Several years ago I gave a lecture at an NEH-funded teachers workshop in New Bedford, Mass. The teachers came from all over the U.S. and one of them, Linda Garey, who teaches in California, later shared with me a group of remarkable Magic Glass lantern slides of a part of the North Carolina coast that is little known to most people: the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal.
North Carolina’s dominance of the nation’s naval stores industry began to change drastically in the decades after the Civil War. By that time, the industry was destroying the region’s longleaf pine forest. In a frenzied half century of exploitation, the state’s longleaf pine forest fell from an estimated 4-5 million acres to less than 60,000 acres. Travelers began to describe train trips through eastern North Carolina’s pine forests in which they did not see a single tree that did not have the V-shaped scars that were characteristic of tapping.
Yesterday The New Yorker magazine published an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism on Melvin Davis and his brother Licurtis Reels and their struggle to hold onto their family’s land in Merrimon, a historically African American fishing community in Carteret County N.C., not far from where I grew up.
“This used to be an island where the men went to sea.” That’s what 95-year-old Blanche Howard Jolliff told me a few years ago, when I visited her on Ocracoke Island, one of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I was the guest of her cousin Philip and his family next door, and Philip took me by to see her.
Last winter I visited the New Hanover County Public Library in Wilmington, N.C., to see a rare and extraordinary group of historical manuscripts: a collection of four inscriptions written by Omar ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim scholar, teacher and trader from West Africa. He wrote them while he was being held captive on the North Carolina coast two centuries ago.
I never grow tired of looking at them: the faces in these old photographs. They are immigrants that settled in eastern North Carolina in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They came from Russia, Syria, Lebanon, Norway, Greece, Poland and many other far-off lands.
I found Jack Kerouac’s ode to Kinston, N.C.'s old-fashioned chicken coops in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library. The Berg Collection holds the letters, original manuscripts and other personal papers of some of America’s greatest writers, including Kerouac, the Beat Generation's godfather and the man that wrote On the Road.
I found these photographs of child mill workers in eastern North Carolina at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. I think they mostly speak for themselves. A photographer named Lewis Hine took them on at least 3 visits to the state between 1908 and 1914. He was employed by the National Child Labor Committee to document the exploitation of children in factories and other workplaces across the U.S.
I recently found this map in an old book called The Williams History: Tracing the Descendants in America of Robert Williams, of Ruthin, North Wales, who Settled in Carteret County, North Carolina, in 1763. The map describes a largely forgotten group of Quaker settlements that flourished on the North Carolina coast more than 200 years ago.
“One of the first things that I remember was my Pappy waking me up in the middle of the night, dressing me in the dark, all the time telling me to keep quiet. One of the twins hollered some and Pappy put his hand over its mouth to keep it quiet.
This is a photograph of villagers on Ocracoke Island, N.C., salvaging lumber from the shattered hull of the schooner Nomis in the summer of 1935. At the time of her grounding, the Nomis was carrying 338,000 feet of lumber from Georgetown, S.C. to New York City. She came ashore just north of the current location of the island’s pony pens.
Wilmington, North Carolina, ca. 1858. A 12-year-old boy named William runs toward a camp of men, women and children that had fled slavery. "I had heard it told so often at my father's fireside that I knew almost directly where they were."
Francis Asbury, the first Methodist bishop in America, feels old and worn down tonight. He is sore from having ridden a gimpy nag all day through swamps and forests. His arthritic joints ache. His legs have swollen from tick and chigger bites. A chronic diarrhea has weakened him. "I die daily," he mutters to himself.
I’ve been reading an old memoir about Pitt County that I hadn’t thought about in years until yesterday. A UNC-TV reporter was interviewing me, and he asked me if I could think of any white Southerners in eastern North Carolina that had stood up against slavery and racial oppression during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era.
Today my Black History Month tour of eastern North Carolina’s civil rights history concludes with a look at Pamlico County and a historic civil rights lawsuit that was filed in 1951. Few people today remember this part of our history, but African American citizens in the little coastal village of Oriental filed one of the first lawsuits in the U.S. calling for black and white children to go to school together.
Tonight’s Black History Month post is about another forgotten moment in eastern North Carolina's civil rights history: a historic voting rights movement in Halifax County, N.C., in 1964. It was called the Halifax County Voters Movement. I stumbled on it when I was going through some of my old notes from The Carolina Times, the African American newspaper that has been published in Durham, N.C., since 1921.
Today my Black History Month tour of eastern North Carolina's civil rights history continues with a look at Washington, N.C. in the 1960s and '70s and the words of Joan Little, a young African American woman at the center of one of the most controversial human rights trials in 20th-century America.
Today I’m looking at several historical photographs of fishermen, fishing boats and fishing gear on the Roanoke River. The photographs mostly date to the period from 1870 to 1910, though one that I'm especially fond of was taken in the late 1930s. That was an exciting period in the history of the river's fisheries. If you had launched a boat in Weldon, at the falls of the river, and drifted down those swift waters all the way to the river's mouth on the Albemarle Sound, you would have seen many fishermen and many different kinds of fishing gear, including weirs, bow nets, stake nets, drift nets, wheels, seines and slides.
When it comes to the history of the civil rights movement in eastern North Carolina, my deepest sympathies and respect have always been with the local men and women that stayed in their hometowns, come hell or high water, and worked to make this a better world. One of those people is the topic of my “Black History Month” feature today. His name was William Claudius Chance, Sr., and he was born in Parmele, in rural Martin County, N.C., on the 23rd of November 1880.
The stern paddle wheel steamer Tarboro on the Tar River, probably during her maiden voyage in 1898. She is coming into the town of Tarboro, in Edgecombe County, N.C., and a crowd waits at the town’s public dock to celebrate her launching. After calling at Tarboro, she will proceed on to Old Sparta, Greenville and, finally, Washington, N.C., a seaport 45 miles downriver. She is heavy with freight, almost certainly cotton or cottonseed.
In 1895 a young mother sang this lullaby to her children while she nursed them at a church in Kinnakeet, a village on the Outer Banks. The rest of the congregation was singing “Come Thou Fount of Many Blessings,” but she must have stepped into the back of the church to soothe her two little ones. It’s not the kind of moment that usually makes it into history books.
One other historic use of oyster shells was especially important to farm women on the North Carolina coast and beyond in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Building roads, fertilizing fields and making cement, mortar, plaster and whitewash out of oyster shells were all big parts of coastal life. But so was using crushed oyster shells in poultry yards.
Earlier this week, I wrote about the historic use of oyster shells for constructing roads on the North Carolina coast. But coastal people didn’t only use oyster shells for road building. Particularly before the Civil War, they also used oyster shells as an important source of lime. Burnt down in kilns, an incredible tonnage of oyster shells was used in making cement, mortar, bricks, wall plaster and whitewash.
Last night I saw a scene on PBS’s drama Victoria in which the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind sang for Queen Victoria. That was an actual event: it happened on April 26, 1846. But of course I thought immediately of the little community called “Jenny Lind” that is located 10 miles west of Kinston, in Lenoir County, N.C. According to legend, Jenny Lind sang there, too.
Children, a bicyclist and a toll keeper visiting at a toll station on the Shell Road between Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, N.C., circa 1900. Oyster shells had been used for building and improving roads and cart paths since earliest colonial times, but the oyster boom that began on the North Carolina coast in the 1880s drastically increased the tonnage of shells available for road construction.