Beaufort's African-American History and Architecture
by Peter B. Sandbeck
Woodcutter "Lorse" Anderson
Duke Univ. Archives
Beaufort: An Album of Memories
by Jack Dudley
INTRODUCTION: From 1800 to 1990, Beaufort’s black residents have numbered at least twenty-five percent of the total population, with that number rising to as much as fifty percent during and immediately after the Civil War. Despite such large numbers, the African-American society of this historic coastal port town has remained largely unknown and undocumented. Few of the thousands of tourists who visit the town’s historic waterfront every year are aware that blacks have been a vital part of Beaufort’s maritime culture since the eighteenth century. In its traditional location north of busy highway US 70 or Cedar Street, the black neighborhood remains separated from Beaufort’s older historic district and is very much a town within a town, a community with an important history.
|Painting circa 1790 |
Colonial Willamsburg Foundation
With the growth of the free black population during the early decades of the nineteenth century, the fascinating story of African-Americans and their contribution begins to unfold. Beaufort’s black population, which stood at 122—all slaves—in 1800 when the entire town numbered only 559, grew to include 59 free blacks and 579 slaves in 1860, in a town of 1,610. The federal census records for 1850 and 1860 list the occupations of free blacks for the first time, revealing a wide range of skills and trades including house-carpenter, shoemaker, fisherman, farmer, and even four musicians. Five free blacks in Beaufort had achieved the status of property owner by 1860. The great majority were still enslaved, all working daily to build and develop the town which was then in the midst of an antebellum heyday as a fashionable summer resort.
|Contrabands Going to Camp - Harpers Weekly 1863|
Civil War diaries have revealed the moving story of how the town’s newly-freed blacks attended night school during the Union occupation to satisfy their longing to learn to read—often paying cash or bartering scarce goods for the privilege. Few readers today can begin to imagine what life was like in the town during the war, when Beaufort’s refugee camps were filled to overflowing with freed slaves in desperate need of housing, food, jobs and education. Between 1860 and 1870, the black population of Beaufort doubled, due largely to the influx of freedmen during the war.
Within the confines of their “Union Town” neighborhood blacks built an entire community during the late nineteenth century, consisting of homes, churches, stores, fraternal lodges and their own schools. Black carpenters and builders constructed numerous residences, creating a neighborhood of simple but functional small frame houses, many of them in the “story-and-a-jump” form which was so popular for working-class housing throughout Beaufort. The size and approximate boundaries of the black neighborhood have changed little from the time of the Civil War until today: bounded by Broad Street and Cedar Street on the south, Turner at the west, Town Creek or Mulberry Street at the north, and Live Oak Street at the east. The late nineteenth century brought job opportunities for blacks, first in the mullet fishery, then in the menhaden factories which grew to employ hundreds of fishermen and workers in the fish processing operations. The period of Reconstruction brought with it an era of active black participation in town government that was to last until 1896.
|Seining - Harper's Weekly|
The late twentieth century brought yet more change to Beaufort’s African-Americans in many aspects of their society. Blacks again achieved representation in local government with the election of Abe Thurman as town commissioner in 1991, and the appointment of Charles MacDonald as Chief of Police in 1992. The decline of the menhaden industry resulted in the elimination of many well-paying jobs. Black population began a decline that still continues, falling from a high of 1,129 in 1960 to a 1990 total of 908. While the town’s blacks have succeeded in their efforts to attain higher education and opportunity, the local job market has become a limiting factor, providing mainly service-oriented employment. In the final twist of irony, some of Beaufort’s best-educated African-Americans are today finding it necessary to leave their home town in order to obtain the professional-level jobs that are available only in larger cities.
|Heading Herring - Harper's Weekly|
The first record of a free black in Beaufort occurs in 1803, when Jacob Henry took “Reuben,” a free black artisan, as an apprentice to the joiner’s trade. Henry had moved to Charleston, South Carolina by 1813 where he worked as a cabinetmaker. There is no further record of Rueben, to tell us whether he stayed in Beaufort or accompanied Henry to Charleston. “Reuben” did not remain the pioneering free black for very long; by 1820, the town’s free black population had grown considerably, to 34, in addition to 237 slaves.
