Aurora: The Eden of North Carolina

Published 4:38 pm Monday, March 11, 2024

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During a Black History Month program for the awesome scholars and staff at S. W. Snowden School in Aurora, we got a chance to share some of the Black history of Aurora. After the presentation, Milt and I did some exploring around town.

Aurora, about 30 miles from Washington, is fascinating for many reasons. The Aurora Fossil Museum attracts visitors from around the world. The town is also the site of the world’s largest phosphate mine. The mine was a result of a recession experienced by the seacoast of Aurora and phosphates being deposited into the sea 15 million years ago.

Another amazing fact about Aurora is that it was once known as the ‘Eden of North Carolina’ because of the fertile and rich soil there. It was also once known as the’ potato capital’ of eastern NC because in the early 1900’s, Irish potatoes grown there netted 60,000 barrels of potatoes being shipped throughout the state.

My favorite story about Aurora though has to do with watermelons.

Did you know watermelons were often called ‘August Hams’ to help the efforts of freedom seekers? The term ‘make for where the August hams grow’ was a term for freedom seekers to go to Betty Town, a Beaufort County town now known as Aurora.

Before the Civil War, Betty Town was owned by free blacks, Betty and Isaiah Hodge. Mr. Hodge named the land after his wife. Betty Town was another prominent stop on the underground railroad and freedom seekers could find refuge there. If it was known that slave traders or those looking for run-aways were in the area, one way to indicate to freedom seekers to stay hidden was to make scratches on the August hams. August hams grew in abundance here and made a staple food source for all.

The enslaved knew how to smoke a watermelon to make a ‘veggie type ham substitute’ product. They perfected cooking the rind like cabbage or making pickles and salads from the rinds. They would also roast or stew the rind or make soup out of it. Jelly and candy were also made from the rinds. Seeds were toasted or sprouted and eaten, the juice was made into a beverage or medicine. And the rind itself could be used as cookware. They would roast the meat they hunted and prepared it in watermelon rinds, using one half as a pot and the other half as a lid.

Betty Town was sold after Mr. Hodge’s death around 1859 by his legal caretaker, Isaiah Respess, to Rev. W R Cunningham from Lenoir County NC. It was later named Aurora around 1880 when the town was incorporated. As it was no longer used as a refuge for freedom seekers after the land was sold, many of the Black residents migrated to Kansas and Ohio.

Check out Aurora when you get a chance. It’s a fascinating town.

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-curator of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.