The African Church at the Corner of Second & Walnut

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.

The Road to the Cape Fear– Susan Johnson’s Diary, Part 8

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 Birth of a Plantation Empire: New Bern in 1800– Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 6

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. 

Susan Johnson’s Diary– “On the Borders of the Great Dismal Swamp”

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.

The Color of Water, part 10– Racial Covenants

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

The Color of Water, part 7– From Ocean City to Rainbow Beach

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.

The Color of Water, part 6– Juke Joints, Clam Fritters & Bop City

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 Color of Water, part 5– Jim Crow from Nags Head to Wrightsville 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.

Arthur Miller’s War, Part 7– “Looking for a better day”

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.

Arthur Miller’s War, Part 4– “Worse than Hoover time”

This is the 4th post in a 7-part series on the great American playwright Arthur Miller's sojourn in Wilmington, N.C. during the Second World War. When they were in Wilmington in 1941, Arthur Miller and his audio specialist, Johnny Langenegger, also just drove around the city looking for scenes and moments and stories that captured the … Continue reading Arthur Miller’s War, Part 4– “Worse than Hoover time”

Arthur Miller’s War, Part 2– “A shipyard has risen like a bony giant”

“The scene is a row of trailers,” Arthur Miller intoned in the first words of the field recordings. When I first turned on the old reel-to-reel recorder at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, I found the young playwright standing in a vast trailer camp that had been built in a maddening rush only a few months earlier.

Arthur Miller’s War, Part 1- “Get Wilmington, North Carolina, into that Sound Truck!”

Today I am remembering a visit to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The center is located on a quiet hallway a floor below the great library’s main reading room and contains vast collections of oral histories, music and other audio recordings. You can hear Mississippi sharecroppers singing the blues there. You can hear Polish immigrants playing polkas. You can hear Navajo sacred songs. I was there to listen to audio recordings that the playwright Arthur Miller made on the North Carolina coast in the fall of 1941. 

On Albemarle Sound– Runaway Slaves and the Sea

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.

The Navassa Guano Company

This is a photograph of the Navassa Guano Company’s factory circa 1905. The landmark fertilizer company was located 5 miles north of Wilmington, N.C., on the northwest branch of the Cape Fear River. The sprawling complex included, left to right, the main line of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad, which crossed the Brunswick River by the plant, a sulfuric acid factory and, behind it, the fertilizer factory proper.

Pitch Pines and Tar Burners: A 1792 Account

I recently found an historical account that I think might be the best description of tar making in North Carolina that I have ever read. An English merchant named Holles Bull Way wrote it in his travel diary when he visited coastal North Carolina in 1792. He did not publish those excerpts from his diary until 1809, though, when the article that I found appeared in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, Great Britain's first monthly scientific journal.

A Story from the Jewish Museum in New York City

When my wife and I visited New York City a few weeks ago, we stayed at a hotel next to the Jewish Museum. I had never been to the museum, and on the morning before my wife gave a lecture at Mt. Sinai Hospital (the reason for our trip), we visited the museum. The Jewish Museum's collections cover 4,000 years of history and include 30,000 objects of art, Judaica and antiquities from around the world. But I, of course, Iooked through the museum’s collections for anything related to the history of the North Carolina coast.

The Slave Conspiracy of 1821

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. 

The Wilmington Jubilee Singers

I discovered the Wilmington Jubilee Singers while I was exploring old newspapers in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA). The BNA is an invaluable on-line resource that is making available (for a small fee) digital copies of the historical newspapers preserved at the British Library in London. The British Library holds the largest collection of British newspapers … Continue reading The Wilmington Jubilee Singers