Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900

By Catherine W. Bishir | Go to book overview

Conclusion

From the eve of the American Revolution to the turn of the twentieth century, skilled black workers in New Bern, North Carolina, demonstrated the multiple possibilities of crafting identities as American artisans and citizens. Like their counterparts throughout the nation, they employed techniques learned through apprenticeships or from family members to make the objects their community needed. Many simply scraped by, while some used their trade skills along with their acumen and relationships to accumulate property, establish strong families, and win business and community status. As town dwellers, they shared with other urban craftspeople the opportunities to encounter people of all classes and races, to learn new styles and new ideas, and to form new relationships. In some periods they continued traditions and personal skills learned from parents or grandparents, while at other times they met challenges that demanded new strategies to protect or advance their status.

As southern blacks, New Bern’s artisans of color confronted situations different from those known to their northern and white counterparts. In an economy and a social structure based on slavery, enslaved and free black artisans contended with legal and extralegal restraints that circumscribed their work and their lives. Once freedom came, they, like white artisans, dealt with the impact of mass production on all craft trades, but they also encountered racial barriers to advancement in the industrialized economy as manufacturers, contractors, or architects. In every period, successful artisans of color mastered the complex art of calibrating competence and ambition with techniques of self-presentation and communication that best served their purposes.

For black craftspeople in New Bern and other southern cities, their circumstances might seem to offer little chance to define themselves as part of the American ideal of artisan and citizen identity. Yet through their experiences in New Bern we can see how black artisans found ways to create their own versions of American ideals that could take root in southern soil. The picture in New Bern is especially compelling because of particular factors

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