Now one of Edenton's most tranquil locations, during the antebellum period Edenton harbor was the town's industrial center with wharves, shipyards, and maritime activity.
North Carolina's small, ill-protected harbors prevented development of major ports and stunted growth of the state's plantation economy. The coastline that seemed inhospitable to slaveholders provided their workers with hope of passage to freedom. It was a tenuous hope, dampened by what must have seemed an endless number of futile attempts and bitter reprisals for every triumph. Coastal slaves dreamed of freedom and continued to dare the high sea until the Civil War.
Runaways depended on maritime blacks. During the antebellum period coastal ports like Edenton were crowded with black seamen. They worked as stewards and cooks on most ships and held skilled crew positions on many vessels. Ferrymen, nearly always slaves, departed from local docks to covey passengers and goods. At the wharves, slave women peddled fish, oysters, stew and cornbread to hungry sailors and found a ready marked for laundry services. Slave artisans caulked, refitted, rigged and rebuilt as necessary to keep wooden vessels at sea. Their maritime culture provided runaways with a complex web of informants, messengers, go-betweens and other potential collaborators.
It was this maritime culture that assisted Harriet Jacobs in her escape from Edenton by sea in 1842. In her narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself(1861), Jacobs describes how the Edenton African American community, including black seamen, arranged for her escape on a schooner bound for Philadelphia.
Called a flattie, this small flat-bottomed utility boat was used by black watermen to convey passengers and goods from docks to ships.
Text and illustration from The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina by David S. Cecelski. Copyright 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press.