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.
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.
Susan Johnson arrived at “Mr. Mallett’s rice plantation opposite Wilmington” on the 9th of January 1801. Here her diary’s entries began to give me a dark, foreboding feeling like that in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as Susan entered a part of the North Carolina coast where most of the people were enslaved and her route followed what was called “Negro Head Road.”
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.
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.
Today I’m in Denver, Colorado, and while I’m here I’m visiting the Western History Collection at the Denver Public Library. I wouldn’t usually expect to find manuscripts about my special interest—the history of the North Carolina coast— in a collection that’s devoted to the Rocky Mountain West.... But this library also has Edwin R. Kalmbach’s field diaries. I was interested in Kalmbach because one of his diaries describes an 11-day trip that he made to an especially interesting part of the North Carolina coast—the old rice plantations along the Lower Cape Fear.
An exhibit on local connections to slavery at the Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council Archives in Oldham, England, has brought to light an American slave narrative previously unknown in the United States. Titled The Life of the Late James Johnson (Colored Evangelist), an Escaped Slave from the Southern States of America, the pamphlet chronicles Johnson’s youth in Brunswick County, North Carolina, his escape to a Union vessel during the Civil War, his passage to Liverpool as a sailor and a sobering, if picaresque, journey through England and Wales.