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Reinterpreting North Carolina’s History

Courtesy of Jeffrey Crow

The history of North Carolina goes back centuries, so how have the history books shaped our understanding of the state and its residents? 

The new book “New Voyages to Carolina: Reinterpreting North Carolina History” (UNC Press/ 2017) aims to highlight narratives that have been absent from the work of previous historians.

The book contains more than a dozen essays on communities, like Native Americans, who resided in the state long before white colonists arrived. It also profiles marginalized voices like African-American women in New Bern who spearheaded their financial freedom after the Civil War.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Jeffrey Crow, co-editor of the book and former director of North Carolina’s Division of Archives and History, and Karin Zipf, contributor to the book and history professor at ECU, about how scholars today are reimagining the state’s historical narrative.

He also talks with Connie Locklear, director of the Indian Education Resource Center for Robeson County Public Schools, about programs to incorporate Native American history and culture in the classroom.  


Crow on the scope of early North Carolina historians and the scholar J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton’s impact on the state’s history: They tended to take a view that modern historians do not necessarily follow any longer. They tended to take a view that history was an inexorable march toward progress. And if you look at the minorities and others in history, the story isn’t quite as rosy as they may have portrayed it … [Hamilton] wrote the first really full account of Reconstruction in North Carolina. He was a part of what’s called the William A. Dunning School from Columbia University. Dunning trained a lot of historians in the South who wrote histories of Reconstruction. Virtually of them had negative attitudes toward Republicans, toward African-Americans, toward the whole idea of a biracial democracy, and Hamilton’s work certainly reflected that.

Zipf on the information evident in the records from the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company: A bank application is a bank application. Whenever we go in to submit an application in order to open a bank account, we have to give certain information, identifying information particularly, so that when we go back in to withdraw our money, the bank cashier knows that we are who we say we are. So back then they didn’t have Social Security numbers as identifying factors, so they had to take a lot of other identifying information — sometimes some of the same information that we give in a bank account application. For example, when we go in to open a bank account we are asked not only about our place of residence but also about our prior place of residence. That would be a very interesting story if you’re looking at former slaves who are not only listing their current residence New Bern, but they are also listing the prior residence from where they escaped from. So there’s all kinds of interesting ways to think about this data that we see as normal, but also opens up wide opportunities to ask questions about that period.

Zipf on the occupations African-American women held in New Bern after emancipation: There are a number of ways women were making money. They had numerous occupations. One of the top categories for women who were saving money was actually as washerwoman. Washerwomen were women who did laundry. They were laundresses. These are women who are pulling themselves out of the domestic household — away from their former mistresses purview — control to take on laundry from several different clients. So what would happen is a woman now could negotiate with several different clients to do their laundry. She would take their laundry and take it home where she could supervise her own children then return that laundry back those clients. So women are making sure to specialize in occupations in a way that they weren’t allowed to do in slavery. They were negotiating their wages and their clients.

Locklear on the the role of cultural and academic programs for Native American students in Robeson County: I think it’s important because we need to never forget where we came from and how hard our ancestors fought for us to have the opportunities that we have. And every culture, regardless of what your culture is, you need to embrace that culture and take pride in who you are. And we need to know who we are before we can move to who we want to be. If you don’t understand your past, it’s hard to look forward to your future. I think when our children understand how much our ancestors have fought and given up so much of their life so we can have these opportunities, then we wouldn’t take them for granted.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond is a podcast producer for WUNC.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.