Civil War historian Chris Fonvielle is retiring from UNCW at the end of the spring 2018 semester.
When Chris Fonvielle was 8 years old, the Civil War centennial broke out, and he received a young readers’ edition of the American Heritage “Golden Book of the Civil War.” From thereon, he was hooked.
“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in history,” said Fonvielle, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
In fact, Fonvielle, a Port City native, almost literally wrote the book — or books — on the Civil War in the Lower Cape Fear. His master’s thesis became “The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope,” a scholarly account of the battles that led to the fall of Wilmington.
His “To Forge a Thunderbolt” chronicled the rise and fall of Confederate Fort Anderson near Colonial Brunswick Town. “Fort Fisher 1865″ studied the prints of Civil War photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan, whose images in 1865 provide the only known visible record of the Civil War fortress guarding the entrance to the Cape Fear River.
“His dedication to the Wilmington area and its history is extraordinary,” said Lynn Mollenauer, chairman of the UNCW history department.
For years, Mollenauer said, Fonvielle has been “the public face of the history department,” speaking to local civic groups and giving tours of Civil War sites for the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society and others.
This spring, the 65-year-old Fonvielle is retiring after more than 20 years at UNCW. He and his wife, Nancy, are planning a series of trips, including a long-anticipated tour of Scotland.
Fonvielle will not be giving up on history. He’s completing a different project: a history of the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, the 1776 conflict in which area Patriot militias scattered Loyalist Highlanders marching from what is now Fayetteville toward Wilmington.
Mastering the Revolutionary War era has been “a steep learning curve,” Fonvielle said, but he’s had fun. It gave him a chance to learn new history — for instance, that the prefix “Mac-” means “son of” in Scottish names.
Fonvielle said he also wants to finish a biography of William B. Cushing, “Lincoln’s Commando,” a dashing U.S. Navy officer who, among other exploits, floated a fake gunboat, or monitor, past Fort Anderson to trick the defenders and draw their fire.
Growing up in Wilmington, Fonvielle remembered traveling out with his mother — WWAY-TV news personality Jane Fonvielle — to see the excavations of Brunswick Town and Fort Anderson by the famed archaeologist Stanley South. “He gave me a trowel and put me in the basement of one of the colonial houses and told me, ‘See what you can find,’” Fonvielle recalled.
After graduating from New Hanover High School (where, he proudly notes, he was the first soccer-style place kicker in North Carolina football history), Fonvielle moved on to UNCW, where he earned an anthropology degree.
He headed the Blockade Runner Museum at Carolina Beach from 1979 until its closure in 1983, then worked briefly at Cape Fear Museum, which had acquired the artifacts.
After earning his master’s degree and Ph.D. and briefly teaching at ECU, he returned to UNCW in 1997. He’s been there ever since.
“I’ve had a great career, and I wouldn’t change a thing,” Fonvielle said. “I’ve worked in my home town and taught at my alma mater.”
Reporter Ben Steelman can be reached at 910-343-2208 or Ben.Steelman@StarNewsOnline.com.
Masonboro Island is the largest undisturbed barrier island along the southern part of the North Carolina coast and is located approximately five miles southeast of Wilmington, in the most populous part of the North Carolina coast. The Masonboro site is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway to the west, Masonboro Inlet to the north, and Carolina Beach Inlet to the south.
The Masonboro Island component is the largest site, at 5,653 acres, within the NCNERR system and was designated in 1991. Eighty-seven percent of the 8.4 mile long island is covered with marsh and tidal flats. The remaining portions are composed of beach uplands and dredge material islands. Masonboro Island is an essentially pristine barrier island and estuarine system.
The various salinity patterns found in the extensive subtidal and intertidal areas along the sound side of the island support a myriad of estuarine species.
The habitats found within this site include subtidal soft bottoms, tidal flats, hard surfaces, salt marshes, shrub thicket, maritime forest, dredge spoil areas, grasslands, ocean beach, and sand dunes. Loggerhead and green sea turtles nest on the beaches, where seabeach amaranth plants grow on the foredunes.
