The stay at the Crocket – Miller Slave Quarters in James City, NC was a lesson on how our enslaved ancestors emancipated themselves. The institution of slavery had my ancestors in a situation where they had to acquiesce to the system of lifetime bondage which was also known as chattel slavery or face punishment that could lead to their deaths. Despite it all, there still were insurrections, revolts, mutinies, sabotage, maroons and those who ran away. Those actions are proof that one should not misinterpret acquiescence as happiness.
Historically, James City owes its existence to the seizure of New Bern, North Carolina by the Union Army in March 1862. It was a common occurrence for enslaved people to flock to the Union lines in such instances and this was the case in New Bern. At the onset of the Civil War, Union commanders had no clue of what to do with these formerly enslaved people so they would send them back to their masters only to find out that their masters in many cases would rent them to the Confederate Army. Eventually, the Union Army did begin to provide protection for these people and would sometimes go as far as employing some of them. They became the spoils war or contraband. Communities of the formerly enslaved quickly began to spring up in around Union lines. It was from this community that some of the men who served in Civil War Regiments known as United States Colored Troops (USCT) were raised.
In an effort to accommodate the escaped slaves, United States Army Chaplin Horace James established a camp for the freedman near New Bern in 1863. At first the camp was known as the Trent River settlement; but toward the close of the war it came to be called James City in honor of its founder, who was an officer of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
I have learned that persistence is important in obtaining success. Persistence is certainly important in accomplishing the goals of the Slave Dwelling Project. Every now and then, I come across an individual who is the epitome of what this project espouse. Mr. Ben Watford is that gentleman.
Months ago, in my initial conversation with Mr. Watford, he revealed that he was 82 years old. What I expected to see when I met him was a feeble and grumpy old man. The man I met was far from any of those things. He was quite agile with a sharp mind and a joy to hang out with. The fact that he would be sleeping in the cabin with us was an added bonus.
According to its brochure, the Crocket – Miller Slave Quarters is a two family duplex, each featuring one large room on the first floor with an open fireplace and an upstairs loft. Both units have displays of farming implements, crafts tools, vintage photographs of former residents of James City and early residents of New Bern. A distinctive memorial rests upon the grounds that memorializes the former inhabitants of James City and acknowledges the hallowed burial cemetery nearby.
The event started with a Slave Dwelling Project presentation to a small group at the James City Community Center. I was joined in the presentation by Prinny Anderson and Terry James who both would join me in the cabin for the overnight stay.
Crocket – Miller Slave Quarters
The cabin is located near the Coastal Regional Airport in James City. It had been moved twice from its original location. It is owned by the James City Historical Society, an organization that spent over $250,000 for its preservation. Mr. Watford was a major part of the effort to get the funds raised. He told me the story of how even today he still writes about four grants per week. The current need is for bathrooms facilities at the site which will replace a functional outhouse.
The cabin is a raised duplex built of wood with access to the loft for extra sleeping space. One thing that I found different about this structure was that both sides had back doors.
Mr. Watford and the James City Historical Society are in constant defense of the site. One most recent fight was when the airport wanted to relocate the many graves of the formerly enslaved near the site to extend the runway. Needless to say, the graves went undisturbed. Another defense of the property involved keeping it from being acquired from a more established historical organization after it was restored.
Luckily for James City Historical Society, it now has Mr. Earl Mills who is just as passionate about the upkeep and interpretation of the building.
Mr. Ben Watford and Earl Mills joined Prinny Anderson, Terry James and me in the overnight stay. That evening we were joined in the cabin by the Earl’s wife and another couple from the community. The conversation was rich as it revolved around the issue of slavery. We eventually moved the conversation outside because it was hot and humid inside the cabin.
In the cabin, we all spread our sleeping bags on the floor with Mr. Watford taking the bed.
