Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees ~ Abel Meeropol
I will never forget hearing the recording of Billie Holiday’s famous voice come over the Intercom in my classroom when I was teaching high school. Students whispered and chatted over the announcement and had no idea who she was or what these lyrics were about. Played as a part of Black History Month, it was disturbing, not only because students weren’t respectful enough to pay attention to the lyrics but also because they had no base of understanding of why they should.
Most people have never heard of Perquimans County, North Carolina and have no idea how to pronounce it or where it is located. Surrounded on almost all sides by water, it is a small rural county that contains the Town of Hertford, established in 1758 and North Carolina’s seventh oldest town. In fact, Alan D. Watson, a professor of history at UNC Wilmington, reported, “Following Culpeper’s Rebellion, Perquimans served as the de facto capital of North Carolina until 1716” (4). Many of the street names, like Hyde Park, Covent Garden, and Grubb Street represent the early English settlement. W.G. Newby, Sr. reported in a town bi-centennial that “The present courthouse was built in 1732 and is the oldest in the State” (37). Rumors tend to circle about George Washington visiting and according to reports, the Registrar’s Office of Perquimans County holds a record from June 5th, 1766 that says, “To have and to hold the 4 parcels of land hereby conveyed unto the said George Washington and Fielding Lewis forever” (Newby 42). Fielding Lewis was Washington’s nephew.
The town boasts the oldest recorded land deed in the state between a Native American, Indian Chief Kilcoconewen, and a white man, George Durant. Some people in the town say that an earlier transaction took place between Cisketando, a Yeopim Indian Chief, although it is not documented. The town also has the Newbold-White House, the oldest brick house in the state, but perhaps even more popular are the turtle log and the ice cream at the local drug store. Those of us who grow up in a small place seem to mostly count down the days until we can leave, spread our wings and fly away to a real city for more excitement, and the intricacies of the history that make where we grow up unique are often ignored or simply lost and forgotten. We read about other places, go visit other places, and never know exactly what happened right beneath our feet.
Many years ago, when I was teaching American Literature, a student turned in a single sheet of paper to me with an interesting newspaper article scanned onto it as a part of a town history project. It grabbed my attention but I was too busy at the time to gather more information. I stuck the paper in my bag and thought someday I would investigate it more. This research, more than ten years later, is my attempt to recover that article and find out what happened before and after it was written.
There is no date typed onto the article, but there is a handwritten one of March 9, 1966. The article is written by Jack Aulis and the title is “Violence Boiled Near Freezing Point.” It begins “Wednesday night’s violence in Hertford came swiftly” and it ends “Later that night, it burst.” This was so interesting because nothing like this usually happens in this tiny town and so imagining a scene with state troopers and game wardens forming lines to block out “singing Negro marchers” heading toward the downtown area seemed unreal.
According to the article, “The police wore white helmets and carried gas masks and long night sticks. Two fire trucks and an auxiliary pumper waited in the street. Traffic was rerouted around the area. A gray State Prison Department bus, with its rear door open, sat just behind the troopers.” When marchers refused to delay their plans, a highway patrol captain said, “Some of them want mighty bad to be arrested.” White bystanders watched and “cheered and hooted” as firemen hosed the marchers and threw tear gas grenades at them. The article also reports that “…rocks and lumps of coal came flying over the row of nearby houses” and “…young Negroes outside the church began to throw bricks at passing cars.” Shocking for the peaceful little river town I love where people today mostly seem content and cordial, “When the troopers went to the scene, bricks were thrown at them too.” The Hertford NAACP chapter was also mentioned in the article, led by Reverend F.L. Andrews.
