in tribute to Stowe and her impact on the anti-slavery movement in the U.S. Those speakers included several church leaders, but also a remarkable young African American physician, Dr. Verina Morton Jones.
The first woman of any color licensed to practice medicine in the state of Mississippi, Dr. Morton Jones had moved to Brooklyn and established a medical practice in or about 1890.
An ardent suffragist and civil rights activist, she later co-founded and ran the Lincoln Settlement House in Brooklyn and served as the president of the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn, a group dedicated to fighting for African American women’s voting rights.
Dr. Morton Jones was a strong African American woman who knew that she was following in the steps of other strong African American women who had fought against slavery and injustice.
On that night in Brooklyn, however, she paid homage to Stowe, a white woman, insisting, in a way, that people of all colors could come together in the United States and fight for justice and freedom.
“It remained for one sweet woman to wield that pen that is mightier than the sword and touch the hearts of the world,” the young physician told the audience.
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The Sons and Daughters of North Carolina’s celebration of Stowe’s life was not merely oratory, however. The crowd enjoyed at least as much or more music and poetry.
The musical program included classical music solos by clarinetist Joseph Allen and violinist Bernardo Meza. The Everett Musical Association sang what I’m sure was a lovely rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee.”
The Everett Musical Association’s male chorus also sang “One Sweetly Solemn Thought,” Robert Steele Ambrose and Phoebe Cary’s lilting hymn whose refrain goes like this:
Nearer my home, (beautiful home),
Nearer my home, (heavenly home),
Soon will my work be done,
Then I shall rest at home.
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Another highlight of the night was a poetry recitation by an extraordinary African American woman named Maritcha Redmonds Lyons. Usually listed as “Miss M.R. Lyons” in newspapers, she participated in a number of events sponsored by the Brooklyn and New York City chapters of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina over the years.
Born in 1848, Lyons taught in Brooklyn’s public schools for more than 40 years and was only the second African American to hold the position of assistant principal in the school district.
Earlier in the 1890s, five or six years before the event in honor of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lyons had also co-founded the Women’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn, a pathbreaking black women’s civil rights and service group.
Among much else, the Women’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn raised funds to publish her friend Ida B. Wells’ landmark anti-lynching pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases.
In an article dated January 28, 1897, the Boston Evening Transcript noted that “Miss M.R. Lyons” read a poem that evening by Frances E. W. Harper, the African American poet whose literary work was some of the first published by a black woman in the United States.
The Boston Evening Transcript did not mention which of Frances E. W. Harper’s poems Ms. Lyons read. However, I can’t imagine that it wasn’t her poem titled “To Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe.”
Harper’s poem first appeared in Frederick Douglass’ Paper in 1854. The last two verses of the poem are these:
For the sisters of our race
Thou’st nobly done thy part;
Thou has won thyself a place
In every human heart.
The halo that surrounds thy name;
Hath reached from shore to shore;
But thy best and brightest fame
Is the blessing of the poor.
At the end of the night, the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina said good-bye to the crowd that had come to honor Harriet Beecher Stowe. After the church was empty and they had cleaned up a bit, I imagine that at least some of them, the event’s organizers, lingered awhile.
Maybe they just wanted to spend a little more time pondering the success of the evening.
Or maybe they just wanted to take a few more minutes with other people whose words had the same lilt as theirs and who had grown up where they did and understood how far they had come.
Then they no doubt said their good-byes, said see you again soon and walked out into the streets of Brooklyn.
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–To be continued–
Special thanks to historian and genealogist Yvette Porter Moore for first introducing me to the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina. Yvette’s ancestors were leaders of the chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina in Worcester, Mass., in the 1880s. I’ll be discussing what I learned from her about them in a later post.
Many thanks also to my friend and cousin, Regina Yvette Carter Garcia, for all her help with this story.
And a special thanks too to Jan Davidson, the historian at the Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington, N.C., for her very generous assistance with the research for this story.