On the other side of Union River Bay, just west of where I am staying on Mount Desert Island, in a village called Blue Hill, the menhaden oil and scrap industry was born, if one can say it was born anywhere.
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 more I looked, the more I got the impression that the period from 1947 to 1953 was one of considerable labor unrest throughout the fishing industry on the North Carolina coast.
My conversation with folk singer and social activist Guy Carawan had gone in surprising directions. When I called him, now almost a decade ago, I had really just wanted to know more about his pilgrimage to his father’s homeplace in Pamlico County, N.C. in the summer of 1953.
An exhibit on local connections to slavery at the Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council Archives in Oldham, England, has brought to light an American slave narrative previously unknown in the United States. Titled The Life of the Late James Johnson (Colored Evangelist), an Escaped Slave from the Southern States of America, the pamphlet chronicles Johnson’s youth in Brunswick County, North Carolina, his escape to a Union vessel during the Civil War, his passage to Liverpool as a sailor and a sobering, if picaresque, journey through England and Wales.