“All Roads Lead Back to North Carolina”

Panel from Jacob Lawrence's series The Migration of the Negro, 1940-41. Courtesy, Museum of Modern Art

Panel from Jacob Lawrence’s series The Migration of the Negro, 1940-41. Courtesy, Museum of Modern Art

This is the last in a series of pieces that I’ve written about the history of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina. 

As I read historical accounts about the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina, I could tell that wherever they were—Boston, Harlem, Hartford, Montclair, Worcester or wherever—they continued to keep a close eye on what was happening back home in North Carolina.

Phone calls and letters went back and forth. There were trips home for Christmas, and sometimes for a week or two in July or August.  Of course, they came home for far too many funerals. Each call, each letter and each visit gave them a little window into what was happening in their old home.

Now and then black leaders from North Carolina also spoke at their meetings and shared news of what was happening back home.

In 1903, for instance, the Boston chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina hosted African American attorney and educator George Henry White. Born in Bladen County, N.C., White had represented a large, majority-black swath of eastern North Carolina in the U. S. Congress until 1901.

Former U.S. Congressman George Henry White spoke at an event co-sponsored by the Boston chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina in 1903. The event was a celebration in honor of the 43rd anniversary of Pres. Abraham Lincoln’s nomination as president of the U.S. Courtesy, National Archives

Former U.S. Congressman George Henry White spoke at an event co-sponsored by the Boston chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina in 1903. The event celebrated the 43rd anniversary of Pres. Lincoln’s nomination as president of the U.S. Courtesy, National Archives

His tale could not have been good. White supremacists had recently gained power in North Carolina. When they did so, they immediately passed a state constitutional amendment that barred African Americans from voting.

White, the only black congressman from the South at that time, had decided that there was no point to running for re-election. He and his family then left North Carolina and moved to Washington, DC.

As the 20th century progressed, a never-ending flow of young people from back in North Carolina continued to migrate to the North, Midwest and West in what came to be called the Great Migration.

The numbers were massive. By 1970 approximately half of black adults born in the state of North Carolina lived in other states, and the largest number resided in or around New York City.

Speaking of her hometown, Wilson, N.C., the brilliant, deeply insightful blogger Lisa Y. Henderson once wrote:

“I can say with confidence that nobody I knew growing up did not have relatives in Harlem or Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx.”

On her blog Black Wide-Awake, Lisa reflected on the constant coming and going of Wilson’s young black people between Wilson and New York City.

In Black Wide-Awake, Lisa Y. Henderson reflected on Wilson's black migrants to New York City in a post dedicated to Isabel Wilkerson's magnificent book on the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Sons: the Epic Story of America's Great Migration. Wilkerson is pictured here receiving the National Humanites Medal from Pres. Obama in 2015. Courtesy, Susan Walsh/AP

In Black Wide-Awake, Lisa Y. Henderson reflected on Wilson’s black migrants to New York City in a post dedicated to Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Sons: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Wilkerson is pictured here receiving the National Humanites Medal from Pres. Obama in 2015. Courtesy, Susan Walsh/AP

“Every summer,” she writes, “our little pack swelled with migrants’ grandchildren sent down South and inevitably one of our own went North for two weeks and came back `talking proper.’”

Whether they stayed up north for a few weeks or moved permanently, those young people all brought stories of how much or how little the status of African Americans had changed back in the south.

* * *

The Sons and Daughters of North Carolina were of course not North Carolina’s only black migrants that organized community groups in northern cities in the century after the Civil War. In some cities, there were quite a few similar groups of black migrants that went by other names.

Some of the most important were made up of the alumni from historically black high schools and colleges in North Carolina.

The Hyde County-O.A. Peay Alumni Association chapter in Brooklyn is a good example, and it’s one I learned a little about when I was writing my first book, Along Freedom Road.

Beginning in the early 1900s, the O.A. Peay School (originally called the Hyde County Training School) was an African American school that first opened in Sladesville, and later moved to Swan Quarter, both of which were small fishing and farming villages in Hyde County, N.C.

Over the generations, Hyde County’s black citizens migrated to Brooklyn in such large numbers that the county’s alumni up there organized their own chapter of the school’s alumni association.

As the years went by, the Brooklyn chapter grew to the point that the whole alumni association sometimes held its annual homecoming in Brooklyn, not in Hyde County.

At those times, the local alumni of the O.A. Peay School and its sister school in the town of Engelhard, the Davis School, would crowd onto buses and come up to Brooklyn for the weekend-long event.

That Brooklyn chapter of the Hyde County-O.A. Peay School Alumni Association raised funds for scholarships and school improvements back home in Hyde County. The association’s members could also be counted on to assist recent graduates find places to stay and get jobs in New York City.