All of these species are listed as threatened by the Federal Government. Species of concern are the black skimmers, Wilson’s plovers, and least terns that nest on the island. Sound sediments are home to two state watch list species – Hartmans Echiurid and a polycheate worm in the genus Notomastus.
The nutrient rich waters of Masonboro Sound are an important nursery area for spot, mullet, summer flounder, pompano, menhaden, and bluefish.
Island Reserve has more than 5,500 acres of natural barrier island habitat, estuary habitat and dredge spoil islands. Creation of the Reserve Masonboro Island was privately owned throughout most of the 20th century.
Increased development pressure prompted early conservation efforts by local citizens with the creation of the Society of Masonboro Island and involvement of the N.C. Coastal Land Trust during the 1980s.
Designation as the fourth component of the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve occurred in 1991. This natural area is one of 10 sites that make up the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Preservation of the Masonboro Island Reserve allows this coastal ecosystem to be available as a natural outdoor laboratory where scientists, students and the general public can learn about coastal processes, functions and influences that shape and sustain the coastal area.
Traditional recreational uses are allowed as long as they do not disturb the environment or organisms or interfere with research and educational activities.
The Masonboro Island Reserve is managed through a federal-state partnership between NOAA and the N.C. Division of Coastal Management to protect the island’s ecosystems for research and education. The support of ongoing stewardship of the site by a community of partner organizations is gratefully acknowledged. This site is also a dedicated state nature preserve.
North Carolina Underwater Archaeology Branch Director John W. Morris and Dr. Gordon P. Watts with the Institute for International Maritime Research will join Secretary Hamilton to dedicate the dive site and to discuss the Condor project and how the public can provide stewardship of our underwater cultural resources.
The dedication will take place at Battle Acre on the oceanfront at Fort Fisher State Historic Site in Kure Beach, NC. Dedication set for 10:30 a.m. on Friday, June 16, 2017.
RSVP: Friends of Fort Fisher, Inc. 910-612-7067 firstname.lastname@example.org www.friendsoffortfisher.com
After World War II Carolina Beach business owners worked hard to present the beach as a “family friendly” resort. The resort continued to attract large crowds, and on holidays cars might line the road as hundreds of black patrons walked along the main highway to Carolina Beach. Sometimes on weekend nights in the summer, Seabreeze music was audible for miles, and sometimes Carolina Beach officials and residents pressured Seabreeze business owners to lower the volume.
In 1951, Frank and Lulu (Freeman) Hill sold their New York residence and returned to Seabreeze to invest their life savings, building a restaurant, beach pavilion, bathhouse, and a paved parking lot on Lulu’s inherited land – now part of Freeman Park. They called it the Monte Carlo by the Sea.
They came by bus, by cars, and whole churches. The Monte Carlo drew groups from all over North and South Carolina. “We had a lot of groups who came up even as far as South Carolina…We had them come up in busses,” said Frank Hill who was proud of the Monte Carlo and believed it was the best beach facility available in North and South Carolina.
“The black people didn’t have any other place to go…there was that place down in Atlantic Beach, down in South Carolina, but I think they only had about half a block space that they could be on.”
The Wilmington City Directory of 1955 listed the following businesses at Seabreeze Beach: The Hotel Faison, the Daley Hotel, owned and operated by Richard Daley who also owned the Breeze Point Pavilion; the Edgewater Cafeteria, The Breeze Inn, and the Tavern, owned by Bruce and Bill Freeman. The Tavern was a lunch room but also had dining, dancing and facilities for private parties.
The heartbeat of Seabreeze was its many juke joints. At one point there were as many as 31 juke joints where jukeboxes (known as piccolos locally) supplied the “race music” that spawned not only rock-and-roll, but also the Shag, and Beach Music.
