My birth state is North Carolina. It was there that the immigrants of my Grandmother West’s side of the family came from Switzerland and settled in what is now New Bern, North Carolina. I didn’t realize until recently how one minister of the Christian faith and those dedicated Christian teachers would make their mark in history. The place I refer to is Roanoke Island where this Chaplain minister had great hopes that their work there with the newly freed slaves would establish a “new social order.” We pray that his efforts and those of the teachers, who gave so much of their lives to the freed people, will not have been in vain.
HISTORY OF ROANOKE ISLAND
( Please note that this writing is not referring here to the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island during the 1500″s, when more than a hundred men, women, and children sailed from England to North Carolina in 1587 to build a new settlement. Three years later they had vanished, leaving few clues of their fate.) That is another story. Fast forward to the 1800’s…
“Within weeks of North Carolina’s secession from the Union, the Confederacy had established a military presence on Roanoke Island, which derived its military significance by virtue of its location near the opening of two major sounds…
Union troops under General Ambrose E. Burnside easily captured the island on February 8, 1862. After the battle, the Union went on to occupy a number of coastal North Carolina towns. Meanwhile, Roanoke Island remained a Union stronghold, garrisoned by Union troops until after the war...
As had been the case in parts of South Carolina and Virginia, once slaves in or near the occupied areas of North Carolina heard that the Union army had established a foothold, they streamed across Union lines with hopes of obtaining freedom. Within weeks of the establishment of official occupation, large numbers of slaves organized themselves into refugee camps at or near Union headquarters in the occupied areas.
PROVIDING SUPPORT TO THE NEWLY FREED
Following the lead of General Benjamin Butler at Fortress Monroe, General Burnside granted them the status of freedmen. He ordered the officers in charge of the local occupations to provide charitable support and to put the able-bodied men to work, especially in the construction of fortifications and docks.
During the first few months of the Union occupation of Roanoke Island, over 250 former slaves settled in a camp close to Union headquarters. By the end of the year, the number had grown to 1,000. Most of the former slaves had escaped to the island from the North Carolina mainland; many were strangers to each other. Nevertheless, they set about to establish a thriving community, including their own school and several churches. …
In April 1863 Major General John G. Foster, Commander of the 18th Army Corps, appointed the Reverend Horace James, an evangelical Congregationalist to supervise the establish of a special place for freed men and women to start new lives. He was a graduate of Yale University and enlisted as Army chaplain of the Twenty-Fifth Massachusetts Volunteers on October 29, 1861. (National Park Service)
ORGANIZING A NEW BEGINNING
Army chaplain Horace James organized a formal colony with one-acre lots provided for about 600 families on the northern end of the island. Schools, mills, and houses were built. At the war’s end almost 6000 ex-slaves resided in Freedmen’s Town. These people tasted the sweet air of liberty for the first time on the north end of Roanoke Island. Marriages were legalized and equal rights and privileges were granted in courts of law. The promise seemed to be finally coming true for African Americans and they discovered what all free people know. Freedom is never free...
Horace James, from New Bern, N.C., felt a special fondness for Roanoke Island. From its inception, he and some of the other military authorities associated with the colony viewed it as more than a temporary shelter for the former slaves. On numerous occasions James wrote of the need to regenerate the South-to eradicate the sin of slavery and replace it with a free labor system. James, in fact, clearly intended the Roanoke Island colony to be a permanent settlement, a model that would be emulated throughout the South. As he underscored in a letter that he wrote for distribution in the North in the summer of 1863 soliciting support for the work on Roanoke Island, James enthusiastically embraced the colonization as an opportunity to create what he termed a “New Social Order.” (Wikipedia)
CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES COME TO ROANOKE ISLAND TO HELP THE FREED
“Work in the colony presented Northern missionary teachers from the American Missionary Association and the New York branch of the National Freeman’s Relief Association with an opportunity to put into practice ideas about abolition and evangelicalism that had been simmering in New England for almost forty years. Although six teachers, including Horace James’s cousin Elizabeth James, constituted the heart of the teaching corps on the island, at least twenty-seven missionary teachers, most from New England, worked on the island during the period from 1862 to 1867. Most were evangelical Protestants, with strong abolitionist beliefs and a fervent missionary spirit. Many described their efforts in letters to the offices of the missionary associations and to friends…”
(From “The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony” by Patricia Click)
The missionary teachers did all they could for the Roanoke Island community. They lived and worked among the freedmen with compassion and concern. They believed that the future of these people lay in education and faith. If they, as teachers, were not successful in presenting these to every man and woman, future generations would greatly suffer…both individually and as a nation.