Civil Rights Movement
Despite much research in North Carolina’s Digital Newspaper archive and the local resources of the library, the article seems to be erased from the records. There is an article digitalized from December 1965 and then the next article is from January 1967 for the local town newspaper. The archive did, however, provide a clue into what happened after that March 9th night in the Daily Tar Heel newspaper, located in Chapel Hill which is located approximately 178 miles away from Hertford. Finding this additional article, and searching for Jack Aulis who wrote them both, led me to the realization that I have underestimated the role my hometown area played in the Civil Rights movement and fueled the desire to uncover more local history. The original article was likely never in a local paper as I had assumed, but rather in one that would have been seen across the state. In the second article, published on Friday, March 11, 1966 titled “Police Turn Hoses on Negro Marchers,” the Daily Tar Heel reported the following:
Firemen turned fire hoses on 150 marching Negro high school pupils yesterday, and police braced for another demonstration similar to the one Wednesday night that they broke up with tear gas. The students started their march yesterday at Perquimans Union School, about six miles north of Hertford. They were met by firemen as they entered the community of 2,500 at the Perquimans River Bridge along busy U.S. 17. The youngsters, soaked by the blasts of water, continued through town to the First Baptist Church. No injuries were reported and no arrests were made. Friday night, Negro marchers answered police orders to board a prison bus by hurling rocks and brickbats. Police and state troopers, armed with long billy clubs, used tear gas to break up the disturbance. The marches were staged by civil rights groups pushing for a 14-point desegregation plan. Their leaders want the hiring of Negro policemen, dupty [deputy] sheriffs and store clerks…The Rev. Mr. LeGarde said telegrams protesting police treatment were sent to President Johnson and Gov. Dan Moore. The wire to the President said: “Last night in the exercise of our constitutional rights more than 200 Negroes marched for freedom, jobs and justice in Hertford, N.C. We were stopped by the local and state police powers. Thirty were arrested, the rest hosed down with water and shot with tear gas…We call upon you to help us gain our freedom, by enforcing our right to peaceful and non-violent protest as guaranteed under the First Amendment…We shall march again tonight.” (“Police Turn Hoses on Negro Marchers”)
The Governor of North Carolina responded by saying that marching and demonstrating should end in Hertford because “…it is much better for reasonable men to sit down at the table and work out their differences” (“Police Turn Hoses on Negro Marchers”).
I can’t imagine living through this, having lived here all my life and for the most part, always having seen people of different races not only live and work together, but care for each other as well. More research reveals the history that like the missing article in the archive, is rarely discussed, and it makes it easier to understand what led to violent events. When operating under the notions of “Don’t air your dirty laundry out in public” or “Don’t talk about racism and it will go away,” racial tensions often seep into a town’s identity rather than vanishing into thin air. But, for many here, not speaking of the past has little to do with concealment and more to do with wanting to move forward and beyond a painful and confusing time of inequity.
The 1960’s were tumultuous years in the United States, with marches across the country and the assassinations of Malcom X in 1965 and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, but racism was deep rooted in the South and many held out on allowing the legislation to affect their actual daily lives (history.com). Before integration, there were 3 white schools and 2 negro schools in Perquimans County. A bi-centennial report from the town said, “We can point with pride to our four white and three colored churches. Our schools are an inspiration to this town with its beautiful new grammar school and Perquimans High School built in 1927, and new gymnasium, and also we are proud of the new Negro school that has been completed in the past year” (W. G. Newby, Sr., 19). Through interviews about desegregation of the schools, I was told that white students had to switch schools to attend the school that had previously been for blacks only. While other young students were noted as being nice, many of the teachers were seen as resentful and mean, even described as hitting students with a leather strap. Some parents switched their children from one school system to another, thinking that one would integrate and another would not. That alone gives a weighted insight into what that time must have been like; people actually thought some schools would not integrate.
In the neighboring town of Edenton, a close ten to fifteen-minute drive from Hertford, Helen Pruden Kaufman writes about her experiences in a memoir titled White Gloves and Collards. Kaufman remembers, “At age seven, I was just beginning to understand the intricacies of black-white relations – what you could or could not do, where you could or could not go, when to be friendly, when to keep your distance. Under the Jim Crow system that still lingered, there were so many innuendos, contradictions, and illogical rules to grasp” (43). She talks about the confederate monument in the town, how it meant different things to whites and blacks, sit ins at Mithener’s Pharmacy lunch counter when she was in 4th grade, and weekly demonstrations in front of the Taylor Theater (75-76). One of her aunts said, “If the Lord wanted us to mix, he wouldn’t have made us different colors” (77) and “…integration is inevitable, even right here in Edenton. It’s no longer a matter of if, but rather of when” (79). She remembers the all-white school board resisting integration (80) and Martin Luther King, Jr. coming to town to speak and encourage it when she was twelve years old (198). Her high school was integrated partially for nearly five years and “there was little interaction between black and white students outside of class. Although laws had been passed to end segregation, customs and attitudes had stayed pretty much the same” (211).
