Responding to the Call: Engaging the Public in Conversations about African American Civil War Participation

Responding to the Call: Engaging the Public in Conversations about African American Civil War Participation

Located at the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp, refuge to runaway slaves for over two centuries of American slavery, and connected to North Carolina’s coastline by a complex series of waterways, Elizabeth City and its surrounding rural counties present a verdant landscape filled with unknown, unspoken, or unwritten African American histories. In response to the Journal of Civil War Era’s (JCWE) “call to action” to shine light on the “histories of African Americans, emancipation, and Reconstruction” that are too often neglected in the public sphere, Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) history faculty and students and Elizabeth City community members  gathered on September 26, 2020 to fill that gap with education and conversation about African American Civil War participation in northeastern North Carolina.[1]

“Sergt. Bob” was Sgt. Frank Roberts, an Elizabeth City native and member of the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers, which was later renamed the 35th USCI. Drawing from the Fred W. Smith, Jr. Civil War Sketch Book, courtesy of the Tryon Palace Historic Sites & Gardens Collection, New Bern, NC.

Elizabeth City State University stakeholders were apt leaders for such a movement in North Carolina. Established in 1891 as the State Colored Normal School, ECSU is one of five public HBCUs in North Carolina and the only public university in the region. As a scholar whose research focuses on Black towns and institutions, I was drawn to ECSU in 2017 because its long history of service to a rural and majority Black region of North Carolina. Since arriving here, I have worked with my colleagues to establish space on campus dedicated to the study of the region’s rich African American history. We have recently won over half a million dollars from the National Park Service and the Institute for Museum and Library Services to rehabilitate a historic Rosenwald school building on campus for this purpose. On a personal level, ECSU’s location allows me to live and work on the North Carolina side of the swamp that piqued my interest in history and constantly inspired my imagination as teenager living near its Virginia border. Organizing and executing the “call to action” with my colleagues, Dr. Chas Reed (ECSU) and Dr. Hilary Green (University of Alabama and formerly of ECSU), provided an opportunity to dive deeply into the region’s Civil War era history, connect it to the landscape, and engage with the public about questions of memory and erasure.

Following the guidelines put forth by JCWE, we scouted locations, crafted signs, prepared short presentations, curated a list of lesser-known facts under the headlining question, “Did you know,” and prepared an accompanying social media campaign to document and share the day with a wider community. My preparation began with reading and assessing current scholarship on African Americans and the Civil War in the area and utilizing it along with public history and genealogical media to determine the locations for our action and create most of the materials that we would use at the event and on Twitter. My reading list included: Barton Myers, The Execution of Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community, 1861-1865 (2009); Alex Christopher Meekins, Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation (2007); Richard Reid, “Raising the African Brigade: Early Black Recruitment in Civil War North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review (1993); Richard Reid, Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War (2012); Edwin S. Redkey, A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (1992) and websites like the National Park Service Civil War Database; and North Carolina GenWeb’s “U.S. Colored Troops Formed in North Carolina” webpage.[2]

Based on this research, we chose two locations in Elizabeth City for our action. We started the day near the intersection of North Poindexter and Burgess Streets. Today the site of Mid-Atlantic Christian University (MACU), this waterfront location served as the encampment for African American soldiers of the 1st United States Colored Infantry Regiment who were deployed there to build fortifications in August 1863. As it did wherever they went, the presence of Union troops attracted slaves seeking freedom and protection from their former masters. The majority of these escapees were sent by boat to Roanoke Island, a Union stronghold on the North Carolina coast. The able-bodied men, however, were either recruited to the USCT or employed as workers for the army. Before departing to Morehead City, NC, the troops took part in a raid against Confederate guerilla fighters in Chowan County twenty-eight miles south of Elizabeth City. A Civil War Trails marker, located in front of MACU and one of six in Elizabeth City, engages the public with this history.[3]

Our second location of the day was Mariner’s Wharf, one of several small public parks located along Elizabeth City’s waterfront. The busy wharf was the site of much Civil War activity. Black troops, free Black Elizabeth City residents, and those escaping slavery would certainly have comingled here both in August 1863 and again in December 1863 when a brigade of Black soldiers returned to Elizabeth City under the command of Brigadier General Edward Augustus Wild. In a three-week-long expedition known as Wild’s Raid, this brigade freed most of the remaining enslaved people in Elizabeth City and the surrounding counties, some 2,500 people in total. After the war, the wharf was one of many downtown locations from which one could view the annual Emancipation Day parade organized by Elizabeth City’s Black community from the end of the war through at least the 1930s. These parades, which took place in early January to mark the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, were attended by Black and white Elizabeth City residents alike. They celebrated Black freedom, honored African American Civil War veterans, and showcased African American achievements since the war’s end. A marker commemorating Wild’s Raid was approved for placement in Mariner’s Wharf Park by the North Carolina Department of Transportation in December 2019.[4]