LETTERS WRITTEN BY CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES TO ROANOKE ISLAND
- Letter shares the Christian faith of the missionary teachers and the freed people:
Roanoke, N.C., March 21 
The Lord is doing wonders here, I never saw anything like it in my life. For the last month I have had a very pleasant school of 200, or more. I never had so large a school; but the more I had in this case, the more easy it grew, for every one added weight to the school, and power too. The island is alive with the music of the farmers—Colored farmers who were once slaves:—They make the air vocal with their songs of joy. God bless them all. Their day is coming, and I hope I shall journey with them in the wilderness.
[“From Miss Mary Burnap,” American Missionary 9 (May 1865)]
- This letter gives some idea of the numbers of freed people that the missionaries taught:
November 14, 1865
[Rev. W. G. Hawkins:]
Mr. Birdsall has been taking the census; the statistics will perhaps be interesting to you, as I have just received them from him: Male adults, 494; female adults, 1,150; male children, 670; female children, 643; adults who draw rations, 1,133; children who draw rations, 1,095. The people are leaving the island by scores; at least thirty of my scholars will leave before Christmas. They are now leaving daily, and I am filling their places with others. Today I had seventy in school, and usually spend six hours and longer with them. Many of the girls, who have left our schools, are now attending the Industrial School, and it seems to me an excellent thing for them. We must have more help in this school, or we can not take half of the number who wish to go.
E. P. Bennett
[“Roanoke Island,” The National Freedman 1 (15 November 1865)]
- This letter tells (in part) of the suffering that the people and teachers had to endure the next year:
Roanoke Island, N.C.,
June 13, 1866
Dear Sir:–I find there is a great amount of sickness and suffering, which, I think, is the result of the scarcity of food. At one time, during my absence, so nearly did they approach to starvation, in consequence of not being able to get supplies here, that our ladies, besides giving all that they could spare from family stores, were obliged to give out damaged food, which I purchased for our pigs before I left. This the people cooked and ate, to save life. Is it any wonder that sickness follows? Whose fault is this? Surely not the fault of any one here, for there was no means of transportation to bring food to the island till a boat came down to transport goods from a steamer which was wrecked on the coast….
Alphonso Lenox, a smart young man, who served as a private during the war, went into Murden [Martin?] County and engaged to work for fifty cents per day and found, during the days that he work; but on the Sabbath, he must either work or find himself; chose to do the latter; but after working two weeks found that it cost him nearly as much to keep him over the Sabbath as he could earn during the week, and concluded to return to the island.…
I hope the number of teachers for the coming autumn will be greatly increased. In many places the people are doing all they can to prepare buildings, and sustain their schools. At Rowell’s [Powells] Point, near Currituck Court House, the colored people have built a schoolhouse, and promise to board a teacher, and supply fuel. At Ben [Trent] River settlement, near Newbern, they have a school-house, and $75 subscribed for support of a teacher. I hope Mr. Pond will see to that when he returns.
There are calls from Hyde County and various other points. Those who go out into the country bring back with them very urgent appeals for teachers.
Say to the people: The harvest is ripe, send laborers.
[Sarah P. Freeman]
[“Roanoke Island,” The National Freedman 1 (15 July 1866)]
“With my hands against my breast I was going to my work where the overseer used to whip me along. Now, no more of that, no more of that. We’re free now, bless the Lord. They can’t sell a wife and child anymore… bless the Lord, no more of that, no more of that.” Harriet Tubman, 1862
What is a “new social order?” These dedicated Christians of the 1800’s hoped for the best after men and women were freed…worked for the best and prayed for the best. It is up to each generation of all Americans to remember history and give it our best.
May 7, 2021 | Categories: Boyer Writes, Christianity, FREEDOM, Great Americans, History, Important to know, Interesting places or People, Stories of Courage | Tags: African Americnas, Christian missionaries to Roanoke Island, education, faith, First Light of Freedom, freed slaves, General Burnside, General John Goster, Harriet Tubman, History, Nat. Underground Railroad, National Freedman, New Bern, Newbern, North Carolina, Reverend Horace James, Roanoke Island, Sarah Freeman, schools for freed men and women, social order | Leave a comment