Twenty-five years ago, I lived for most of a year by the shores of Lake Mattamuskeet. I arrived in the fall and watched the great flocks of Canada geese, snow geese and tundra swans settle onto the lake for the winter, and I was there in the spring when they rose back into the sky and headed home to the Arctic Circle.
Young Barbara Doll’s portrait of Ms. Ada Waterfield and Knotts Island a century ago comes from a remarkable collection of local history and folklore that was created here at Currituck County High School in the 1970s and ‘80s. In 1976 an obviously talented English teacher named Susie G. Spruill and the 30 students in her American Literature class launched a journal called the Currituck Sounder.
Few coastal visitors know that the secluded hammock of Davis Ridge was once home to an extraordinary community founded by liberated slaves. Nobody has lived at “the Ridge” since 1933, yet the legend of those African American fishermen, whalers and boatbuilders still echoes among the elderly people in the maritime communities between North River and Cedar Island that locals call “Down East.”
I want to thank you all for inviting me to join in your celebration of this beautiful new museum’s opening and its inaugural photography exhibit, Ulrich Mack’s “Island People.”
When I finished school at Harvard and set out to write history, I never considered writing about any place other than where I grew up: the eastern part of North Carolina. I discovered that the rural and small town landscape of my childhood was more than enough window for me into the larger realm of American history. Here I found the world in a grain of sand and more than enough history for a lifetime of writing and storytelling. Without leaving home, I have been writing about topics as far ranging as slavery and the American Revolution, maritime life during the Civil War, women’s work on the World War II home front and the black freedom struggle of the 1960s.
I don’t know whether or not Eddie McCoy would agree with me, but I suspect that the African American oral history project that has become his life’s passion began on a beautiful spring day, the 11th of May, 1971, to be exact, when a black army veteran named Henry Marrow was shot dead for talking sweet to a white woman.
I grew up by the salt marshes and brackish creeks of a quiet North Carolina tidewater community that lies between the Neuse River and the Newport River at a place where they are both great saltwater bays on the edge of the sea. Oysters were just a part of my life. When I was a young boy, we still picked up oysters on the rocks off Mill Creek, or the flats off Harkers Island, and opened them and downed them, standing knee deep in the water without a thought to pollution or getting ill. Come the first cold snap in autumn, we relished oysters as the highlight of dinners that my grandmother Vera served every Sunday after church.
A decade ago, I interviewed an African American woman named Miss Dorcas Carter in New Bern, North Carolina. Born in 1913, Miss Carter grew up to teach in the city’s African American schools for more than 40 years. Renowned for her exceptionally high standards for intellectual achievement and personal character, she was 88 years old when I visited her to learn more about the great New Bern fire of 1922. That fire reduced some of the most prosperous black neighborhoods in the American South to ashes and left nearly 3,000 people homeless, including Miss Carter and her family. By the time that I visited her, she was one of the last living witnesses to the fire.
Today I want to share with you some of Sonny Williamson’s research on Core Sound sharpies. As many of you know, Sonny and his wife, Ginny, live just on the other side of the Straits in her hometown, Marshallberg. Retired from the Air Force, Sonny is one of Down East’s larger than life characters. He is a storyteller extraordinaire. He is the author of several wonderful books on Down East history and folk lore. For many years he wrote a popular local history column in the Carteret County News-Times.
When I am traveling on oral history research trips, I often think about Gordon Day. Mr. Day was 78 years old when I interviewed him several years ago. He was one of the first charter fishing boat captains in Morehead City, N.C.. When the Second World War reached America in 1941, the Navy recruited him to search for German submarines 25 miles out at sea off Cape Lookout Shoals.
I want to thank the Phoenix Historical Society for inviting me back to Tarboro. As many of you know, I have been watching your historical society grow from its first days. I have had the privilege to be your guest as a lecturer, a writer and on two of your extraordinary walking tours of Tarboro’s African American past. I can scarcely believe how much you have accomplished in only a few short years. I think you should be so proud of what you have done.
An exhibit on local connections to slavery at the Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council Archives in Oldham, England, has brought to light an American slave narrative previously unknown in the United States. Titled The Life of the Late James Johnson (Colored Evangelist), an Escaped Slave from the Southern States of America, the pamphlet chronicles Johnson’s youth in Brunswick County, North Carolina, his escape to a Union vessel during the Civil War, his passage to Liverpool as a sailor and a sobering, if picaresque, journey through England and Wales.
I was recently a guest at the beginning of this official celebration for the Cape Lookout Light Station’s 150th year of service that ends tonight. That was three weeks ago and I imagine that many of you were there. For those of you that could not make it, I want to tell you that it was quite a day.
This is a story about the passage of time and impermanence and what, if anything, lives after us. The setting is Portsmouth Island, one of the Outer Banks, and a village that was founded there in 1754, peaked at roughly 600 residents a century later and was abandoned in 1971. If you go to Portsmouth today, you have to take a boat from Ocracoke Island, on the other side of the inlet. When you arrive at the island dock, you will discover a half-dozen old homes, a school building, a Methodist church and a few cemeteries, all looking as if local residents might just have stepped down to the shore for an hour or two and might be back any time.
I first met Bland Simpson at an oyster roast at the old hunting lodge at Lake Matttamuskeet. That was in the winter of 1997, and we were in the middle of a remote, swampy and unforgettably beautiful landscape. From the top of the lodge’s wildlife observation tower, the view took my breath away. In every direction, cane brakes, freshwater marshes, and juniper swamps stretched to the horizon, while thousands of Canada geese, snow geese, and tundra swans rested on the lake.
In 2009 and 2010, an extraordinary community project, called “Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing,” commemorated the central role that the menhaden industry played here in Carteret County, N.C, for generations. Inspired by the closing of the state's last menhaden factory, Beaufort Fisheries, in 2005, the project involved a series of community forums, school events and documentary projects. Led by cultural anthropologist and local fisheries activist, and my old friend, Barbara Garrity-Blake, the project’s organizers worked hand-in-hand with former menhaden fishermen and factory workers to create a unique community-wide period of reflection on the passing of a way of life.