In the past year, I have read two great books that shared an aspect of North Carolina history that I had known nothing about. More specifically, both were a part of African American North Carolina history, and I was a little embarrassed that I had never heard of the events/people before.
The first book is So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix by Bethany C. Morrow. Morrow has taken a story familiar to many of us and made it her own. This book is categorized as Young Adult, but would be enjoyed by adults as well as teens.
Mammy and her four girls, Amethyst, Bethlehem, Joanna, and Meg, live in the Roanoke Island Freedman’s Colony in the North Carolina Outer Banks. The war isn’t over yet, but the March family and many other families have left their enslavers and established their own settlement, with the help of the Union soldiers. Their father, Alcott, is visiting another freedman’s colony in Mississippi, to learn more about becoming a self-sustaining colony. The girls (except for young Amy) have their jobs to support the colony and the family – Meg teaches, Jo builds houses, Beth is a seamstress and Mammy is writing letters and preparing documents for the Union soldiers.
I loved reading about this family of strong, intelligent women, and learning about the Roanoke Freedman’s colony. It is shameful that I have lived in North Carolina my entire life and knew nothing about this settlement until now. The story illuminates that former slaves were not a monolithic group – while some had no education and spoke in a slave dialect, others knew how to read and write, and were happy to share their knowledge with others. There was a lot of prejudice among the Union soldiers, missionaries who served in the new colonies, and even free black people in the North. Many believed that all former slaves were uneducated, lazy, and in need of their help now that they were free. The March family showed how inaccurate this assumption was, and how the former slaves didn’t trust any white people because they understood all too well how precarious this newfound freedom was.
If you are interested in learning more about the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, the library has online access to Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, 1862–1867 by Patricia Click through Biblioboard (https://library.biblioboard.com/content/bd426fae-4982-4c02-b97a-f25154a2f398).
The other book is Carolina Built by Kianna Alexander. While this book started off a little choppy, I grew to appreciate the story in the end. It was fascinating to learn about Josephine Napoleon Leary, who was an early real estate entrepreneur in Edenton and other towns in coastal North Carolina in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Like the author, I am sad (but not surprised) that our North Carolina history classes never mentioned Leary, even though her accomplishments were quite groundbreaking for her time.
Jo comes from a hardworking family who were former slaves. Jo remembers life as an enslaved person, but is proud of her accomplishments since then. As the book begins, she has just married Archer Leary. They are both barbers, and plan to open their own barbershop. But Jo has other plans as well – she wants to own property. Archer – whose nickname is Sweety – can (and does often) pass as white, giving them an advantage in the racist atmosphere of the 1870s. When they look at a property in Elizabeth City that Archer plans to buy, the real estate broker refuses to honor the advertised promise to take half the asking price at sale and the rest paid over time because Sweety’s wife is colored. But Jo has $500, and purchases the property outright. This begins a lifelong passion for acquiring and developing real estate.
The book jumps from vignette to vignette of Jo’s life. Sometimes, this makes the book seem choppy. In addition, the dynamic between Jo and Archer can get repetitive. Archer struggles with accepting a wife who is self-reliant and not happy being a “traditional” wife, staying home with the kids and taking care of the house. Despite his chronic insecurities, his love of his wife comes through.
If you’d like to know more about Jo and her building in Edenton, the Edenton Historical Commission has an informative page about her on their website: https://ehcnc.org/historic-places/museum-trail/museum-trail-1894-josephine-leary-building/
Duke University also has her papers in their collection: https://repository.duke.edu/dc/learyjosephine. The collection is digitized so everyone can enjoy reading her correspondence, seeing photos, and looking at legal papers and maps.
These two recent releases showed me that I still have much to learn about my home state’s history and its people. These two books are great reads anytime, but especially during Black History Month!
Mary Beth Adams is the Community Engagement Librarian for ACPL. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.