Rich Cultural Heritage Along the Roanoke

Published 9:58 am Wednesday, February 14, 2018

If you have never been to the North Carolina Museum of History’s African American Cultural Celebration, you have missed a real treat! I recently had the opportunity to attend the 17th Annual Celebration in Raleigh and it was fantastic!

As I write this column over a week later, I can still feel the indigenous beat of the drums and remember the vibrant flurry of color that the dancers provided. It was an event to be savored by all the senses.

What a stroke of luck that I agreed to set up our Halifax Underground Railroad exhibit in cooperation with our Halifax State Historic site. I want to thank fellow Halifax Underground Railroad Committee member, Nancy Mueller, for staffing our exhibit for the second half of the day. Nancy and I agreed it was a grand experience and we strongly encourage others to consider attending next year.

This event is just one opportunity to learn more about the diverse cultural heritage found here in North Carolina.

With the development of our future Rosenwald River Center project in Hamilton, we are making plans for the center to be a place where both locals and visitors can learn more about the rich cultural heritage that developed throughout our region. This center will be a place to connect to the Rosenwald legacy found throughout our region as well as the Roanoke River’s role in the Underground Railroad.

If you reside in Eastern North Carolina, I trust you know that the Roanoke River—along with the Great Dismal Swamp and the Pasquotank and the Neuse Rivers— are all recognized as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

These designations were the result of extensive research conducted by Wanda Hunt McLean, a retiree from Elizabeth City State University. Ms. McLean’s body of work has provided our region with some great opportunities to pair the cultural heritage spawn along our waterways with the eco-tourism we are engaged in. By merging our cultural and natural assets, we can provide a more “colorful” experience for our visitors. This approach can also expand the market we attract to our region – and that’s exactly what we want to do.

Over the past year, Roanoke River Partners have been busy building support for this regional development. We have completed the master plan. This plan—sponsored by The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Covington Foundation and the Town of Hamilton– has allowed us to project costs.

We have also attended meetings and events to prepare us to lead this project. We have learned more about our own history; learned about fundraising at a whole new level; and established new regional and state partnerships to support this process.

We have recently completed the initial stage of the application process to seek funding from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. We look forward to their response by early April. In the meantime, we are working with other funders who have expressed an interest.

This project will increase the economic impact that our partnerships return to the region. As with most rural development initiatives, it will take a village to complete the task at hand. We welcome your thoughts relative to this project.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate African-American Heritage Month than by making plans to champion our very own unique history right here where it happened. We invite you to join us in this exciting regional development!

Carol Jones Shields is the Executive Director of Roanoke River Partners, Inc. You can contact her at (252) 798-3920 or You can learn more about Roanoke River Partner.