Voices from New Bern’s past that still echo powerfully into the present day are being preserved thanks to the efforts of a local oral history project.
New Bern’s African American Heritage & Culture Center recently launched its new Oral History Library featuring more than two dozen stories and interviews. The digital library, which is featured on the AAHC website, contains video episodes with stories of African American families, businesses, churches and schools that ensure the stories will live on into the future.
The free, user-friendly site, which can be accessed at https://www.africanamericanheritageandculture.org/oralhistorylibrary, allows visitors to scroll through and click-on individual episodes. The content ranges from new interviews and stories produced with the support of contributions and a grant from The Harold H. Bate Foundation to those that have been archived on reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes, DVDs, CDs, videotapes, and film.
Examples include Ben Watford, founding President of the James City Historical Society, discussing the James City Crockett-Miller Slave Quarters; a look at the history of St. Peter’s AME Zion Church; an episode about former slave George Henry White, an attorney and politician who served in the U.S. Congress from 1897 to 1901; a look at the history of New Bern’s Pleasant Hill community with Alderman Barbara Best and retired educators Mark Best and Nancy Allen; and a 2012 interview with Luke Martin, an accomplished brick mason who was the son of a former slave who served in the United States Colored Troops.
The site also features “Tricentennial Minutes” episodes, which were created in celebration of New Bern’s 300th anniversary by local cultural studies students in conjunction with the New Bern 300 Committee. The group researched people, events, and places that had a significant impact on the city’s history to create biographical sketches that aired on Public Radio East. The “Tricentennial Minutes” episodes focus on capturing the growth of the city after the Civil War until the destruction of the Great Fire of New Bern in 1922. The students interviewed local and national historians including Nelson McDaniel, Mary Peterkin, Mary Randolf, and Dr. David Cecelski.
AAHC Executive Director Carrie Gallagher said the Oral History Library is designed to support the interests of researchers, educators, students, families and community leaders. The project’s goal, she said, is to capture the stories of African Americans from the New Bern area who had a significant impact within the community or state.
“There are remarkable and important stories to tell,” she commented. “Some people only hear the stories of African American families, businesses, churches and schools during family events or at their dining room tables. These stories are valuable and they need to move out into the world.”
Gallaher said the AAHC is committed to growing its Oral History Library with an archive of interviews that is currently being prepared for production. She said the New Bern community is invited to contribute with any historically significant interviews or videos that may be in their possession.
The African American Heritage & Culture Center began four years ago when a small group of community leaders met at New Bern Town Hall to discuss bringing the history and heritage of African Americans into the mainstream. In 2019, the AAHC 501C3 nonprofit officially launched with that year’s Juneteenth celebration.
Since then the AAHC has created a website and helped sponsor numerous arts and cultural events and projects throughout New Bern.
AAHC helped underwrite the work of local artist Lee Hood, whose mural depicting 1930s-era Queen and Pollock streets can be seen on the side of the New Bern Mexican Bakery. The nonprofit also worked with artist and New Bern native Gerry King, who in 2014 published “The Paper Route,” a book of illustrations depicting his memories of his hometown.
To explore the AAHC website, visit https://www.africanamericanheritageandculture.org/oralhistorylibrary