New Bern's African American Heritage Trail is unique, 'heads above' other cities in region
Updated: Jan 2, 2022
"New Bern's new African American Heritage Trail has no equal in Eastern North Carolina and adapts visual arts needed for a modern audience". That's an assessment by David Dennard, retired East Carolina history professor and founder of ECU's African American Studies program.
Dennard, who will make remarks at the June 19 2021 dedication during the Juneteenth celebration, said that the signs convey some stories previously untold that add to the narrative of blacks in New Bern's overall history.
Dennard has consulted on the N.C Highway Historical Marker Program, sometimes called "history on a stick." More than 1,600 markers dot the state map, usually limited to a snippet of information on people, places and events.
He said New Bern's project goes to a new level in presentation and information.
It is a legacy trail with 16 panels at 10 sites – single, double and three-sided 3-by-4-foot reader-friendly displays of meticulously-researched information, photographs and graphics. Maps at each site assist in an easy self-guided tour.
"What we are recognizing now is that history is not conveyed by simply one method and we have an audience now, a generation that is more visual than previous generations," Dennard said. "They need to see a picture, to see the story, not just hear the story. Previously we thought we could tell individuals the story and they would create a mental picture. Now we know we need to prompt them with some other developments and that's where we use artifacts (such as images)."
The signs are installed within the greater Craven Terrace/Dryborough neighborhoods and explain and interpret significant historic events, people and places that pertain to African American heritage.
The 10 a.m. dedication on JUNETEENTH 2021 is at The Great Fire signage at the intersection of Broad and Roundtree streets at Craven Terrace. The Great Fire of 1922 burned 40 city blocks and left 3,000 people homeless, mostly African Americans.
The panel topics and events trace to before the Civil War, with titles such as Dryborough, Citizens of the Republic, West Street, Saving Grace, Five Points, Grand Army of the Republic, Fighting for Freedom, Queen Street, Public Housing for America, At Home in Craven Terrace, The Great Fire, Education for the Future, A New Beginning and Winds of Change.
Heritage Trail fruit of five-year project
The development of the signs has been a five-year project guided by a committee chaired by local historian Bernard George and sponsored by the Historic Dryborough Neighborhood Association, the New Bern Historical Society, the City of New Bern and the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office.
Professor John Hope Franklin, a noted scholar of African American history at Duke University through the second half of the 20th century once remarked that New Bern and Craven and Carteret Counties have, perhaps, the most interesting African American stories in the nation.
Yet these stories were systematically suppressed by the revisionist historians of the Jim Crow and segregation eras. In recent years, renewed interest has resulted in research, lectures, books and reenactments that have brought these stories back to life.
These signs will continue that interest.
"He (Franklin) said something that has stuck with me," Dennard said. "He said that each generation is expected to write its own history and has an obligation. That means we must deal with history as an unfinished mosaic." He dismisses the idea that all history is written in stone, meaning it is always changing for accuracy and updated information. "It is being revised, it is being rewritten as we uncover new evidence," he said. "We are trying to get a more complete story."
This can lead to hard choices in the face of long-held and long-retold versions of history.
"In some cases, old stories must be abandoned, because they are no longer accurate when we get more evidence on the topic," he said. "That's where history changes and each generation has to assume responsibility for presenting history and making the necessary changes."
Dennard said the signs are a continuation of New Bern's longtime leadership among Eastern North Carolina cities in sharing and updating black and white history as an overall story. "You all are heads above everyone that I know about in Eastern North Carolina," he said. "I think is just the history of New Bern, explaining it."
He pointed to the late Kay Williams, executive director of Tryon Palace, under whose leadership the North Carolina History Center was built; an African American Lecture Series, Jonkonnu celebration dancers and black re-enactors all became part of its programming for several hundred thousand annual visitors. "She came up with the observation that we have many stories but one history" Dennard recalled. It is the underlying premise of why projects such as the Heritage Trail should be of interest to all segments of society.
Sign committee Chairman Bernard George said that getting the stories and the facts right was the major time-consuming work over the past five years by the signs' committee.
”It was a very painstaking process because much of the information was very sparse and scattered over a variety of documents, first-hand knowledge and oral histories,” George said. He added that these signs are a solid start in the creation of additional signs telling remarkable stories.
The Heritage Trail project came about in 2015 because of the destruction of physical black history when Craven Terrace public housing – built in 1942 and 1953 - was leased under private management to a Florida company.
Evergreen Partners Housing collaborated with TCG Development and the New Bern Housing Authority to redevelop and revitalize Craven Terrace. A $27.1 million renovation project began in April 2016 and was completed in 2018. As part of the mitigation for seven structures that were demolished, Craven Terrace LP provided $35,000for the sign project.
The signs describe ho
w communities like Dryborough and Five Points were formed and developed, how housing was at first a joy and then destroyed by Jim Crow, and the subsequent struggle to regain what was.
Along with George, the committee includes Vice-Chairman Carol Becton, Secretary Susan Cook, Lynne Harakal, McDaniel, Jon Miller, Mary Peterkin, Ethel Staten, Morgan Potts, Jeffrey Ruggeri, Tharesa Lee and John Wood.
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AAHC Editorial Note: Carol Bonner Becton is AAHC Board of Directors President. Bernard George, Lynne Harakal are members of the AAHC Board of Advisors.
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This story was originally published June 17 2021 in the New Bern Sun Journal by Charlie Hall. Mr. Hall can be reached at 252-635-5667 or 252-259-7585, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook at Charlie Hall.