My collaborators and I divided the work of executing the day’s activities amongst ourselves. I led the presentation and discussion at MACU in front of the former USCT encampment. Together we looked for and found glimpses of the past, like old waterfront warehouse buildings, in the much-changed landscape. Using the refrains “Did you know?” and “We want more history,” ECSU students and local community members also read aloud from index cards I prepared containing pertinent facts about African American participation in the Civil War in North Carolina. At Mariner’s Wharf, Dr. Green took the lead and began by discussing Black Civil War veterans and Memorial Day and Emancipation Day parades filling the public space in the heart of Elizabeth City’s downtown during the height of the Jim Crow Era. This discussion segued into one about Civil War monuments, including a Confederate monument by the court house erected in 1911, decades after the commencement of Emancipation Day parades in the city. Dr. Reed, who could not attend in person, managed our Twitter communications throughout the day. He posted images, the text of the index cards, and boosted the day’s actions by using the official hashtag, “#WeWantMoreHistory.” His efforts ensured that our participation in this national event was chronicled and visible.

African American Civil War veterans from the 35th USCI and family members gather in Plymouth, NC, 1905. Plymouth is located about 50 miles south of Elizabeth City. Photo from North Carolina State Archives courtesy of North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Our preparation and outreach for the day demonstrate the importance of communitywide collaboration in ensuring that the roles African Americans played in the Civil War are widely known and part of the public discourse. We connected staff at MACU, the Elizabeth City Department of Parks and Recreation, and archivists at Tryon Palace in New Bern, NC. We also connected with both the Civil War Trail Markers organization in Williamsburg, VA and local people in Elizabeth City who worked with this organization and the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank County Tourism Development Authority to get Civil War Trail markers placed in town. The event also allowed us to strengthen our existing relationships with regional collaborators like the Museum of the Albemarle. Twitter allowed us to connect with other historians, activists, local and national organizations, and interested individuals across the nation. Overall, the September 2020 event was a resounding success and one that will lead to future collaborations among North Carolinians who “want more history.”

[1] Kate Masur and Greg Downs, “Civil War History: A Call to Action,” Muster, published August 25, 2020, accessed December 28, 2020,  https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2020/08/civil-war-history-a-call-to-action/

[2] “The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database,” National Park Service, last updated May 14, 2015, accessed December 24, 2020,https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm and “U.S. Colored Troops Formed in North Carolina,” last updated October 28, 2020, accessed on December 24, 2020,   http://www.ncgenweb.us/ncusct/usct.htm.

[3] Barton Myers, The Execution of Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community, 1861-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), 68; Alex Christopher Meekins, Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation (Charleston: The History Press, 2007), 87-88.

[4] Myers, 2, 4, 5, 77-81, 87, 162-163, n.4; Meekins, 104-114; The North Carolinian, Elizabeth City, NC, January 4, 1888; The Independent, Elizabeth City, NC, December 28, 1934; Jeff Hampton, “Civil War raid of black troops into North Carolina still stirs emotions,” The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Virginia, last updated February 16, 2020, accessed December 24, 2020, https://www.pilotonline.com/news/vp-nw-wild-raid-20200216-ajmehzdlsfgbdk5r22xscjb6ne-story; “Recently approved markers,”North Carolina Department of Transportation, last accessed January 8, 2021, https://www.ncdcr.gov/about/history/division-historical-resources/nc-highway-historical-marker-program/historical-marker-1 and “A-93: Wild’s Raid,” North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, accessed December 28, 2020, http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=A-93.

Melissa Stuckey

Dr. Melissa N. Stuckey is assistant professor of African American history at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina where she is leading a National Park Service- and Institute for Museum and Library Service-funded project to rehabilitate an historic Rosenwald school building located on campus. Stuckey is author of “Boley, Indian Territory: Exercising Freedom in the All Black Town,” (Journal of African American History, 2017) and “Freedom on Her Own Terms: California M. Taylor and Black Womanhood in Boley, Oklahoma” forthcoming in This Land is Herland: Gendered Activism in Oklahoma, 1870s to 2010s (University of Oklahoma Press, 2021). She is currently completing a monograph about the Black freedom struggle as manifested in Boley, Oklahoma.

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