The black population in Beaufort increased at a much faster rate than whites during the early decades of the nineteenth century, perhaps partially in response to the need for a large workforce to construct the huge Fort Macon on Beaufort Inlet between 1826 and 1834. According to the 1830 census there were 37 free blacks and 404 slaves. The town’s white population grew very slowly between 1800 and 1830, from 432 to 533, an increase of only 101 in thirty years. Beaufort’s overall population jumped dramatically between 1840 and 1850, from an estimated 1,100 to 1,661. By 1850 there were 75 free blacks and 547 slaves living in town, accounting for approximately one-third of the total population.
By the early nineteenth century Beaufort had established a solid reputation as a shipbuilding center, capitalizing on a tradition of good craftsmanship that was well established by the Revolutionary period. While a source of local pride, it was fishing that was the mainstay of Beaufort’s economy. Net fishing activities, particularly mullet fishing, traditionally required extensive labor, both black and white, to haul large nets or seines to bring in the catch, and for the on-shore jobs of cutting, processing, salting and packing.
|Fort Macon - NC Collection|
|Fort Macon about 1912 - Barbour Collection - UNC|
Slaves, and probably some free blacks from Beaufort and elsewhere worked on the fort, as revealed when the Town Commissioners sought to keep the non-resident slaves out of the town boundaries by enacting the following order on June 28, 1830: Ordered that all slaves that work at the Fort or Brick Yards are prohibited from coming into town either in the day or night, except slaves as are owned in the town or those who may have a written pass from their owners, under penalty of law.
Almost nothing is known about the lives of slaves in Beaufort prior to the time of the Union invasion of the area in 1862. Some of the only knowledge of slave life in the town comes from advertisements for runaway slaves from the area which were published infrequently in regional newspapers during the nineteenth century. Among those notices published in the New Bern newspapers of the period were several which cast just a bit of light on a subject that we otherwise know little about:
- Runaway: Sam – formerly owned by George Morse of Beaufort, approximately 35 years of age, five feet seven or eight inches, stout made, and is a good fiddler. He sometimes calls himself Giles Miner and commonly sailed in the packet between Newbern and Beaufort, with Hasty— Libbeus Hunter, White-Oak, Carteret County, Nov. 8 1818
- Runaway from the Subscriber’s Salt Works at Cape Look Out, a Negro man named Gloster, about five feet seven or eight inches high— John D. Hawkins Nov.8, 1823
- $50 Reward - Ran Away…a Negro man named Alford, a likely looking boy, about 21 years old…He had on when he left home, a blue cloth coat and a slick hat, and carried with him a bombazet frock coat and many other things, and will probably appear quite respectably clad.—Elijah Canaday Nov. 24, 1837
|Ann Wade-Fenderson House circa 1831 |
Contemporary Painting by Mary Warshaw
The earliest known deed record for property ownership by a free black in Beaufort dates to 1820, when Sophia Boyd purchased lot 126 in the “Old Town” from James Gibble. This property was located at the northeast corner of Broad and Craven streets, where the present-day Beaufort Ice and Coal Company building stands. It is significant that a woman was the first free black to own property in Beaufort. Her sons, Henry and Alfred Boyd, were prominent in the black community during and after the Civil War, and bought property at the southwest corner of Pine and Turner streets in 1868.
