The most exciting historical source I found in coastal Maine this week was an old tintype portrait of an African American man named John H. Nichols who escaped from slavery on the North Carolina coast and settled in Lewiston, Maine, after the Civil War. In a 1921 issue of the Lewiston Journal Illustrated Magazine, I also found the life story of John H. Nichols....
While exploring coastal Maine's archives and museums this week, I’ve also found quite a few letters from Maine soldiers that served in the Union army or navy on the North Carolina coast during the Civil War. Those letters highlight a different kind of historic connection that ties coastal Maine and coastal North Carolina together.
A few years ago Ocracoke natives Philip Howard and his cousin Blanche Howard Jolliff gave me a typewritten manuscript of one woman’s account of the great 1899 hurricane on Ocracoke Island. The woman's name was Irla Bonner Litchfield Ticknor and she was 19 years old when that devastating hurricane swept across the North Carolina coast.
Linda Garey, a teacher I met some years ago, recently sent me copies of some remarkable historical images of North Carolina lighthouses and lightships that were taken in and around 1899. They are from her great-grandfather Rear Admiral Albert Ross’s extraordinary collection of magic lantern glass slides that he made while serving in the U.S. Navy.
This is a portrait of an African American fisherman and saltwater farmer named Proctor Davis. He was born a slave on Davis Island, in the Down East part of Carteret County, N.C., ca. 1839. He escaped from slavery during the Civil War, but he and his family returned after the war and made a new home at Davis Ridge, a marshy hammock just north of Davis Island.
I recently stumbled onto a New York reporter’s account of a journey to Cape Hatteras in 1890. He made the trip in a remarkable sailing vessel called a kunner and the captain was J. Clifford Bowser, a member of a legendary African American family of fishermen, sailors, pilots and surfmen from Roanoke Island, N.C.
North Carolina’s dominance of the nation’s naval stores industry began to change drastically in the decades after the Civil War. By that time, the industry was destroying the region’s longleaf pine forest. In a frenzied half century of exploitation, the state’s longleaf pine forest fell from an estimated 4-5 million acres to less than 60,000 acres. Travelers began to describe train trips through eastern North Carolina’s pine forests in which they did not see a single tree that did not have the V-shaped scars that were characteristic of tapping.
“This used to be an island where the men went to sea.” That’s what 95-year-old Blanche Howard Jolliff told me a few years ago, when I visited her on Ocracoke Island, one of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I was the guest of her cousin Philip and his family next door, and Philip took me by to see her.
Last winter I visited the New Hanover County Public Library in Wilmington, N.C., to see a rare and extraordinary group of historical manuscripts: a collection of four inscriptions written by Omar ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim scholar, teacher and trader from West Africa. He wrote them while he was being held captive on the North Carolina coast two centuries ago.
I never grow tired of looking at them: the faces in these old photographs. They are immigrants that settled in eastern North Carolina in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They came from Russia, Syria, Lebanon, Norway, Greece, Poland and many other far-off lands.
I found Jack Kerouac’s ode to Kinston, N.C.'s old-fashioned chicken coops in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library. The Berg Collection holds the letters, original manuscripts and other personal papers of some of America’s greatest writers, including Kerouac, the Beat Generation's godfather and the man that wrote On the Road.
I found these photographs of child mill workers in eastern North Carolina at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. I think they mostly speak for themselves. A photographer named Lewis Hine took them on at least 3 visits to the state between 1908 and 1914. He was employed by the National Child Labor Committee to document the exploitation of children in factories and other workplaces across the U.S.
I recently found this map in an old book called The Williams History: Tracing the Descendants in America of Robert Williams, of Ruthin, North Wales, who Settled in Carteret County, North Carolina, in 1763. The map describes a largely forgotten group of Quaker settlements that flourished on the North Carolina coast more than 200 years ago.
I’ve been reading an old memoir about Pitt County that I hadn’t thought about in years until yesterday. A UNC-TV reporter was interviewing me, and he asked me if I could think of any white Southerners in eastern North Carolina that had stood up against slavery and racial oppression during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era.
Tonight’s Black History Month post is about another forgotten moment in eastern North Carolina's civil rights history: a historic voting rights movement in Halifax County, N.C., in 1964. It was called the Halifax County Voters Movement. I stumbled on it when I was going through some of my old notes from The Carolina Times, the African American newspaper that has been published in Durham, N.C., since 1921.
Today I’m looking at several historical photographs of fishermen, fishing boats and fishing gear on the Roanoke River. The photographs mostly date to the period from 1870 to 1910, though one that I'm especially fond of was taken in the late 1930s. That was an exciting period in the history of the river's fisheries. If you had launched a boat in Weldon, at the falls of the river, and drifted down those swift waters all the way to the river's mouth on the Albemarle Sound, you would have seen many fishermen and many different kinds of fishing gear, including weirs, bow nets, stake nets, drift nets, wheels, seines and slides.
The stern paddle wheel steamer Tarboro on the Tar River, probably during her maiden voyage in 1898. She is coming into the town of Tarboro, in Edgecombe County, N.C., and a crowd waits at the town’s public dock to celebrate her launching. After calling at Tarboro, she will proceed on to Old Sparta, Greenville and, finally, Washington, N.C., a seaport 45 miles downriver. She is heavy with freight, almost certainly cotton or cottonseed.
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.
One other historic use of oyster shells was especially important to farm women on the North Carolina coast and beyond in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Building roads, fertilizing fields and making cement, mortar, plaster and whitewash out of oyster shells were all big parts of coastal life. But so was using crushed oyster shells in poultry yards.
Earlier this week, I wrote about the historic use of oyster shells for constructing roads on the North Carolina coast. But coastal people didn’t only use oyster shells for road building. Particularly before the Civil War, they also used oyster shells as an important source of lime. Burnt down in kilns, an incredible tonnage of oyster shells was used in making cement, mortar, bricks, wall plaster and whitewash.
I am remembering a research trip to the Providence Public Library in Providence, Rhode Island. Built in the style of the Venetian Renaissance, the library is an exquisitely beautiful old building. But when I ascended the Italian marble staircase and opened the door into the special collections room, I thought I had discovered Hogwarts Castle’s Room of Hidden Things from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
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.
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.
This is the 9th part of my series on Susan Edwards Johnson's diary of her travels on the North Carolina coast in 1800 and 1801. I found the diary last spring at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, Conn.
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.”