New Bern’s rich history is inclusive of outstanding and noteworthy accomplishments and contributions by African American men and women. However, because of Jim Crow laws, racism, and other prevailing practices in the South following the Civil War, “Negro” African American achievements were seldom recognized, honored, or preserved. Overcoming the obstacles of the time required strength, valor, resilience, intellect, and a driving force to press on against all odds.
Charlotte S. Rhone was one such driving force in New Bern. She was born on December 16, 1874, the child of parents born during the era of slavery: her father John in 1842 and her mother Henrietta in 1852. She was one of six children: three sisters, Caroline (Carrie), Amy, and Henrietta, and two brothers, James and Walter (Craven County Register of Deeds, Death Certificates; New Bern Greenwood Cemetery Index). The parents instilled in their children the importance of faith, education, and service, values very necessary for them during the post-Civil War period. The challenges of that era, however, did not deter Charlotte or her sisters from persevering to achieve their dreams.
As a young girl Charlotte wanted to become a nurse. She had learned of and read about the courageous work that Mary Mahoney, Martha Franklin, and other Negro women were doing in paving the way for Negro nurses to attend and graduate from professional nursing institutions. After graduating from the segregated New Bern public schools, Charlotte made her decision to become a professional nurse. It would be a long and arduous process. North Carolina had six white hospital-affiliated schools of nursing. Charlotte applied to them, one after the other, and was turned down each time. None of these six schools accepted Negro students or employed Negro nurses.
Charlotte was undaunted. By 1898 she learned of and enrolled in the Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing, which served as the clinical training site for medical and nursing students attending Howard University, a Negro institution in Washington, D.C. Charlotte graduated in May 1901, having achieved her dream to become a professional, credentialed graduate nurse (P. Pollitt. “Charlotte Rhone: Nurse, Welfare Worker and Entrepreneur,” American Journal of Nursing 115, February, 2015, p. 67).
When she applied for a nursing position at the local New Bern hospitals, however, she could not obtain employment because she was black. No hospitals in New Bern or surrounding areas would hire Negroes. Although disappointed, Charlotte did private duty nursing, made home visits with local white doctors, assisted with baby deliveries, and provided home health care. Ninety-year old Mary Bray Mollineaux recalls, in an interview conducted in 1991 as part of the Memories of New Bern Oral History project, “I was delivered by Dr. R.S. Primrose and a nurse, a Negro registered nurse known and loved by everyone in New Bern. Her name was Charlotte Rhone. She came along with the doctor to administer to my birth.” Charlotte spent her entire nursing career in New Bern, with the exception of five years (roughly 1910-1915) when she served as the matron or head nurse at the infirmary at the National Religious Training School (an early name for North Carolina Central College) in Durham. (Durham City Directories, pp. 110-14, and “Colored training school: faculty of new religious institution at Durham announced,” Wilmington Morning Star, August 20, 1910).
With her positive character and quest for excellence, it is not surprising that Charlotte was active in promoting the profession of nursing, most likely being the first African American woman certified as a registered nurse (RN). North Carolina was the first state to pass a nurse practice act that permitted nurses to register and use the title “registered nurse.” Charlotte registered in Craven County on June 23, 1903, about three weeks after registration by the first white nurse (documented by a 1938 letter from the clerk of the Craven County Superior Court to the Secretary of the Board of Nurse Examiners).