The story of free blacks begins to unfold rapidly from 1850 and onward when the federal census began to include information about the occupation of working members of families. Many of the names of the 75 free blacks listed in 1850 are familiar from earlier years: Windsor, Ellison, Wade, Burr, Hazel, Norwood and Fenderson. In 1850 only one of the eight inhabitants of the county “Poor House” was black: John Dismal, a 40 year-old shoemaker. The limited number of occupations listed for Beaufort’s free blacks in 1850 seems to reflect changes in census-taking methodology and terminology that are evident when comparing the 1850 and 1860 enumerations. For example, Isaac Norwood was listed as a free black “house carpenter,” age 47, in the 1850 census; in 1860 he was listed as a “mechanic,” a term widely used in the trades to denote a skilled craftsman in a generic sense.
|Ocean House Leslie's Illustrated |
Beaufort Waterfront During Siege of Fort Macon
|Freed Negroes - Harpers Weekly - NC Collection|
Reverend Horace James, a chaplain from Massachusetts was given the title of superintendant of Negro affairs. James quickly established a model refugee camp at Roanoke Island, along with smaller camps in Beaufort, nearby Carolina City, Washington and Plymouth. His largest was the one at New Bern, named James City in his honor. At these camps, freed slaves attended school and were given instruction in useful trades such as shoemaking, shingle splitting and fishing. Under his direction, many of the refugees worked for the Union forces at numerous essential tasks, ranging from cooks to laborers who built forts, bridges and other essential construction projects.
The early schools operated by various northern missionary groups had a tremendous long-term impact on the lives of blacks in Beaufort and throughout the coastal region. As late as December 1866, the Freedman’s Bureau reported that seventeen black instructors were teaching in bureau-sponsored schools in Beaufort and ten in other cities across the state.
Union soldier Edmund J. Cleveland, teacher in one of the night schools, found the Beaufort black students of all ages eager to learn and willing to attend school at night despite working all day.
The decades following the war brought significant changes to the sleepy port town. Blacks established several lasting religious institutions, a school within the first few years and served as town commissioners.
The era of Reconstruction also brought blacks the right to vote and with it, representation with Beaufort’s town government for the first time. Beginning with the former slave David Sparrow, who held office from 1871-72, there was usually at least one black serving as one of the town commissioners for much of the period from 1871 until 1896. While this new-found outlet for political expression was a significant advance, it certainly did not provide for equal representation, given the fact that the black population in 1870 exceeded that of the whites. The black town commissioners elected during that period included a wide cross-section: minister and teacher Michael P. Jerkins (1872); blacksmith Jeremiah Fisher (1872-73 and 1886-87); laborer James Sparrow (1873); carpenter John Pender (1874 and 1877); “huckster” John E. Henry (1881-82), 1886-88 and 1895-96); and Francis E. Ellison, a waterman from a long line of free blacks, who served in 1888 and 1890. The only recorded black town official is Silas A. Blount, a barber, who served as Town Clerk in 1882 and also as a commissioner in 1895-96. (Charles O. Pitts Jr., “The Black Town Fathers of Beaufort: 1865-1900).
In 1881 C.P. Dey opened a large successful menhaden plant at Lennoxville Point. Soon others were capitalizing on the area’s menhaden, as well as mullet and oysters, providing employment for many of the now-free blacks who had earlier been involved only in small-scale fishing activities. By 1898, Beaufort boasted three large menhaden and fish-oil plants, an oyster packing house, a ship-building yard and a steam sawmill.
|Old Purvis Chapel circa 1820 - Amy Muse|
|Baptism - New Bern, NC|
A black Baptist congregation had been organized by late 1864. A permanent place of worship was built before 1882 on the site of the modern day Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Surrounded by so much water, it is not surprising that Beaufort’s black Baptists acquired a reputation for their memorable open-air baptisms held at landings along the town’s public waters. One of these was described by Edmund Cleveland in 1864:
Nov. 16: While I was writing this afternoon I heard singing in the street. I looked out as a baptismal procession of colored people approached. I laid aside what I was doing and followed them to the shore of the harbor. There were seven candidates, three women and four men, all with their heads bound with kerchiefs. There was a large crowd present. The exercises were opened with a touching address by the minister, followed by a hymn and a prayer. Then the candidates hand in hand waded out until they were waist deep in the water. A deacon, after pronouncing “I baptize thee, etc.” let each one down backwards into the water. I never saw a happier set of people than they seemed to be after the immersions. There was much shaking of hands, etc.
