The Freedmen’s Colony of Roanoke Island
The Freedmen’s Colony of Roanoke Island:
North Carolina’s Stepping Stone to Freedom
I didn’t see it in the brochure, nor did I remember it mentioned in the travel guides I pored over about Roanoke Island. Much of the literature contains typical descriptions of hotels, shopping, and museums. Even summaries of the island’s rich history are mostly about the “Lost Colony” and the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. While all of those attractions are worthwhile and contribute to a fun and educational visit, those who seek more than the standard fare often find hidden gems where the tourist guides end.
I wasn’t looking for it, but there it was. Near the Elizabethan Gardens, a sandy path carved its way through woodlands, cloaked in the shadowy cover of native pine, cedar, and oak trees. Discovering a lane with an unknown destination is too much for the explorer in me to resist. So, an unplanned detour was just the thing for a curious adventurer. A leisurely stroll follows this track over a mile to the edge of the island near Roanoke Sound. As the trail ends near the National Park Service Visitor Center, various exhibits tell the story of a Civil War battle waged on the island. Among them is a single marker standing in remembrance of a community of former slaves who found some measure of freedom and independence -- for the first time in American history -- on Roanoke Island.
This was a piece of our past about which I was totally ignorant and would not be shocked to find many others equally unaware. It’s a story that needs to be told thoroughly and its significance understood completely. But, in brief, here is what I learned.
In 1862, less than a year after North Carolina seceded from the Union, the North directed an amphibious assault against the rebel controlled island. Confederate defenses were overwhelmed after a swift and bloody battle, exacting an immediate surrender.
As the Union Army assumed control of Roanoke, nearly two hundred slaves compelled to labor in the rebel camp were emancipated and given a choice to stay on the island or return home. Most decided to leave in order to free wives and children they left behind. Through them word quickly spread across the region that any slave who made it to Roanoke Island would be freed. Refugees from all over -- men, women, and children -- began to pour onto the island.
The military was completely unprepared for such an influx of people, so the federal government established an official colony on the north end of the island. These former slaves were to be educated, given land, farm implements, food rations and other necessities of life in order to create an independent community.
Over the next two years, many homes were built along with churches, schools, and a sawmill operation. Fishing was plentiful and some blacks took jobs working for Union officers. In 1865 the population peaked at nearly four thousand.
As the war came to a conclusion, the success of the colony began to wane. Land promised to the freedmen by homestead was returned to previous owners. Food rations and other supplies were reduced to the point that many were forced to find better lives on the mainland. By 1867, so few families remained that the colony was officially decommissioned.
Looking at the marble monument commemorating its existence, I understood that the Freedmen’s Colony never became the self-sufficient community its planners hoped for. Yet far from being a failure, this grand experiment became a model for other colonies that later developed throughout the south. Furthermore, one small colony on one small island served as one great stepping stone toward creating an independent society for everyone of African descent.
The exact location of the Freedmen’s Colony has now been lost to history but, in 2004, the “First Light of Freedom” monument was added to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Your next visit to Roanoke Island should include this part of the Freedom Seeker’s Trail in recognition of the first free black community in our nation’s history. For more information, visit the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov/fora/index.htm.