When describing senior prom, Kaufman writes: With Gone with the Wind as the theme, the junior class transformed the gym into Tara in all her glory. The Confederate “Stars and Bars” hung above the entryway. Tall white pillars lined the dance floor. And on the back wall, behind the basketball goal, was a giant mural of a plantation house, complete with dark-skinned slaves working in the surrounding cotton fields. ….When the deejay took a break, and members of the junior class performed a minstrel show, I clapped and sang along:
Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton
Old times there are not forgotten…
And I didn’t consider for a moment that my five black classmates might be offended. (I don’t even know if they were there.) (214)
Tracing the Past
To make sense of examples like this prom that seem so strange today, we have to look at what led up to that time. Perquimans was originally inhabited by Native Americans. Some Native Americans were taken as slaves by colonists who came to the town, but their enslavement was not successful on a grand scale and there was more labor that needed to be done than there were Native Americans to do it. The solution to ensure settlement and economic progress was the importation of African slaves.
According to Watson, “Constituting an increasingly prominent segment of the Perquimans populace were slaves, whose labor services proved indispensable to the development of the county. The advent of slavery coincided with the settlement of the Albemarle as transplanted Virginians either brought bondsmen into Carolina or at least brought with them the intellectual acceptance of the institution of slavery, which had recently developed in the northern province.” Headright grants encouraged the importation of slaves here; the Fundamental Constitutions, written in 1669, officially sanctioned slavery, for the proprietors realized the need to people their colony as rapidly as possible. A tax list for Perquimans in 1772 indicates that 53 percent of the households in the county included slaves, a figure approximated only by Chowan and New Hanover counties. Additionally, average slaveholdings rose to the point that in 1772, 20 percent of the families claimed from five to nine taxable bondsmen, and 6 percent included ten or more (18).
In other words, colonists were highly motivated and encouraged to bring slaves to Perquimans with a land granting system. The more slaves you had, the more land you were able to own. In A History Of African Americans In North Carolina, Jeffrey J. Crow, Paul D. Escott, and Flora J. Hatley shared that the first slaves did come from West Indies to North Carolina and “In 1526 Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, a Spanish explorer and slave trader, led an expedition of 500 men and women from the West Indies to settle in the vicinity of Cape Fear” (1). Also, a group of colonists from Barbados agreed with Lords Proprietors from England that Carolina slave colony would be of great “commercial promise” (Crow 2). The research of Crow, Escott, and Hatley confirms the land granting system: “The Barbadians wished to settle in Carolina and bring their slaves with them. They pressed the Lords Proprietors to establish a headright system under which the heads of all households would be allotted acreage on the basis of the number of people who accompanied them” (Crow 2). They discuss specifics of the Carolina’s Fundamental Constitution like Article 110 with instruction for white men that there would be “absolute power and authority over his negro slaves” and that “conversion to Christianity in no way altered a Negro’s servitude” (Crow 2). Some slave owners even prohibited baptism for slaves (Crow 5). In 1715, voting was forbidden for “Negros, Mulattos, and Indians for members of assembly” as was “marriage between races” and “Negro worship gathering or gathering for any other reason” (Crow 5). In 1723, any white person who married a Negro, mulatto, or mustee was subject to be taxed. Nevertheless, interracial marriage still happened and Josiah Quincy, a revolutionary from Massachusetts, visited North Carolina and noted in 1773 that the “enjoyment of a negro or mulatto woman is spoken of as quite a common thing: no reluctance, delicacy or shame is made about the matter” (Crow 8). While Watson mentions slaves entering North Carolina by way of Virginia, there were also slave ships traveling directly into North Carolina from other places, as documented by the Intra-American Slave Trade Database.