Thomas Carrow (Memories of Beaufort in the Nineties) recalls that baptisms were held in the 1890s at Spring Landing, on the Newport River between Cedar and Pine streets:
…it was known as Spring Landing because in times past there was a spring under a big oak tree nearby. The Baptist people, both white and colored, used this landing for baptism immersion. I have a distinct recollection of the participants walking down in the water at high tide and the minister letting them down backward into the water. It was impressive to watch the converts, led by the minister, marching into the deep water to the strain of hymns sung on the shore by the church members.
Between 1887 and 1888, the black Episcopal St. Clement’s Mission congregation built a church which stood at the northeast corner of Craven and Cedar streets, opposite St. Stephen’s, until demolished after 1950. The congregation of Grace Presbyterian Church was organized in 1891, initially under the Wilmington Presbytery; a building was constructed that same year, reportedly on the north side of Broad Street between Queen and Pollock streets.
|circa 1867 - Southeast Corner Craven and Cedar|
There were a number of negro men, I judge in their early 20s, who used to get together in the evening and sing. “Bud” Washington had a fine bass, and some of the Davis boys had melodious voices. Their opportunities for instrumental music were limited, but one fellow, “Bill” Kelly, was a marvel with a banjo. In the evening on a summer night he would come downtown, stand on a corner, and pick his banjo endlessly to the great delight of the young men and some of the older ones too.
I think it is no exaggeration to say that Negroes, especially women, sang while at work in the fields, in the home, and elsewhere more generally than white people did. …the songs always had feeling.
|circa 1895 - Southwest Corner Pollock and Cedar|
|Pierre Henry - Washburn Trustee in 1866|
Diane Hardy photo
Population in Beaufort actually decreased by 17% between 1870 and 1890, a significant decline that severely limited economic growth and job opportunities for both blacks and whites. In 1870 the total population was 2,430—1,242 blacks and 1,188 whites. By 1900, total 2,195—859 blacks and 1,336 whites.
Census records for 1900 show that the large majority of the town’s blacks worked in traditional occupations that had changed little since before the Civil War. Of the ten black “Boatmen” listed in the 1900 census, half were older, seasoned men like Palmer Davis, Frank Ellison, Obed Gaskill, Stephen Turner and Benjamin Pigott. These were distinguished in the census from the four listed as “sailors.” According to federal fisheries studies of local waters conducted between 1884 and 1887, “a good many negroes” were employed in the mullet industry at that time. Black watermen were likewise involved in Carteret County’s other principal fisheries, particularly the menhaden and oyster fisheries. During the post-Civil War era the menhaden fishery grew slowly at first, then developed on a large scale after 1881. The craft used by the menhaden or “fatback” fishermen in the 1890s were customarily manned with black crews, and even captains, as recalled by Carrow:
My impression is that the original fatback boats were small two masted vessels of the schooner type, 70 or 80 feet in length. They were sturdy craft and could weather a storm almost as well as the big vessels. I remember two very distinctly. They were named Convoy and Alert. A negro man, Charles Nelson, a very fine character, was captain of one of the fatback boats.
Describing the black businesses prior to 1900, Carrow reiterated the names of the men found in the directories and censuses. Of particular interest is the fact that many of their establishments were located at that time “downtown” on Turner and Front streets:
Up until then, there were very few colored people in the mercantile business. One named Silas Blunt [Blount] and one named Pierre Davis did have grocery businesses on Turner above Front. There were two colored shoemakers, Collins Oden and Adam Wright. They each had a place on Turner Street. Dave Parker, a rather heavy-set, very dark man, ran a barber shop and also sold tobacco and cigars on Turner—shave 5 cents, haircut 10 cents. Jerry Fisher, a pure-blooded negro, had a blacksmith shop on Front Street. He was a very fine character and an excellent craftsman. Alex and Bill Norwood and Henry Matthewson, all colored, were excellent carpenters. There was a very tall, fine specimen of a colored man named Lawrence Hazel, who was an excellent plasterer.