A civil rights march in Swan Quarter, N.C., fall of 1968. Courtesy, North Carolina Museum of History

A civil rights march in Swan Quarter, N.C., fall of 1968. Courtesy, North Carolina Museum of History

When their brothers and sisters back in Hyde County launched civil rights protests in the 1960s, the Brooklyn alumni chapter was there for them. The chapter sent funds and gave moral support, and some of the Brooklynites came south and joined the protests .

Other groups of black migrants from North Carolina that settled up north were just little coffee clatsches and dinner clubs.

Others weren’t even that—they were night clubs, cafes or even just gyms, barbershops and hair salons where a black Carolinian was the proprietor and his or her business had gotten the reputation as place for black migrants from the state to hang out.

Many of those gatherings were composed of people that used to live in a single little hamlet back in North Carolina, but eventually ended up residing within a few blocks of one another in Brooklyn or some other northern city.

My family’s homeplace is in a community called Harlowe, N.C., and it’s one of those little hamlets. My friend and cousin, Regina Yvette Carter Garcia, whose family is from Harlowe, told me just the other day that she remembers going to a family reunion in Brooklyn when she was a girl.

“We had it at a club within one of my Uncle Charles’ apartment buildings,” Regina told me. “It was called the Harlowe Social Club! The people in the area from North Carolina would flock to this location!”

And Regina added, “I always tell my New York friends that all roads lead back to North Carolina!”

* * *

Most of the chapters of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina that I found were still very active as late as the 1940s. How long they lasted beyond the 1940s, or if any might still be active, I don’t know.

The last clear-cut proof of an active chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina that I found was dated 1972. On December 28th of that year, the Montclair Times, in Montclair, New Jersey, noted that the local chapter had donated money to a Christmas charity fund.

Now and then, however, I still read obituaries that refer to the deceased person’s membership in the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina (though when they were members or whether they might still be part of an active chapter is usually not clear in those obituaries).

Earlier this year, in fact, an obituary for a woman named Naomi Hand Tyler caught my eye. In a way, I thought that her life captured the spirit of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina that I saw throughout their history.

Naomi Hand Tyler (1921-2020). Courtesy, Dunn Funeral Home and Crematory Services, Burgaw, N.C.

Naomi Hand Tyler (1921-2020) was a member of the Brooklyn chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina. Courtesy, Dunn Funeral Home and Crematory Services, Burgaw, N.C.

Born in Burgaw, a small town in Pender County, N.C., in 1921, Ms. Tyler had moved to Brooklyn right after graduating from the Pender County Training School in 1939.

In Brooklyn, she went to secretarial and nursing school and then got a job at a local doctor’s clinic.

In her free time, she was an active member of the Brooklyn chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina. She also volunteered her secretarial talents to assist in the offices of some of the country’s leading civil rights and labor activists, including A. Philip Randolph and Shirley Chisholm.

Ms. Hand attended the March on Washington in 1963, and she attended the Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968. She lived to be 99 years old.

The graves of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina are numerous in the cemeteries of Brooklyn, Boston, Worcester and the other northern cities where black migrants from North Carolina made new homes.

But some also came back to North Carolina, even if it was many, many years later.  Many returned after Jim Crow was gone and spent their retirement years back on the soil where they were born. Others just wanted to be laid to rest back home.

Naomi Hand Tyler was one of the latter. At the end of her life, more than 80 years after she moved to Brooklyn, she decided that she was ready to come home: she was buried in Burgaw on January 21, 2021.

-End-

4 thoughts on ““All Roads Lead Back to North Carolina”

  1. What a fantastic series, David! One of the highlights of my childhood social calendar was the annual C.H. Darden High School Alumni Reunion, held in Wilson every Memorial Day weekend. My “little pack” was comprised largely of children of men and women who’d attended Wilson’s Black high school, and we looked forward to a weekend packed with picnics and backyard cookouts thrown for our town’s diasporic sons and daughters. One of many fascinating discoveries to which Black Wide-Awake has brought me has been the extent of migration, especially pre-World War I, to Indiana and Kansas and Ohio and other destinations off the Atlantic seaboard.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David, these articles have been so enlightening. I recently read a book (don’t recall the name at this moment) that I picked up in Texas that told the story of the Wilmington, NC events that took place at the turn of the century. I saw some of the same names in the book that I have seen in your articles. What a stain this was on our NC heritage. It was so hard to believe that our ancestors were such awful people. It was also enlightening to me that the these events were still taking place in the eastern NC area even in the 60s. I was born in 1958 so the first time that I realized the black race was so ill treated was when segregation came about. My family came from Carteret County (Davis, Smyrna, Beaufort) so my roots are deep there.
    Thank you for your articles. I certainly do enjoy reading them.

    Liked by 1 person

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