"At this point in my research, I was wishing that I could write something about my beloved home state’s history—anything—and not have it come around to race and white supremacy.... So much for telling an innocent little story about a family of bird egg collectors and the popular passion for oology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries."
The incident that led me to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago was the tragic death of a young bird egg collector in 1909. His name was Richardson P. Smithwick and he was from a family of amateur bird, bird egg and bird nest collectors that lived in Bertie County, N.C. late in the 19th and early in the 20th century.
Tomorrow night-- Thursday, Nov. 9-- the Pauli Murray Prjoject's exhibit “Finding Jane Crow in Pauli Murray’s Contacts” opens at Duke University! If you’re in the area, I sure hope you get the chance to see it! It's free and open to the public. Curated by my daughter Vera Cecelski, the exhibit explores the life and times of one of the most extraordinary human rights activists in 20th-century America....
While I was in Chicago, I also made a quick trip to the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center. I had never been to the city before, so just getting to the university was an adventure. As I rode the CTA rail line downtown, I marveled at the diversity of the neighborhoods through which I was passing and the exuberant beauty of the murals and graffiti that I could see from my seat on the train. I changed onto a bus downtown that carried me south along the shores of Lake Michigan. After a long ride, I got off at Hyde Park, the historic neighborhood on the South Side that has been home to so many great Americans, including Mahalia Jackson, Muhammad Ali and President Obama.
My head spins when I am listening to Stan Riggs and Orrin Pilkey. They are legendary geologists. Both have been studying coastal N.C. for more than half a century. Last week I spent a couple days with the two of them on Ocracoke Island and Portsmouth Island. When I listen to them, my whole sense of time changes. History to them is a whole other thing. They look at the state's coastal plain and what they see is a quarry near the small town of Fountain, in Pitt County. The quarry’s rock is the same rock that you’d find in Dakar, Senegal, a relic of a time more than 200 million years ago when what’s now eastern N.C. and what’s now West Africa nuzzled together....
At the Newberry Library in Chicago, I also found Edward Price Bell’s diaries from Wilmington in 1898. They are different than his reporter's notebooks that I wrote about a few days ago. Bell used his notebooks to record bits and pieces of interviews. Sometimes he also sketched passages of writing that he later used in dispatches to his newspaper, the Chicago Record. The diaries are of a more personal nature.
Tim Tyson and I edited an anthology on the Wilmington "race riot” of 1898 nearly 20 years ago, but I still got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach a few weeks ago when I looked at Edward Price Bell’s diary and notebooks at the Newberry Library in Chicago.... Bell covered the white racial violence in Wilmington, N.C., as a roving reporter for the Chicago Record. I wanted to see the notebook that he kept while he was in Wilmington....
Tonight my daughter Vera and I are making a guest appearance on Vivian Howard’s Emmy-winning TV show “A Chef’s Life”....
Our trio of hogs cleaning up after a fishermen’s oyster or clam dinner on the sound side of Brown's Island. The fishermen left a pair of oyster knives stuck in the benches. The white belted animal on the right is a Hampshire, while the other two are mixed breeds. Hampshires are one of the oldest hog breeds in the U.S., popular for their easy temperaments, hardiness and foraging ability, all of which suited them well to life on Brown’s Island.
A Sunday visitor. The nearest villages to the Brown's Island mullet camp both lay 12 miles west at the mouth of the New River, a long haul anyway you made it in that day. “Yet most Sundays the girls arrive,” the photographer, Charles A. Farrell, noted. This young fan of Mickey Mouse was Elizabeth Turner (later Taylor). She lived on her aunt’s farm on the other side of Browns Sound and often visited the fishermen with her aunt and sisters. “Every fishermen on the island wanted his picture made with this charming lass,” Farrell wrote on the back of the original print.
Mullet roe drying in the sun, Brown's Island, 1938. The salted and sun-dried egg sacs of jumping mullet were a local delicacy and at least occasionally brought high prices in the New York market. The big roe mullet usually began to appear in local waters in late October or early November. After slitting open the fish’s belly and removing the roe, the fishermen washed and salted the roe and let it soak in the salt for two or three hours.
Two fishermen, brothers Carroll Lawrence and Lloyd Lawrence, salting spots on the sound side of the mullet camp at Brown’s Island. Carroll is coating the fish in salt in the big tray, while Lloyd is packing the fish in kegs. Once packed in salt, the fish will keep throughout the winter and well beyond.
The Gillikins and Lawrences carrying their surfboat, loaded with the mullet seine, to its resting place above the high tide line. Two rows of fishermen lifted the boat holding strong beams across their shoulders fore and aft, secured to the boat by a pair of heavy lines that ran stem to stern.
Briant Gillikin leaning on a mullet boat by a dune on the ocean side of Brown’s Island.
An interior view of one of the mullet camp’s bunkhouses. Capt. Briant Gillikin, the number two man in the camp, rests in the bunk on the left. The man in the other bunk is unidentified. The pine board walls are reinforced with wooden crates, some of them probably containing canned goods.
Young fishermen in camp at Brown's Island. A pair of heavy ash push-poles or long oars rests against the tar paper-and-slat roof of one of the camp cabins. On the far left, behind the young man in bib overalls and a pith helmet, a line of cork floats dangles from a nail. A cooking pan hangs on the wall behind him, and a washbasin sits on a shelf next to the cabin door.
Buck Gillikin, cook. Young Gillikin is making biscuits in a one-room cabin that served both as a kitchen and one of half-a-dozen bunkhouses at Brown's Island.
Leonard Gillikin posing with pipe on the ocean beach at Brown's Island. He is leaning on a tripod, presumably one that Charles Farrell used to support his camera. Though relatively young—he was born in 1913— Gillikin was the lead man on the mullet gang at Brown’s Island.
Bedford Lawrence on the ocean beach at Brown’s Island.
A view of the mullet camp from the ocean dunes facing the sound side of the island.
In the autumn of 1938 a photographer named Charles A. Farrell visited a seasonal mullet fishing camp at Brown’s Island, in Onslow County, N.C.
I first got an inkling of how much Indian Woods, in Bertie County, N.C., still means to the Tuscarora people in New York State when I was listening to a talk by a Tuscarora teacher named Vince Shiffert. At the time, I was at an extraordinary conference called “Three Hundred Years at Indian Woods.”
I am still re-playing scenes in my mind from Roger W. Woodbury’s account of the last days of the Civil War on the North Carolina coast. I found his journal yesterday a long way from home—at Norlin Library's Archives and Special Collections Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The decoy carvers invited me to lunch last week. By the time I got to the Straits, they had finished carving for the day. They had put away their tools and paint brushes, and they had set out a big lunch—roast mullet, fresh tomatoes and cornbread with fig jam, just the kind of meal I like.
I am at the State Archives in Raleigh, N.C., and the legendary archivist George Stevenson hands me an antebellum diary from the North Carolina coast. He had just acquired the diary for the archive’s collections. The diarist is John N. Benners. The location is Rosedale, a poor and lamentable Neuse River plantation where Benners and a handful of enslaved men and women scratch out a living as best they can.