Those who vacationed there remember it well. Booker T. Wilson, who lives in Bolton, visited Seabreeze regularly as a young man. When asked what he remembered most about the place, Wilson promptly replied, “The dancing!” His favorite style of dance? “Swing. All of it,” he said.
The music of Seabreeze drew people from miles around as live bands and jukeboxes exploded with the sounds of swing, soul and rhythm and blues brought to life by the voices of Little Richard, James Brown, the Platters and others. The area became known as a music mecca. Seabreeze’s music was so distinctive that many locals called the beach strand “Bop City.”
Recipes for clam fritters were closely guarded family secrets, and fritters varied from one eatery to the next. It would be safe to say that the basic recipe included eggs, milk, flour, and clams. Every restaurant specialized in seafood, fried fish, oysters, and soft shell crabs all gathered from the crystal clear sound shallows. Among the most famous was Sadie Wade’s place where hundreds of diners enjoyed the nickel apiece clam fritters; the recipe is still a guarded secret of those with Seabreeze in their heritage.
Arthur Ross once put together the batter for the cakes. He estimated they sold 3,000 of the 6-inch- wide cakes made up of clams, green peppers, onions, flour and other secret ingredients before being deep-fried. The ocean breezes that blew through Seabreeze were no doubt infused with the smell of palate-pleasing dishes. Restaurants in Seabreeze served a diverse selection of food, but were renowned for their fresh and local seafood.
On October 15, 1954, Hurricane Hazel came ashore west of Seabreeze, along the Brunswick County Coast. The Category 4 storm, with 140 mile-per-hour winds and an 18 foot storm surge wreaked havoc all along the North Carolina coast, but hit Seabreeze with a blow that it would never recover from.
Because Freeman Beach was not listed as a Wilmington-area beach, it did not receive aid to rebuild.
When the storm departed, residents and property owners were tasked with cleaning, clearing and rebuilding. People who held land in common with other relatives found the job particularly daunting, as they were deemed ineligible for disaster relief loans.
Without financial assistance, many could not afford to rebuild. Those who were able, however, worked hard to bring Seabreeze back to life. Music, food and laughter did return; but the Seabreeze that once was, would be no more.
Frank Hill remembers, “It had taken away everything.” The severe erosion caused by Carolina Beach Inlet and Hurricane Hazel destroyed the majority of the sound side and ocean side businesses and homes. Few people at Seabreeze had insurance and though many salvaged what building materials they could and tried to rebuild, Hazel was followed by two category storms the next year; Hurricane Connie and Hurricane Ione.
Frank Hill continues, “We survived until that last one [Hurricane Alma] came through in ’62, and by them opening the Carolina Beach inlet it made it impossible because the beach was eroding so bad and it just put us out of business for good.” This damage was exacerbated by the Carolina Beach Inlet Development Corporation’s establishment of an inlet from the Atlantic Ocean to the Intracoastal Waterway claiming it would make access to the Atlantic Ocean easier.
Beach Music/Birth of the Shag
The R&B, soul, and beach music that played was notorious for drifting down streets and into other neighborhoods. Prominent musicians such as the Bobby Blue Band and Bo Diddley performed at Seabreeze. Accommodations were also plentiful for overnight visitors, who by law, weren’t allowed to stay at hotels reserved for whites. Famous entertainers like Fats Domino, James Brown, and Ike and Tina Turner played for white audiences in Wilmington, but slept at the 25 room Loftin Hotel.
By the 40’s you had whites in their teens and 20s coming to Seabreeze to listen to the music. Then they’d go back to Carolina Beach and tell the club owners what was hot. Music at Seabreeze was a bit different from Wrightsville and Carolina Beach because it was black swing, rhythm and blues—in short, everything the white race rioters had so greatly feared a couple decades earlier. The dance moves seemed suggestive and the volume was cranked up to a level that could be heard for miles around.
