Author’s note: This was originally for publication in a local newspaper. It deals with a historic tour I took that depicts life for African-Americans from the Civil War era to the recent civil right era, about 150 years. It talks about slavery, Jim Crow and other things that may make some people uncomfortable. So, I tried to cover things with broad strokes, but provided additional context when I could through use of newspaper archives.
Historic Edenton State Historic Site conducts the “Edenton from Civil War to Civil Rights” tour, which is new this year. The program lasts around an hour and costs $2.50 per person. It currently is limited to seven individuals. For information, visit the state agency’s Facebook page, here.
A new tour provided through Edenton State Historic Sites offers a glimpse of about 150 years of the region’s history — in particular, that of Chowan County’s African-American residents.
Interpretation Coordinator Andrew Cole gave the first tour of “Edenton from Civil War to Civil Rights” tour on a chilly and rainy Saturday. The tour costs $2.50 per person and is limited to seven people, as the tour is taken by vehicle.
Sometimes, in order to see where your going, you have to see where you’ve been.
The first stop on the tour was on the James Iredell property.
The Dependency is a red building that has been on the Iredell property since it was built in the 1700s. Cole said the timbers date back to 1756. Local legend has it that the building was a slave quarters, however, there is no historical evidence.
Cole noted that the Iredell family owned slaves and also hired them out from other slave owners to work on the property.
Cole read from two narratives from slaves who lived in northeastern North Carolina, one by Moses Grandy, a slave ferryman who was born in Camden County, and the other by Harriet Jacobs, who lived in Edenton until she escaped to the North in 1842.
In Grandy’s narrative, he wrote “I’m being hired out. Sometimes the slaves gets a good home and sometimes it’s bad. When he get’s a good one, he dreads to see January. … When January comes, when you gets the bad one, the year seems five times as long.”
Cole noted that January was when slaves were hired out, sometimes sold to new masters for the upcoming planting season.
Jacobs writes about slavery from the perspective of a slave girl owned by a vile master: “I was compelled to live under the same roof with him, where I saw a man 40 years my senior violating the most sacred commitments of nature. He told me I was his property that I must submit to his will in all things.”
“So, there are different perspectives here,” Cole said, “Grandy talks more about brutality and very hard labor, being half-starved. Where as the woman, she’s dealing with a lot of sexual, verbal and physical abuse as well.”
Slaves had various skills. While there were some unskilled farm laborers, others were sea captains, skilled carpenters, brick masons or bakers.
During the Civil War, northeastern North Carolina became a hub of activity. Union ships dropped off troops, who would move north toward Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, which is about a two and a half hour drive away.
Because of this, pockets of Union influence spring up along North Carolina’s coast.
“What’s going to happen is a lot of these free persons of color, and enslaved people who were living in close proximity to the Union are going to start going to these places,” Cole said.
On June 19, 1863, the first company of the United Stated Colored Troops was created in North Carolina. They participated in the Union occupations of Elizabeth City and New Bern.
With slavery being officially over with the passage of the 13th Amendment, many of Edenton’s recently freed slaves eventually become prominent prominent businessmen. Signs of their workmanship can be found throughout the town.
Gale Street was once a hub of African-American activity. The Kadesh A.M.E. Zion Church once stood on a large parcel of property with three other buildings for the Edenton Normal and Industrial School. Now, only the church and parsonage still stand, as the community works to restore the historic structures.
The Gothic Revival style church was built by Hannibal Badham Jr., a member of Edenton’s Badham family of carpenters. The family included Miles Badham I (ca. 1811-1870s), Hannibal Badham Sr. (1845-1918), Hannibal Badham Jr. (1879-1941), and Miles Badham II (1877-1925).
The Badhams built several homes on Gale Street that are still standing, but sit abandoned.
The congregation of Kadesh A.M.E. Zion Church now meets at a building on Badham Road, a few miles from its original home which was damaged during a hurricane.
The next stop on the tour showed a bit of Edenton’s history during the Jim Crow era — in which there were separate and “equal” facilities for whites and African-Americans.
