The Witch at the Black River

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.

The African Church at the Corner of Second & Walnut

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.

The Road to the Cape Fear– Susan Johnson’s Diary, Part 8

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.”

Slave Traders & Revolutionaries– Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 7

On the 21st of December 1800, Susan Johnson left New Bern, N.C. Her husband, Samuel William Johnson, had re-joined her, and they traveled together. Three days later, on Christmas Eve, they arrived in Fayetteville. Though the state’s largest inland town, Fayetteville was still not home to more than 2,000 people, including both free citizens and the enslaved.

The Birth of a Plantation Empire: New Bern in 1800– Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 6

This is part 6 of my series on the diary that Susan Edwards Johnson wrote on the North Carolina coast in 1800 and 1801. At this point in her story, she's spending time at her cousin Frances Pollock Devereux's home in New Bern while her husband is overseeing the construction of gristmills and lumber mills on Peter Mallet's lands on the Black River. 

Women Reading– Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 5

After her husband returned to the Black River on Nov. 27, 1800, Susan Johnson remained in the town of New Bern, N.C., for nearly a month without him. She was the guest of her first cousin, the wealthy heiress Frances Pollock Devereux, and her husband, John Devereux. Susan’s diary describes many of the ways that she spent her time in New Bern during that month. Above all, Susan read. She read constantly. She read on her own, aloud to others and practically at all hours.

“Immigrants– We get the job done!” — Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 4

This is the 4th part of my look at the diary of Susan Edwards Johnson, a Connecticut woman that visited the North Carolina coast in 1800-1801. I found the diary at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, Conn. Susan Johnson remained in the town of New Bern, N.C., from the 24thof November until the 21stof December, … Continue reading “Immigrants– We get the job done!” — Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 4

Susan Johnson’s Diary– “On the Borders of the Great Dismal Swamp”

Last spring I visited the Connecticut Historical Society when I passed through Hartford, Conn. I was headed to my niece’s home in New Haven, but I couldn’t resist stopping for a few hours: the Society’s holdings include an extraordinary collection of early American historical manuscripts and I wanted to see if any of them might shed new light on coastal North Carolina.... I was only there for a day, but I found a real treasure that I would love to share here— a remarkable diary that was kept by a Connecticut woman when she stayed in coastal North Carolina in the very first decades after the American Revolution.

The Makah Museum

A memory. I am remembering a day at the Makah Museum in Neah Bay, on the Makah Indian Reservation in Washington State. The reservation occupies the remote far northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula. The museum is small and intimate, but it holds one of the most important collections of Native American artifacts in the world.

The Color of Water, part 10– Racial Covenants

This is the final post in my 10-part  special series that I am calling “The Color of Water.” In this series, I am exploring the history of Jim Crow and North Carolina’s coastal waters, including the state’s forgotten history of all-white beaches, “sundown towns,” and racially exclusive resort communities.  Today-- racial covenants. You can find the … Continue reading The Color of Water, part 10– Racial Covenants

The Color of Water, part 9– Wade-Ins and Swim-Ins

This is my 9th (and second to last) post in a special series that I am calling “The Color of Water.” In this series, I am exploring the history of Jim Crow and North Carolina’s coastal waters, including the state’s forgotten history of all-white beaches, “sundown towns,” and racially exclusive resort communities.  Today—civil rights activists take on Jim Crow swimming pools and the beaches.

The Color of Water, part 8– To Chicken Bone Beach and Back

When I talked with coastal old timers about Jim Crow, I also heard many stories about African Americans leaving North Carolina in the summertime and going north to get close to the water.  Again and again, black Carolinians told me stories about traveling especially to Atlantic City, Wildwood and other towns on the Jersey Shore to work at beach resorts and enjoy the seashore.

The Color of Water, part 7– From Ocean City to Rainbow Beach

This is part 7 of my special series called “The Color of Water.” In this series, I’m exploring the history of Jim Crow and North Carolina’s coastal waters, including the state’s forgotten history of all-white beaches, “Sundown towns,” and racially exclusive resort communities. Today-- African American and Indian beaches.

The Color of Water, part 6– Juke Joints, Clam Fritters & Bop City

As I explored the history of Jim Crow on North Carolina’s coast, I discovered something else important: black and Indian people often found a way to the sea and our other coastal waters, despite “sundown towns,” despite signs that read “No N--- after dark” and despite oceanfront resorts that didn’t allow them to go swimming or walk on the beach.

The Color of Water, part 5– Jim Crow from Nags Head to Wrightsville Beach

The story of Jim Crow and the North Carolina coast also extends to the state’s most popular beaches and beachfront communities. During the Jim Crow era, those popular vacation destinations barred black families from swimming in their waters, staying in their motels, buying cottages or in many cases even walking on their beaches.

The Color of Water, part 4– The Sign by the Old Ferry Landing

This is the fourth post in my special series “The Color of Water.” In this series, I am exploring  the history of Jim Crow and North Carolina’s coastal waters, including the state’s forgotten history of all-white beaches, “sundown towns” and racially exclusive resort communities. You can find the other stories in the series here. After … Continue reading The Color of Water, part 4– The Sign by the Old Ferry Landing

The Color of Water, part 3: Knotts Island– “No Place for Negroes”

This is the third post in my special series “The Color of Water.” In this series, I am exploring  the history of Jim Crow and North Carolina’s coastal waters, including the state’s forgotten history of all-white beaches, “Sundown towns” and racially exclusive resort communities. You can find the other stories in the series here.

The Town Where Moby-Dick Began

On yet another trip to New Bedford, Mass., I crossed the Fish Island Bridge and explored Fairhaven. It’s a lovely town, with broad, shady avenues and a long row of shipyards and fishing wharves along the Acushnet River. In 1841 Herman Melville sailed from the old seaport on the whale ship Acushnet. He later drew on his experiences during that voyage to write his masterpiece Moby-Dick.