The Outer Banks that many visitors celebrate today as America’s best family beach vacation has an incredible backstory that’s ripe for discovery. Buried between the headlines of the first English colony in America at Roanoke Island and the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, you’ll find the heroic saga of strong men and women who pioneered some of the first tastes of freedom and equality for African Americans in the country on these very shores in the days leading up to and following the nation’s greatest divide.
To get a quick contextual overview, the Outer Banks were once a mainly sandy barren chain of islands with few trees and mostly a frontier existence for the few thousand people who scratched out a life far from the city. From the first English European onset in America that began with the Lost Colony of Roanoke circa 1587, through the days of piracy in the early 1700’s with Blackbeard’s haunts of the coast, to small family centric communities that still exist today who began and survived as fishing villages and ports of call for mariners in the sea trade leading up to the Civil War in 1861.
There was a little more in the way of agriculture near Manteo, but no big plantations there or in the beach communities of Kitty Hawk, Nags Head or Hatteras that might define most people’s classic view of the South during this time and therefore not much economic need that would substantiate a large slave population. In fact, most of the locals’ political sentiments were aligned with the North, but the South needed to strategically hold the North Carolina barrier islands in the interest of keeping the seaborn supply chain open to feed the war effort. This is where we pick up our tour.
Miss Chrissy’s Oak | Island Farm
At this living history heritage farm on Roanoke Island lies the grave of Christiana ‘Chrissy’ Bowser. Born a free black in 1820, she was the cook on the farm from 1845 until her death in 1914. After the Civil War, she built her own cabin beneath this live oak tree and, upon her death, was buried there. Today, you can visit this very spot at Island Farm, and learn more about daily life on the OBX leading up to the end of slavery, and the spirited, independent people that were born out of this conflict.
Staff at this one-time 125-acre farm depict the living history of everyday Outer Bankers, who settled Roanoke Island in the mid-1800s. You’ll get to see heritage agriculture, blacksmithing, food preparation and hearth cooking, spinning wool and even feed and pet the animals which include livestock and two ponies from the Corolla wild herd.
The Freedman’s Colony 1862-1867 | Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
-National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom-
On the heels of the Union’s first military victory of the Civil War at Fort Hatteras in August 1861, Northern forces took Roanoke Island in 1862 in another of the earliest Union military victories over the Confederates. Escaped slaves seeking the army’s protection began pouring onto the island. In response, the army seized local property to use for the establishment of a Freedmen’s Colony on the north end of the island across the street from where the NC Aquarium is today. Some of the former slaves helped rebuild the forts on Roanoke and Hatteras islands and others found jobs such as cooks, woodworkers and blacksmiths. Still others became army scouts, spies, or enlisted in the Union Army. At its peak population, there were nearly 4,000 former slaves from across the east who had made their way to Freedman’s Colony. When the war ended, the land was returned to the original owners. With no home to call their own, many former slaves left the island. Of the few families who remained, many were able to do so because Richard Etheridge of black lifesaver fame sold them portions of property that he had acquired. Many Freedmen’s Colony descendants still live on the Outer Banks.
While the Freedman’s Colony no longer exists today, you can experience its spirit and learn at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. There’s a memorial that acknowledges the site as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and a section of the Lindsay Warren Visitor Center at Fort Raleigh dedicated to the Freedman’s Colony.
The Freedman’s Colony 1862-1867 | NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island
Richard Etheridge (1842-1900) and his family were buried on property that he purchased in the vicinity of the former Freedman’s Colony, and today you can visit his gravesite and public memorial adjacent to the N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island. Inside the Aquarium, you can enjoy a gallery of original portraits painted by local artist James Melvin in tribute to their legacy as part of your experience. Of the 609 documented rescues at sea by the Pea Island Lifesaving Station crew during its operational history from 1880 to decommissioning in 1947, the most famous was the rescue of the crew of the E.S. Newman during an October 1896 hurricane. Richard Etheridge was the first African American to hold the rank of Keeper of a life-saving station. This meant that, under the racial standards of the times, the entire crew under his command would have to be black. Although other black men had served as surfmen at Pea Island and other stations, Pea Island Station came to be manned entirely by a black keeper and crew.
Haven Creek Baptist Church | Manteo
Former slaves brought faith and love of worship services with them to the Freedmen’s Colony. Haven Creek Church in Manteo began during the Civil War when Freedman’s Colonists gathered beneath a tree to worship. During the war, enslaved friends were sent word that if they would come across “the creek,” there was safe haven waiting. Many of the former slaves had escaped from areas where churches had slave galleries with locked doors to keep them from running away during the services. After the war, the formal church was built on property deeded to Richard Etheridge from local white farmer John B. Etheridge, and the congregation chose a name to serve as a reminder of those turbulent years.
The Pea Island Cookhouse Museum | Manteo
The Outer Banks has the distinction of being home to one of the most highly awarded rescue crews in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard, the all-Black surfmen of Pea Island Lifesaving Station who earned Gold Lifesaving Medals posthumously for valiance protecting mariners in peril along our coast. From 1880 until his death in 1900, former slave and Civil War veteran Richard Etheridge of Buffalo Soldier fame led a segregated team to guard a several-mile stretch of beach near where the new Captain Richard Etheridge Memorial Bridge is today at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. The original main station is long lost, but the detached cookhouse was rescued from the ravages of time and rehabilitated into a museum in the heart of Manteo on Roanoke Island where most of the Pea Island lifesavers were from, including Richard Etheridge, whom you’ll also find a larger than life likeness cast in bronze. The cookhouse is where the men would have broken bread, taken their meals and recounted actions of the day. Remember, if you wanted to travel or trade goods back then, you traveled by ship and often passed offshore of the Outer Banks. Wrecks occurred just like they would along an interstate today, usually in foul weather with the high chance of drowning or worse. The men of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, as the U.S. Coast Guard was known prior to 1915, were among the most heroic first responders of their time.
Hotel De Afrique | Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
-National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom-
The first Union military victory of the Civil War concluded August 29, 1861 with a naval bombardment and amphibious assault of Confederate forces at Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark, the former being near the location of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum today. Prized for their strategic military value overlooking Hatteras Inlet, the ensuing capture of the Confederate forts had a dramatic consequence. Fugitive slaves began arriving daily in the new Union foothold, hoping for a taste of freedom. Union soldiers had to quickly assemble a shelter to accommodate the influx of refugees forever known to the public as the Hotel De Afrique following a New York Times article on January 29, 1862.
What began as a simple shanty structure quickly grew to about a dozen barracks where African Americans would exchange their skills as watermen, horsemen, laborers in exchange for food and shelter. It was the first such haven for fugitive slaves in North Carolina. Visitors to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum will notice a large black memorial near the main parking area describing the Civil War epic battle and ensuing freedom camp. The Hotel d’ Afrique operated from 1861-1865 and is part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
People in Spotlight
Virginia Tillett | Manteo
Many descendants of slaves who escaped bondage in the Freedmen’s Colony are making large contributions to today’s Dare County community. Colony descendant Virginia Tillett was the first African-American elected to the Dare County School Board and to the Dare County Board of Commissioners. A past recipient of the Citizen of the Year Award from the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, she also was presented with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the North Carolina’s highest honor.