Telling Stories We Should Know

By Molly Harrison | Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Ironing Board Sam will play the Freedmen's Colony Blues Jam.

Do you know the story of the Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony? Most of the world does not know this nationally significant piece of American history, even people who live right here where it happened. That's why the Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony Preservation Association is holding its annual Freedmen's Colony Blues Jam on Friday: to keep the story alive.

And the story is this: Roanoke Island was a safe haven for slaves from the beginning of the Civil War. This island was a place where slaves could find a new life of freedom, education and hope.

On February 8, 1862, Union troops easily captured Roanoke Island. Word quickly got around among the slaves on the inland farms of North Carolina, and many fled their bondage and traveled across the sounds to seek freedom on Roanoke Island. Union General Ambrose Burnside, who was in charge of Roanoke Island, granted the refugees the status of freedom and ordered his officers to provide them with charitable support and work.

About 250 refuges originally settled near the Union headquarters, but by the end of the year there were about 1,000 former slaves in the camp. Most were strangers to one another, but together they worked together to establish a community with a school and churches. As more people came, the Union government got involved to help organize the camp from a contraband outpost into an official colony, and they granted land to the freedmen. At least 27 Northern missionary teachers came to work in the Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony between 1862 and 1867, eager practice their ideas about abolition and evangelicalism and to educate the freed people for citizenship. The Northern press frequently reported on the struggles and accomplishments of the colony, which had a population of about 3,500 by the end of the war. The colony was on the northern end of Roanoke Island, but the exact locations are not known.

But after the war, a government order restored all Freedmen's Colony lands back to their original owners, leaving many of the colonists homeless. Many left the area, and the colony declined by half between 1865 and 1866. But Roanoke Island would be remembered as the place where thousands of people found their first free life and their first taste of education. A few Freedmen families remained on Roanoke Island, and many residents of Roanoke Island today are descendants of these former slaves.

Roanoke Island resident Virginia Tillett is a descendant of the Freedmen's Colony. Her great-great grandmother settled in the Roanoke Island colony, and her family has lived here ever since. She helped found the Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony Preservation Association about 15 years ago so that the story will not be forgotten.

Her organization has a festival and Freedmen's Colony Homecoming every five years in Cartwright Park on Roanoke Island (the next one is 2014) to educate people about the story. And they put on the Blues Jam every year as a fund-raiser for their festival and their other community charitable works, like a Christmas toy drive and a tutorial program. At the Blues Jam, Tillett also talks briefly about this piece of island history.

"This is our history," says Tillett. "We just keep working to tell it. You tell and tell and talk and talk; you have to keep repeating the story."

The Blues Jam is a fund-raiser but Tillett says it is also a way back to the roots of the colony. "Blues and religious music is what got our ancestors through their tough times," she says.

The eighth annual Freedmen's Colony Blues Jam is being held on Friday at 7 p.m. at the College of the Albemarle Roanoke Island Campus in Manteo (on U.S. Highway 64).

Ironing Board Sam, Big Ron Hunter and Old Enough to Know Better are performing.

Ironing Board Sam plays old-time blues and this is his first appearance on the Outer Banks. He got his name because he used to play a keyboard that was mounted on an ironing board. Big Ron Hunter has played the Blues Jam before; he brings a combination of R&B, rock and blues. Old Enough to Know Better is a local band that includes some of the most well-known musicians on the Outer Banks.

Tickets for the Blues Jam are $15 and are selling out fast. You can get yours at Front Porch Café in Manteo, Nags Head or KDH, SSR Music/Radio Shack in Nags Head and The Music Store in KDH. Tickets might be available at the door, but that's a slim possibility. For more info, email ginnytillett@hotmail.com...

It's all about great music this week on the Outer Banks. Here's another opportunity to hear some tunes: Outer Banks Sounds, a performance series and compilation album of local music presented by the Dare County Arts and 99.1 The Sound. This month's installment gives us northern Outer Bankers a rare opportunity to see Molasses Creek outside of Ocracoke. Molasses Creek is a lively band that originated in Ocracoke, but they have played all over the world. They have several CDs and are one of North Carolina's most-loved bands. Soulful singer-songwriter Natalie Wolfe is also playing on Thursday night. The music will play from 7 to 9 p.m. at Kelly's Restaurant in Nags Head. It's free to attend...

On Saturday night, the Outer Banks Forum for the Lively Arts is hosting Brooklyn Rider - a genre-defying string quartet. This quartet explores the classics of strings music in fresh ways and invites the audience into a shared experience. You can catch this show on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at First Flight High School in KDH...

The Dare County Arts Council's presentation of the Southern Circuit Film Tour will show the film Barbershop Punk in Hatteras on Saturday. It'll be shown at Cape Hatteras Secondary School at 7 p.m. The film tells the story of a barbershop quartet baritone who finds himself involved in a landmark case based on the act of Internet file sharing. His case ultimately affects the rights of every American citizen and raises questions about the future of the Internet...

On Tuesday, another film tells a story through music. Soundtrack for a Revolution tells the story of the American civil rights movement through its powerful music. It's a mix of historical documentary and contemporary musical performance featuring John Legend, Joss Stone, Wyclef Jean and others. See in Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Kelly's, thanks to the Outer Banks Peace and Justice Interfaith Coalition...

The local bars will be hopping with good music this weekend, with acts like The Stone Chiefs at the Brewing Station, Chickweed at Poor Richards, Formula at Ocean Boulevard. Ocean Boulevard has its Mardi Gras Party on Tuesday. And Kelly's has national performing artist David Allen Coe back in town on Thursday (tickets are on sale now.) See our By Night section for the lowdown on all these shows...

Also do a run through of our Outer Banks This Week site to see what else is happening this week...

And be sure to go to our Facebook Weekly Giveaway page to enter our Giveaway for this week...


Outer Banks This Week Giveaway



This week you have a chance to Win a hang gliding lesson for one from Kitty Hawk Kites. A $99 value.

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For more information about Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding check out their Facebook Page & Website.


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About the Author Molly Harrison
Molly Harrison is managing editor at OneBoat, publisher of OuterBanksThisWeek.com. She moved to Nags Head in 1994 and since then has made her living writing articles and creating publications about the people, places and culture of the Outer Banks. When not working she practices and teaches yoga and spends as much time as possible outside and in or on the water with her husband and two children.