The census and directories from the Reconstruction period until 1900 likewise list few blacks engaged in commerce or mercantile trade—a telling commentary on the state of the local economy in a town where blacks population had fallen for decades following the post-war high of the 1860s. By the 1880s, Mary Harris operated a bakery, confectionery and saloon; Frank Gibble had become a barber; W.H. Walton was then operating a confectionery and fruit store.
Blacks also performed a multitude of less obvious tasks essential to the operation of the town and its households, both white and black. Fortunately, the character of some of these unsung heroes of the trades was captured by Thomas Carrow in his description of the town in the 1890s:
Sawing wood was a sort of trade, and all the wood sawyers were colored men. There were three regular ones: Old Bennett, Ed Williams and Tom Pridgen.
There was one job around town that was unique. A colored man whose last name was Henry used to peddle cooked hominy in a water bucket for breakfast. He would “call around” before breakfast and deliver a pint for five cents. It was, I thought, delicious.
Another colored fellow named Jim Ellison furnished a good many families with fish for breakfast. My father used to pay him 12 cents for a bunch of fish cleaned and delivered. The fine thing about this was that Jim would meet the fishing boats early in the morning as soon as they landed and while the fish were still kicking and have them delivered within an hour or so. We thought the sooner a fish was put on the fire after being caught, the better it tasted.
Carrow also praised the contributions made by the town’s black “casual workers” who performed countless odd jobs from tending horses to huckstering to catching soft crabs. The households of Beaufort’s prominent white families could not have functioned without black domestic help such as cooks, housekeepers, nurses and handymen. He attributed his own love for chanteys and spirituals to the influence of his family’s own black cook, Laura Kelly, who took over his raising after his mother died when he was four.
The significant political gains made by Beaufort’s African-Americans during the 1860s were largely erased within an equally short period of the time between 1896 and 1900. The adoption of the “white supremacy” campaign by the state’s democrats in late 1897 led to widespread intimidation of blacks during the election of 1898; many simply stayed away from the polls on election day. The landslide democratic victory forced most republicans and populists, black and white, from office and inaugurated the era of “Jim Crow” and segregation. The democratic state legislature proposed a constitutional amendment that would disfranchise most blacks and revoke most voting privileges granted by the Fifteenth Amendment by requiring that all voters must have paid their poll tax and must be able to read and write any section of the constitution. To protect illiterate whites, it included a grandfather clause that stipulated that no person who had been eligible to vote prior to Jan. 1, 1867, or his lineal descendant, could be denied the right to vote even if he did not meet the literacy requirement. By 1900, the major thrust of the “Jim Crow” movement had been formally implemented; requiring segregated public facilities, neighborhoods, streetcars and railroad cars.
The full impact of this movement was quickly felt by blacks in Beaufort. Merchants Silas S. Blount and John Henry, the last two blacks to serve as town commissioners in Beaufort in the 19th century, ended their final terms in 1896. Another 95 years passed until an African-American, Abe Thurman, was again elected in November 1991, to serve as a Beaufort Town Commissioner.
1900-1950: The era of segregation may have resulted in a more divided Beaufort, but it did not slow down the steady rise in the standard of living enjoyed by Beaufort’s blacks. Most of the surviving houses in the traditional black neighborhood north of Cedar Street date from between 1900 and 1950, marking with their presence the period when blacks were finally able to find steady work that enabled them to replace their Reconstruction-era housing. As of 1940, approximately 47% of the black households owned their own houses, a source of great pride when the median income for the same households ranged from $600 to $800 per year. Each block of the neighborhood contains examples of well-maintained gable-front bungalows, all of wood frame construction and dating from the 1920s until the 1950s. Beaufort’s black working class began the climb to middle class status, providing college educations for their children where possible and supporting in large measure the religious and fraternal institutions of their community.
