Updated: May 24, 2022
(February 13, 2022) Erroll Royal can still remember the color of the car as it sped away, the racial slur its driver had just spit at him hanging in the air like condensed poison.
He had come back to New Bern to visit his parents, on a break from college life in Raleigh.
“The guy was in a blue convertible and out of nowhere he said the N-word and I recall chasing him in my car," Royal recalled. "When I got home my mother said ‘What would you have done if you had caught him?” I didn’t know.”
Though the incident took place more than 40 years ago, Royal can bring the image to the surface of his memory in an instant, a constant reminder that for all the progress on racial equality that this country has seen, the sometimes ugly past is never far behind.
That truth has informed Royal throughout his life, leading him to chronicle the people, places and events that have impacted the Black community of his hometown throughout its history.
Royal spent two years researching and writing “Pembroke: The Road Less Traveled,” an historical account of the New Bern community, which was self published in 2020. His most recent book, “Traces of Places and Faces of African Americans from the New Bern Community,” chronicles past and present African Americans from New Bern who have made or continue to make significant contributions both locally and on a national level. The book also highlights some of New Bern’s historically important locations and events.
Royal will discuss the stories of those honored in his book during a Tryon Palace African American Lecture Series virtual program on Thursday, Feb. 17. The program will run from 7-8 p.m. The link for the virtual presentation is available by emailing email@example.com or calling 252-639-3512.
As examples of the residents featured in the book, Royal mentioned former New Bern Mayor Leander Morgan as well as Beatrice Smith, the first Black female principal in Craven County and a current county commissioner.
Also included is Royal’s fifth grade teacher, Dorcas Carter, who taught at New Bern’s West Street Graded School, the first brick graded school for Black students in North Carolina.
“She was a real strict teacher but she was good,” he recalled. “If one of the kids misbehaved in class she would put us in a circle and one of the students would lead us in prayer for the other students. We had to do a lot of reading in class so that helped encourage me to be a writer.”
The book also details one of New Bern’s most devastating incidents, the Great Fire of December 1922.
“About 3,000 individuals suffered immensely during that devastation period,” Royal said. “Fort Bragg brought in some tents and a lot of those individuals had to set those up in cemeteries. Large families had to live in those tents during the summer and winter months and that lasted for about two years. It wasn’t only African Americans who suffered but they were the majority.”
Royal said he is currently working on a sequel to “Traces of Places and Faces of African Americans from the New Bern Community” to remember those who were not mentioned in that book.
“I left out a lot of individuals. A lot of people read the book and then they came forward and shared more information with me,” Royal said.
A personal history lesson
After graduating from New Bern High School in 1973 Royal left to attend UNC Charlotte in Raleigh, where he majored in education and psychology. He went on to study at N.C. Central University before earning his doctorate at Liberty University.
He came back to New Bern in 2001 to care for his mother and took a job as an assistant principal at Bangert Elementary School.
“That was my most rewarding year as an educator. My mom passed away in 2002 so I stayed that year and then I came back to Raleigh and retired in 2005," Royal said.
Royal’s birthplace, New Bern’s Good Shepherd Hospital, is highlighted in his book.
“It closed in 1963 when Blacks were able to go to Craven County Hospital. They closed it down and Good Shepherd stayed abandoned for several years before opening to an assisted living facility,” he explained.
Royal said he incorporated many of his own experiences, some of them dealing with segregation, into his book.
“There were restaurants and places where we had to go into the back door, we couldn’t go in the front,' he recalled. "And some of the building’s downtown still had signs on the water fountains that said ‘colored’ and ‘white.’"
Why it’s important to remember
Many of the people and events featured in his new book have too often been overlooked, even among New Bern residents and educators, Royal believes.
“I think a lot of our children and adults too are suffering because they don’t really know the history of New Bern. When I released my books I made it my business to travel to New Bern to personally present them to the library,” Royal said.
Royal believes there are a number of misconceptions about the role Black citizens have played in New Bern’s past.
“A lot of people don’t realize that all African Americans were not poor in that era. They were affluent in real estate, in education,” he commented. “A lot of young people don’t know that. I would tell them in order to understand what’s going on now it’s imperative to understand your past.”
The history of Black Americans is important for all students to learn, Royal stressed.
“I don’t think African American history has been fully accepted in the school system, a lot of parents are still fighting against knowing the truth of that,” he commented.
“When we start teaching the truth to children I think they will have more respect for adults and the school system and the country,” he added. “I know we do children a disservice, because once they leave school and get into the real world they need to know the truth, they need to be able to think critically.”
Royal said he sees his excavation of New Bern’s past as a lifelong labor of love.
“The city has such a rich history. The more I read the more I want to learn."
This story by Todd Wetherington originally appeared in the new Bern Sun Journal February 13, 2022.