James City becomes first dedicated site of the New African American Heritage Tour in North Carolina

Published 8:15 am Sunday, November 5, 2023

By Clark Curtis, For the Washington Daily News

On Saturday, October 28, James City became the first official site of the New African American Heritage Tour in North Carolina. The project is a collaborative effort between the National Park Service and the Eastern Carolina Foundation for Equity and Equality. “This project has been several years in the making,” said Jeff West, superintendent of the National Parks Services’ Cape Lookout National Seashore.” We began exploring all of the communities in Eastern North Carolina that were not connected and should be. We came up with the idea of a boating and driving tour that would connect pre, during, and post-slavery sites in North Carolina.”

As the executive director of the Eastern Carolina Foundation for Equity and Equality, Heather Walker serves as the subject matter expert and research historian on the project, as well as the designer of the historic markers. “We are dedicated to telling the whole, truthful story,” said Walker. “One which is totally inclusive of the good and the bad, as history can oftentimes get twisted and manipulated over time. For me personally, you never know how emotionally attached you can become to a project or a place until the day comes when you have to let go. Dedicating the marker today, represents that day,” as she slowly wiped the tears from her eyes.

The newly dedicated historic marker is located at the site of the Far Cemetery and Circa 1850 Slave Quarters in James City, which all reside at the end of the runway at the Coastal Carolina Regional Airport in New Bern. The cemetery was an area where enslaved and freed Blacks following the Emancipation Proclamation were buried. In 1941 the government decided to build a Marine Corps Base there. All of the grave markers were literally bulldozed away, loaded into trucks, and buried elsewhere. A subsequent archeological study revealed there were 522 graves on the site, half of which belonging to children under the age of 13.

Today, the James City Historical Society, which was established in 1991, serves as the caretaker of the site, which is managed by the Coastal Carolina Regional Airport. “This day has been a long time coming, and is the work of many, including our board members and volunteers,” said William Hollowell, chairman of the James City Historical Society. “To have all of these people come out and witness the unveiling of the marker is just awesome. This represents all of our history. I could feel the ancestors and their spirits coming into me from the graves below. It is just an incredible, wonderful feeling.”

Added Bishop, Dr. Tyrone D. Fleshman, “My heart is heavy and at the same time I’m feeling a sense of joy and gratefulness as we see what we as a community have been able to accomplish. This dedication is an opportunity to get the word out to the next generation, which is so important. All too often we see examples of history being lost because of a failure to preserve it.”

As Hollowell shared from a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech at Rocky Mount, “When the descendants of slaves sit down to the table in brotherhood with the descendants of slave owners, we’ll make a change.”

Future sites under consideration include Washington, Plymouth, Elizabeth City, Edenton, and several other coastal towns. Walker said individuals, or organizations who would like to nominate sites for consideration can reach out to her at Equalityforenc@gmail.com.