Here on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I thought I’d share a historical document from one of the most famous civil rights events in American history, the campaign to end racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama-- and also talk a little about Dr. King's visits to North Carolina.
This is part 6 of my series on the diary that Susan Edwards Johnson wrote on the North Carolina coast in 1800 and 1801. At this point in her story, she's spending time at her cousin Frances Pollock Devereux's home in New Bern while her husband is overseeing the construction of gristmills and lumber mills on Peter Mallet's lands on the Black River.
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.”
I recently found this description of the 1921 lynching of an African American tenant farmer in Jones County, N.C.: Jones County is quiet today, following the lynching Sunday at noon of Jerome Whitfield, colored, who assaulted a young white woman Saturday afternoon…. News received from citizens of Jones county… was to the effect that between 1000 and 1500 men took part in the proceedings….
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.
When I am traveling on oral history research trips, I often think about Gordon Day. Mr. Day was 78 years old when I interviewed him several years ago. He was one of the first charter fishing boat captains in Morehead City, N.C.. When the Second World War reached America in 1941, the Navy recruited him to search for German submarines 25 miles out at sea off Cape Lookout Shoals.