Dr. J. W. Page had a very particular view of the Civil War on the North Carolina coast. I was looking at his letters, diaries and supply ledgers at the New York Public Library a couple weeks ago and it was unmistakable: To him the war was all about wounds and injuries, and he breaks … Continue reading A Temerity to Life
My friend Melba McKeever’s daughter Mary Beth ran home to get two of her family treasures after I gave a lecture that she attended in Sneads Ferry, N.C. recently. They turned out to be account books that her grandfather, Ollie Marine, kept at his general store in the village of Marines in Onslow County, N.C., from 1927 to 1941.
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.
As impressive as I found Yale’s Beinecke Library, which is a modern, architectural wonder (more on that visit later), I found myself far more excited by the Whitney Library at the New Haven Museum. Maybe I just succumbed to nostalgia. Founded in 1862 and located next to Yale, the Whitney has spectacular collections on New Haven’s history but has made few concessions to modernity.
Not long ago, I explored a wonderful collection of oral history interviews in Swansboro, N.C. In 2009 a group of a dozen volunteers from the Swansboro Historical Association underwent a special training in oral history research. Once completed, they interviewed some of the coastal town’s oldest residents and recorded their stories about Swansboro’s history in the early to mid-20th century.
I can’t tell from Benjamin Labaree’s journal with total confidence, but the incident of the runaway slave and the miller in Trenton that I discussed in my last post may have been part of the white panic that spread across the North Carolina coast in the summer of 1821. Historian Guion Griffis Johnson discussed the panic in her classic book, Ante-bellum North Carolina: A Social History.
In the journal that I found at Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, Benjamin Labaree also wrote a good deal about aspects of slavery that he witnessed when he was the lone schoolteacher in Trenton, N.C. in 1821-22.
When he was 19 years old, in 1821, a young teacher named Benjamin Labaree left a small town in New Jersey, made his way to New York City and took passage on a ship bound for Washington, N.C. His first impression of the North Carolina coast could have been better. “I should not like to teach in that town,” he later wrote, “everything looked so untidy and neglected. Dead animals were to be seen in the travelled streets.”
A memory. I am remembering a day at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Mass. The Society holds one of the great collections of early American manuscripts and artifacts, everything from John Quincy Adams’ diary to Paul Revere’s pistol. I was there to look at less famous relics, but ones just as exciting to me: letters and diaries written by Union soldiers that served in New Bern, N.C. during the American Civil War.
A book. While my daughter Vera and I were doing research on Cape Lookout, N.C. in the 1910s and '20s, we found a little known memoir by a big game fisherman who hunted sharks on the North Carolina coast. The shark hunter was named William E. Young, and his book, published in 1934, is called Shark! Shark! Shark! The Thirty-Year Odyssey of a Pioneer Shark Hunter.
The more I looked, the more I got the impression that the period from 1947 to 1953 was one of considerable labor unrest throughout the fishing industry on the North Carolina coast.
My conversation with folk singer and social activist Guy Carawan had gone in surprising directions. When I called him, now almost a decade ago, I had really just wanted to know more about his pilgrimage to his father’s homeplace in Pamlico County, N.C. in the summer of 1953.
I called the legendary folksinger and social activist Guy Carawan after I listened to his oral history interview at the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was in his 80s when I contacted him. (He has since passed away.) He was very generous with his time and he seemed to enjoy re-visiting his younger days.
This is a story that starts with a long and freewheeling road trip —it’s the summer of 1953 and a young folksinger is making a pilgrimage to his father’s home in a little coastal village in Pamlico County, N.C.
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.
A curator at the Gallery Oldham, a museum in Oldham, England, sent me this portrait a few days ago. A local gentleman named William Thorpe apparently took the photograph in the late 1860s or 1870s. The unidentified object in the sitter’s lap resembles, and may have been, an iron slave collar.
When I was using the British Newspaper Archive (BNA), I also did several general searches to see how the British press covered my home state of North Carolina in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was interested in what the British public saw when they looked across the Atlantic at us.
I discovered the Wilmington Jubilee Singers while I was exploring old newspapers in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA). The BNA is an invaluable on-line resource that is making available (for a small fee) digital copies of the historical newspapers preserved at the British Library in London. The British Library holds the largest collection of British newspapers … Continue reading The Wilmington Jubilee Singers
I recently found this description of the 1921 lynching of an African American tenant farmer in Jones County, N.C.: Jones County is quiet today, following the lynching Sunday at noon of Jerome Whitfield, colored, who assaulted a young white woman Saturday afternoon…. News received from citizens of Jones county… was to the effect that between 1000 and 1500 men took part in the proceedings….
At the Denver Public Library's Western History Collection, I also found an even more surprising set of documents bearing on the history of the North Carolina coast— a collection of letters and maps from the 1930s that provide insight into the origins of some of our most beloved coastal wildlife refuges. I found them in a collection of papers that had belonged to John Clark Salyers, a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture biologist who is remembered as “the father of the national wildlife refuge system.”
Today I’m in Denver, Colorado, and while I’m here I’m visiting the Western History Collection at the Denver Public Library. I wouldn’t usually expect to find manuscripts about my special interest—the history of the North Carolina coast— in a collection that’s devoted to the Rocky Mountain West.... But this library also has Edwin R. Kalmbach’s field diaries. I was interested in Kalmbach because one of his diaries describes an 11-day trip that he made to an especially interesting part of the North Carolina coast—the old rice plantations along the Lower Cape Fear.
"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.
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.
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.