The Witch at the Black River

The climax of Susan Johnson’s diary was her journey to a remote outpost on the Black River, in the southeastern corner of the North Carolina coast. After spending 4 weeks at Peter and Sarah Mallett’s rice plantation, she left Wilmington in a stagecoach on February 9, 1801. Her husband, Samuel, had gone 10 days earlier. He was waiting for her at the Black River.

The African Church at the Corner of Second & Walnut

On January 24, 1801, Susan Johnson's diary describes a visit to a Methodist church in Wilmington, N.C., that was a strange new experience for her: enslaved Africans and African Americans made up the large majority of the congregation. In addition, she may have been sitting near a young boy who would grow up and become one of the most important voices for freedom and justice in American history.

A Jonkunnu Christmas at Historic Stagville– this Saturday!

My daughter Vera Cecelski just told me that Historic Stagville in Durham County still has a few tickets left for its Jonkunnu Lantern Tour! The Tour will include a Jonkunnu procession featuring incredible local drummers, some amazing dancers and lots of schoolchildren and it’s this Saturday, December 8th, at 5:15 PM! You can get tickets by calling (919) 620-0120.

The Road to the Cape Fear– Susan Johnson’s Diary, Part 8

Susan Johnson arrived at “Mr. Mallett’s rice plantation opposite Wilmington” on the 9th of January 1801. Here her diary’s entries began to give me a dark, foreboding feeling like that in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as Susan entered a part of the North Carolina coast where most of the people were enslaved and her route followed what was called “Negro Head Road.”

Slave Traders & Revolutionaries– Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 7

On the 21st of December 1800, Susan Johnson left New Bern, N.C. Her husband, Samuel William Johnson, had re-joined her, and they traveled together. Three days later, on Christmas Eve, they arrived in Fayetteville. Though the state’s largest inland town, Fayetteville was still not home to more than 2,000 people, including both free citizens and the enslaved.

The Birth of a Plantation Empire: New Bern in 1800– Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 6

This is part 6 of my series on the diary that Susan Edwards Johnson wrote on the North Carolina coast in 1800 and 1801. At this point in her story, she's spending time at her cousin Frances Pollock Devereux's home in New Bern while her husband is overseeing the construction of gristmills and lumber mills on Peter Mallet's lands on the Black River. 

Women Reading– Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 5

After her husband returned to the Black River on Nov. 27, 1800, Susan Johnson remained in the town of New Bern, N.C., for nearly a month without him. She was the guest of her first cousin, the wealthy heiress Frances Pollock Devereux, and her husband, John Devereux. Susan’s diary describes many of the ways that she spent her time in New Bern during that month. Above all, Susan read. She read constantly. She read on her own, aloud to others and practically at all hours.

“Immigrants– We get the job done!” — Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 4

This is the 4th part of my look at the diary of Susan Edwards Johnson, a Connecticut woman that visited the North Carolina coast in 1800-1801. I found the diary at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, Conn. Susan Johnson remained in the town of New Bern, N.C., from the 24thof November until the 21stof December, … Continue reading “Immigrants– We get the job done!” — Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 4

Susan Johnson’s Diary– “On the Borders of the Great Dismal Swamp”

Last spring I visited the Connecticut Historical Society when I passed through Hartford, Conn. I was headed to my niece’s home in New Haven, but I couldn’t resist stopping for a few hours: the Society’s holdings include an extraordinary collection of early American historical manuscripts and I wanted to see if any of them might shed new light on coastal North Carolina.... I was only there for a day, but I found a real treasure that I would love to share here— a remarkable diary that was kept by a Connecticut woman when she stayed in coastal North Carolina in the very first decades after the American Revolution.

Letter from Hiroshima

Tonight I am a long way from home. My wife and I came to Japan so that I could give lectures at Senshu University in Tokyo, but now that I am done there we are exploring the country for a few days.  Guided by a Japanese friend, we have visited ancient Buddhist temples, hiked to a mountaintop Shinto shrine and explored back alley shops where a single family has made a certain kind of cookie or indigo dye or sake for centuries.   Today we are in Hiroshima, where we visited memorials to the victims of the atomic bomb that fell on the city on August 6, 1945.  

Annie Hooper’s Vision: From Hatteras Island to the Smithsonian

I found Annie Hooper’s masterpiece in a warehouse in a small town in eastern North Carolina: thousands of hauntingly beautiful Biblical figures made out of driftwood, seashells, putty and plaster. All of them are part of large, elaborate scenes depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments. I had been hoping to see them for decades, and when I finally found them, they were together for probably the last time.

Memories of Nags Head Woods

Thirty years ago, Lu Ann Jones and Amy Glass wrote one of my favorite books on the history of the Outer Banks: “Everyone Helped His Neighbor": Memories of Nags Head Woods.  Long out of print, the book is now available again, thanks to its original publisher, The Nature Conservancy, and to its new distributor, the University of North Carolina Press.

Florence

The whole world is underwater. The places where I grew up, the places where I lived as a young man, the places I have been writing about all my life. The places where people I love live. The places that fill my dreams. Richlands and Trenton, Newport and New Bern, Wilmington and Lumberton, Engelhard, Belhaven, Washington. I am thinking about you all. I am keeping you in my prayers. I am holding you all in my heart.

Celebrating the Hyde Co. school boycott’s 50th anniversary– Engelhard, N.C.

Last Sunday, on September 2nd, my wife and I attended a wonderful celebration of the Hyde County school boycott’s 50th anniversary. We gathered in the old Davis School’s gymnasium in Engelhard, a fishing village on Far Creek and it was an unforgettable day: full of storytelling and memories, good food and much fellowship.  

Shoot-out in Middletown—Celebrating the Hyde Co. School Boycott’s 50th Anniversary, part 5

This is the 5th part of a series celebrating the 50thanniversary of the Hyde County school boycott, a remarkable chapter in the history of America’s civil rights movement and the subject of my first book, Along Freedom Road. Today, I re-visit a shoot-out with the Ku Klux Klan that demonstrated how profoundly Hyde County had changed during the school boycott.

Letha Selby Stands Up– Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Hyde County School Boycott, Part 3

This is the 3rd part of a series celebrating the 50thanniversary of the Hyde County school boycott, a remarkable chapter in the history of America’s civil rights movement and the subject of my first book, Along Freedom Road. Today-- an elderly teacher named Letha Selby launches the school boycott

Marines– The Last Days of a New River Fishing Village

On at least two trips to the North Carolina coast, a Greensboro photographer named Charles A. Farrell took photographs of the fishing villages near the mouth of the New River, in Onslow County.  His first trip was in the fall of 1938, and he visited again sometime in the first half of 1941. On the first trip, he may only have visited Sneads Ferry, a fishing village on the west side of the river.