According to the website slavevoyages.org, “The Trans-Atlantic and Intra American slave trade databases are the culmination of several decades of independent and collaborative research by scholars drawing upon data in libraries and archives around the Atlantic world.” Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and supported by the Hutchins Center of Harvard University, the databases provide a startling and overwhelming documentation of the booming business of the slave trade. The work shows that slaves arrived into North Carolina ports from within the country and from all over the world. Principal places of purchase for ships who traveled directly into the state included St. Kitts, Antigua, Jamaica (Montego Bay, Kingston, Port Royal, Savanna la Mar), Grenada, Nevis, Novia Scotia, St. Lucia, and Barbados. While most entries for these ships do not include specific information about passengers, other than the captains’ names, there was a voyage into New Bern in 1764 that listed 30% of the slaves aboard as children, half boys and half girls. Newby wrote, “The first indentured servants were probably brought into the country by George Catchmaid who owned 3,333 acres on Perquimans River, at Stevenson’s Point, and brought in thirty persons” (37).
In a journal entry by William Logan, written in 1745, he describes visiting Perquimans County. “Came this morning after Breakfast across Pequimmins river, (which is scarce 50 yards wide where we cros’d it, but about a mile further down a full mile wide), in Company with Sam Newby to the Meeting…” (7), he writes, and “The Common peoples houses here are in generall tarrd all over to preserve y instead of Painting & all have Wooden Chimneys which I admire do not catch fire oftener than they do” (9). When speaking of North Carolina as a whole, Logan wrote that while from his experience “they seemed very kind to strangers” (16), “The People, especially those that live most Southerly are very indolent & lazy & keep Negroes to do their work, which they half starve, allowing ym no more in general than a half peck of Indian Corn a week & a pint of Salt, & no Cloaths but a Breech Clout” (15). Another traveler visiting from Britain during the 1780s declared, “The female slaves fare, labour, and repose, just in the same manner; even when they breed, which is generally every two or three years, they seldom lose more than a week’s work thereby, either in the delivery, or suckling the child” (Crow 17).
Johann David Schöpf wrote about visiting Edenton in Travels in the Confederation [1783-1784]: It is difficult to say which are the best creatures, the whites here or their blacks, or which have been formed by the others; but in either case the example is bad. The white men are all the time complaining that the blacks will not work, and they themselves do nothing. The white men complain further that they cannot trust the faithless blacks, and they set them a dubious model. (117-118)
Slaves did fight back in the area, as early as 1759, with accounts of stealing, arson, running, and even murder (Watson 18). Watson provides an example of a slave named Ben who was charged with stealing clothing and a gun and given a “typical sentence” of fifty lashes and his right ear being cut off (18). Perquimans County did have a slave code and laws that were required to be followed, if slaves wanted to avoid this type of punishment. Slave code in 1741 allowed no trade with whites and slaves were not allowed to “raise horses, cattle, or hogs for their own benefit” and “carrying arms was extended to include hunting” (Crow 6). In 1758, the county began a patrol system to search for any slaves who tried to escape. Men who agreed to be patrollers in search of slaves were granted special privileges, like being completely exempt from taxation. Despite the attractive benefits, some white county residents failed to agree to the duty or agreed, but never actually did it.
