Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony

     So, I don't have a lot of time to do the research that I'd like to do on some of these stories of black history, but I'm enjoying this. I'm learning a lot about North Carolina's history. 
      Next year, maybe I'll get a two month head start on this project. Tonight I want to highlight the Roanoke Island Freemen's Colony. The Island itself seems to be the focus of really bad things happening. It was the site of where Sir Walter Raleigh dropped off a group of 150 English settlers  in 1587.
     Those colonists would never be heard from again. When Sir Walter Raleigh returned three years later they had vanished. No signs were left behind that they had even been there. Author lee miller wrote a book on that incident revealing that the group may have been sabotaged or massacred by unfriendly native Americans.
       In 1862, Roanoke Island became a Civil War battlefield. Union Soldiers prevailed despite the challenges they faced on they island with a well guarded fort and rough terrain. After the fall of Fort Raleigh slaves began to make their way there… From 1862 to 1867 it was home to more than 3,000 former slaves. The Freedmen’s colony is an Historic National Underground Railroad site. But in some regards the life that they found on this island was not the free paradise that they may have been seeking for their families. Even worse, in many cases they were given land that was taken back at the end of the war and returned to its previous owners.
      This is another site that will be on my list of places to visit around North Carolina in the next year or so. 
    Gregory P. Downs is an associate professor at the City College of New York wrote about the Freedmen’s colony in the New York Times in an article titled “Lost, Again” Here is how he put it.

"At first, the island’s slave population actually decreased, as many of the 200 slaves on the island chose to return to their families across the sound. But even as Burnside promised white residents of the island that he would not “destroy your freedom, demolish your property, liberate your slaves” or “injure your women,” the Union began to take in runaway slaves from Confederate-controlled areas and settle them there. A “party of fifteen or twenty of these loyal blacks, men, women and children, arrived on a ‘Dingy,’ ” one officer said later. Slaves arrived from the mainland in larger and larger numbers, 100 within the first month, and 250 by early April, spurred by rumors that they would soon be free.
The “calm trustful faith with which these poor people came over from the enemy, to our shores; the unbounded joy which they manifested when they found themselves within our lines, and Free; made an impression on” Vincent Colyer, soon to be their superintendent and later a notable painter of the American West. Many officers “gathered around the tent to hear them sing the hymn, ‘The precious Lamb, Christ Jesus, was crucified for me.’ ” Over the next several years, the Union transformed Roanoke Island into a large “colony” for former slaves. By “giving them land, and implements,” said one of the white administrators, Union officials at the Roanoke colony hoped to lay “the foundations of new empire,” the basis for a “NEW SOCIAL ORDER IN THE SOUTH.” After marking out wide avenues in an “African village,” Horace James, the freedmen’s commissioner, apportioned acre plots to families for their own farming. With the help of Northern missionaries, freedpeople established schools to teach reading, writing, and sewing. “Light has been flashed for the first time into hundreds of benighted minds, with an effect as electric, as inspiring, as beautiful, as when the Divine Spirit moved upon the formless void, and said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light,” James wrote. In an appeal for Northern support, James asked, “Let us fight with our right hand, and civilize with our left.”
The colony faced enormous challenges. Unlike the Sea Islands off Georgia, Roanoke was not lush farmland. While one missionary called it “the Eden of North Carolina,” a Northern reporter described it as “a miserable place, being nothing but an inner sandbank, ornamented with stunted trees, scrubwood and tangled brushwood.” As 3,000 freedpeople poured into the island, especially after an 1864 Confederate counterattack on the river town of Plymouth, the people’s needs vastly outstripped the colony’s supplies. “From one to two hundred arrive every few days, and it is a matter of no small moment to know where to shelter them,” wrote one missionary (and Horace James’s cousin), Elizabeth James. “There are many who escape literally ‘with the skin of their teeth.’”
Many lived in groups of up to 10 people, cramped in brush and earth huts or under pine boughs. “Scenes of suffering are witnessed there which baffle description,” she wrote. “There are hundreds here ready to perish for lack of clothing, to-night.” In December, after the arrival of boatloads of former slaves, Elizabeth James reported, “I see sights, oftenoften, that make my heart ache, & which I have no power to relieve.” By the spring of 1864, two-thirds of the island residents lived on government rations. “Here are 3,000 bodies nearly naked, nine-tenths of them are women and children,” another missionary wrote.
As they confronted these conditions, United States officials struggled against practical and ideological limitations. Horace James, a staunchly antislavery Congregationalist minister, longed to prove that freedpeople were more self-reliant than “dependent” white Southerners; he denied rations both because he was stretched thin and because he wanted to convince the North that former slaves “ask nothing more than a decent chance to make themselves wholly independent of government aid.”
James’ vaunted independence, however, could look perilously like starvation. In desperation, freedpeople turned to Northern missionaries for help. When Elizabeth James received a shipment of shoes or clothes, “a crowd presses sometimes from before sunrise until nine at night, to buy, to beg, or to look on, & it exhausts my strength.” After an empty boat arrived, the missionary Sarah Freeman wrote that she could “not now even encourage the people to hope” for help from the North. “All I can do is to encourage them to hope in God.” That day, a mother of five burst into tears, saying “Honey, I is trusted and prayed since I was here to see you, and it seems like as God would never hear me, but dat my poor children must freeze this winter any way.” The missionary had no words to comfort her. Other missionaries gave up on human aid and prayed that “ ‘Elijah’s God’ will send us food.”
Outraged by James and other local officials, freedpeople appealed in increasingly complex ways to distant leaders. “No one knows the injustice practiced on the negro’s at Roanoke,” they wrote to Gen. Benjamin Butler, “our garden’s are plundere’d by the white soldiers, what we raise to support ourselves with is stolen from us, and if we say anything about it we are sent to the guard house…..it’s not uncommon thing to see women and children crying for something to eat.” In March 1865, a black school teacher named Richard Boyle gathered a group of petitions from “We Colored men of this Island” to President Lincoln, “the last resort and only help we have got, feeling that we are entirely friendless.” Without Lincoln’s help, they would be “Stamp down or trodden under feet by our Superintendent.”
Freedpeople celebrated Confederate surrender, but the end of the war worsened conditions on Roanoke Island. Horace James stopped giving rations to soldiers’ families, a move one missionary called “heart sickening.” In June 1865, several teachers petitioned to Washington for help. The “scores of women and children crying for bread, whose husbands, Sons and fathers are in the army today” should create an obligation on the government to “prevent suffering” for the “infirm and the helpless,” which “justice, humanity, and every principle of Christianity forbids.” Another missionary proclaimed that the scenes of “fearful” destitution in the winter of 1865 “so stir me at times, that I can only cry: ‘Lord, help! or we perish!’”
After the war the government returned the property to the prior white owners, despite freedpeople’s petitions to “remain upon the land.” In other colonies on the Sea Islands or near New Bern, freedpeople remained in the area as squatters or renters, but most of those on Roanoke crossed the sound to the coastal towns and plantations where they had lived before the war. Soon there were only a scattered few freedpeople left on the island. The “African Village” had become the newest Lost Colony of Roanoke.

 





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