Employment for the black workers was provided by several large natural resource industries dependent on the rich fisheries, or at one of the two small lumber mills that operated from the 1920s onwards.
|Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishermen|
Many of the black menhaden fishermen and processing workers often worked for twenty or thirty years for the same employers. There were men like Pearl Glenn and Lawrence Taylor Hazel who were employed for twenty years or more by the J. Harvey Smith Fish Meal Company, either at the Beaufort plant, or at plants in New Jersey and Louisiana. In rare instances, blacks rose to the position of captain of one of t he menhaden fishing boats. The Davis family produced many noted black watermen, among them Dave Davis, captain of the ill-fated Parkins, a one-hundred-twenty foot menhaden boat which sank in Beaufort Inlet during a storm in December 1942. His brother, Herbert Davis, captain of the Harvey Smith’s Brigantine, was noted as one of the great singers of the chanteys or traditional work songs devised by the black menhaden fishermen to help with the hauling of the heavy nets.
Other blacks, especially women, found work in the oyster canning operation of the Southgate Packing Company, established in 1912 in a frame building at the foot of Ann Street, on a channel of the Newport River. Operating from October to June each year, the Southgate specialized in oysters but also packed shrimp as well as beans, tomatoes, and potatoes produced by the local truck farming industry which provided seasonal jobs. As one elderly woman recalled, “When the oyster factory opened the women went there to work instead of the fields.” Some blacks found work at the Beaufort Ice and Coal Company, established in 1913, which upgraded its capacity periodically to manufacture ever-increasing volumes of ice to accommodate the growing seafood catches.
|Mary Warshaw Painting |
Near Back Land and Gallants Channel
About the distance of a short city block west of the shoreline there was a celebrated oyster rock known as Jones Rock. On low water you could walk to the rock which we children always did. I may be mistaken, but my impression is that before the oyster factories came Jones Rock provided all the oysters that were required by the people in that vicinity and some for sale. I do know for sure that at any time at low water anyone could, and many did, go out on Jones Rock and pick up a mess of very fine oysters.
The combination of overharvesting, dredging and channel improvements in what is now called Gallant’s Channel have gradually eliminated the famous “oyster rock.”
|1913 Sanborn Map|
The new one-story brick school on Queen Street quickly became the chief landmark and source of civic pride for the black community. It grew in stature under the leadership of Louis Randolph Johnson Jr., who assumed the post of principal in 1947. Johnson, born in a house just down the street from the school, attended N.C. A&T College and returned to Beaufort to begin teaching at Queen Street in 1945. Two years later he was promoted to principal, a position he held until 1968. During his tenure Johnson presided with great diplomacy over an unexpected strike held in 1952 by black high school students protesting the lack of maintenance and poor condition of their school building and the lack of any gymnasium. The two-day protest included a parade by students in the Queen Street band carrying placards reading “We want better facilities for our school” and brought assistance from “one of the union men her to organize the menhaden fishermen.” An investigation of the condition of the building revealed evidence of deferred maintenance, including roof leaks, a faulty boiler and heating system, leaking plumbing, termites in the floors, and a severe space shortage that forced the seventh grade class to meet on the auditorium stage. Following integration, the school’s name was changed to Beaufort Central School and served grades 6 through 8 of both races. The Queen Street School burned in the late 1960s, bringing an end to the institution that, more than any other, had the greatest impact on blacks in the twentieth century. One resident lamented “I have never been so hurt in all my life as I was the day the school burned.”
With little growth, and often decline in the black population during the twentieth century, it is not surprising that Beaufort developed only a small black commercial district. Cedar and Pine streets remained the favored location for black merchants, as had been the case in the late nineteenth century, with gradual movement north to Pine. By 1924 it was clear that the black business district was centered along Pine Street, between Queen and Pollock streets. The number of commercial establishments grew from six in 1924 to eleven by 1950. Many older residents can still recall with pleasure some of the most popular businesses and their owners: Hoyt Oden’s pool hall; Joshua Johnson’s grocery store; Henry Williams’ shoe shop; Burney Burr’s grocery store; Sherman Potter’s barber shop; Paul Fenderson’s store; and Curtis A. Oden’s popular luncheonette called the “Quick Lunch.” None of these are still standing. A movie theater for blacks was built by 1924 on Broad Street, across from the depot on the site now occupied by a modern apartment unit; it operated into the 1950s. New films in town were shown first at The Strand Theater on Front Street, then brought to the black theater “in a metal box by bicycle, one reel at a time, after being shown at the ‘downtown’ movie house.”
