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.
Last Sunday, on September 2nd, my wife and I attended a wonderful celebration of the Hyde County school boycott’s 50th anniversary. We gathered in the old Davis School’s gymnasium in Engelhard, a fishing village on Far Creek and it was an unforgettable day: full of storytelling and memories, good food and much fellowship.
This is the 5th part of a series celebrating the 50thanniversary of the Hyde County school boycott, a remarkable chapter in the history of America’s civil rights movement and the subject of my first book, Along Freedom Road. Today, I re-visit a shoot-out with the Ku Klux Klan that demonstrated how profoundly Hyde County had changed during the school boycott.
Today I am remembering a Saturday morning at St. Thomas AME Zion Church in Swansboro, N.C. The old church rests on a hill overlooking the historic seaport’s downtown, which today is full of antique stores, seafood restaurants and souvenir shops.
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.
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.
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.”