Not long ago, I explored a wonderful collection of oral history interviews in Swansboro, N.C. In 2009 a group of a dozen volunteers from the Swansboro Historical Association underwent a special training in oral history research. Once completed, they interviewed some of the coastal town’s oldest residents and recorded their stories about Swansboro’s history in the early to mid-20th century.
Young Barbara Doll’s portrait of Ms. Ada Waterfield and Knotts Island a century ago comes from a remarkable collection of local history and folklore that was created here at Currituck County High School in the 1970s and ‘80s. In 1976 an obviously talented English teacher named Susie G. Spruill and the 30 students in her American Literature class launched a journal called the Currituck Sounder.
When I finished school at Harvard and set out to write history, I never considered writing about any place other than where I grew up: the eastern part of North Carolina. I discovered that the rural and small town landscape of my childhood was more than enough window for me into the larger realm of American history. Here I found the world in a grain of sand and more than enough history for a lifetime of writing and storytelling. Without leaving home, I have been writing about topics as far ranging as slavery and the American Revolution, maritime life during the Civil War, women’s work on the World War II home front and the black freedom struggle of the 1960s.
I don’t know whether or not Eddie McCoy would agree with me, but I suspect that the African American oral history project that has become his life’s passion began on a beautiful spring day, the 11th of May, 1971, to be exact, when a black army veteran named Henry Marrow was shot dead for talking sweet to a white woman.
A decade ago, I interviewed an African American woman named Miss Dorcas Carter in New Bern, North Carolina. Born in 1913, Miss Carter grew up to teach in the city’s African American schools for more than 40 years. Renowned for her exceptionally high standards for intellectual achievement and personal character, she was 88 years old when I visited her to learn more about the great New Bern fire of 1922. That fire reduced some of the most prosperous black neighborhoods in the American South to ashes and left nearly 3,000 people homeless, including Miss Carter and her family. By the time that I visited her, she was one of the last living witnesses to the fire.
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.
This is a story about the passage of time and impermanence and what, if anything, lives after us. The setting is Portsmouth Island, one of the Outer Banks, and a village that was founded there in 1754, peaked at roughly 600 residents a century later and was abandoned in 1971. If you go to Portsmouth today, you have to take a boat from Ocracoke Island, on the other side of the inlet. When you arrive at the island dock, you will discover a half-dozen old homes, a school building, a Methodist church and a few cemeteries, all looking as if local residents might just have stepped down to the shore for an hour or two and might be back any time.