The legend of Malcolm Ray “Chicken” Hicks is a local favorite. Hicks was a teenager in 1941 when he visited Seabreeze and picked up on the R&B music and dance, which he already knew from his upbringing in Durham. Jukeboxes, which were called piccolos, were in every jump joint, and Hicks had an appreciation for what was then called race music.
Hicks also had a connection with a fellow named Parker who loaded up the jukeboxes at both Seabreeze and Carolina Beach, and was able to persuade Parker to put some of the same records he would have heard in Seabreeze into the jukeboxes in Carolina Beach.
By the 1940’s Seabreeze had its own hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, and dance halls. Drawing crowds from all over North Carolina it became known as the “National Negro Playground.” Among the local businesses – many of them run by Freemans or members of other families linked by marriage – were bathhouses where visitors could rent bathing suits for the day.
Daley’s Breezy Pier Restaurant was a two-story covered pavilion at the end of a pier where bands played and people fished and crabbed.
An amusement park opened in the summertime with a Ferris Wheel, a hobbyhorse (like a merry-go-round), chair planes, a carousel, the Octopus, and the Caterpillar. A fellow named Charlie ran the gambling tables. A Native American known as the Snake Man set up a sideshow tent, and one of the attractions he offered was “the Woman with No Body,” which was actually his extremely short wife in a darkened setting that only revealed her head. He also ran a candy store and a small circus and mounted an impressive snake display.
Summers were especially busy when church groups packed buses for a day’s amusement along the waterfront, then turned the beach over to the juke joint crowd at night. Farmers from inland counties would ride dozens of their field hands, on flatbed trucks, to Seabreeze for a day off. Seabreeze was so well known that it even attracted people from all over North Carolina and South Carolina. Some years people would even come on buses from Philadelphia and New Jersey.”
During segregation, Carolina Beach police refused to allow Seabreeze visitors to pass through the town to visit the ocean side of the Freeman property, known as Freeman’s Beach, so the family bought a boat to haul people there, letting them off in the marsh leading to the beach. You had to walk over the marsh lands – get mud in your feet and everywhere else.
Later Captain Rick Wilson – who later became the first black party-boat operator to get a slip at the Carolina Beach marina – ran a speedboat out of Seabreeze, offering rides for 50 cents a head. Others, including Margaret Green, ran ferries to take visitors across the sound to the ocean beach on the outlying barrier island. As the local economy recovered from the Great Depression, the Seabreeze community and its’ recreation area were fully developed.
Bruce’s Tavern was a two-story restaurant and dance hall with a fishing pier owned by Bruce Freeman. There was also Daley’s Pier with a restaurant and pier for fishing and crabbing. At Barbecue Sam’s, the proprietor raised pigs, butchered them, and smoked them on premises. Several bathhouses existed that allowed people to come out of the ocean, take a shower, get dressed, and go to the pavilions to dance.
There was a row of vine covered cottages which were used for overnight stays for people unable to drive and even an unofficial community jail. Photographers’ shops, where visitors could have their pictures taken as mementos of their summer visits to Seabreeze were scattered throughout the area.
William Freeman who was born in 1941 and grew up in Seabreeze says, “It was fun, it was fun, it was fun. For black people to be able to come to a place like this, they came and danced and kicked up and had fun the whole weekend. That had to be a great thing for us psychologically. All these places, blacks owned it all. It was far more valuable than we realized it was.”
In January of 1942 a meeting was called to inform “all negro citizens“ of the Sea Breeze area and to organize civilian defense units. The meeting was held at the Freeman church and Sheriff C. David Jones and the Mayor of Carolina Beach were the invited speakers.
In April 1942, the Federal Works Agency (FWA) allocated $12,800 for the construction of a bath house for the military. It included showers, locker rooms, and a lounge area.
In 1941, Camp Davis opened in Holly Ridge. It rapidly grew to include as many as 100,000 soldiers being trained in a variety of assault specialties. One section trained black soldiers in anti-aircraft artillery while an auxiliary base called Montford Point became the first training base for black Marines. As the war intensified the military presence became notable.
