Many Americans are searching for historical context in order to make sense of what happened at the U.S. Capitol. Again and again, they look to the racial massacre and coup d'etat in Wilmington in 1898, when white supremacists overthrew a duly elected government and took power.
I never grow weary of looking at these old portraits at the New Hanover County Public Library. They date from the 1850s to the present day, and they're available to us all even in these times of Covid-19.
In today's post, I want to reflect a little bit on our history and how we got here-- how we came to be such a divided people, why our racial divisions seem to run so deep and why our country remains the land that the great writer James Baldwin once called "these yet-to-be-United States."
I always wonder what happened to them-- the men, women and children that fled Wilmington after the massacre in 1898. I thought of that again just a few days ago when I stumbled onto one of them in a place that I never would have expected-- a catalog for an art exhibit at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston.
In the 1870s and ‘80s, a group of ex-slaves called the Wilmington Jubilee Singers traveled throughout Great Britain, giving concerts in which they sang hymns and spirituals in a close harmony style, either a cappella or accompanied only by a pianist.
Today I'm looking at another artifact from the National Museum of African American History and Culture that has a connection to the North Carolina coast: a first edition of a book called The Conjure Woman, a collection of short stories by African American writer, lawyer and activist Charles W. Chesnutt.
Some of the National Museum of African American History & Culture's artifacts are very small but hold a lot of meaning. This little pinback button is a good example. The button highlights another important moment in the civil rights movement on the North Carolina coast-- the campaign to free the Wilmington 10.
As I continue my look at the treasures at the National Museum of African American History & Culture, the second item I want to discuss is another photograph: a photograph of the backyard and tennis court at 1406 Orange Street in Wilmington, N.C. where Dr. Hubert Eaton oversaw the training of Althea Gibson, one of the greatest women's tennis players of all time.
On our drive to Down East Maine a few days ago, we stopped and took a hike at the Lobster Cove Meadow Preserve in Boothbay Harbor. After walking a little ways down the trail through the lovely fall colors, we soon arrived at Appalachee Pond. To my surprise, there we got a glimpse at another historical connection between the Maine coast and the North Carolina coast: the ice trade.
Last winter I visited the New Hanover County Public Library in Wilmington, N.C., to see a rare and extraordinary group of historical manuscripts: a collection of four inscriptions written by Omar ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim scholar, teacher and trader from West Africa. He wrote them while he was being held captive on the North Carolina coast two centuries ago.
Wilmington, North Carolina, ca. 1858. A 12-year-old boy named William runs toward a camp of men, women and children that had fled slavery. "I had heard it told so often at my father's fireside that I knew almost directly where they were."
Children, a bicyclist and a toll keeper visiting at a toll station on the Shell Road between Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, N.C., circa 1900. Oyster shells had been used for building and improving roads and cart paths since earliest colonial times, but the oyster boom that began on the North Carolina coast in the 1880s drastically increased the tonnage of shells available for road construction.
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.
On January 24, 1801, Susan Johnson's diary describes a visit to a Methodist church in Wilmington, N.C., that was a strange new experience for her: enslaved Africans and African Americans made up the large majority of the congregation. In addition, she may have been sitting near a young boy who would grow up and become one of the most important voices for freedom and justice in American history.
This is the 9th part of my series on Susan Edwards Johnson's diary of her travels on the North Carolina coast in 1800 and 1801. I found the diary last spring at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, Conn.
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.”
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.
Last spring I visited the Connecticut Historical Society when I passed through Hartford, Conn. I was headed to my niece’s home in New Haven, but I couldn’t resist stopping for a few hours: the Society’s holdings include an extraordinary collection of early American historical manuscripts and I wanted to see if any of them might shed new light on coastal North Carolina.... I was only there for a day, but I found a real treasure that I would love to share here— a remarkable diary that was kept by a Connecticut woman when she stayed in coastal North Carolina in the very first decades after the American Revolution.
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.
This is the final post in my 10-part special series that I am calling “The Color of Water.” In this series, I am exploring the history of Jim Crow and North Carolina’s coastal waters, including the state’s forgotten history of all-white beaches, “sundown towns,” and racially exclusive resort communities. Today-- racial covenants. You can find the … Continue reading The Color of Water, part 10– Racial Covenants
This is part 7 of my special series called “The Color of Water.” In this series, I’m exploring the history of Jim Crow and North Carolina’s coastal waters, including the state’s forgotten history of all-white beaches, “Sundown towns,” and racially exclusive resort communities. Today-- African American and Indian beaches.
As I explored the history of Jim Crow on North Carolina’s coast, I discovered something else important: black and Indian people often found a way to the sea and our other coastal waters, despite “sundown towns,” despite signs that read “No N--- after dark” and despite oceanfront resorts that didn’t allow them to go swimming or walk on the beach.
The story of Jim Crow and the North Carolina coast also extends to the state’s most popular beaches and beachfront communities. During the Jim Crow era, those popular vacation destinations barred black families from swimming in their waters, staying in their motels, buying cottages or in many cases even walking on their beaches.
Before young Arthur Miller left Wilmington in November 1941 and returned to the Library of Congress, he did one last group of’ recordings. At the town’s African American Odd Fellows Hall, he visited with a large group of African American women who were in the midst of a lengthy strike at the Southland Manufacturing Company, a textile plant that made men’s dress shirts.
While he was in Wilmington working for the Library of Congress, Arthur Miller also talked with several city officials. At first, I didn’t expect these interviews to be as interesting as his conversations with the shipyard workers or with the men and women he encountered in the street.