Visit Halifax County North Carolina

Explore African American Heritage in Halifax County

Post: January 18, 2022

Roanoke Canal Museum Underground Railroad Exhibit.jpg

The Roanoke Canal, Roanoke River, and Historic Halifax, North Carolina, were all part of the Underground Railroad’s complex transportation network. Freedom Seekers would use the owing rapids and steep banks of the Roanoke River to elude their pursuers. The Roanoke Navigation Canal’s location near the river and Halifax also made it an integral part of the escape routes; enslaved people sometimes even escaped from the canal-building camps. When Freedom Seekers reached the town of Halifax, the large community of free blacks often concealed those seeking freedom or helped them on their way further north.

The National Park Service has implemented a national Underground Railroad program to coordinate preservation and education efforts nationwide and integrate local historical places, museums, and interpretive programs associated with the Underground Railroad into a mosaic of community, regional, and national stories. Halifax County, North Carolina, has received three designations, from the National Parks Service, for National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites. The sites in Halifax County are located near the Roanoke River, which was used by many Freedom Seekers as an escape route.

The first site is located at Historic Halifax State Historic Site, 25 St. David St., Halifax. These markers, that lead to the Roanoke, tell the story of the “runaways” in wanted ads. These ads ran in North Carolina papers, in an attempt to recapture Freedom Seekers with a Halifax connection. Take the time to read the ads as you walk towards the river. These ads bring the humanity of these Freedom Seekers to life. The town of Halifax and, more importantly, the nearby Roanoke River played a vital role in the maritime Underground Railroad in North Carolina. Taverns, print shops, and docks served as major sources of information crucial to the success or failure of a Freedom Seeker’s journey. Free blacks and sympathetic whites also provided the latest news, acted as a means of communication for secret activities, and helped conceal the identities and hiding places of Freedom Seekers. For example, a community of anti-slavery Quakers lived across the Roanoke River from Halifax. An 1830 newspaper article reported that they helped more than 600 persons of color from North Carolina leave the state. The river also played a major role in communications between free and enslaved African American communities, as black boatmen plied the waters spreading information to people along its banks. The river also provided protection from “pattyrollers” or slave patrols and helped speed the Freedom Seeker’s escape to urban areas, swamps, the sounds, open seas, and, eventually, points northward.

The second site is located in Weldon, NC at River Falls Park, 100 Rockfish Drive. This site offers sweeping views of the Roanoke River and allows one to understand the dangers the river presented to Freedom Seekers. Weldon, “Rockfish Capital of the World,” has a rich history including the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, a Confederate cemetery, and the Roanoke Canal Trail. The city's historic riverfront, on the Roanoke River, is thought to be the site where many Freedom Seekers looked for transport toward the Great Dismal Swamp or the Albemarle Sound. Walk through Weldon’s National Register Historic District and see the charming older homes and buildings along Washington Avenue.

The third site, in Halifax County, is located at the Roanoke Canal Museum and Trail, 15 Jackson Street Ext, Roanoke Rapids. This site explores how the Roanoke Navigation Company bought and sold enslaved people that helped build the Canal. It also explores how the Canal itself was used as an escape route for Freedom Seekers.

Plantation History

The Tillery History House Museum stands on former plantation land worked by generations of African-American enslaved people. After the Civil War, black family farmers and sharecroppers lived and labored on the former plantation lands of Tillery. The site tells the story of a 1930s Resettlement Community, a part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Transplanted into an existing community, settlers were given the opportunity to purchase 40 acres and a mule.

Today the History House Museum is housed in a former Resettlement home and provides a unique educational experience for visitors of all ages to not only learn more about our nation’s history but also become inspired and involved with one community’s determination and triumphs.

Sarah Keys

Sarah Keys Evans did not intend to take a stand for civil rights in 1952 when she boarded an interstate bus in Trenton, New Jersey. She was on leave from Fort Dix, where she served in the Women’s Army Corps. Dressed in her full military uniform, she was traveling home to visit her family in Washington, N.C.

Her simple trip home did not go as planned.  In Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, she was taken into police custody for refusing to give her seat to a white marine. While the South still enforced Jim Crow segregation laws, a different ruling had come from the Supreme Court in 1946. In Morgan v. Virginia, the judges ruled that passenger segregation was illegal on interstate travel. African Americans who started their ride in the North could remain in whatever seats they had taken at the beginning of the trip.

Once she arrived home, Sarah Keys Evans wanted to forget the whole thing, but her father urged her to fight for what was right. Keys v. Carolina Coach Company forced the Interstate Commerce Commission to stand by the Supreme Court decision of 1946 that ruled that Jim Crow laws could not be applied to interstate travel.

See Roanoke Rapids tribute to this moment in American history at Martin Luther King Park located at Wyche Street and Virginia Avenue and the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker near 1118 Roanoke Avenue.

Rosenwald School

At the 4-H Rural Life Center in Halifax is a well-preserved example of a Rosenwald school house constructed in the 1920s. The school was relocated to this site from the Allen Grove community on Highway 561 (approximately 7 miles from the current location) in the 1990s.

The Allen Grove Rosenwald School was used to educate African-American students from the 1920s until the late 1950s. Tours of the facility are available free of charge by request.

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, philanthropist, and president of Sears Roebuck built state-of-the-art schools for African-American children across the South. The effort has been called the most important initiative to advance black education in the early 20th century.

Attending a Rosenwald School put a student at the vanguard of education for southern African-American children. The architecture of the schools was a tangible statement of the equality of all children, and their programming made them a focal point of community identity and aspirations.

By 1928, one-third of the South’s rural black school children and teachers were served by Rosenwald Schools.  The Allen Grove Rosenwald School still stands in Halifax County.

Historic Halifax
25 St. David Street | Halifax, NC 27839
(252) 583-7191

Roanoke Canal Museum
15 Jackson Street Ext. | Roanoke Rapids, NC 27870
(252) 537-2769
Halifax County 4-H Rural Life Center
13763 Highway 903 | Halifax, NC 27839
(252) 583-5161

Updated: April 13, 2023 10:30 am EDT

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