Black servicemen stationed nearby headed to Seabreeze on leave. There were even some training maneuvers that took place in the waterway. One long time resident reports that there were rumors among the residents that even the FBI trained along the undeveloped beach.
Black soldiers from the Fort Fisher training base would come up to Seabeeze. Some of the Freeman girls married some of the guys that used to be down at Fort. Fisher.
By the summer of 1943 a special “Jim Crow loading zone” was set up at the main bus terminal in Wilmington to handle the large crowds of black servicemen coming to Wilmington on leave. Another group was drawn to Carolina Beach, as well. Suddenly boys too young for the draft, but too old for parental supervision, flocked to Carolina Beach to work in the busy restaurants and hotels. White teenagers had learned to dance to ‘race music’ from blacks in the Hayti district of Durham.
While both Carolina Beach and Seabreeze owners were glad to cash in on the war boom, both beaches gained a reputation as somewhat “unruly.” As one white woman who was a teenager during the war remarked; “there was a general feeling that these boys were facing the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their country and therefore deserved to cut loose before being shipped out.”
The Federal Point History Center’s August 15 meeting featured Jack Fryar, well-known local historian, prolific author, publisher, and, as his T-shirt proclaimed, History Buff. (His T-shirt also mentioned that, as a history buff, he’d be more interested in you if you were dead.)
Jack spoke on The Cape Fear in the Revolutionary War Part II: 1777 – 1781. He illustrated his detailed walk through various battles with numerous pictures of modern-day war reenactments alongside period maps from the Revolutionary War era.
He referred to this time period as the “first civil war,” because after the Battle of Moore’s Creek in 1776, settlers began to split into two camps: those who wished to remain loyal to the King, and those who wanted independence.
Charleston and Savannah had been important in the early Revolutionary War effort, but with the fall of Charleston in 1780, the British gained a toehold in the South and Wilmington became a critical focus.
The Cape Fear region was geographically very important to the war effort. First, the Cape Fear River is the only river in North Carolina with direct access to the Atlantic Ocean. This was critical for fighting a war in which the Loyalists were coming from across the Atlantic Ocean. Second, the Cape Fear River went inland 147 miles to Fayetteville, and effectively served to divide the state.
The Loyalist Major Craig used Wilmington as a base of operations until forced to evacuate by the Independent forces in 1781, marking the end of significant British presence in North Carolina.
Jack talked in detail about battles, battle routes, winners, and losers. It’s important, however, to also keep in mind the human cost of all wars — the death, devastation, and destruction.
In February, 1930, the Wilmington Star reported that, “Electric poles are now being set from Wilmington to Seabreeze, a colored resort, by the Tide Water Power Company for the extension of electrical current.” Then in July of 1931, the Wilmington News reported that the North Carolina Negro Insurance Association held its annual convention at Seabreeze with speakers from Durham, Winston, Charlotte as well as smaller towns.
By the Labor Day holiday of 1933, the Wilmington Star reported that “Ten thousand Negroes visited Seabreeze yesterday. They came by trucks, motor cars, buses, and, in fact, every mode of vehicle. Some trucks were loaded with as many as 75 to 100 men, women, and children all packed in these vehicles like sardines. Four large buses were employed in conveying the crowds to and from the resort. Trucks came from Fuquay Springs, Lumberton, Pembroke, Charity Cross Roads, and from numerous other towns in eastern and Piedmont North Carolina.”
By July of 1934, Dr. Foster F. Burnett, a local Negro physician who was a Harvard University graduate, constructed a convalescent home and recreation center at Seabreeze that would accommodate up to 10 persons at a time. A pier was also constructed from the home to the sound. Dr. Burnett had plans to also build tennis courts, a golf course and other recreational facilities. That same month Dr. Burnett was promoting a request to the State Highway and Public Works Commission to improve the road connecting State Highway 40 with Seabreeze.