While the “Jim Crow” laws may have restricted any black businesses from locating in the white commercial district after 1900, black consumers continued to do business with certain favored white merchants. Many of the grocers downtown depended on the brisk business provided by the black menhaden fishermen when the boats were in town. With as many as 100 boats on the waterfront at one time in the 1940s and 1950s, the purchases made by the black cooks, as they stocked up for the next run, were a substantial part of their sales.
There were at least three black fraternal organizations by 1924: the Hero Lodge No. 248 built before 1913 on the south side of Cedar Street, the Odd Fellows Lodge located on the second floor of the two-story commercial building which formerly stood at the southwest corner of Queen and Pine street, and a one-story building labeled “colored hall,” also on Queen Street behind the Odd Fellow meeting rooms. The Hero Lodge, the only one of these that is still active, now occupies its third building on Cedar Street, dating from the 1950s. The Elks Lodge established after 1950 occupies a more modern concrete block building on the east side of Queen Street, between Cedar and Pine.
|Purvis Chapel Parishioners |
Carteret County High School Collection
from Beaufort Album of Memories by Jack Dudley
|St. Clement's Episcopal School - Early 1900s |
Carteret County High School Collection
from Beaufort Album of Memories by Jack Dudley
Many of Beaufort’s African-Americans achieved recognition for their leadership and contributions during the 1900 to 1950 period—achievements still remembered today. With political avenues largely close off, leaders were forced to seek other ways to make a difference. The most widely regarded of the educators was Louis Randolph Johnson Jr., teacher and principal of the Queen Street School form 1947 to 1968. It was an historic event when the Town of Beaufort hired John “Tommy” Davis to serve as the first black police officer during the 1930s. Curtis A. Oden, the first black undertaker in town, established a small funeral home on Pine Street adjacent to his residence. His wife, Mary “Lizzie” Oden, was the oft-remembered principal and teacher at the first “Free School” that was the forerunner of the Graded School, located in the 700 block of Pine Street. Dave and Adrian Davis, the first black boatmen to rise to the status of fishing boat captain, held positions of great esteem and rank in this maritime society. Frank Ellison, likewise highly regarded as a skilled boatman, provided an essential service operating a passenger ferry that ran across the Newport River between Beaufort and Morehead City.
1950-1990s: The gradual decline of the menhaden industry left the once-bustling waterfront area nothing short of a ghost town, withering away as the plants themselves closed up one after another. The resulting loss of jobs left many of the town’s black and white men without work for the first time in two decades or more.
The decades following World War II saw Beaufort undergo a remarkable metamorphosis, transforming herself from a sleepy fishing village with a declining population in the 1950s to a popular historic resort community that now attracts wealthy sailors, retirees and beach-going tourists.
Change came in a different form for African-Americans in Beaufort during the last half of the twentieth century. The ordeal of integration was accomplished relatively peacefully during the mid 1960s. Good jobs for blacks, a commodity never in great supply, became more scarce with the fall of the fishing industry and the processing factories. Black population levels reached a high of 1,129 in 1960 and began a slow decline to 908 in 1990. Older black residents lament that there are very few professional level jobs available for the children who were able to go away to college, leaving the younger generation no choice but to move to larger cities in search of more opportunity. Most new jobs generated by the growing tourist-based industry tend to be limited to restaurant help and housekeepers in the new hotels. Today the black neighborhood contains several houses which are essentially abandoned, still owned by heirs who have moved to New York and elsewhere. As this trend continues, a new phenomenon had emerged: houses in the neighborhood have become popular with whites seeking reasonably-priced housing for primary and secondary homes. Blacks today are witnesses to something that could not have been imagined in 1910—whites are moving into the old “Union Town” and buying houses that are no longer in demand among the younger black middle class.
