BEAUFORT — The Beaufort Historic Preservation Commission voted Tuesday evening to allow signage be installed at Topsail Park on Front Street marking it as a port of entry in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, making Beaufort the first town in North Carolina to place a historic marker acknowledging such a site.
The Beaufort Board of Commissioners approved the historical marker placement during its August meeting. Since the marker is proposed within the town’s historic district, the HPC had to review and give final sign off on the project to ensure the design specifications are in line with town requirements.
The effort to recognize Beaufort’s part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and to honor the memory of African ancestors who were forcefully removed from their homelands has been spearheaded by the Middle Passage Project Committee, a group of local residents that formed in 2019 to pursue a Middle Passage Marker project. With the support of numerous organizations, the committee conducted extensive research and raised the funds for the historical marker, culminating in the proposal that was presented Tuesday.
“This is a memorial marker and it’s something that was designed by our community members,” Heather Walker with the Middle Passage Project Committee said during the HPC’s meeting Tuesday evening over Zoom.
According to information gathered by the Middle Passage Project Committee, two spots in Beaufort have been identified as sites for Africans arriving directly from the continent to be sold into slavery. Topsail Park is one of those locations, the other the former location of Market Street Wharf at the end of Turner Street.
The project ties in to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Slave Route Project. The two Beaufort arrival sites have been officially designated by UNESCO as a site and itinerary of memory for that effort.
Four other towns in North Carolina have also been identified as ports of entry – Edenton, Bath, New Bern and Wilmington – but with the board of commissioners’ and the HPC’s approval secured, Beaufort has become the first to approve marking and memorializing such an arrival site.
The project received letters of support from numerous organizations, including the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Ports Markers Project, the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, the National Park Service and others.
“I was surprised to know that ships came directly to Beaufort, I think I had always assumed that the major ports were Charleston (S.C.) and in Virginia,” HPC vice chairperson Joyce McCune said. “It is part of the reality of our history and I think dedicating the park to African ancestors…is going to be a real asset to Beaufort in helping us tell a part of our history.”
Topsail Park is also the proposed location of a memorial to the town’s menhaden industry, a project being carried out by the Beaufort Garden Club. Due to town rules, only one free-standing informational sign may be placed within the park. Some commission members suggested the two groups combine their information on one sign, but Ms. Walker and others said they felt that would “water down” the message.
“The garden club project wanted a statue and a sign, and the Middle Passage project wanted a statue and a sign in the same space,” said Beaufort public information officer Rachel Johnson, who has been assisting both groups with their projects. “There’s been some working together and some give-and-take with that.”
After some additional discussion, and finding no issue with the design of the historical marker, the HPC voted unanimously to approve the project and issue a certificate of appropriateness to allow it to proceed.
Contact Elise Clouser at email@example.com; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.