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African American History Across North Carolina

North Carolina's African American heritage is rich and diverse. In slavery and in freedom, black residents shaped state politics and institutions, literary traditions, religious practice, and the lives of their fellow North Carolinians. The African American struggle for civil rights and equality touched all regions of the state, and the following is a listing, grouped by region, of some important dates for African American history in North Carolina.

The Coast

1806   Thomas H. Jones was born on a plantation near Wilmington but was eventually sold to a shopkeeper who taught him reading, writing, and basic arithmetic. Jones escaped slavery in 1849 by hiding on a ship bound for New York. In the North, he worked for the abolitionist cause and published three narratives: Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones; Who Was for Forty Years a Slave. Also the Surprising Adventures of Wild Tom, of the Island Retreat, a Fugitive Negro from South Carolina (1850s), The Experience of Thomas H. Jones, Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years (1862), and The Experience of Rev. Thomas H. Jones, Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years. Written by a Friend, as Related to Him by Brother Jones (1885).

1829   The fiery Appeal of Wilmington native David Walker was printed in Boston and made its way to North Carolina, stirring the fears and suspicions of white slaveholders and legislators. David Walker's Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America was eventually banned in North Carolina and other Southern states, but two more editions were printed before Walker's mysterious death in 1830.

1849   London R. Ferebee was born to enslaved parents in Currituck County. His master, Edwin Cowles, took Ferebee away from his family to work with his boating crew, and in 1861, Ferebee was living with his master's family in Still Town, a village outside of Elizabeth City. In August of that year, Ferebee ran away to Shiloh, North Carolina, to seek protection with the Northern army. He records these events and other adventures in his 1882 narrative A Brief History of the Slave Life of Rev. L. R. Ferebee, and the Battles of Life, and Four Years of His Ministerial Life. Written from Memory.

1898   The Wilmington race riots erupted. On November 10 and 11 a white militia headed by local Democratic leaders terrorized the black community, killing and wounding dozens, banishing much of the city's black leadership, and burning the offices of several black businesses, including Wilmington's black newspaper, the Record. David Bryant Fulton's Hanover (1900) and Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition (1901) are both thinly fictionalized accounts of the massacre. J. Allen Kirk, a black minister in Wilmington, details his experience in A Statement of Facts Concerning the Bloody Riot in Wilmington, N.C. Of Interest to Every Citizen of the United States (1898).

The Coastal Plain

1790   Henry Evans, a Virginia-born shoemaker, organized Evans Chapel (now The Evans Metropolitan AME Zion Church) in Fayetteville. Evans was headed for Charleston when he stopped in Fayetteville and felt called by God to stay and help reform the residents there. Rosser H. Taylor's The Free Negro in North Carolina (1920) and Carter Godwin Woodson's The History of the Negro Church (1921) both refer to Evans' work.

1813   Harriet Jacobs, America's most famous female slave narrator, was born in Edenton. Jacobs escaped from her cruel master Dr. James Norcom and hid in a tiny attic room for seven years before fleeing to the North. Her 1861 narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, records her experiences in both slavery and freedom.

1823   Joseph Baysmore, elder of the First Colored Baptist Church of Weldon, was born in Bertie County. Baysmore become an ordained minister in 1866, and in 1887, upon leaving Weldon to minister in Halifax County, he published a brief autobiographical sketch accompanied by four of his sermons.

1880   The first patient was admitted to the North Carolina Asylum for the Colored Insane (now Cherry Hospital) in Goldsboro. The state officially established the hospital in 1877, more than two decades after opening the first white asylum. By 1884, the hospital was serving more than 150 patients according to its annual report from that year.

The Piedmont

1832   John Chavis, a Revolutionary War veteran and prominent Presbyterian minister in Orange County and the surrounding areas, was forced to cease his public sermons when the General Assembly forbade African American preaching after Nat Turner's 1831 slave insurrection. Steven B. Weeks celebrates Chavis's accomplishments in a 1914 profile published in The Southern Workman.

1868   The Colored Orphanage of North Carolina was mandated by the revised state constitution. However, the facility was not established until the 1880s, over a decade after the state created its first white orphanage. Though it was a non-profit private institution, the orphanage was required to make an annual report (such as this one from 1940) to the people of North Carolina since the children at the home were wards of state sent to the facility by county welfare departments.

1883   Gaston County Commissioners suggested a vote on a proposition that would tax black and white citizens at different rates for each race's segregated schools. The court later ruled this proposition, and all race-based taxation for public schools, unconstitutional, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Charles Harden reprinted the court's opinions in his biennial report for 1898-1900.

1890   The General Assembly approved plans to create North Carolina Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes (now North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University) in Greensboro. In the early 1900s, the college held farmers' institutes, through which the university sought to aid North Carolina's agricultural development by educating African American farmers on more efficient practices and other pertinent issues. For more on the college's status in the early 20th century, see its 1903 and 1904 annual reports.

1898   John Merrick founded the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association in Durham. The company grew to become the United States' largest and most successful black-owned business, with over $1.6 million in revenues upon Merrick's death in 1919. Robert McCants Andrews chronicles Merrick's life and the rise of North Carolina Mutual in John Merrick: A Biographical Sketch (1920), and W.E.B. DuBois briefly profiles the company in his 1912 article "The Upbuilding of Black Durham: The Success of the Negroes and their Value to a Tolerant and Helpful Southern City."

The Mountains

1875   A sketch of a Waynesville African American carpenter by J. Wells Champney appeared as part of a series of illustrations depicting life in this small western North Carolina town. The series of sketches accompanies Edward King's description of his travels there and throughout the southern United States in The Great South; A Record of Journeys in Louisiana, Texas, the Indian Territory, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland.

1893   African American craftsmen working on Biltmore Estate gathered at the Asheville Young Man's Institute, an organization commissioned by Biltmore owner George Vanderbilt. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted also worked on the Biltmore mansion and had traveled throughout the South. Among other observations from his journey, Olmsted recorded his impressions of race relations and the black community in A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States; With Remarks on Their Economy (1856).

Jennifer L. Larson