By the summer of 1935, the resort was so developed that the North Carolina Utilities Commission voted to grant a franchise to a Wilmington bus company to operate a bus line from Wilmington to Seabreeze.
In July 1938, the Wilmington Star reported the “purchase of a site at Seabreeze in connection with a development for colored tourists, to cost about $7,600 was announced yesterday by Ben McGhee. The pavilion is to be located off the Carolina Beach road near the entrance to Seabreeze.”
By the summer of 1938, C.C. Spaulding, President of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company of Durham, announced plans to purchase a lot and build a vacation home at Seabreeze. “Spaulding announced his plan following a weekend visit to the resort in which he was favorably impressed with the quietness of the resort on the southern side of Seabreeze as most conductive to rest and relaxation.”
By the mid-1930s, Seabreeze was in full swing. They had so many visitors that parking became a problem. On summer weekends cars lined Carolina Beach Road for up to a mile. On holiday weekends the New Hanover County Sheriff assigned deputies to supervise traffic flow to and from the resort. At least 10 restaurants, including Barbecue Sam’s, served summer visitors. The area’s cooks quickly became famous for their clam fritters, often with finely chopped bell peppers and onions.
At some point in the 1930s, there seems to have been talk of incorporating Seabreeze as a municipality. An editorial appeared in the Wilmington Star that advised them that it would be “Wise to go Slow” concluding with; “It is, therefore, our advice to our Negro citizens to proceed with caution. They should do everything possible to develop their resort, and for this they are to be commended, but corporate responsibilities may invite worries that are not compensated by such benefits as might accrue.”
In July 1902, Robert Bruce Freeman Jr., appeared in the New Hanover County Clerk of Court’s Office bearing his father’s will for probate.
The surviving children (all sons) from Robert Bruce’s first marriage inherited most of the Old Homestead. Robert Bruce, Jr., Archie, Rowland, Nathan, and Ellis received fifty-seven acres each.
Dulcia, the widow of Robert and Catherine’s son, Daniel Freeman, were granted lifetime rights in fifty-seven acres of the Old Homestead. Thereafter, the property was to be divided equally between Daniel and Dulcia’s children, Ida and Hattie. Lena was also given fifty-seven acres of the Old Homestead.
Lena’s children were to “share and share alike” with Catherine’s children in all the lands outside of the Old Homestead while Lena’s children were not included in the Old Homestead division.”
Unfortunately, the vagueness of the bequest to Lena’s children would haunt the family into the 21st Century. As early as 1914 “the court appointed a Board of Commissioners to determine the boundaries for each tract. They decided that the tracts would run west to east, from the Cape Fear River to the Atlantic Ocean. This gave each heir access to the river, sound, ocean, and soil suitable for cultivation.”
After Robert Bruce, Jr.’s death, Ellis Freeman, youngest son by his first marriage, took over management of the family lands. “He obtained a $50,000 government permit to sell yellow granite, and created a profitable business carrying people out on the ocean fishing.”
The Beginning of Carolina Beach
In the 1880’s Freeman gave Captain John Harper, owner of the steamer Wilmington and a partner in the New Hanover Transit Company, the right of way to build a railroad through his property at Carolina Beach in exchange for free train passes for the black people of the area.
On March 11, 1887, W. L. Smith, Jr. bought a strip of land comprised of 24 acres for the amount of $66.50. These acres were between the head of Myrtle Grove Sound and the ocean beach. Today this land is located in the heart of the business district of the Town of Carolina Beach.
The following year, 1888, the New Hanover Transit Company sponsored a free excursion to Carolina Beach for indigent and infirmed colored people in Wilmington. About five hundred people took the trip including church members from St. Stephen, St. Luke, St. Mark, Mount Olive, Central Baptist and Chestnut Street Presbyterian churches.