Although Quakers in the county were opposed to slavery and encouraged any Quakers who owned slaves to set them free, the institution grew. In 1764, new slaves were still being brought into North Carolina. Both Watson and the Balanta Society document, “Since our last, the schooner Joseph, Capt. Williams, arrived here from Barbados, with a Parcel of fine healthy young Slaves.” Determined to uphold slavery to reap its benefits, local slave owners and supporters used state laws to combat the efforts of Quakers. State law said that manumission could only occur for meritorious service so when a Quaker freed a slave, that freedom was totally ignored and overruled. Watson reports, “Sheriffs began seizing the slaves liberated by Quakers and selling them at public auction, particularly in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties, where such manumissions were most pronounced” (59). An advertisement offering “TEN DOLLARS REWARD” for a runaway slave “near Hertford, in Perquimans” in 1796 included that the man was “bred in Perquimans” and “was one of the negroes emancipated by the Quakers” (Watson 37). Quakers fought back, hired lawyers, and continued to free slaves and advocate for their freedom. In the following petition for emancipation noted by Watson, meritorious actions are listed:
To the County Court now about to Sit in Perquimans. The Petition of the Several Subscribers Humbly Sheweth That whereas Samuel Smith a few Years ago Manumitted a Servant Man Named Peter (Whose Mother was an Indian and Father a Negroe) which Said Servant Man hath not been taken up nor Sold by the Court, And as he hath hither to Always been an Orderly Servant and never that we know of been Accused of any Villany, But on the Contrary Hath done Several Meritorious Actions in Destroying Vermin Such as Bears Wolves wild Cats and Foxes Therefore we pray that the Court may take it into Consideration and Order and Adjuge that he may remain Free and unmolested as long as he behaves himself well And your Petitioners the Several Subscribers, as in Duty Bound shall ever pray […] (38)
The history of the moral and social importance of Quakers in Perquimans is well known, as Raymond A. Winslow, Jr., archivist for the Perquimans County Restoration Association, recounts: “Friends’ history in North Carolina began in Perquimans” (16) and is home to “Piney Woods Meeting House – “oldest religious congregation in North Carolina” (20). “Friends were often ahead of their time in social questions, especially in regard to slavery,” wrote Winslow, and “Inspired by Thomas Newby and Thomas Nicholson, both of Perquimans County, Friends in North Carolina declared in 1776 that “Keeping our fellow men in Bondage is inconsistent with the Law of righteousness,…” (18). As Quakers began not only freeing their slaves but also ensuring they were supported, they were persecuted against by those who upheld the institution of slavery (Winslow 18). According to Winslow, “Opposition to slavery made Friends unpopular. …Friends were called traitors and troublemakers…” (19). Methodists and Baptists also advocated for abolition and allowed slaves to participate in worship (Crow 28-29).
Despite these efforts, “On October 10 and 18, 1788, Sheriff Richard Skinner sold 3 women and their children, 2 single women, and 7 men at auction, all to the considerable monetary advantage of the public” (Watson 60). In 1799, The Perquimans County Court ordered three men to post a 1,000 pound bail bond and to pay 500 pounds in damages to Dolley James, a free black whom they kidnapped and held for seven days with the intent “to Convey her into foreign parts & Sell & Dispose of her as a Slave…” (Crow 9). Many were angered that Quakers were freeing slaves and about the freeing it was said, “I think this Conduct cannot be vindicated; it is infamous & a violent breach of Faith, as well as an intrusion upon private Property, & directly repugnant to every principle upon which we contend for Liberty” (Watson 36).
Deed records from Perquimans gathered by Watson Winslow show the passing on of slaves to the next generation, just as material goods were passed. Deed 140 from 1698 said, “New feather bed, & Boulster, 2 Blankets, & a Rugg, 1 doz Pewter plates, & 2 Pewter Dishes, & 1 Iron Pott.” At 16 years of age “1 negro man, 40 pounds, & 4 young Sows, as a gift from me.” In 1785, deed number 400 from Elizabeth Hasket said, “love I bear my son Jesse, of same – do give a negro man named Mingo.” Deed number 453 from John Nixon in the same year said, “love I bear my mother, Keziah Pritlow, do give all my right, of certain parcel of undivided negroes bequeathed to me…” and deed number 477 listed “slaves, household furniture, horses, cattle, hogs, sheep” (Winslow, Records of Deeds).