Charlotte continued to promote the new profession of graduate nursing. Because of Jim Crow laws and segregation, Negro registered nurses were not permitted membership in state organizations of nursing and, therefore, were barred from participating in the national American Nurses Association. In 1908, Martha Franklin, one of the Negro nurses who had inspired Charlotte, invited her fellow Negro nurses across the country to meet in New York City to discuss their visions, concerns, and strategies to overcome these obstacles. Of the fifteen hundred nurses who received notification, only fifty-two met in New York. Charlotte Rhone was the only one from North Carolina. She became a charter member of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), serving as a member of the executive board. Organization goals were to promote the welfare of African American nurses, ensure high academic standards among nurses and nursing schools, foster relationships with nursing leaders in the U.S. and around the world, and break down racial discrimination in nursing schools, work places, and professional organizations. Charlotte remained an active member working for better conditions and equality for professional nursing school graduates while continuing her work on the local level. (Althea T. Davis, Early Black American Leaders in Nursing: Architects for Integration and Equality, Sudbury Jones and Bartley Publishers Inc., 1999, pp. 2-3)
Although not performing as a graduate-level nurse as she had dreamed, Charlotte was actively administering to the needs of others and providing a model of inspiration and perseverance. She volunteered for civic improvement, established a Girl Scout troop, and collected clothes for the needy. In December 1907 and January 1908, she was noted for helping in the Emancipation Day ceremonies. On September 29, 1921, the New Bern Sun Journal lauded her for her successful work as chair of a committee to exterminate rats in the Negro community. She was also appointed director of the Negro playground that was designed to ensure “good health, discipline and moral uplift” to the youth of the community (Sun Journal, October 1, 1921).
Charlotte’s accomplishments were rooted in the values her parents had instilled in their children. With this firm foundation, the siblings supported each other in their endeavors. They were active in their church, St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, and lived a Christian life of loving their neighbors and caring for others.
Charlotte’s sister Carrie had her own aspirations. Carrie married Isaac Smith, one of the richest Negro men in North Carolina. He was a state politician who owned property, New Bern real estate, and investments in a Guilford County mill. After his death Carrie was left a wealthy widow. One of her dreams was to charter a branch of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in New Bern. The first meeting of this nascent group was held at her lovely four-square house at 607 Johnson Street, a house still standing and occupied. As a result of that 1921 meeting, a new club was founded under the National Association of Colored Women auspices with Charlotte as a charter member. The local group was named “The Climber’s Club,” and since its formation, the club has flourished as a vibrant organization providing cultural, educational, and benevolent services in the community. (See “The Climbers of New Bern,” New Bern Historical Society Journal, Volume XX, Number 2, November, 2008, for more on this organization.)
Charlotte continued to serve her community in many capacities. Negroes still were under the oppression of Jim Crow laws, but Charlotte would not let anything deter her from addressing not only health issues but also life issues affecting overall quality of life in the community. It was “the best of times and the worst of times.” Charlotte faced the worst with zeal and determination to make it better.
One cold December morning in 1922, Charlotte and the city of New Bern, and especially the Negro community, were thrust into a devastating tragedy: the Great Fire of New Bern. Early that morning a fire began that eventually destroyed more than forty blocks of homes, primarily in Negro neighborhoods. Thousands were left homeless, injured, and without jobs, and even without a place for medical attention. St. Luke Hospital, a beautiful three-story brick building on the corner of Broad and George Streets opened in 1916, and other white hospitals did not welcome Negro victims needing medical care.
Undaunted, the Reverend R.I. Johnson, rector of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, where Charlotte attended, opened the church’s doors to serve as a makeshift hospital for Negroes needing medical attention. Charlotte was a major help with her nursing skills, as well as with her Christian faith teaching, comforting and counseling those traumatized by the fire. She was also appointed to a committee to help develop strategies and seek resources for meeting long-term physical, psychological, and social needs arising from the fire. Tents were provided to house the homeless, and many fire victims lived in these tents for up to two years until they could rebuild or find other homes. Charlotte lost her own home and applied for a tent as well. But that did not dash her determination to press on. Drawing on her strong values and the support of her family, she kept helping wherever she could.
As a result of her consistent service before the fire and the ardent and unselfish care she rendered during the tragedy, Charlotte was hired as Craven County’s first Negro social worker.
Charlotte was out of her tent in a year’s time. She and her sisters decided to build not just another home, but rather a hotel. Knowing that Negro travelers could not stay in white hotels because of segregation laws, they wanted to provide a place for them. Charlotte was an entrepreneur in addition to everything else! She and her sisters Henrietta and Amy opened their hotel in 1923. Charlotte and Amy lived upstairs, with guest rooms on the lower floor.
