In July of 1912 an extraordinary young scientist named Maud Menten visited Russell Coles at Cape Lookout, N.C. After spending a week assisting her with a research project, Coles wrote a colleague at the Smithsonian, saying “Dr. Menten is unquestionably the most wonderful human being in the world.”
Now, only a century later, those who study sharks-- as with so much of the world's fauna-- seem to spend most of their time like me, a historian: chronicling extinctions and warning of coming extinctions, as if Russell Coles' lust for conquering nature had spread throughout the world.
In Russell Coles’ day, many ichthyologists—biologists that study fish—had never actually seen sharks in the wild. Coles offered such scientists the twin possibilities of studying sharks in their native habitat at Cape Lookout and of expanding their collections for study in some of the most prestigious natural history museums in the world.
In a 1915 account, Russell Coles described his pursuit of great white sharks in the waters off Cape Lookout, N.C., in the years since 1900. I found his account strange and fascinating and more than a little chilling.
Every summer shark hunter Russell Coles took the train to Morehead City, and the first thing he always did when he arrived at the depot was meet Capt. Charlie W. Willis in the Promise Land.
In 1915 Russell J. Coles drafted an article on two kinds of manta rays that he had hunted at Cape Lookout. One was the lesser devil ray, and the other was the giant oceanic manta ray, a gentle, incredibly beautiful creature with fins that can be 18 feet or more across and which look like great black wings when moving through the sea.
A few years ago, a gentleman in Virginia, Walter Coles, Sr., invited my daughter Vera and me to visit his family’s private library of research materials related to his uncle, a world-renowned shark hunter named Russell J. Coles who did the large bulk of his shark hunting at Cape Lookout, N.C., between roughly 1900 and 1925.
Late one night in 1862, a slave waterman named Dempsey Hill slipped into the customs house in Beaufort, N.C., removed copies of the latest nautical charts and buried them in the local cemetery-- the one people now call the Old Burying Ground.
The New York Times reported today that the great African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry was working on a play about the massacre of black citizens in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898 when she died, far too young, of pancreatic cancer in 1965. The news took my breath away.
A project called Last Seen—Finding Family after Slavery has been documenting the efforts of African Americans to find their families and other loved ones after the American Civil War. Most of the documents that the project has collected and put on-line are newspaper notices like this one about a family in Perquimans County, in northeastern … Continue reading “I Desire to find my Children”
In the 1870s and ‘80s, a group of ex-slaves called the Wilmington Jubilee Singers traveled throughout Great Britain, giving concerts in which they sang hymns and spirituals in a close harmony style, either a cappella or accompanied only by a pianist.
A 92-year-old gentleman in Chesapeake City, Maryland, recently sent me a wonderful message about his childhood memories of living on the North Carolina coast in the 1930s. His name is Mr. Harold Lee and when he was four years old he lived in a coastal village in Onslow County, N.C., that is no more.
Today I am remembering a very special day just a couple months ago, before the quarantines and before the shuttered stores and empty streets, when Marion Evans and I explored a corner of the North Carolina coast that was completely new to me and seemed like an almost magical place.
I only met Rosa Parks once, back in 1996 when I accompanied my friend Tim Tyson to Robert Williams' funeral in Monroe, N.C. At the request of the Williams family, Tim and Ms. Parks both gave moving eulogies to the great civil rights leader who had a poet's soul and stood up to the Ku Klux Klan with guns.
In its thoughtful and deeply troubling new exhibit “Americans and the Holocaust,” the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum highlights Sen. Robert Reynolds of North Carolina because in 1939 he led a senate fight that prevented the U.S. from rescuing 20,000 Jewish children from the Nazis. At the time, Reynolds said that he did not want the Jewish children to come to America and take our jobs.
Finally, I want to look at a silk lace and linen shawl. By itself I don't suppose it's anything rare or valuable. But in this case it's special because of who owned it: one of greatest freedom fighters in American history, Harriet Tubman.
John H. Scott was a free African American saddle and harness maker in Fayetteville, N.C. until 1856, when he left the town and settled in Oberlin, Ohio. Two years later, he became famous for taking up arms and liberating a fugitive slave that federal marshals had captured in Oberlin and were planning on returning to slavery.
A painting called "The Hunted Slaves" is another of the treasures at the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, DC, that speaks to North Carolina's coastal history. Done in Liverpool, England, in 1862, Richard Ansdell's oil painting depicts a pair of fugitive slaves defending themselves against a slave catcher's dogs in the Great Dismal Swamp....
As I look through the historical collections at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I also found another important artifact from eastern North Carolina: a postcard, dated ca. 1910, of a convict labor camp in Laurinburg, N.C.
Today I'm looking at another artifact from the National Museum of African American History and Culture that has a connection to the North Carolina coast: a first edition of a book called The Conjure Woman, a collection of short stories by African American writer, lawyer and activist Charles W. Chesnutt.
Some of the National Museum of African American History & Culture's artifacts are very small but hold a lot of meaning. This little pinback button is a good example. The button highlights another important moment in the civil rights movement on the North Carolina coast-- the campaign to free the Wilmington 10.
The sit-ins in New Bern began on March 17, 1960. Led by the Rev. Willie Hickman and the Rev. Leon "Buckshot" Nixon, a group of 29 African Americans, mainly high school students, came in the front doors of two downtown businesses, the Kress Department Store and Bob Clark's Drug Store, and sat down at the lunch counters.
As I continue my look at the treasures at the National Museum of African American History & Culture, the second item I want to discuss is another photograph: a photograph of the backyard and tennis court at 1406 Orange Street in Wilmington, N.C. where Dr. Hubert Eaton oversaw the training of Althea Gibson, one of the greatest women's tennis players of all time.
As my way of celebrating Black History Month this year, I'm going to feature stories about nine artifacts at the National Museum of African American History and Culture that speak to North Carolina's coastal history, beginning with this photograph of Golden Frinks and an amazing young woman from Williamston at the March on Washington.
Allen Parker’s Recollections of Slavery Times is one of the most important historical accounts of slavery and antebellum life on the North Carolina coast. Today, as we approach its 125th anniversary, I want to talk about Parker, Recollections and a special group of students that I taught when I was a visiting professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.