Sailors on the John R. Manta, Hatteras grounds, 1925.
A view forward from the quarterdeck of the 2-masted whaling schooner John R. Manta, out of New Bedford, Mass., on the Hatteras grounds, 1925. The photographer, William H. Tripp, was a guest of the vessel’s master and principal owner, Antone J. Mandly.
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.
While my collards are cooking, I am thinking about my Great-aunt Irene. She was my grandmother’s youngest sister. She was born in Core Creek, in Carteret County, N.C., in 1919. She and her brothers and sisters grew up on a remote little farm next to the salt marsh, but Irene looks beautiful and glamorous in the family’s old black and white photographs.
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.
Twenty-five years ago, I lived for most of a year by the shores of Lake Mattamuskeet. I arrived in the fall and watched the great flocks of Canada geese, snow geese and tundra swans settle onto the lake for the winter, and I was there in the spring when they rose back into the sky and headed home to the Arctic Circle.
Young Barbara Doll’s portrait of Ms. Ada Waterfield and Knotts Island a century ago comes from a remarkable collection of local history and folklore that was created here at Currituck County High School in the 1970s and ‘80s. In 1976 an obviously talented English teacher named Susie G. Spruill and the 30 students in her American Literature class launched a journal called the Currituck Sounder.
Few coastal visitors know that the secluded hammock of Davis Ridge was once home to an extraordinary community founded by liberated slaves. Nobody has lived at “the Ridge” since 1933, yet the legend of those African American fishermen, whalers and boatbuilders still echoes among the elderly people in the maritime communities between North River and Cedar Island that locals call “Down East.”
I want to thank you all for inviting me to join in your celebration of this beautiful new museum’s opening and its inaugural photography exhibit, Ulrich Mack’s “Island People.”
When I finished school at Harvard and set out to write history, I never considered writing about any place other than where I grew up: the eastern part of North Carolina. I discovered that the rural and small town landscape of my childhood was more than enough window for me into the larger realm of American history. Here I found the world in a grain of sand and more than enough history for a lifetime of writing and storytelling. Without leaving home, I have been writing about topics as far ranging as slavery and the American Revolution, maritime life during the Civil War, women’s work on the World War II home front and the black freedom struggle of the 1960s.
I don’t know whether or not Eddie McCoy would agree with me, but I suspect that the African American oral history project that has become his life’s passion began on a beautiful spring day, the 11th of May, 1971, to be exact, when a black army veteran named Henry Marrow was shot dead for talking sweet to a white woman.
I grew up by the salt marshes and brackish creeks of a quiet North Carolina tidewater community that lies between the Neuse River and the Newport River at a place where they are both great saltwater bays on the edge of the sea. Oysters were just a part of my life. When I was a young boy, we still picked up oysters on the rocks off Mill Creek, or the flats off Harkers Island, and opened them and downed them, standing knee deep in the water without a thought to pollution or getting ill. Come the first cold snap in autumn, we relished oysters as the highlight of dinners that my grandmother Vera served every Sunday after church.
A decade ago, I interviewed an African American woman named Miss Dorcas Carter in New Bern, North Carolina. Born in 1913, Miss Carter grew up to teach in the city’s African American schools for more than 40 years. Renowned for her exceptionally high standards for intellectual achievement and personal character, she was 88 years old when I visited her to learn more about the great New Bern fire of 1922. That fire reduced some of the most prosperous black neighborhoods in the American South to ashes and left nearly 3,000 people homeless, including Miss Carter and her family. By the time that I visited her, she was one of the last living witnesses to the fire.