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First Light of Freedom Monument, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

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by Gail Clifford MD (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer and photographer traveling the world, often following my daughter. Visit our site at www.ABLETravelPhoto.com and follow us on Instagram @ABLETravelPhoto
Published June 30th 2022
Freedmen's Colony, slaves, runaway, Underground Railroad, Civil War, Outer Banks, OBX, liberation, freedom
Freedmen's Colony Monument at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site


The first slaves arrived on the Outer Banks in the early 1700s, brought from Maryland and Virginia. By the time of the American Civil War (1861 1865), more than 100 slaves lived on Ocracoke Island and North Carolina had a significant slave population.

From 1862 to 1867, a different kind of Colony thrived on Roanoke Island, one of freed black men, women, and children. These former slaves built log dwellings in which to live, a hospital, church, and school. And they got the word out.

"Former slaves give thanks by the creek's edge at the sight of the island "if you can cross the creek to Roanoke Island, you will find "safe haven." - National Underground Railroad. Network to Freedom."

In the plaza outside the Visitor Center of Fort Raleigh's Historic Site stands the monument First Light of Freedom that contains these words.

But it wasn't until the first amphibious landing overtook Roanoke Island that the area became available to these former slaves. During the Civil War, Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside campaigned for southern port blockades. His troops overwhelmed Confederate forts and defenders, and with it, control of the North Carolina Sound.

It's probable that the army hadn't expected to be faced with the many slaves now on the island, sent by their owners to build fortifications. The Federals emancipated the slaves, having labeled them "contraband of war." Runaways started appearing shortly thereafter. The hundreds of slaves arriving on the Island assisted with building, cooking, and cleaning and some became spies, scouts, and guides for the Union.

By May 1863, the Federal government established a formal colony on seized land at the north end of the island. The new residents were provided implements and tools, training, and education to form an independent community amongst groves of cypress, gum, and pine.

Chaplain Horace James recruited missionaries as teachers like Elizabeth James to ease the transition to post-war life with the ex-slaves' first taste of freedom and independence. When the area became part of the Underground Railroad network, members assisted the passage of runaway enslaved workers to the North.

Over one hundred and fifty of the ex-slave men joined the U.S. Army and continued to live and thrive on the Island for a few years after the completion of the Civil War.

In 1864, a local census recorded 2,212 black freedmen residing on the island. By 1865, 3901 people lived in 561 log dwellings on the site. At the completion of the War, a government order restored all lands confiscated by the Union Army back to their original owners. Unfortunately, that meant the government reneged on their homestead promises to the freed men. They further reduced food rations making it impossible for the community to sustain such large numbers. By 1866, the Colony's population had declined by half.

The Colony was decommissioned by the Army in 1867. Most of the freed men returned to the mainland following the war, but many descendants still live on Roanoke Island today.

While the Freedmen's Colony never became the envisioned self-sufficient community, it did provide a much-needed refuge during a critical time in our country's history. It provided housing, education, and protection. Most importantly, perhaps, it gave these former slaves a sense of hope.
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Where: 1401 National Park Dr, Manteo, NC 27954, United States
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