BEAUFORT — Weaving together historical tidbits with personal anecdotes, Curtis Oden took riders of the Beaufort Historical Association’s double-decker bus on a sold-out tour of Beaufort’s black history Sept. 5.
The BHA added a second tour to the agenda Sept. 5 after the first sold out in advance. As a coronavirus precaution, every other seat on the bus was roped off and riders were required to wear a face covering at all times.
The tour kicked off from the Beaufort Historic Site on Turner Street, with Mr. Oden starting off by sharing some of his personal background.
“I’m a native of Beaufort, grew up here, went to school at Queen Street School, then went to the first integrated school at East Carteret (High School) in the ninth grade,” Mr. Oden said.
Mr. Oden said he went on to graduate with a biology degree from N.C. A&T State University and worked with the Carteret County Health Department for 39 years.
Then, Mr. Oden launched into a brief history of Beaufort and its black community. In the early- to mid-1800s, the town had a small population of free black people, some of whom owned land and businesses. The population grew in the late 1800s as large amounts of former slaves sought refuge in the town after the Civil War.
“Beaufort’s population doubled and it was actually just as many black people as whites in Beaufort,” he said.
As the tour bus rounded the first right turn onto Front Street, Mr. Oden pointed out nearby buildings that housed some of the town’s first black-owned businesses. One of those was a shoe shop owned by Adam Wright and the narrator’s great-grandfather, Collins Oden, that sat next to Josiah Bell House on Turner Street.
Another black-owned business was the Sam Lipman Convenience Store, located roughly where the First Citizens Bank ATMs sit today.
“My mother used to tell us that when you went into that store, you couldn’t come out unless you bought something,” Mr. Oden joked.
The tour continued down Front Street and through some of the surrounding neighborhoods as Mr. Oden told riders about some of Beaufort’s more modern history. He pointed out new housing developments that have contributed to the town’s growth in recent years.
He also talked about some of Beaufort’s early black leaders who emerged during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. Beaufort’s first two black commissioners were elected in this period, and the town had a black clerk, as well.
“Beaufort was very progressive during Reconstruction in the late 1890s,” Mr. Oden said. “After the 1890s, it wasn’t until 1960s that there was another black commissioner.”
The tour then went down Lennoxville Road, where Mr. Oden showed riders where the county’s menhaden plant once stood at the site of the Boathouse at Front Street Village. He noted the menhaden industry historically employed many of Beaufort’s black residents.
Mr. Oden also showed tourgoers Oceanview Cemetery, where a stone wall running down the center of the cemetery used to segregate white and black graves. He said many of his relatives, including his parents and grandparents, are buried in Oceanview.
The bus then made its way to Beaufort’s historically black neighborhood, where Mr. Oden showed riders the former location of the all-black Queen Street School, which burned down in 1968. He attended the school until ECHS was integrated in the mid-60s and said it educated many students who went on to have successful careers.
“This was the site of Queen Street School, a model high school,” Mr. Oden said. “...It sent out doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, you name it, they came out of Queen Street.”
As the tour continued down Pine and Cedar streets, Mr. Oden pointed out some of the family homes of the county’s prominent black community members and shared memories from his childhood. He said the area was home to many black-owned businesses when he was growing up, but more recently, it has undergone gentrification as more white people move into the historically black community.
Finally, as the tour hit the final stretch back onto Turner Street, Mr. Oden pointed out two of the pillars of Beaufort’s black religious community, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church and Purvis Chapel AME Zion Church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Mr. Oden is also a pastor at Purvis Chapel.
“(Purvis Chapel) is the oldest church in Beaufort in continuous use,” he noted.
The BHA will host another black history bus tour narrated by Mr. Oden Saturday, Sept. 19. The tour begins at 1:30 p.m. and tickets are $15 apiece.
Contact Elise Clouser at firstname.lastname@example.org; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.