African American Legacy in New Bern
Some historians refer to the Civil War as the “war between the states" – a white man’s war. But to many people of color – it was the “war for freedom.” And during this mighty war, no other place in North Carolina had more “free” slaves than New Bern.
When the Union Army seized the city, word spread fast. Slaves travelled from across the state and outside its borders to get to New Bern.
Soon after the start of the Civil War missionaries began to pour into the state. Historians say Methodists were the first to come down and some were missionaries from all-black denominations of the African Methodist Episcopal church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church.
The choir is rehearsing at St. Peter’s A-M-E Zion church. It was established under James Walker Hood in 1864 – a missionary sent from Connecticut. John Murrel is a long-time steward at St. Peter’s – and he sings in the choir.
John Murrel: "I was born in New Bern and I’ve been a member all my life here. This church is unique b/c of the great history that lasts here within this church."
The church helped freed slaves get settled in their new lives. Hood went on to establish more than 350 churches along the coast of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. They were based on the premise that Christian faithfulness and racial justice are inseparable.
Laurie Maffly-Kipp is chairman of the Religious Studies Department at U-N-C Chapel Hill. She says religious communities were an obvious way to form associations and for freed slaves, to find like-minded people.
Laurie Maffly Kipp: "But they were also important because they were a place where other things could happen. Education could happen there - burials and marriages and other basic things that we consider to be basic human practices that slaves hadn’t been allowed because they hadn’t been free."
Members of St. Peter’s AME Zion church and others built their own schools, started a newspaper and founded North Carolina’s first black-owned bank – the Mutual Aid Bank. Joseph George heads the city of New Bern’s Housing Authority. He pastored St. Peter’s for nine years.
Joseph George: "And I went to that church to restore it because the church had provided for me some very important mentoring and leadership in my formative years growing up here. I was a boy scout and the troop that I was a member of was sponsored by that church. Troop 121, I can remember it to this day."
The George family can trace their family back to the beginning of New Bern.
Bernard George: "I am a native New Bernian. My family has lived here in this area for approximately 300 years. I’m born and raised right here, I’m part of the soil."
Bernard George – Joseph George’s brother – is an administrator in the New Bern planning department. Their great, great, grandfather fought in the union army during the Civil War. Bernard George is a well-known Colored Troops Civil War re-enactor. He left town for college but is proud to say he’s part of the African American tradition that stayed south.
Bernard George: "We continued to fight discrimination, we continued to work hard to raise families. We continued to create community here, in the south, in a very hostile environment so those who fled this very dire situation, could one day, as they’re doing today, move back south and enjoy all the fruits and the labors of their brothers and sisters who stayed south and stayed the course."
African Americans make up about 38-percent of the New Bern population. But there is an un-incorporated area near the Trent River that is almost 100-percent African American – it’s called James City. Long-time residents were recorded and are part of an oral history exhibit at the new North Carolina History Center at Tryon Palace.
Ernestine Clemmons: "The federal government give James City to the black people, the black soldiers, because they fought with the federal."
Ernestine Clemmons was born in James City in 1916 – her father lived there his entire life.
Clemmons: "People that could make it from the other parts of the state and other places, they would come to James City. When they came to James City they were supposed to be free."
James City was originally called the Trent River Settlement. It was later re-named in honor of Union Army Chaplain Horace James who was instrumental in setting up camps and schools for the refugee slaves. But reconstruction un-settled this settlement. Whites demanded the land back. James City was moved and many African Americans headed north for a better life. Today James City has about 600 residents. Several houses are empty. There are five churches and a monument that recognizes more than 500 post-Civil War unmarked graves. The James City Community Center sits right next to Reform Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. Three nights a week you can hardly get a parking space. Dozens of neighbors from James City, and from across the bridge in New Bern, meet for line dancing classes. Connie Davis and her sister Mae Henderson head up the dancing – slash – exercise class.
Inge: " What do you like about your community?"
Connie Davis: " I love it because it’s peaceful and quiet and everybody love each other, they are like family, they are bound together, and watch out for each other."
Inge: "What about you?"
Mae Henderson: "Yeah same. Everybody pull together, you know. So we’re doing pretty good now. James City was low key at one time, look at us now! (laugh)"
Last year New Bern celebrated its 300th anniversary – only the town of Bath is older in North Carolina. They celebrated with fireworks, a parade and a special symphony performance. Even visitors from Switzerland travelled to New Bern to celebrate – they were the first settlers. But the celebration also included a trip to Ghana, West Africa – a connection African American residents of New Bern know well.