Christmas At The Palace

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Later I got through by phone to the head of the society, a man named Ben Watford. He explained that James City, founded in 1863, was the first free black settlement in the state. Many descendants of its first settlers are still there, he told me, but James City itself has moved. The U.S. government granted them the land; in the 1880s, after the end of Reconstruction, its pre-war white owner started fighting to get it back—or rather, started suing residents who refused to pay him rent. After long legal battles, the residents lost, so they had to pick up their houses and move them over to a new James City nearby, where they could own the land. That’s the James City of today.

In the 1930s and 1940s the population shrank as jobs dwindled. Then plans for a bridge over the river went through, and its path had to be changed or James City would have had to move yet again. “The Historical Society was founded by a descendant of the first settlers, Ms. Thelma Bryant,” Watford told me. “She’s eighty now. This little community has been through a lot, and it’s very poor. We haven’t had the resources to fight the things that happen to us, but we’re working to have a museum. Both for the history and as a way to create jobs.”

The society also plans to put on display a surviving slave quarters nearby and the remains of a slave burial grounds. There has even been talk of building a re-creation of the original James City along the Trent River, almost right across from Tryon Palace. It’s unlikely, but it would, I think, make a perfect complement. One site re-creates a scene of the nation’s struggle to cast off royalty; the other, a scene of its struggle to fully embrace the freedom and independence that resulted.

—Frederick Alien TO PLAN A TRIP