In 1790, slaves were held in 323 households in Perquimans, almost half of the families in the county. Each of the 323 homes had “5.8 slaves each” and the most prominent slaveholders were “Gosby Toms and William Skinner, who owned 52 and 47 respectively” (Watson 43). There were only thirty-seven free blacks in the county at this time, less than one percent of the total population (Watson 62). Two leaders from Perquimans, Wilson and Jacocks, represented the town’s interests in politics with the legislature and ensured free blacks would not be allowed to vote. Whites were afraid if blacks could vote, they would outnumber whites and gain control (Watson 37-38). These fears were represented in many political cartoons, illustrated with white men being crushed under negro boots and white women afraid of looming negro domination on the horizon. In 1802, a slave insurrection in counties around Perquimans and rumors of an alleged slave uprising being planned within the county where whites would be murdered continued to spark fear (Watson 61). Newby reported, “In 1823, 33 years before the outbreak of the great internecine war between the states, the Quakers who bitterly opposed slavery, migrated in great numbers away from Perquimans County to the middle west” (23). By 1826, large numbers of slaves were running away and the Nat Turner Rebellion in neighboring Virginia in 1831 where “an estimated 55 white people” were murdered further increased the tension between blacks and whites across North Carolina (history.com). The state implemented a “Free Black Code” in 1830-1831 to limit freedoms of free blacks in the state (Watson 63). Crow wrote, “Although some slaves learned to read from the white children, masters generally followed the law, which after 1830 prohibited the education of slaves. Because knowledge was power, masters wanted their slaves to have none of it” (Crow 62). He also shared Louisa Adams’ remembrance of what would happen if you were caught trying to read. “Lord, you better not be caught with a book in your hand. If you did, you were sold. They didn’t allow that” (Crow 62).
By 1850, there were 450 free blacks in the county, increasing to six percent of the total population, but many free blacks were leaving to head north or to the “old northwest such as Ohio and Indiana” (Watson 63). Watson also reports, “Under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, slaves and free blacks from Perquimans exited for Liberia” (63). Slavery was quickly becoming a booming business in Perquimans, and the number of slaves almost doubled to “3,558 in 1860” bringing “the average number of slaves per slave owning family to 13.7, as opposed to the state average of 9.5” (Watson 43). One resident in the county, Benjamin S. Skinner, was listed as owning one hundred and ten slaves (Watson 43).
As the Civil War approached in 1861, residents of Perquimans were reluctant to embrace succession but refused to fight against southern states. This led to the formation of two volunteer infantry companies, the Beauregards and John Harvey Guards, to serve for the Confederate army (Watson 77). Contrary to the idea that slaves were loyal to their Southern masters, many ran as soon as they had the chance to fight against them. Around seven thousand blacks in North Carolina “…fled from Confederate territory to enlist and fight, in four black regiments, for the Union cause” (Watson 72). Additionally, more than ten thousand blacks in eastern North Carolina fled to places of refuge with the Union army on the coast like New Bern and Roanoke Island (Watson 72). “Slaves regarded whites as their oppressors,” documented Crow, and “Because they felt intense resentment over slavery’s injustice and abuse, blacks lived with few illusions about white character or white motives” (63).
Perquimans County was no stranger to Union troops and several visits during the Civil War led to raided homes and plantations. Watson reports, “300 to 400 men pillaged the Perquimans plantation of Nathan Winslow” and the local bridge, where the S bridge is now located, was destroyed by Union forces (Watson 51). The town of Hertford was also shelled in 1862 by a soldier of General Burnsides’ invasion of the Albemarle (Newby 43-44).
First Hand Accounts
Harriet Jacobs, author of the slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, wrote from Edenton, North Carolina and detailed her first escape from her master and his sexual advances, her hiding for seven years in a tiny attic crawlspace, and her final escape to the north on a ship. She assisted recently freed slaves after the war and despite the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865 abolishing slavery, blacks still faced harsh conditions in the Albemarle region. On the heals of slavery came sharecropping and Jim Crow segregation. H. Lorraine Skinner, born in Hertford, wrote:
As I look back to my childhood days, I can still remember most of the hardship that my parents went through, as sharecroppers. They worked on many different farms as they raised their children, trying to make a better life for us. Fieldwork was the only way of earning a living in those days. Many families met in the fields early every morning to prepare for a long hard days work. Farming derived from the days of slavery and continued on generation after generation. (33)
As small children we weren’t allowed to use the hoe, so we walked beside our parents and pulled the grass out by hand. Each field had about fifty rows of plants and the rows were at least a mile long. They grew cotton, peanuts, corn, potatoes, cabbages and watermelons. You started chopping at the beginning of a row and worked to the other end. You then took another row and worked your way back down. You weren’t allowed to stop until the “BOSS MAN” said it was time for a drink of water, lunch or quitting time. He always sat in a wagon under the shady trees watching you as you worked. (35)
