African American Craftsmen 1770 -1835

AFRICAN AMERICAN CRAFTSMEN (1770 – 1835)

AND HOW THEY SHAPED THE HISTORY OF NEW BERN

The City of New Bern’s colonial and Civil War history is very well documented and known.  Throughout our streets are markers identifying historic homes, people, places, and events.  Our founders were Swiss, and the Berne bears we share with our sister city in Switzerland can be found throughout the city today.  The reconstructed Tryon Palace was rebuilt as a beacon to its colonial past as North Carolina’s first permanent capitol.  New Bern was a thriving river town, port, and prominent cultural center – the Athens of the South.

But there is so much more history to tell.  In December 2023, Our State Magazine featured a digital article written by Hannah Lee Leidy on the Black Artisans who shaped New Bern from the late 1700s to mid-1800s.  The article featured the stories of several black artisans; weavers, spinners, brick masons, and tailors, who used their skills to become not only respected members of New Bern’s urban southern society but also to emancipate themselves, their families, and others.  They built a thriving black community in New Bern under an institution that limited their aspirations and denied them agency. 

The stories told are captured from Catherine W. Bishir’s book, Crafting Lives – African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900.  After more than 30 years of research, Bishir had enough material to represent how black artisans of various trades in a single community not only thrived in a slave society, but also influenced New Bern’s past, present, and future history.  Bishir’s stories tell how these artisans built many of the city’s buildings, provided industries vital to the city’s growth and sustainability, and established religious and civic organizations.  She worked collaboratively with the staff of Tryon Palace, the Tryon Palace African American Advisory Committee, the North Carolina Department of (Natural and) Cultural Resources, and other organizations to compile these lesser-known stories into this book published in 2013. 

The Our State Magazine article touches on the lives of John C. Stanly, Donum Montford, Asa Spellman, Amelia Green, and John Rice Greene.  The QR code below provides a link to the article.  These are only a few of the stories captured in Catherine Bishir’s book.  For more on this little-known history, it is a recommended read.

The Z. Smith Reynolds Inclusive Public Art Project

Tryon Palace has been selected to apply for full funding for a joint Z Smith Reynolds and Andrew Mellon project called the Inclusive Public Art initiative. The initiative is intended to use permanent, public art to share stories of diversity, equity, and inclusion in an effort to stimulate community conversations and sustained community connections. Through this process our goal is to provide a shared and fuller understanding of our common history and to demonstrate how these stories of diversity and strength make our community stronger and more resilient. The goal is to create avenues for ongoing community conversations and collaborations beyond the life of this project.

Our project is using Catherine Bishir’s book, Crafting Lives to provide a background and inspiration to tell the stories of the New Bern African American artisan class from 1770-1835, both free and enslaved. The stories of these remarkable middle- and working-class men and women are important to our understanding of New Bern’s past, present and future. They built the town, provided industries vital to its growth and sustainability, established religious and civic organizations, and bought their families out of slavery and into freedom. They bound together and thrived under an institution that limited them and denied them agency at every turn. They were vibrant participants in the community of New Bern on all levels. Almost no one knows these important stories but people in New Bern, and not all of them do. There is a connectedness and grounded quality to this commemorative work that our committee finds inspiring, and we want to share with the community and have them participate in its development.

THE ARTISANS WE CHOSE TO REPRESENT THE PROJECT…

Individual personal stories

Asa Spelman

Trade: Cooper

Catherine Bishir notes that the Spelmans were free black migrants from Virginia to the Carolinas in the early 1700s. His 1820 pension application listed his trade as cooper, someone who crafted barrels and casks for shipping both wet and dry goods. During the American Revolution, he enlisted in the 10th North Carolina Regiment.

Amelia Green

Trade: Spinning and Weaving

Associated with 310 George Street, built ca. 1790-1800

Used her skills to save money and purchase her daughters Nancy Handy, Harriet Green, and Princess Green, whom she subsequently emancipated. Green’s granddaughter, Kitty, married John Caruthers Stanly. Her great-granddaughter, Catherine, was a leading member of the free black community and of First Presbyterian Church of New Bern. Her great-great-granddaughter, Sarah Griffith Stanly Woodward (1836-1918) was educated at Oberlin College and taught with the American Missionary Association after the Civil War.

Donum Montford (Mumford)

Trade: Plasterer and Brick Mason

Associated with John R. Donnell House, Craven County Jail (we have a photograph of the jail in the collection).

Enslaved by the Cogdell family and emancipated in 1804 a day after being sold to John Carruthers Stanly. Montford married Hannah Bowers, formerly enslaved by the Gaston family. Montford was instrumental in apprenticing, training, and emancipating, or assisting in the emancipation, of many enslaved individuals.

James York Green

Trade: Carpentry

Associated with no listings in Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County

Born a slave and trained as a carpenter before being freed in 1812. Instrumental in freeing or vouching for family and members of his community. Active in First Presbyterian Church of New Bern. Remained in New Bern after 1850s when many fellow artisans and prominent families relocated outside of North Carolina.