Local Sons of the American Revolution are making history
Monday, July 4, 2016
One eastern North Carolina community’s heritage is revolutionizing an organization dedicated to preserving the nation’s history.
The first Sons of the American Revolution chapter named after an African-American, the Patriot Isaac Carter Chapter, will be chartered during a Sept. 3 ceremony in Havelock, said Ed Carter, former Greenville mayor and descendant of Isaac Carter. It also will be the first chapter with a predominately minority membership, he said.
While named for Isaac Carter, the charter honors the 14 "free men of color" with connections to the Carteret County community of Harlowe who served in the Continental Army at different times between 1777 and 1782. Records show the Harlowe fighters were involved in the Battle of White Plains (N.Y.) and later the Battle of Charleston. They also were part of the defense of Fort Hancock at Cape Lookout.
"I am really amazed at what I am finding out about my ancestors," said Carter, 76, who grew up in Harlowe.
"When I discovered that my parents fought in the war and didn't have to and found out some of the stories they told about what they went through, all the walking, all the fighting, I was just floored," Carter said. "The one thing I was most deprived of in my segregated school teaching was American history. If we (African Americans) did something good, they didn't teach it in schools. I've got a rejuvenation of my pride and my patriotism."
The Sons of the American Revolution is the nation's largest male linage organization whose members are descendants of individuals who fought in or contributed to the Revolutionary War effort, said Don Shaw, executive director of the national organization, which has 566 chapters nationwide.
It's dedicated to assisting members, schools and the public in sustaining the nation's history and constitutional principles, Shaw said.
"It was founded (in 1889) on the premise that America was forgetting its principles and the history of its nation and how we forgot where we are," Shaw said. "It took a concentrated effort by many individuals to achieve our goal of democracy. It wasn't one group of people who pulled this off, it was many groups of people."
Which makes the Isaac Carter Chapter's formation a powerful moment.
"It's an exciting opportunity for us to let America know this was a concentrated effort by all people in the United States. I think it's often forgotten this was a concentrated effort by a lot of groups and a lot of other nations," Shaw said.
Carter, who became a compatriot of the Sons of the American Revolution in August 2015, is the second African-American to join the North Carolina Society, Sons of the American Revolution, which has about 1,000 members. He currently serves as chaplain for the state organization and will be president of the new chapter.
A physicist who spent his career at Burroughs-Wellcome, now DSM Pharmaceuticals, Carter is Greenville's first and only black mayor. He also was chairman of the Greenville City Schools' Board of Education. Carter is a Vietnam veteran who earned a Bronze Star.
Carter, 76, learned about his ancestors' military service in August 2014 when he attended a ceremony where the Sons dedicated a plaque honoring the Harlowe patriots.
Carter heard stories when he was growing up that his ancestors were free men who had settled in the area but there was no documentation to confirm the stories.
Throughout its existence Harlowe families farmed and fished. In the 1800s the area was known for moonshine production, Carter said. When he was a child, a few men were tradesmen. His family owned a private beach where black families vacationed during the summer.
It was Carter's cousin, Maria Cole, working with the Daughters of the American Revolution, who identified the early settlers of Harlowe as patriots. Cole approached the state SAR president about having some sort of recognition for the Harlowe fighters.
The task of confirming the information fell to SAR member Guy Higgins, a retired Naval officer and college professor, SAR member and amateur genealogist.
"African-Americans suffer from the fact there's an approved way of teaching American history and the approved way is to teach that African-Americans were slaves," Higgins said.
North Carolina was home to many free blacks because the state was more accepting than Virginia and South Carolina, Higgins said. However, they still faced discrimination and violence, which is likely why several black families decided to settle in Harlowe in the 1720s-1730s instead of the newly formed New Bern, which is 40 miles away.
During the 2014 dedication ceremony Carter noticed that three of the men honored shared his last name. He struck up a conversation with Higgins. Carter eventually asked Higgins if he would help him research his ancestry to see if he was related to the Harlowe patriots.
Higgins first determined Carter was a direct descendant of Absalom Martin, who enlisted April 25, 1781. Higgins then determined Carter was related to Isaac Carter.
"I was so surprised and pleased to find my forefathers had a significant role in the founding of this country," Carter said. "I was overwhelmed by the pride I received knowing this."
When first researching the Harlowe patriots Higgins said he realized they had many living descendants, enough to start a new chapter. However, he didn't feel comfortable pitching the idea. As a friendship developed between Higgins and Carter, he finally broached the idea. Carter started recruiting his brothers and cousins.
The Carter chapter currently has 10 members, the minimum number needed to start a new organization. He expects two more members will soon join. He also expects the membership to more than double by early September.
Tracing the lineages of families can be difficult because it wasn't until the early 20th century that North Carolina required birth, marriage and death certificates be issued, Higgins said. Even then many rural people resisted and didn't file for birth certificates until Social Security was created.
Prior to the 1880s marriage certificates weren't required; people only had to post a marriage bond or have their marriage bands announced by a minister in church.
It also wasn't uncommon for courthouses and churches to burn, further destroying records.
Proving the linage of the Harlowe men was easier because as property owners they and their descendants paid taxes, which created a paper trail of their lives, Higgins said.
"People today don't realize what it meant for these men to go and join the Army," Higgins said.
The Continental Army was often bankrupt and soldiers went without pay for months. Without their men, rural families struggled to grow enough food to feeds themselves, much less earn enough money to pay taxes. There are reports of soldiers returning home only to learn members of their families had starved to death, Higgins said.
Their ancestors were average men called to do something extraordinary, Higgins said. "By serving this country they gave us what we had today and it's an unpayable debt."
Americans have long struggled with the concept of who's more "American," not realizing that most white Americans are descended from individuals who immigrated to the United States a little more than 100 years ago, Higgins said.
"Ed and I are in a minority of this country because Ed and I can trace our ancestry back before the American Revolution," Higgins said. "I've been told, I've even heard, white people go up to black people and say 'go back to your own country.' Excuse me, (this is) his country. Your country is somewhere over in Europe. Go back to your country."
Carter, who grew up in the segregated south, said he's always loved the United States even if many of his fellow citizens have viewed his skin color as a reason to throw up barriers to opportunity.
"This (new knowledge) is the thing that stirs my soul, it gives me even more of a reason to stand up for America and for what is right," Carter said.
"One of the most exciting things I'm looking forward to now is to learn as much as I can about American history and to do like Guy and them have been doing for years, which is go into the schools, tell them about the American Revolution and give them a true picture of individual contributions in that war and hopefully instill in them some pride in the sacrifices and the legacy of their forefathers that they've never had before," Carter said.
Contact Ginger Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-329-9570. Follow her on Twitter @GingerLGDR.