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.
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.
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.
A friend sent me a new book called A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland. The author is a black poet, scholar and Air Force veteran named DaMaris B. Hill and her book—her soul stirring and deeply moving book— is part poetry, part history and part memoir.
After leaving her home in Stratford, Conn., Susan Johnson arrived in Suffolk, Va., on the 22ndof November, 1800. The next morning, she re-boarded the stagecoach and headed south into North Carolina for the first time.
I heard Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major for the first time only a few weeks ago and the strangest thing happened. I immediately thought of her: Catherine Phillips, a Quaker missionary, carrying a friend’s lifeless body across the icy reaches of Albemarle Sound in 1754.
Welcome back to the Belle of Washington. We left Elizabeth City early this morning and came down the lovely waters of the Pasquotank River. Now we're passing the Little River and, up on its northern shore, the little hamlet of Nixonton. I’ll say more about Nixonton’s history in a second, but first I think this is a good time and place to talk about runaway slave advertisements because there are some especially interesting ones that refer to Nixonton.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.