James City,  The Methodical Destruction of An Affluent Black Town in the 1800’s
   By Ella Shines Goldsmith

James City, ca 1910, Photograph by Bayard Wootten. North Carolina Collection, University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.

James City located in Craven County, North Carolina, was a flourishing african american city in  the 1900’s.  It was founded immediately after the civil war in mid to late 1800’s during reconstruction.  James City was predominately a city of freed slaves that fled to this area in 1865.   In 1862 Union forces captured this area along the North Carolina coast.  Now this area had numerous freed slaves that had crossed Union lines to safety.  The Union Army formed a settlement along the Trent River, originally called the Trent River Settlement. This land had been confiscated from a former Confederate colonel, Peter G. Evans. By 1865 nearly 3000 black lived in the settlement of 800 homes, renamed James City, after it’s founder, Horace James, superintendent of Negro affairs and agent for the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands.

The residents began an established community with the aide of missionaries and The New England Freedmen's Aide Society started to  build churches, establish businesses, schools, hospitals, and began to farm the lands.  Many local residents deposited their funds into the newly formed  local branch of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company. Soon after the war ended, James City had become an independent community, no longer dependent on government aide.  James City residents selected as one of it’s delegates Joseph Green to represent them at  their state convention to appeal for male suffrage and homestead rights.  James City was truly an independent black town possessing all the qualities of a thriving community.

The Methodical destruction began in 1867 when the federal government restored the land to it’s former owners, through a federal decision by the Supreme Court.   The former owners were Mary and James A Bryan.  The black residents of James City were forced to either leave the city, or pay rent to owners or work as sharecroppers on their once previously own land.   Heavy rains and droughts made conditions even worse for the former black tenants.  Now these farmers had to contend with profiting from only one third of the proceeds from their harvest which they had previously profited one hundred percent.  Two thirds of their profits went to the new white landowners and as a result, many of the residents became impoverished.   This was the beginning of the end of a previously thriving, established black community, James City.

Towards the end of the 1800’s the black population of James City had declined to 1100.  In
1880 James City workers began a strike to  protest low wages and unfair prices.  The James City black residents were tenacious and together raised a total of $2000 and offered to buy back the land from the new owners, Mary and James Bryan but the owners refused to sell. And the years following the Bryan family embarked on many campaigns in order to  collect rent and evict the black residents from James City. This is what is called  by modern day African Americans as “gentrification”.  Gentrification can be explained as “when white affluent people buy an area and raise the property value or the rent to its tenants, thereby forcing them to move out and relocate, allowing the whites to take over and become the new landowners”.   This could possibly be the first recorded history of gentrification in American History.

Many black families in James City, protested that they had never paid rent and other residents wanted compensation for improvements they had made to their houses,or homes they had built and land they had cleared and made suitable for farming.  James Bryan refused to negotiate with these farmers and in 1892 the decision was brought before the North Carolina Supreme Court.  The court, unsurprisingly, decided in favor of the Bryans and many black residents lost their homes to the new landlords. Essentially, James City residents were living on “borrowed land” they thought they had owned.  Slowly the tenants began to move out and bought property in newby towns such as Graysville, Meadowsville, Brownsville and Leesville.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1900s, James City, lost many of it’s residents to industrial areas during World War I.  There were approximately only about 700 black residents who remained in James City and who owned and rented property there. These people possessed a strong sense of heritage and the  African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which was formed in 1821 and was a place that provided the residents with personal and religious freedom.  One influential leader was Bishop James Walker Hood (1831-1918)  of North Carolina. He  created and fostered many AME churches in North Carolina.  


The Freedmen's Bureau, formerly known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, was created by congress on March 3, 1865 was formed in order to assist the newly freed slaves obtain aid for their immediate needs such as medical care, food and shelter. This aid, instituted by Abraham Lincoln, was to last for one entire year. This bureau also assisted the newly freed slaves a manner in which to purchase land that had been abandoned by the Confederacy.  However, Congress later determined that no ex-confederate land would be given to the freedmen as a result of President Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation in 1865 which seemed to take back what had been previously given to the freed slaves by the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau.  

During the end of the war, many white slaveholders left their lands and slaves and relocated to the deep south and never returned to reclaim their land, these lands were bought by the freed slaves.  This allowed for hundreds of thousands of freed slaves to own land for the first time.  Many of these former white slaveholders left North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, some with their slaves in tow, and bought land in the southern states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. There they were able to continue “life as usual”, thereby creating laws that were oppressive in nature to the newly freed slaves in which they were forced to work or be placed in jail. The newly freed slaves had no alternative but to work for few wages to none as sharecroppers on the slave owner’s lands. Many freed slaves became tenant farmers on reclaimed lands of North Carolina and Virginia and the deep south from encouragement from the Freedmen’s Bureau.

1.Joe A. Mobley, James City: A Black Community in North Carolina, 1863-1900 (1981).
2.  Karin Lorene Zipf, "Promises of Opportunity: The Freedman's Savings and Trust Company in  New Bern, North Carolina" (M.A. thesis, University of Georgia, 1994).
5.  David G. Hackett, "The Prince Hall Masons and the African American Church: The Labors of Grand Master and Bishop James Walker Hood, 1831–1918." Church history 69#4 (2000): 770-802. Online
6. Claude F. Oubre, Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Land Ownership (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978) - See more at: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/bureau-refugees-freedmen-and-abandoned-lands-1865-1872#sthash.n7Y1jECh.dpuf

7. The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), pp. 178-191, 256-257, 408-409; http://history.eserver.org/freedmens-bureau.txt.

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