Crafting Lives

Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    Crafting Lives
    Book Description:

    From the colonial period onward, black artisans in southern cities--thousands of free and enslaved carpenters, coopers, dressmakers, blacksmiths, saddlers, shoemakers, bricklayers, shipwrights, cabinetmakers, tailors, and others--played vital roles in their communities. Yet only a very few black craftspeople have gained popular and scholarly attention. Catherine W. Bishir remedies this oversight by offering an in-depth portrayal of urban African American artisans in the small but important port city of New Bern. In so doing, she highlights the community's often unrecognized importance in the history of nineteenth-century black life.Drawing upon myriad sources, Bishir brings to life men and women who employed their trade skills, sense of purpose, and community relationships to work for liberty and self-sufficiency, to establish and protect their families, and to assume leadership in churches and associations and in New Bern's dynamic political life during and after the Civil War. Focusing on their words and actions,Crafting Livesprovides a new understanding of urban southern black artisans' unique place in the larger picture of American artisan identity.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-1178-5
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-1)
  3. Maps
    (pp. 2-4)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 5-18)

    As an artisan of color, New Bern tailor John Rice Green (1793–1850) lived a life of paradox. Born a slave and apprenticed to a white master tailor, he learned and practiced his trade in bondage as did most black artisans in the South. By working extra hours he saved the money to obtain his freedom in young adulthood while also teaching himself to read and write. After his emancipation in 1818, he became a prosperous master craftsman with his own apprentices and slaves. Green spent his life in a setting dominated by the institution of slavery where he developed...

  5. ONE The Setting: New Bern from the Colonial Period to 1900
    (pp. 19-36)

    For most of its history, New Bern, North Carolina, was a majority-black community in which people of every color and condition interacted daily. Some aspects of its story differed from those of other southern cities, just as those cities differed among themselves. Among the town’s particular characteristics were its early status as a colonial capital and principal port; its unusually large proportion of free people of color; its status as a liberated city occupied by Union forces from 1862 through the duration of the war; and its role as a center of black political leadership from the mid-1860s until black...

  6. TWO The Fruits of Honest Industry: Black Artisans in New Bern’s “Golden Age,” 1770–1830
    (pp. 37-96)

    The notice in the New Bern newspaper described a small object in simple terms intended to restore it to its owner. The wording also implied much about the owner’s identity and the community in which he lived and worked. The specialized tool indicated that he cut and installed window panes as part of his trade. Its diamond head, for scoring precise lines, identified it as an implement of high quality, and its monogrammed handle suggested his attachment to it. The reward of $1.50—a day’s pay or more for a skilled worker—revealed his strong desire to regain the lost...

  7. THREE Hundreds of Fine Artisans: Leaving and Staying, 1830–1861
    (pp. 97-150)

    Cicero M. Richardson set out from New Bern to enter an apprenticeship with Fayetteville free black brickmason Jacob Harris, inaugurating what would prove to be a long and successful career as a brickmason and plasterer. His journey came early in a period of mounting challenges for New Bern’s artisans of color. Local economic problems and the state’s tightening racial restrictions undercut many opportunities and rights upon which these artisans had grounded their hopes for freedom, citizenship, and advancement. In common with urban blacks throughout the increasingly polarized South, slaves strove to expand their freedoms while whites sought to reduce them,...

  8. FOUR Worthy to Be Free, Worthy to Be Respected: Civil War, Union Occupation, and Presidential Reconstruction, 1862–1866
    (pp. 151-192)

    In his letter to theChristian Recorder,John Randolph set forth his long-held hopes for freedom and citizenship at a time when such goals loomed at last as real possibilities.¹ Within days of penning his missive, the enslaved artisan and his family left their home in Washington, North Carolina, for New Bern, where he joined the growing ranks of black artisan-leadership in an almost unimaginable new world of black freedom and agency. Both towns had been occupied by Union forces for some two years when Federal ships evacuated Washington’s remaining Unionists and slaves to New Bern in advance of a...

  9. FIVE We Can and Will Do More: Artisans and Citizens, 1867–1900
    (pp. 193-254)

    On the tenth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, New Bern cooper, freedman, and city councilman Virgil A. Crawford, like Emancipation Day orators across the South, recalled past years in bondage, affirmed recent progress, and looked forward with hope and determination.¹ His speech reiterated core values of American artisan identity—industry, thrift, and respectability—which had gained broad currency as qualities essential to black Americans’ efforts to “elevate” their race. Like many national figures who tied freedmen’s rights as citizens to the legacy of the American Revolution, Crawford used the classic republican trope of the “Car of Liberty” to assert their...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 255-258)

    From the eve of the American Revolution to the turn of the twentieth century, skilled black workers in New Bern, North Carolina, demonstrated the multiple possibilities of crafting identities as American artisans and citizens. Like their counterparts throughout the nation, they employed techniques learned through apprenticeships or from family members to make the objects their community needed. Many simply scraped by, while some used their trade skills along with their acumen and relationships to accumulate property, establish strong families, and win business and community status. As town dwellers, they shared with other urban craftspeople the opportunities to encounter people of...

  11. Appendix: Biographical Summaries
    (pp. 259-292)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 293-342)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 343-356)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 357-360)
    Catherine W. Bishir
  15. Index
    (pp. 361-380)