After seeing so many depleted, struggling towns across the South, New Bern struck me as having achieved a small-city nirvana. At first.
Deeper south into North Carolina, after thirty-five miles of Inner Banks rail tracks and rusting single-wide trailers on shapeless lots, New Bern gave a brilliant first impression. With a beautiful causeway over the Neuse River—really a wide tidal strait—glistening water and marinas enfolded the town to its confluence with the Trent River. Now a retirement magnet for Northerners, New Bern seemed bigger than its 30,000 population.
George and I started out at the North Carolina History Center, adjacent to and including the former Colonial capitol, Tryon Palace, forming a formidable historic complex. Opened in 2010, the History Center wowed us, full of hands-on technological experiences for visitors and students. But it was more than electronic dazzle; the museum presented multicultural and unvarnished arrays of the state’s history. The roles of women, Indian tribes, slaves and their later progeny were presented front and center. Not The Pageant at all, but a surprisingly thorough and critical overview with an emphasis on putting visitors into historical time and inside different skins.
Sharon Bryant, the history center’s director for African-American outreach, took obvious pride in her role in shaping a diverse experience for visitors, especially for a steady stream of public school students. For George and me, she summarized New Bern’s unique racial history. The region had few plantations, and its harbor at the end of the Neuse River’s tidal sound meant free blacks could gain knowledge of and from the outside world. Though New Bern’s port was once a slaver’s hypotenuse in the Atlantic Triangle Trade of sugar, rum, and stolen laborers, by the mid-1800s an apprentice system promoted high skills, encouraging a cohesive community with entrepreneurs and educational opportunities. During the Civil War the Union occupied the port town for almost all of the war, housing thousands of black freedmen—“contraband”—who sought refuge. Many eventually fought in the Union army.
Sharon told us that before and just after the Civil War, New Bern was home to one of the most prosperous and socially advanced African American communities anywhere. But it shared the same fate as other black populations in the virulent white backlash after Reconstruction. In nearby James City, a black village settled by “contraband” freemen who had the temerity to strike for better wages in the 1880s, ethnic cleansing emptied the community when white landowners evicted most tenants. 7 North Carolina enacted disenfranchisement laws, denying the black vote and erasing the gains made by many blacks who had already held local and state offices. Violence and intimidation silenced black voices and eventually led to the usual Jim Crow society. It was not until the 1960s that civil rights leaders successfully integrated New Bern’s downtown.
Our conversation became more personal; when I asked about her own Southern identity, Sharon immediately blurted, “I’m a Southern Belle!” I didn’t expect that from an African American, but as Sharon opened up about her impressions of New Bern’s current status, I realized she was anything but complacent about conditions in the New Bern African American community. Her laments echoed those we’d just heard in tiny Swan Quarter, North Carolina: so many young people without jobs and so little black ownership of property and businesses. Incarceration cut deep where it still possible to get ten to fifteen years for marijuana possession. Despite empowerment programs to provide immediate vocational skills such as plumbing and electrical work, there was an exodus of young people.
North Carolina’s arch-conservative state leadership did not hold out promise of funding for social programs to buoy up the community. The state legislature had locked in safe seats through gerrymandering, she told us, “even in school districts,” resulting in an extreme right-wing government in Raleigh that hardly reflected the state’s diversity. Sharon was a great believer in the power of focused social action and involved herself in the ongoing Moral Monday movement, where progressive North Carolinians regularly protested cuts to public services and rollbacks of voting rights. It was clear that the History Center’s funding had been in the conservatives’ gunsights, too, especially during the Great Recession. “We barely survived, everyone working overtime to cover deep cuts in staffing.”
After our conversation with Sharon Bryant, George and I strolled around the History Center’s grounds, a marine park looping the shining, ultra-contemporary complex. It was disorienting to absorb the hard-hitting history inside with the sublime harbor side beauty of its surroundings. North Carolina had created a state museum branch dedicated to real, often critical history in a small city far from the state’s metropolitan centers. Like the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond and Historic Williamsburg, but public in its funding and origin, the North Carolina History Center cherished our shared heritage enough to tell the truth in all its tragedy, injustice, and magnificence.
The Center occupied a point only inches above the tidal waterline, which made me think of those Carolinians who weren’t interested in pursuing the truth. As in Tidewater Virginia and everywhere in North Carolina’s low-lying Inner and Outer Banks, existing settlements and new development were threatened by sea-level rise, but after the North Carolina Coastal Commission’s panel of experts predicted as much as five feet of rise by 2100, the legislature voted to reject the experts’ findings and prohibit state and local government entities from even pondering that accelerated sea level rise.8 (Shut my mouth, and here I thought true conservatives opposed government-imposed thought control.) Coastal developers even formed a group, NC-20, to forbid measurement of sea level rise and make climate change go away by silencing science.
But the rivers surrounding New Bern on this perfect spring day were behaving quite well, and our waterfront stroll around the complex led us past Tryon Palace, the colonial capital and renovated heart of the History Center. Heading past its walls towards downtown, who could not be in awe of this shimmering small city that hosted its own palace?
The walking tour was designed by Sharon Bryant and took us through post Civil War blocks of large, elegant homes built by and for prosperous members of its flourishing African American community. Large, handsome multistory Victorians lined one block, the historical markers indicating a checkerboard of white and black neighbors almost shocking to re-segregated 21st Century expectations. After the 1890s, when our modern predicament of racial separation and white privilege strangled the gains of emancipation, blacks’ prosperity deteriorated by design along with legalized disenfranchisement. North Carolina’s last black congressman of the late 1800s was expelled and had to flee his offices in Washington. Sharon had told us that the 1940s and 50s brought some revival of the black community; strolling past the opulent Victorian blocks to more modest postwar ones, we saw a small hotel and other shuttered black businesses along a busy diagonal, Queen Street.
Crossing north of Queen, our New Bernian state of awe began to deteriorate into distress. Guessing what was ahead, like a climate denier, I almost didn’t want to advance our steps here, to time-travel on foot back to the truth about our own century and unmask the illusions we maintain about our society. Like in most every other Southern town—just as in the North—poor and working class blacks had been ghettoized in New Bern, with all the current signs of inequality: abandoned houses, fast-collapsing shacks, more slowly collapsing family homes, empty lots where homes had been scraped away. On vacant lots and vacant streets, no kids played. Broken glass gave way to plywood as the favorite window treatment. Old strip malls spoke of once-thriving business corners, now emptied beside forlorn, weedy parking lots. Of course, there were signs of life around a busy liquor store in one strip, the only place open for business. Nearby, a series of human-warehousing brick housing projects lined our looping route back to the History Center. The projects crept up to the very ramparts of the Palace, as if they were the servants’ quarters for the shining complex on the other side. George noticed that the public housing right up against the Palace walls, saying they “mirrored the Civil War contraband camps.”
His observation horrified me. I thought of the valiant North Carolinians we’d met, all of them African American leaders committed to social betterment—Thomas Midgette, Alice Mackey, and Sharon Bryant—and all united in their shared misgivings about our society’s real progress. I stared toward New Bern’s downtrodden other half and didn’t know how to respond, my back to the palace wall.