I found the letter in the W. E. B. Du Bois Papers at the University of Massachusetts- Amherst. It was dated 22 April 1918 and was from Miss Mary C. Euell of Wilson, N.C. She had written the great African American scholar and activist to tell him about “my trouble here in Wilson.”
At the Boston Athenaeum, I also looked at the shipping records of a Boston sea captain that traded in North Carolina in the 1770s. William Kent was the master of the sloop Polly. The records at the Boston Athenaeum concern the Polly’s voyages to ports along the Tar River from 1771 to 1775, as well as one other voyage in 1784.
Today I am in Boston and by coincidence I stumbled onto two different accounts, in two different archives, that describe the same event in the history of North Carolina’s coastal counties: the sacking and burning of the town of Hamilton during the Civil War.
I don’t know how the great American novelist, short story writer and playwright Edna Ferber heard about the little river town of Winton, N.C. But I know she did. In a collection of her research notes that I found at Yale’s Beinecke Library when I was in New Haven, Conn. last summer, she scratched the following: Winton, N.C.—The Croatans, relic of the lost Roanoke Island settlement. Tar River. White negroes.
I recently found an historical account that I think might be the best description of tar making in North Carolina that I have ever read. An English merchant named Holles Bull Way wrote it in his travel diary when he visited coastal North Carolina in 1792. He did not publish those excerpts from his diary until 1809, though, when the article that I found appeared in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, Great Britain's first monthly scientific journal.
Friday night, February 23. I am writing these words at the old Booker T. Washington High School in Rocky Mount, N.C. A very special event is happening here tonight. More than half a century ago, on November 27, 1962, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a historic speech in this school’s gymnasium, only a few feet from where I am sitting now.
When my wife and I visited New York City a few weeks ago, we stayed at a hotel next to the Jewish Museum. I had never been to the museum, and on the morning before my wife gave a lecture at Mt. Sinai Hospital (the reason for our trip), we visited the museum. The Jewish Museum's collections cover 4,000 years of history and include 30,000 objects of art, Judaica and antiquities from around the world. But I, of course, Iooked through the museum’s collections for anything related to the history of the North Carolina coast.
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