In 1895 a young mother sang this lullaby to her children while she nursed them at a church in Kinnakeet, a village on the Outer Banks. The rest of the congregation was singing “Come Thou Fount of Many Blessings,” but she must have stepped into the back of the church to soothe her two little ones. It’s not the kind of moment that usually makes it into history books.
Last night I saw a scene on PBS’s drama Victoria in which the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind sang for Queen Victoria. That was an actual event: it happened on April 26, 1846. But of course I thought immediately of the little community called “Jenny Lind” that is located 10 miles west of Kinston, in Lenoir County, N.C. According to legend, Jenny Lind sang there, too.
Here on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I thought I’d share a historical document from one of the most famous civil rights events in American history, the campaign to end racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama-- and also talk a little about Dr. King's visits to North Carolina.
All week I have been thinking about our trip to Greene County. Me, him and Tim. A summer day. The Reverend’s VW convertible. The top down. The small towns and old tobacco fields of eastern North Carolina. The wind and the sun on our faces. The joy of it all.
“I remember when the biggest joy of Christmas for me was getting to ride the mail boat over to Beaufort and just look at the five and dime and the drugstore. We'd go down on the shore, bundled up, head and ears, and the mail boat came from down at the center of the island. We'd get in the broom grass and watch for it, and they'd come pick us up.”
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.
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.
This weekend my family and I are in Tryon, N.C. and we are listening to Nina Simone. This is a small town on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and her music just seems to be in the air in this place where she was born and first learned to make music and discovered who she was.
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.
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.
I love to walk around old graveyards. One of my favorite places to wander among the headstones is near where I grew up. The graveyard is called Oceanview Cemetery, and it’s in the little coastal town of Beaufort, N.C.
Friday night, February 23. I am writing these words at the old Booker T. Washington High School in Rocky Mount, N.C. A very special event is happening here tonight. More than half a century ago, on November 27, 1962, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a historic speech in this school’s gymnasium, only a few feet from where I am sitting now.
One of the things I like best about the Kinston Music Park is the way it doesn’t just honor the great jazz, blues, gospel, bebop, big band, rhythm and blues and hip hop artists that came out of Eastern N.C.—the park also honors the band teachers, choir directors and music educators who made that rich history of African American music possible.
A memory. I am remembering when I was at Skara Brae on the west coast of the Mainland, the largest of Scotland’s Orkney Islands. Skara Brae is the ruins of an ancient village. It’s the oldest Neolithic settlement in Europe and was here long before the Pyramids or Stonehenge.
Tonight I am a long way from home. My son and I are in Warsaw, Poland, visiting my grandfather’s homeland, and while it has been a trip of many joys I don’t have words for what we saw today or what I feel now. In the wind and snow and rain, we explored the former site of the Warsaw Ghetto. During the Second World War, the Nazis confined 450,000 Jews in one small part of the city.
Last night I had Greek shortbread cookies called kourambiethes at the Annual Holiday Cafe and Bazaar at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Raleigh. The sugar-dusted butter cookies are a Christmas rite in Greek homes, and the ones last night immediately brought to mind the first time that I had them.
My favorite part of Ammie Jenkins’ Healing from the Land is the last chapter, where she describes a tradition of older African Americans endeavoring to live up to Leviticus’s call to share one’s harvest with “the needy and the stranger.”
I was recently in Spring Lake, N.C., to do an oral history interview with Ms. Ammie Jenkins. Ammie is a leading advocate for black farmers and black landownership there in the Sandhills. As the (now retired) executive director and driving force behind the Sandhills Family Heritage Association, she is devoted heart and soul to African Americans and their relationship to the land in Lee, Harnett, Cumberland, Richmond, Moore and Hoke counties.
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....
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....
Tonight my daughter Vera and I are making a guest appearance on Vivian Howard’s Emmy-winning TV show “A Chef’s Life”....
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.”
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.
While my collards are cooking, I am thinking about my Great-aunt Irene. She was my grandmother’s youngest sister. She was born in Core Creek, in Carteret County, N.C., in 1919. She and her brothers and sisters grew up on a remote little farm next to the salt marsh, but Irene looks beautiful and glamorous in the family’s old black and white photographs.
Here is a sentence that I thought I'd never write: one of the highlights of my year was my induction into the Sons of the American Revolution.