This is the 3rd part of my series on the history of an African American group called the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina.
I first learned about the Worcester, Massachusetts, chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina from a remarkable historian and genealogist named Yvette Porter Moore in San Diego, California.
While doing research on her family’s history, Yvette discovered that her great-grandfather, her great-aunt and other African American migrants from the North Carolina coast had organized a chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina in Worcester in the fall of 1888.
That was seven years before the establishment of the chapter in Brooklyn, and nine years before the founding of the chapter in New York City that was centered in Harlem.
Yvette’s historical research showed not only that her ancestors helped to organize the chapter in Worcester, but also indicated that two of them were among the group’s first officers.
At a meeting at Belmont AME Zion Church in Worcester, the newly-born Sons and Daughters of North Carolina chose her great-grandfather, Ambrose Cully, to be the group’s secretary. (Worcester Spy, 12 Nov. 1889)
Yvette also discovered that her great-great grandmother’s sister, Jane B. Collins, was elected to serve as the chapter’s treasurer in 1889.
Yvette told me that her great-grandfather and great-aunt had both migrated to Worcester from the town of New Bern, in Craven County, N.C., not far from where I grew up.
Jane B. Collins was born in 1840 and had been enslaved in New Bern until Federal troops captured the city during the Civil War. Her family had been enslaved in and around New Bern.
Ambrose Cully’s family, on the other hand, had been part of New Bern’s large free African American population before the war. The Cullys had been free since at least the first Federal Census of the U.S. in 1790.
According to a copy of the Worcester Spy that Yvette shared with me, the new chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina held its “first annual gathering” in February of 1889.
Ahead of the event, the Spy reported that the night would be a “literary entertainment and supper for the benefit of Livingstone College,” an African American institution of higher education in Salisbury, N.C. The AME Zion church had established Livingstone in Salisbury in 1879.
“There are many sons and daughters of North Carolina in Worcester among the colored people and a fine time is anticipated,” the article in the Worcester Spy proclaimed.
From Boston to Newark
Founded in 1888, the Worcester chapter may have been the country’s first chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina.
So far I have identified seven chapters of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina. In addition to the Worcester chapter, they include chapters in Boston, Mass.: Hartford, Conn.; Montclair, N.J.; Newark, N.J.; and two chapters in New York City.
The Brooklyn chapter was organized in 1895. The other New York City chapter, based in Harlem, was organized two years later. The origin of the other four chapters, however, is a mystery, though I have yet to find newspaper accounts of their activities prior to the 1920s.
So this is far from conclusive, but based on what I know now, I think it’s quite possible that Yvette’s ancestors helped to organize the first chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina in America.
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Greenwood is a professor of history at Clark University in Worcester, and she is one of my favorite historians.
In First Fruits of Freedom, which was first published in 2009, Greenwood chronicles the history of black migration from the southern states to Worcester in the last part of the 19th century.
As part of her research, Greenwood discovered that black North Carolinians had established a community in Worcester, 40 miles west of Boston, at least a decade before the great Exoduster migration out of eastern North Carolina and half a century before the Great Migration.
She ultimately traced the origins of Worcester’s community of black men and women from North Carolina all the way back to the American Civil War.
Analyzing census and other records, she found that a total of 330 African Americans who had been held in bondage in the southern states migrated to the Worcester area just between 1862 and 1870.
The arrival of those migrants nearly doubled the local African American community’s size.
According to Greenwood, African American men and women from Virginia and eastern North Carolina made up 60 percent of those migrants.
The North Carolina migrants are the ones that I will focus on here. To understand them better, Greenwood looked carefully at birth, marriage and death records.
After doing so, she concluded that a large proportion of the black migrants to Worcester in those years came from a relatively small number of towns on the North Carolina coast.
Those towns included New Bern, where Yvette’s ancestors were, as well as Kinston, Washington and Elizabeth City.
Greenwood concluded that was no accident. During and just after the Civil War, two Union regiments from the Worcester area were part of the Union occupation of those towns.
In the case of New Bern, Washington and Elizabeth City, the Union army had taken and occupied those towns beginning in 1862.
The town of Kinston did not fall until the Confederacy fell in 1865, but large numbers of the enslaved men and women in the Kinston area had already escaped and fled to Union-occupied New Bern by that time.
In First Fruits of Freedom, Greenwood explained that a significant number of missionary teachers had also followed Worcester’s soldiers to the North Carolina coast in order to teach at freedpeople’s schools. Some of those were white teachers, and some of those were black teachers.
As they looked to escape racial violence and oppression, an important number of African Americans on that part of the North Carolina coast drew on relationships that they had built with those soldiers and schoolteachers to seek out new homes in Worcester and the surrounding area.
In Fruits of Freedom, Greenwood documents many of those relationships and how they led to black families leaving eastern North Carolina and starting new lives in Worcester.
Happening during and just after the Civil War, that movement of black families to Worcester was a relatively small migration, but it got the ball rolling. In the coming decades, others followed. As always happens with migrants and refugees, many of the later migrants were the relatives and friends of that first group of African Americans to make the journey to Worcester.
As Greenwood put it, “They helped create a migration tradition for men and women from eastern North Carolina and Virginia that lasted at least through the end of the century.”
Such were the roots of the chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina in Worcester.
Of course, every path from the southern states to northern cities was unique. In many cases, perhaps even in the large majority of cases, we do not know the historical circumstances that first led black migrants to settle in a particular city up north, or even in a particular neighborhood of a particular city. They are lost to memory.
But not with respect to Worcester. Thanks to Yvette Porter Moore and Dr. Janette Greenwood, we can see the usually invisible threads that once bound and continue to bind these two far-flung parts of America together.
Many, many thanks to Yvette Porter Moore for sharing her family’s stories, historical documents and photographs with me.
-To be continued-