From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, New Bern’s history is filled with events that impacted its black residents.
While many events and names are well known, some have been nearly forgotten over time or suppressed by revisionist historians of the Jim Crow and segregation era.
Here are five events from New Bern’s past that played a significant role in shaping the foundations of New Bern’s future.
James City becomes a haven for freed slaves
The Civil War brought a number of changes to New Bern. After the city was captured in 1862 by Union troops, former slaves seeking refuge flooded the area. Union army officials provided confiscated land from former slaves, who established homes, churches, businesses, and farms, and attempted to form an independent community.
Originally known as Trent River Settlement, in 1865 the population reached nearly 3,000 and the community was renamed James City in honor of its founder, Horace James, Superintendent of Black Affairs and agent of the Bureau of freed people, refugees and abandoned lands.
Teachers from the American Missionary Association and the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society established schools in James City, the Freedmen’s Bureau established a hospital, and residents built churches, cultivated land, and embarked on business ventures .
Conditions worsened in the late 1860s, however. The federal government returned the land to its original owners, and by the 1880s the black population had dropped dramatically.
In 1881, workers in James City went on strike to protest low wages and unfair prices. Residents also raised $2,000 and offered to buy the land from its new owners, Mary and James A. Bryan, who refused to sell.
In 1892, only 700 black men and women remained in James City.
Today, organizations such as Jones Chapel AME Zion Church and the James City Historical Society seek to preserve the community’s vibrant history.
Bern’s new leaders pass resolutions on white supremacy
An article on the front page of the November 5, 1898, issue of the Raleigh News & Observer details a meeting at the Craven County Courthouse in New Bern by city leaders. The meeting took place several days before a mob of white supremacists torched the offices of the black-owned newspaper in Wilmington and gunned down dozens of the city’s African-American citizens.
According to the newspaper’s account, a mass meeting of “Newbern (sic) white men” had taken place at the Craven County Courthouse. At this meeting, many of the city’s wealthiest and most influential white citizens came together to make a statement.
The title of the story said:
“PATIENCE CEASES: RINGING RESOLUTIONS ADOPTED BY WHITE MEN”
A summary of the story’s content appeared in several smaller titles.
“THE WHITES WHO VOTE WITH THE NEGROES DENOUNCED AS TRAITORS TO RACE AND COUNTRY”
According to the story, the chairman of the meeting, Alfred Decator “AD” Ward was a prominent local attorney and had been elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives. James A. Bryan, chairman of the National Bank of New Bern and the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad Co. and one of the largest landowners in the state, was another city leader present at the meeting.
According to the News & Observer, white leaders passed five resolutions similar to those approved in Wilmington just before the massacre.
In the first resolution, they decided that:
“It is the duty of every white person, male and female, to do all in his power to bring about honorable deliverance from Negro domination and the ruin and disgrace that attends it.”
The second resolution of the assembly said:
“That the meaning of this meeting is that henceforth all white men who vote and ally themselves in politics with the Negro will be denounced and regarded as traitors to their race and country and as public enemies, and not to be associates.”
The third resolution denounced “the traitors to the white race who make it their business to organize the Negroes…”
The fourth affirmed that “while our white brothers in other communities bravely dare any danger to rid themselves and us of the dark cloud of black domination…we too have decided to use all means that brave and honorable men can for the deliverance and salvation of our State from the horrible fate which threatens.
The final resolution read: “That we, the employers of labor, will give preference to whites in all cases, so far as possible.
First schools for black students open in New Bern
In 1907, West Street Graded School in New Bern became the first brick school erected for black students in the state. Until the 1950s, it was New Bern’s only black public school for all grades.
Over the years the school has grown and additional buildings have been added to the site. A grammar school department was added, which was accredited in 1925. The first grammar school class, 10 strong, graduated from West Street that year.
Craven County’s first public school for black students, the New Bern State Normal School, was opened even earlier, in 1872. The term “normal school” has been used to describe schools that train teachers, primarily for elementary classes.
The normal school’s first principal was George H. White, the last African-American congressman in the state during the Reconstruction era.
In 1881, the school had 63 students. The following year, the state moved the school to Goldsboro and eventually moved to Elizabeth City, becoming Elizabeth City State University.
Great fire leaves 3,000 homeless
Known as the “Great Fire”, the fire that engulfed New Bern on December 1, 1922, burned 40 city blocks and left more than 3,0000 people – a quarter of the population – homeless, the majority of between them being African American residents. .
The day is actually the story of two fires. The first started at the Rowland Lumber Company on the banks of the River Neuse. While firefighters were still battling the Rowland blaze, a second fire broke out at a residence on Kilmarnock Street near the Five Points intersection. By the time firefighters responded, three other homes were burning uncontrollably.
Accounts from the day describe a blaze fanned by 70-mile-per-hour winds that carried the flames down the river. Unfortunately, many of the city’s firefighters were attending a state championship football game in Raleigh that day.
About 1,000 homes, businesses and churches would be destroyed in the fire. An area of 40 blocks was destroyed for an estimated loss of $2.5 million. Only one victim was reported, an elderly African American woman who was too unable to escape from her home.
Homeless New Bern citizens, many of whom had escaped with nothing more than clothes on their backs, sought refuge in Cedar Grove and Greenwood cemeteries. They would soon receive help from nearby military bases. Fort Bragg shipped eight freight cars containing tents, cots and other supplies which were used by the Red Cross to set up a temporary tent city for the victims. Clothing and money were collected from residents of nearby towns as well as the Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia.
Although local protests erupted over the decision, the city condemned approximately 20 acres of the burned area in order to widen and straighten streets, expand Cedar Grove Cemetery, and create a city park. Most of the homes that once stood on the Condemned Land belonged to the African American families who once lived there.
The New Bern civil rights sit-ins
Inspired by black students who made national headlines for staging a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960, New Bern high school students followed suit at two local stores. Protesters sat at lunch counters and demanded service until police arrived to arrest them.
Led by Reverend Willie Hickman and Reverend Leon “Buckshot” Nixon, on March 17, 1960, 29 black youths split into two groups and sat down at Clark’s Drug Store (now a law office at the corner of Broad and Middle) and Kress department store.
At the time, local Jim Crow rules required black customers to buy sandwiches and sodas from the back door and take them “to-go”.
According to a Sun Journal account at the time, officials placed “closed” signs in front of each youth and told them to leave.
The young people continued to sit at the counter.
Meanwhile, other students picketed with signs outside stores, led by local ministers and parents.
According to reports from the day, WE Gaskins Jr., manager of Clarks, instructed police to “give protesters time to move (but) make arrests if they don’t.”
They did not, and all 29 were arrested and taken to the police station, which was then located in what is now the town hall. The students sang hymns and songs of freedom, clapping their hands and stamping their feet.
Bail was set at $25 each, and local black businesses and the NAACP contributed the funds. The charges were later dropped.
After months of protests and an economic boycott, Clark’s and Kress have opened their counters to black customers.