- Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770–1900 by Catherine W. Bishir
Union forces occupied New Bern, a small coastal town in North Carolina, from 1862 through the remainder of the Civil War. Unlike many other southern towns and cities, New Bern today retains much of its historic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century core, due in some measure to the occupying forces, whose need for officers’ housing during their three-year presence ensured that these buildings survived the war. Today’s visitors to New Bern, home to Tryon Palace—a historic site that focuses on the town’s role as North Carolina’s colonial capital—can enjoy its small-town ambience and learn about its role in the state’s history. Over the last fifteen years, Tryon Palace has been committed to engaging the public with stories of New Bern’s free and enslaved blacks, who made up half of the town’s population throughout most of its existence. The skills of many of those black laborers and artisans are visible in private residences and public structures throughout the town. Catherine Bishir’s book, Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770–1900, arose as a key component of the museum’s interpretive effort to highlight this often forgotten segment of the town’s population. [End Page 184]
Bishir’s carefully researched volume traces the history of New Bern’s male and female artisan population over a 130-year period, from just before the American Revolution to the turn of the twentieth century. She examines both free and enslaved artisans—carpenters, masons, tailors, dressmakers, shipwrights, shoemakers, coopers, and others—using multiple documentary sources to create detailed individual portraits of the skilled workers. These examples, which vividly illustrate the opportunities as well as the limitations experienced by black New Bernians at different periods, are placed within the larger social, political, and economic context of the town, the state, and the nation.
During the Federal period, New Bern was a place of unusual opportunities for enslaved and free African Americans, when chances to obtain freedom, establish a trade, and even acquire real estate were greater than they had been in the past or would be again. Bishir reveals the complex interactions occurring between African Americans and the white community during this period, as they often worked together to emancipate slaves (some of whom went on to become slaveholders themselves) and to provide legal and financial support for black New Bernians. The author explores in depth the various forms of work engaged in by blacks, including the apprenticeship system by which both free and enslaved children learned a trade, the hiring out of slaves by white owners, and slave self-hire, that system of “quasi-slavery” that provided the enslaved a degree of autonomy.
Beginning in the 1830s, conditions began to worsen for African Americans as changes in racial attitudes and laws governing manumission made freedom more difficult to attain. Downturns in the local economy also negatively impacted the generally precarious financial status of many free blacks. The antebellum period witnessed an exodus of free blacks to the North, while those individuals who remained worked to create greater community cohesion through the establishment of institutions such as churches and schools.
During the Civil War and Reconstruction, large numbers of black artisans—individuals previously established in New Bern, as well as newly arrived refugees—found wartime New Bern to be a profitable place to ply their trades. Aided by their prior experience in business, artisans of color established themselves as community leaders during this time, a development that continued through the end of the century. After the war, white efforts to limit opportunities for African Americans, coupled with mass production that devalued their skills, unfortunately forced many artisans into more menial forms of labor.
This volume’s larger themes encompass changing definitions of race, the creation and maintenance of identities based in artisan ideals and [End Page 185] values, and individual and group...