In 1913, the Freeman heirs financed Alexander W. Pate and Joseph Laughlin a large tract with boundaries running from the end of the “old road bed of the New Hanover Transit Company’s railroad” to about 5,000 feet south of Sugar Loaf and then over to the beach.
In the early 1920’s, Ellis Freeman, one of Robert, Sr.’s heirs, sold the first lots on the Seabreeze tract with full right of ingress and egress to and over any and all portion of the sea beach east of and across Myrtle Grove Sound.
Seabreeze managed to promote black ownership of recreational property and businesses – something other black beaches in the country had been unsuccessful in doing in spite of well-organized attempts.”
The first beach structure called “Seabreeze” was built in 1922. It was about the time of the great boom in beachfront development. It was also a time of resurgent black pride and enterprise, the era of the Harlem Renaissance.
Tom and Victoria Lofton, a prominent black couple from Wilmington, completed construction on the Russell Hotel, a twenty-five room, three-story hotel, restaurant and dance hall. Peter Simpson and his wife opened Simpson’s Hotel and development began to spring up all around.
The Harlem-based, syndicated black columnist Geraldyne Dismond reported, to her surprise, cottages that resembled a “transplanted Seventh Avenue tea room, swank…bungalows and a sporting crowd dressed in linen suits and driving roadsters.”
Daley Breezy Pavilion
In the spring of 1929, the Wilmington Star reported that at Seabreeze, the Negro resort, a new hotel is under construction.
According to residents of that section it will greatly facilitate the housing problem there during the season and an increase of the number of Negroes visiting this section is expected to result from the construction program.
Then by February 1930 the Tide Water Power Company was extending poles from Wilmington to Seabreeze. And, by July of 1931 the Wilmington News was reporting that the North Carolina Negro Insurance Association held its annual convention at Seabreeze with speakers from Durham, Winston-Salem, Charlotte as well as smaller towns.
“Because Sea Breeze was a leisure site, it has deep meaning for residents and former business owners, as well as for people who patronized it. The old resort has a remarkably wide constituency. All over North Carolina I have encountered people who have vivid and fond memories of Sea Breeze.” – Jennifer Edwards, 2003
We’ll probably never know why Alexander (b. 1788 d. cir. 1855) and Charity (b. 1798 – d. 1873) Freeman chose to relocate from Bladen County to the headwaters of Myrtle Grove Sound in the 1840s but they appear in the 1840 New Hanover County Census in the “Lower Black River District” (probably in what is now Bladen County) of New Hanover County in a household of 7. Listed in the 1830 & 1840 censuses as “free colored persons,” the family has always proudly claimed a family lineage that includes significant Native American heredity.
By the 1850 census Alexander, a fisherman, Charity, a 52 year old woman, Robert B.,an 18 year old laborer, and Archie,an 11 year old are listed as a household in Federal Point Township. Clearly the family thrived in the quiet backwater with two large plantations, Sedgeley Abbey and Gander Hall, as their closest neighbors. Deed records show that in 1855 Alexander bought approximately 99 acres of land at the head of Myrtle Grove Sound. By the time of his death, believed to be sometime in the mid-1850s, his oldest son, Robert Bruce, inherited an estate that included 180 acres “situated on the south side of cedar drain and adjacent to the land of Thomas Williams and Henry Davis.”
In the 1860 Census of Federal Point Robert Bruce Freeman (b. 1832 – d. 1901) is listed as a fisherman and the value of his real estate is listed at $100.00. In 1857 Robert Bruce married Catherine Davis (b. 1837) probably a relative of the nearby Davis family. By 1870 their family had grown to include Archie (b. 1857 – d. 1930), and Robert Bruce Jr. (b. 1859 – d. 1944), as well as Catherine (b. 1863), Daniel (b. 1867), and Roland (b. 1869). Their last son, Ellis, was born in 1875.
