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.
“One of the first things that I remember was my Pappy waking me up in the middle of the night, dressing me in the dark, all the time telling me to keep quiet. One of the twins hollered some and Pappy put his hand over its mouth to keep it quiet.
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."
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.
My daughter Vera Cecelski just told me that Historic Stagville in Durham County still has a few tickets left for its Jonkunnu Lantern Tour! The Tour will include a Jonkunnu procession featuring incredible local drummers, some amazing dancers and lots of schoolchildren and it’s this Saturday, December 8th, at 5:15 PM! You can get tickets by calling (919) 620-0120.
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.”
Tom and Bland and I and all the good people who are sharing this voyage on the Belle of Washington with us are now looking ahead to Edenton, our next port of call, and Edenton for me has always been and remains, far and away above all else, the town of Harriet Jacobs.
I want to conclude my look at runaway slave advertisements from Albemarle Sound with another love story. This one comes from Chowan County, where the Belle of Washington will dock tonight.
The second runaway slave advertisement that I want to talk about concerns an enslaved man from Bertie County, N.C., his love for his wife and a long and impossible journey.
As we begin the next leg of our voyage on the Belle of Washington, I thought that I’d conclude my look at runaway slave advertisements with three stories from the Albemarle that I found especially moving.
Now I’d like to share a few of the runaway slave advertisements from Nixonton with you. I thought about them as I prepared for our voyage on the Belle of Washington because I remembered that there were some especially interesting ones that refer to that old seaport on the Little River.
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.
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.
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.”