During the summer, when it didn’t rain, the fields had to be watered by hand using the water that had been captured in wooden barrels from the previous rainstorms. The workers stood in line down the rows and passed buckets of water back and forth until the whole field was watered. Some days they had to be watered twice. My parents, God rest their souls, worked in those fields from sunup until sunset. (37) You know there is a myth that’s been passed down throughout the centuries that blacks are lazy. We are not lazy, we are just “TIRED.” (39)
Skinner recounted many memories such as these in her memoir Southern Comfort. She described going to the overseer to ask for help for her mother, who was pregnant and working in the hot summer sun with no water. Instead of offering assistance, the man hit her with a cane and “spit a mouthful of tobacco juice” on her as he said “get out of here nigger gal, and go back to work” (Skinner 40-41). Skinner was only about six years old at the time. She described the heartache she felt at always seeing her dad lower his head to white men and say “yes sir” (Skinner 42) and the fear she experienced when she was forced to continue working, along with her family, during a lightning storm (Skinner 44). As a child, she would crawl on her knees down the rows as she picked cotton, along with her siblings. She wrote that they crawled “to take some weight off our backs” and that “the more cotton we picked the more money our parents got” (Skinner 70).
As she got older, she recalled prejudice like not being able to eat in soda fountains, having to use only certain restrooms and water fountains, having to enter the back door of the local movie theater, and her mother telling her that it was “just the way it is” (Skinner 109-151). Skinner graduated from Perquimans County High School in 1956 and left for New York (171). She encountered racism in New York as well, where white staff in the hospital did not respect her as a professional (168-169) and when she returned to North Carolina for a visit, waiting at the bus stop as it started to pour down rain, whites wouldn’t let them in and laughed at them. Skinner writes, “After we were settled on the bus, my three year old daughter asked, “Mommy, why did that man make us stand in the rain and why were those people laughing at us?” I responded in the same familiar voice that my mom once used, “Baby, that’s the way it still is” (195).
Trouillot wrote, “But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past—or, more accurately, pastness–is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past” (15). The past is arguably more present more than ever and while many believe education in regard to slavery can incite racial tension, it does not have to. Gloria Ladson-Billings discusses critical race theory beginning “with the notion that racism is normal, not aberrant, in American society” (11). Some believe that racism can be exhausted and others believe it is permanently rooted, but it is important to be honest about history. Of course it’s true that we can’t change what has already happened but as Trouillot said, the past is present, and people work through that in different ways.
The town and area that I grew up in has a history worth remembering, worth writing about, and worth reflecting on, as I’m sure your own does. Knowing the history doesn’t make me dislike my town. Knowing the history makes me thankful to those who went before me, those who endured times that are tough to imagine, and those who had vision for what a different someday, today, could be. It also makes me so thankful to live in a place where people love, respect, and help each other across color lines. History is heavy and can stack against and press in on our present. Knowing the history means understanding that my parents experienced school integration and when I think of it that way, it hasn’t been that long ago at all. Knowing the history frames our perception of progress. For so many of us who return to make this a home for our children, we love this place and we recognize that while it has a past, it also has a present, and a future.
Old Town Mural
The article that sparked my curiosity
African Americans In Early North Carolina A Documentary History. Edited by Alan D. Watson, NC Office of Archives and History, 2005.
“Civil Rights Movement.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2020, www.history.com/topics/black-history/civil-rights-movement.
Crow, Jeffrey J., et al. A History Of African Americans In North Carolina. North Carolina Office of Archives and History Raleigh, 2002.
“Harriet Jacobs.” PBS, PBS Online, www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2923.html. Accessed 12 Dec. 2020.
Kaufman, Helen Pruden. White Gloves and Collards. HPK Publishing, 2013.
Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education?” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 11, no. 1, 1998, pp. 7-24. ProQuest, doi: 10.1080/095183998236863.
Logan, William. “William Logan’s Journal of a Journey to Georgia, 1745.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 36, no. 1, 1912, pp. 1-16. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/20085577.pdf.
“Nat Turner.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2020, www.history.com/topics/black-history/nat-turner.
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