By the 1870 census almost half of the population of Federal Point Township was listed as black or mulatto and Robert Bruce and Catherine were clearly leaders of their community. In December 1870 Robert Bruce was appointed to the School Committee of Federal Point. By the mid 1870s he had donated land to build a school for “the colored children of Federal Point.” The school opened in 1877, and had 34 students led by teacher Charles M. Epps.
In January 1876 Robert Bruce purchased almost 2,500 acres of land including the old Sedgeley Abbey and Gander Hall plantations with land running between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River, becoming one of the largest land holders in New Hanover County.
Robert Bruce donated 10 acres of land along the river (taken from the former Gander Hall Plantation) to St. Stephens AME church in Wilmington to use as a campground – the beginning of the concept of using the sandy waterfront land as an escape for African-American city dwellers.
In 1887 the Wilmington Star noted that “Chief Justice” Freeman opened a law dispensary at Carolina Beach, and he was prepared to issue ―writs at living prices. Special attention given to mandamuses, quo warrants, scieri facieses, capiases and respondum, etc. The blind goddess always on hand with scales in good condition.”
It is clear that Robert Bruce Freeman was considered a “significant” citizen of the Lower Cape Fear. He is listed as serving on the Criminal Court Grand Jury in Wilmington in local newspapers including October, 1879; February, 1884; and January, 1888.
Catherine died, sometime in the 1870s and in 1888 Robert Bruce married his second wife, Lena (Lizzy) Davis (b. 1871 – d. 1944) and added four additional children to the family; Roscoe, Dorotha, Benjamin, and Tahlia. Robert Bruce died in 1901 and was buried in a family cemetery. At his death his land was parceled into tracts, designed to be self-supporting waterfront properties.
The Freeman Heirs
In July 1902, Robert Bruce Freeman Jr. appeared in the New Hanover County Clerk of Court’s Office bearing his father’s will for probate. The surviving children (all sons) from Robert Bruce’s first marriage inherited most of the Old Homestead. Robert Bruce, Jr., Archie, Rowland, Nathan, and Ellis received fifty-seven acres each. Dulcia, the widow of Robert and Catherine’s son, Daniel Freeman, was granted lifetime rights to Fifty-seven acres of the Old Homestead. Thereafter the property was to be divided equally between Daniel and Duclia’s children, Ida and Hattie. Lena was also given fifty-seven acres of the Old Homestead. Lena’s children were to “share and share alike” with Catherine’s children in all the lands outside of the Old Homestead while Lena’s children were not included in the Old Homestead division.”
Unfortunately, the vagueness of the bequest to Lena’s children would haunt the family into the 21st Century. As early as 1914 “the court appointed a board of commissioners to determine the boundaries for each tract. They decided that the tracts would run west to east, from the Cape Fear River to the Atlantic Ocean. This gave each heir access to the river, sound, ocean, and soil suitable for cultivation.
After Robert Bruce Jr.’s death, Ellis Freeman, youngest son by his first marriage, took over management of the family lands. “He obtained a $50,000 government permit to sell yellow granite, and created a profitable business carrying people out on the ocean fishing.”
Fishing – A Way of Life
The Freemans fished the Intracoastal Waterway with family using casting nets, taking homemade poles into the sound, or sitting on a pier, waiting patiently with baited hook. Somebody had to harvest clams to make those well-known fritters, and kids joined adults in hauling the mollusks.
The Freeman family was legendary for its fishing prowess and had a ‘spot’ that was all its own near Fort Fisher. Other fishing boats respected the Freemans’ territorial rights and did not compete near Fort Fisher. The family owned one motor and three boats, so it was not uncommon to see them string at least two boats together with a rope.
Customers, both black and white, looked forward to the Freemans’ return with the catch of the day.
The Freeman brothers cast wide nets to catch their bait, typically shad, menhaden, pogie, herring. Throughout the day, the Freemans strung up their catch on sea oats, and at the end of the day they would charge 25 cents per string. Kids looking forward to a good meal would watch for the Freeman boats and swim out to help pull them ashore.