North Oakum Street
In many Southern school systems, black schools usually had severely outdated books or no funding at all, Cole said.
Due to this disparity, Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck, and Company and the African-American leader, educator, and philanthropist, Booker T. Washington created the Rosenwald School. The schools were throughout the United States. Cole said one of the school was located near where the McDonald’s on Virginia Street is today. The original D.F. Walker High School, which opened in 1932, also was one of the historic Rosenwald schools.
It was during this time period when Golden Frinks, an Edenton resident, started to become involved in the civil rights movement.
When Frinks came to Edenton after serving in World War II, he became involved in a local chapter of the NAACP and he was trying to make changes in Edenton.
“Unfortunately one of things he notices is that people are a little hesitant,” Cole said. He noted that many families didn’t get involved for fear of losing their jobs or being harmed.
Frinks starts recruiting youths and those from the lower classes.
“They were the ones who really got the things going in the civil rights movement. They didn’t have anything to lose,” Cole said, quoting Willis Privott, a Edenton native and one of the first African-Americans to serve on Edenton town council.
Protests started in downtown Edenton at several businesses. These protests attracted the attention of other people outside of the state, including the Southern Christian Leadership movement, which was lead by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
One of the places King visited in Edenton — the old National Guard Armory on North Broad Street — was the tour’s next stop.
North Broad Street
“We’re standing in the place where Martin Luther King stood,” Cole said, of the civil rights leader’s visit to Edenton.
King spoke in Edenton at least twice, 1962 and in May 8, 1966. The 1966 “All Citizens Freedom Rally” was held at the old N.C. National Guard Armory. A historical marker notes the visit. While it says 500 people were in attendance, those who attended the rally suggest that several thousand attended.
In the 1960s, those involved in the civil rights moment begin to see some victories, as the courthouse and library were desegregated. They made sure that the first black cashier was hired at the local super market.
John A. Holmes started to accept black students in 1963.
Racial tensions continued to run high in Edenton into the 1970s. In 1972, Edenton High School, a school for African-Americans, was burned down, along with several other structures in town. Cole said the 1756 Dependency still has many charred timbers from when they attempted to burn the structure down that year. At the time, some African-Americans thought the burning of the former African-American high school was racially motivated.
In 1973, 100 people, including Frinks, were arrested while protesting the dismissal of high school band director, Richard L. Satterfield, at John A. Holmes High School and the Chowan County Office building. Satterfield sued the school system to get his job back. The case was eventually heard in 1975 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which ruled in the school system’s favor.
Citing the racial tension, the 1973 graduation ceremony was cancelled at Holmes. According to the late Rebecca Bunch, who was a member of the graduating class, they have the dubious distinction of being the only class in school history whose graduation ceremony was cancelled.
“That cancellation came during a time of racial unrest and was prompted by bomb threats phoned in to the school should graduation take place,” she wrote. “Erring on the side of caution, school officials decided to cancel the official ceremony and mail diplomas to the graduates instead.”
As Edenton began to integrate, things are going to start cooling down by the mid-1970s, Cole noted.
Frinks, who lived in a house still standing on West Peterson Street, passed away in 2004. His funeral was held at John A. Holmes High School. He is buried in Beaver Hill Cemetery.
“That is 150 years of history, and let’s talk about this for a second,” Cole said. “There is saying that the English think 100 miles is a long way and Americans think of a hundred years is a long time.”
Cole showed the tour-goers a photo of Henry Wilson, who was born in 1852 and served as a drummer boy in the Civil War. He died in 1956.
Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in 1960. She was born in 1954 — just two years before Wilson’s death.
“Ruby Bridges is still alive today,” Cole said, while holding the iconic photograph of a child dressed in white, walking to school. “She was born 1954. … It’s not that long ago.
“It’s only about 40-50 years ago. There are many people who were involved in this who are still alive today, still living here in town,” he said. “There’s been a lot of changes in a very, very short amount of time.”