Throughout February schools across the nation celebrate African-American contributions with coursework, speakers and field trips as part of Black History Month. President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month at The Bicentennial, after years of grassroots efforts by educators and activists.
African-American contributions to North Carolina’s development are inextricably linked. We really cannot study local history without studying African-American history—which really makes the pursuit and celebration a yearlong experience. However, Black History Month shines a specific light on celebration. I started thinking about a beginner’s reading list for people who might be interested in learning more about African-American contributions, struggles and achievements in the formation, growth and development of North Carolina. Here is what I devised…
African Americans in Early North Carolina: A Documentary History
Edited by Alan D. Watson
NC Office of Archives and History, 2005
Watson edited an extensive collection of documents relating to the early slave trade, the evolution of the slave code in North Carolina, and the regulation of interactions between people of color and whites. As North Carolina’s population grew and changed, with more settlements, the Revolution and larger commercial networks, unforeseen consequences of human actions increased. Watson manages to present both the awkward legislative world responding to slavery and free people of color, while bearing in mind the challenges of day-to-day life faced by humans struggling in horrific conditions.
The Black Experience in Revolutionary North Carolina
by Jeffrey J. Crow
NC Office of Archives and History, 1977
Perhaps the below excerpt from Crow’s introduction is the best way to present this book:
“While many Negroes joined the patriot side, many more allied with the British who openly courted a black rebellion in the South and enticed slaves with promises of freedom. The hundreds of black Carolinians who followed the red-coated columns in the Southern campaign of 1780-1782, or swam to the British fleet off the Cape Fear in 1776, attest to the magnitude of black longings for freedom.”
My Folks Don’t Want Me To Talk About Slavery
Edited by Belinda Hurmence
John Blair Publisher, 1984
During the Great Depression, The Federal Writer’s Project collected oral histories around the country. In the 1930s there were still firsthand accounts from survivors of slavery. In North Carolina 170 oral histories from former slaves were collected and archived in the Library of Congress. Hurmence edited this volume with 21 histories depicting slavery and emancipation, Civil War and the challenges of building a new life of freedom, with no money in a land ravaged by war. The accounts are powerful. Many will move readers to tears of anger; however, the ability to persevere, to find comfort, solace and a will to live on in the most horrendous circumstances imaginable, is inspiring.
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” – Dr. Martin Luther King
Recollections of My Slavery Days
by William Henry Singleton
NC Office of Archives and History
Singleton wrote a remarkable account of his life, which originally was published in a New York newspaper. He begins with early life on a New Bern plantation, where he was sold for the first time at 4 years old to a farm in Georgia. At 9 he made an overland escape—through Wilmington—back to his mother in New Bern. Eventually, he joined the Union Army during the Civil War as part of the United States Colored Troops.
His writing is evocative and captivating; Katherine Mellen Charron and David S. Cecelski have annotated the manuscript, and provide context to the geographic location of many of the events Singleton describes.
Generations of Somerset Place From Slavery to Freedom
by Dorothy Spruill Redford
Arcadia Publishing, 2005
Now a state historic site near Creswell, North Carolina, Somerset Place once was a plantation of thousands of acres. Redford’s book traces the history of the plantation and its inhabitants, both free and enslaved, from inception through the Civil War. She traces the travels of many Somerset generations succeeding the war and efforts to restore Somerset as a historic site in the ‘60s. What makes the book fascinating is the effort made to trace, and keep contact with the many families and descendants associated with the plantation, both black and white. With numerous photographs, it makes the individuals whose lives were bound together in the endeavor more vibrant, with hopes, desires, disappointments and determination.
Redford documents with clarity the lives of both sides of the plantation system and the lingering aftermath for their descendants. It is a deeply moving and very personal look at the Southern history experience—and of families living the legacy today.
James City, a Black Community in North Carolina 1863-1900
by Joe A. Mobley
NC Office of Archives and History, 1981
James City was founded in 1863, during the Civil War, as essentially a refugee camp for escaped slaves. Located just outside of New Bern, where the Union Army was encamped, it came into existence from necessity during war time and provided remarkable support for its inhabitants in peace—until they were ultimately told in the late 1890s they would not and could not own the land where the generation had since been reared. The book follows the development of James City and microcosm of the African-American experience in North Carolina it represents. To really understand Reconstruction and the second half of the 1800s in North Carolina, this book is essential.
The Wilmington Ten
by Kenneth Robert Janken
UNC Press, 2016
In recent years, the publication of several books, along with the “Wilmington on Fire” documentary and numerous newspaper editorials, have put discussion of 1898 firmly on the local radar. The Wilmington Ten and events surrounding their arrest and trials remain much more shadowed. Though former North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue issued pardons of innocence for The Ten as she was leaving office, many who live here cannot articulate who they were—or why the effects of the events surrounding them still impact life here today. Janken offers a comprehensive look at the events that led to their arrests and subsequent unforeseen consequences. It’s a story that, though rooted in 1971, continues to reverberate in our streets today.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander
The New Press, 2010
Just recently “The New Jim Crow” book has been removed from the banned books list in North Carolina prisons. The irony of it having been placed on a prohibited list for people in incarceration to read is glaring. Alexander looks at the impact of mass, disproportionate incarceration of people of color and poverty. In one fell swoop, she shines a light on the power of the prison industrial complex and targeting based upon race and economic class.
Part of artists’ role in society is to reflect what we need to see in a way we can understand it.
While I’ve suggested books that deal with historic facts and experiences, the following are books of fiction, poetry and plays about the African-American experience by three noted African-American artists from our state.
The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and His Poetry
Edited by Joan R. Sherman
UNC Press, 1997
George Moses Horton spent 68 of his 86 years in slavery. He managed to learn to read and write, and began making money writing poems for students at UNC. He published three books of poetry and earned enough money through his writing to support himself and pay his owner for his time away from the plantation. What he accomplished in his lifetime is beyond remarkable, and the work he left behind is stunning, beautiful and truly evocative.
The Marrow of Tradition
by Charles W. Chesnutt
Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1901
“The Marrow of Tradition” is a fictionalized retelling of the 1898 events in Wilmington, NC. Chesnutt grew up near Fayetteville, and though he had moved to Ohio by 1898, he still had family in North Carolina. He makes composite characters and changes Wilmington to Wellington, but as folks know the area, it is very easy to pick out the setting’s landmarks and families. Chesnutt broke many barriers for African-Americans in literature with his accomplishments, and his work is just as pertinent today as when he was alive.
Plays and Pageants from the Life of the Negro
Compiled by Willis Richardson
Richardson was born in Wilmington in 1889. His family moved to D.C. shortly after 1898. The Willis Richardson Players, one of our oldest theatre companies in town, is named in his honor. In 1930 he compiled “Plays and Pageants From the Life of the Negro,” which features three of his plays, in addition to works by other writers of the time. It was the first drama textbook for segregated African-American schools. It also was used in this area—I have a copy from one of the Rosenwald schools in Pender County—and is available in reprint editions.