Beaufort’s African-American Neighborhood
|Contemporary Map of Beaufort|
As the Union’s second largest refugee center in 1865, temporary and permanent housing was built north of Cedar along Craven, Queen and Mulberry streets, giving rise to the name “Union Town,” the traditional name for the camp and later for the black neighborhood. By 1900, new residences were being built in increasing numbers to the north of Pine Street and to the east, along Queen and Marsh streets, giving the neighborhood much of the appearance it has today.
Very few houses dating before about 1900 remain standing. Long-term residents identify several of what they termed to be “old houses” that could be confirmed by architectural evidence to date from the 1840 to 1860 period.
In appearance, Beaufort’s black neighborhood follows a simple grid, based on the plan established for the so-called “New Town” section that was added in 1728 to supplement the original 1713 Beaufort plan. Lots are universally small, with narrow street frontages dictating the size and orientation of the house. The streets, which remained unpaved until after World War II, now have few shade trees, giving the area an open unlandscaped feeling in contrast to the beautiful shade canopy seen on the streets from Broad Street to the waterfront. Cedar Street, once a quiet two-lane back street, is now a four-lane thoroughfare which serves to create a dividing line between the waterfront area and the black neighborhood.
A few of the lots within the survey area retain fine live oaks and cedars, giving a glimpse of what the maritime forest might have looked like before the land was built on to accommodate the refugee slaves and freedmen during the Civil War.
The neighborhood’s housing stock consists primarily of modest, vernacular houses of frame construction with traditional side-gable, single-pile forms, ranging from one story to the popular story-and-a-jump to full two-story or “I” houses, built from the 1840-1860 period into the 1920s. Nearly all of these exhibit little, if any, ornament other than the occasional boxed cornice with gable end returns. The subsequent building boom of the 1920 to 1950 period brought with it the widely popular gable-front bungalow, ranging in elaboration from plain, utilitarian cottages to examples featuring nationally-popular craftsman form and detailing executed in a local idiom that favored the clipped gable roofline. This form, sometimes referred to as the massed-plan bungalow, was ideally suited to the area’s narrow lot widths.
|Old Burying Ground, Beaufort, NC|
|707 Broad Street circa 1840s-1860s|
|601 Broad Street circa 1850-1875|
|601 Pine Street circa 1900|
|303 Pollock Street -1890-1920|
|603 Broad Street circa 1890-1900|
|507 Mulberry Street circa 1900-1920|
|717 Mulberry Street- Early 1900s|
|509 Marsh Street circa 1900-1920|
|307 Pollock Street circa 1920|
|Collins Oden House 607 Pine circa 1900|
The town’s two surviving historic African-American churches, St. Stephen’s Congregational Church (322 Craven) and Purvis Chapel AME Zion Church (217 Craven), reflect very different architectural schools but have congregations which date to the Civil War and the early days of the Union occupation of Beaufort.
|Purvis Chapel circa 1820 - Remodeled 1904|
|St. Stephens' circa 1912|
Little is known of the appearance of the other early black churches in Beaufort. Two late nineteenth century churches, St. Clement’s Episcopal Church and Grace Presbyterian Church, both now demolished, are shown on the Sanborn Insurance maps as simple frame structures of traditional meeting house form. Mt. Zion Baptist Church and Queen Street Baptist Church, both established in the nineteenth century, now occupy modern structures. The diminutive frame Christ Sanctified Holiness Church (707 Pine), built circa 1910 and now much altered, retains its charm Carpenter Gothic window detailing, consisting of triangular hoods and pediments above plain rectangular window sashes; it originally had a bell tower and a more steeply-pitched Gothic roofline.
|Washburn Seminary Building circa 1900|
|Portion of Ocean View Cemetery |
East end of Ann Street
Above house photos were taken by Chuck and Katherine Bland.