"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.
Tim Tyson and I edited an anthology on the Wilmington "race riot” of 1898 nearly 20 years ago, but I still got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach a few weeks ago when I looked at Edward Price Bell’s diary and notebooks at the Newberry Library in Chicago.... Bell covered the white racial violence in Wilmington, N.C., as a roving reporter for the Chicago Record. I wanted to see the notebook that he kept while he was in Wilmington....
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.”
I am still re-playing scenes in my mind from Roger W. Woodbury’s account of the last days of the Civil War on the North Carolina coast. I found his journal yesterday a long way from home—at Norlin Library's Archives and Special Collections Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
I am at the State Archives in Raleigh, N.C., and the legendary archivist George Stevenson hands me an antebellum diary from the North Carolina coast. He had just acquired the diary for the archive’s collections. The diarist is John N. Benners. The location is Rosedale, a poor and lamentable Neuse River plantation where Benners and a handful of enslaved men and women scratch out a living as best they can.
I am at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. I’ve come to look at the field diaries of a Smithsonian biologist named Remington Kellogg. In the 1920s he visited and studied a bottlenose dolphin fishery on Hatteras Island, N.C. that I am researching.
I am at the Moorland-Spingard Research Center in the Founders Library at Howard University, in Washington, DC. In the papers of a New England abolitionist, I find a file of Civil War letters written by an African-American woman named Mary Ann Starkey.
On this day I explore the side galleries, not the reading room, and in one of them I find a new exhibit dedicated to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and take refuge there.
When I found the KKK papers, I was relatively young and my career as a historian was just getting started. I incorporated what I learned into a few pages in my first book and I also wrote a personal essay about how my new knowledge of the Klan had changed the way I saw my home in eastern North Carolina.
According to the KKK papers, things began to change in 1967. Attendance at Klan rallies plummeted. Many white people walked away from the fiery cross never to return. SHP agents began to report that state Klan leaders were finding it difficult to convince local people to lease them land for rallies.
While the Klan’s public rallies and cross burnings brought to mind a county fair or a church revival, the soul of the Ku Klux Klan revealed itself most plainly later in the night, after the children’s games had finished and the burning cross extinguished.
A sign of the KKK’s public acceptance was that many Klansmen no longer hid behind their cloaks. Klan membership was often an open secret, sometimes widely known and even boasted. Klan activists posted signs in local businesses and public streets announcing recruitment rallies and advertised them in the local newspapers, such as the Greenville Daily Reflector and the Kinston Daily News.
In the 1960s, Eastern North Carolina was still primarily an agricultural economy, even more so than it is today. At the time, the people of the Hooded Order realized that tens of thousands of white, middle-class farm owners, tenant farmers and small town merchants were struggling to hold onto their land, their homes and their businesses.
An SBI report dated July 26, 1966 gave a flavor of what those public Klan rallies were like. I expected them to sound far more sinister. But that wasn’t it at all. That afternoon a large crowd massed in a field near Chocowinity, a small town in Beaufort County. In most ways, the occasion resembled a county fair or church revival.
The Ku Klux Klan lived in our shadows long before the 1960s, but the Hooded Order had usually been a tiny fringe group. But not always: the Klan had played central roles in the state's political life in the Reconstruction Era and again in the late 1910s and '20s. Another, lesser Klan heyday occurred in the early 1950s.
The recent events in Charlottesville led me to remember a day 25 years ago, when I stumbled upon a stunning collection of government documents on the Ku Klux Klan's activities in eastern N.C. in the 1960s.
My family and I are driving across New York and Massachusetts. For my biography of Abraham Galloway, I am visiting the American Antiquarian Society, in Worcester, Mass. and the Rare and Special Collections Library at Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y.
At the reception after my lecture, several people told me what the gentleman in the back row had been referring to: in 1925 a mob of white men broke into the Martin County jail and removed a young Jewish man named Joseph Needleman, who had been accused of raping a local woman named Effie Griffin. They had carried him to the cemetery at the Skewarkey Primitive Baptist Church, where they castrated him and left him for dead.
This is the beginning of a new series that I am calling “Love in the Archives.” Here I’ll chronicle what happens as I explore history in museums, archives and libraries around the U.S. and beyond.