“If you can cross the creek to Roanoke Island, you will find safe haven”
Shortly after the Civil War began, Roanoke Island became known as a safe haven for African American slaves seeking freedom. Although the Freedmen’s Colony was short lived, the amount of progress this community of freed slaves made in infrastructure and education was remarkable.
After the Union troops won the Battle of Roanoke Island in 1862, the Federals emancipated the slaves in the area, including those that lived on the island and those sent by their owners to help build up the Confederate army’s defenses. Once word got out, hundreds of runaway slaves from neighboring areas made the brave trek to the island, seeking their own freedom.
These freed slaves were considered contraband of war by the Union army and offered aid to the Union troops in a variety of ways. Some freedmen joined the Union troops in their military efforts, while others worked in trade positions, rebuilding forts on Roanoke Island, Hatteras Islands, New Bern, and other military strongholds throughout North Carolina. The freed women also assisted with domestic tasks for Union leaders.
Establishing a Colony
With such a large population of slaves making their way to the area for their chance at freedom, the Federal government took over land on the north end of the island and established an official colony in May 1863. Army chaplain, Reverend Horace James, was charged with overseeing the colony and helping the residents transition to freedom by giving them the physical and educational tools they would need to run their own community independently.
Infrastructure and Education
The colony continued to see a large growth in residents year over year. In the Annual Report of the Superintendent of Negro Affairs in North Carolina 1864, Rev. Horace James reported that in just a few years, the colony has made tremendous progress in infrastructure and education despite numerous setbacks.
“In every other aspect except that of “rations,” the colony has met and exceeded expectation.”
Colony Members & Achievements
- 3,091 residents (1,295 males, 1,796 females)
- Of those residents 1,297 were under the age of fourteen
- 591 homes were built
- Brought industry to the island through the introduction of the steam-engine and saw-mill
- A church and several schools with seven teachers were established
- Teachers taught residents to read and write
Breakdown of the Colony
As the brutality of the Civil War continued, the Union army was in need of soldiers and recruited a significant number of African American men from the colony. Of nearly 4,000 North Carolina enlistees, over 150 men were recruited from Roanoke Island alone. With so many of their able bodied men off to war, the colony was left with few tradesmen and had to rely more on government support. The government’s failed promises along with the colony’s remote location made it difficult for residents to get the proper rations they needed to survive.
“The fact is that nothing can be relied on in this District, except the certainty of change. What with confederate troops, guerillas, smallpox and yellow fever, the negroes (and poor whites as well) have been tossed up a sea of troubles,” - Rev. Horace James
After the Civil War, the members of the Freedmen’s Colony experienced another devastating loss. A government order was issued that any lands taken over by the Union troops, must be given back to its original owners. The protections and rights the residents were promised by the government were taken away, despite all of their hard work building the community. The island no longer lived up to its reputation as a safe haven and the population started to dwindle. Within a year between 1865 to 1866, over half of the colony left. Only a few families decided to stay, leading to the colony to officially disband in 1867.
Well over a century later, several descendants from the Freedmen’s Colony still live on Roanoke Island. Their ancestors established a legacy of hard work, value of education, and entrepreneurial spirit that lives on today. To learn more about the Freedmen’s Colony, view the video below featuring a descendant of the colony, Virginia Tillett. The Adventure Museum at Roanoke Island Festival Park also has an exhibit honoring the brave men and women of the Freedmen’s Colony.