We all vowed that next year we will build on what we managed to accomplish on the first stay. I already envision a living history encampment of Union Civil War soldiers. I know that with the help of Earl and the tenacity of Mr. Watford the restrooms for the site will be built. With over sixty stays in extant slave dwelling throughout the United States, this site interprets the story of self emancipation the best. It lets the world know that as enslaved people, we were not happy with our lot in life and we did not sit idly by waiting for someone else to free us but we were proactive in seeking and obtaining that freedom. Thank you Mr. Watford and the James City Historical Society. Keep up the great work.
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Making Memory Quilts in James City, NC
By Prinny Anderson
The bright squares of the patchwork Memory Quilt light up the meeting space of the James City Community Building. The quilt honors beloved family members of the church next door, explains the minister. On each square are written names, life dates and loving sentiments.
The Memory Quilt is one of the first things we see on the Slave Dwelling Project’s overnight visit to James City and the Crockett-Miller Slave Quarters and graveyard in the vicinity of New Bern, NC. We gather with a handful of the James City Historical Society members to begin the afternoon’s program about James City and the preserved slave quarters.
Mr. Charlie Hall, writer for the Sun Journal, told the story of our visit, one of his contributions to the James City Historical Society’s virtual memory quilt. http://m.newbernsj.com/news/local/preservationists-spend-the-night-in-james-city-slave-quarters-1.351174
Down the road from the Community Center is the slave dwelling, which was rescued and restored by Mr. Ben Watford and the James City Historical Society, moved from near the hospital in New Bern to a spot at the edge of the Coastal Carolina Regional Airport. The site is open every third Sunday afternoon, and by appointment, for group tours.
The work done by the Historical Society and Mr. Watford is a Memory Quilt of another kind. The group seeks to preserve a physical remnant of the history of slavery and enslaved people from coastal North Carolina, to show young people what life was like before emancipation and to give a more complete story of the region’s history through a building and associated historical artifacts.
To preserve the slave quarters, an enormous amount of restoration work had to be done, from removing the tin roof and asbestos siding to finding a brick maker who could create sun-baked bricks in the old way. With time-consuming, meticulous and costly effort, the Historical Society insisted that every element of the cabin be restored or recreated with authentic materials, using the methods of the mid-nineteenth century. To find the funding, Mr. Watford estimates he has written upwards of 500 grant applications and received support from many sources. The Crockett-Miller Slave Quarters has been sustained by a patchwork quilt of financial contributions – a grant to move the building, funds to put on a new roof, money for replacement wood siding – all stitched together by the Quarters’ caretakers.
The location of The Crockett-Miller Slave Quarters, at the edge of the airport, seems incongruous until more of the story of James City is told. James City mushroomed rapidly in the middle of the Civil War when the Union Army occupied New Bern. Word spread across the plantations like wildfire, and 5,000 African Americans emancipated themselves from slavery and fled to the army encampment within just a few weeks. A total of more than 10,000 people eventually reached the area. Union General Burnside promptly set about ensuring the establishment of an orderly settlement, with living quarters, schools, churches and work projects. Horace James was appointed superintendent, and the town took his name. Just these basic facts stitched another Memory Quilt of information for me, adding to my picture of North Carolina history.
Soon, as happens in all towns, James City inhabitants died. To accommodate the dead, there were eventually two burial grounds for James City, the Near and the Far. Both are located near the modern-day airport. At one point in recent times, the airport wanted to build a new runway. The James City Historical Society put a stop to that project to protect the Far Burial Ground. The county sent archaeologists to survey the site, and indeed, a large number of burials were quickly discovered. Because the dead had been interred in wooden coffins, which had deteriorated over the years, it was not possible to move them. The burial ground was held sacrosanct, and the runway was not built. Instead, there is a gentle mound of earth and a beautifully landscaped stone monument to honor the dead.
Mr. Watford showed us the image made by the archaeologists of the gravesites, as part of their survey. There are rows and rows of dark oblong patches, each patch marking a grave. The survey map looks like another kind of Memory Quilt, this one in plain black and white. Although there is no information about the identities of the people buried here, the Historical Society has made them a Memory Quilt in paper, earth, grass and stone so that today’s James City residents will not forget the ancestors who came before.