Located at 512 Queen Street, the “Rhone Hotel” was listed in The Green Book, a book that listed lodgings for Negro travelers throughout the United States during the period of segregation. Most guests, especially the porters who worked for the railroad, referred to it as the “Rhone Home,” a place that opened its doors “to the weary travelers of this segregated state” (J.L. Hicks, “’House by the Side of the Road’ wins high acclaim from prominent travelers,” Afro American, February 10, 1951). The Rhone hotel building remains standing and in use as an apartment building. As the Depression hit during the 1930s, a challenge arose again for Charlotte to overcome yet another obstacle, not just for herself, but for others too. Charlotte had another dream, conceived in the struggle of the Depression, to open a shirt and dress factory to help provide jobs. The enterprise was a tremendous success, and its dresses and shirts were sold in stores in downtown New Bern. Others saw the shop’s success and copied Charlotte’s idea with small businesses of their own.
Charlotte continued to serve as a community activist and volunteer. Her professional career flourished as she became a leader in the North Carolina Social Worker Association; eventually she became the first Negro assistant superintendent of the Craven County Welfare Department. In the meantime, the committee to which Charlotte and other Negro and white civic leaders had been assigned after the Great Fire continued to work and raise funds to establish a hospital in New Bern for Negroes. This effort was sponsored by the Episcopal diocese, with contributions from the Duke Endowment, the Pennsylvania diocese, private sources, and community donations. Again, under the leadership 512 Queen Street, formerly the Rhone Hotel. Courtesy of Susan Cook. of the Reverend R. I. Johnson, the Good Shepherd Hospital, located on West Street, opened on June 26, 1936. This building is still standing and is now the Good Shepard Home for the Aged.
Immediately following the completion of Good Shepard Hospital, the idea of a library for Negros emerged. Another committee was formed, again with Charlotte Rhone as a member. Partnerships were formed with the Negro West Street School across from the new hospital. As the committee met, plans were implemented to start a library in a nook located on the campus of West Street School. Charlotte was assigned the task of finding a site on which to build a permanent library. Eventually she found land at 608 West Street, directly across from the Good Shepard Hospital and two doors down from the school. Charlotte organized a fund-raising campaign seeking donations from teachers, students, and the general community surrounding the property. She was designated chairwoman of the board, and after more fund-raising, the property was purchased and the West Street Colored Library was completed and opened in 1947. Charlotte continued to serve on the board of directors until her death. The library closed in 1973 with the advent of civil rights and desegregation, and its building was turned over to the Climber’s Club. It is fitting that the building was renamed in Charlotte’s honor, as the “Charlotte Rhone Cultural Center” (New Bern Craven County Public Library, History of the library, undated http://newbern.cpclib.org/about/hist_lib.html).
Charlotte died on June 4, 1965, and was interred in the family plot in Greenwood Cemetery (New Bern Sun Journal obituary index June 7, 1965).
With her resilience, perseverance, intelligence, and courage, Charlotte Rhone was a true exemplar of the Climber’s Club motto “Lifting as we climb.” She, along with her sisters, was a dynamic force in the success, history, and beauty of New Bern. Jim Crow and the devastation of the Great Fire were unable to daunt this strong woman—a registered nurse, social worker, and Christian servant!
Faith, education, and service: how firm a foundation, how great a legacy.
Original publication in the New Bern Historical Society 2018 ANNUAL JOURNAL
About the author:
Carol Vivian Bonner received a bachelors degree from NCCU-Durham and a masters degree from ECU. She is a retired New Bern educator and an active historian of New Bern’s African American community. Carol continues her studies and service as a teaching and preaching minister in the AME Zion Conference. She is a member and VP of the MLK Jr. Outreach Ministry and the Climbers Club of New Bern. Carol serves of the New Bern Historical Society Board and is a founding leader of the African American Heritage & Cultural Center.