Carter, Dorcas E.: The Great Fire Of '22

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"Listening to History" has been reprinted with permission from The News & ObserverCopyright 1998-2008.

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Dorcas E. Carter: The Great Fire Of '22

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 1/14/2001. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

The great fire of 1922 burned 40 city blocks in New Bern and left thousands of people homeless. It was the most destructive fire in the state's history. Dorcas E. Carter, one of the few people who can still recall the blaze, was 8 years old when the flames reduced her neighborhood to ashes. It had been one of the most prosperous black communities in the South. I interviewed her at her home, where she was surrounded by photographs of her family, including a grandmother who had been a fisher-woman on Portsmouth Island, one of the Outer Banks.

Hers has been a life of triumph against many hardships. Born in New Bern in 1913, Miss Carter said that the fire was the turning point in her life. Since then, "it looks like it has been one struggle after another, " she said. Despite all the hard times, she became a legendary teacher in the local public schools, bringing wisdom, charity, and dauntingly high expectations to her students for 39 years.

Above all, she gave her students the example of her own deep faith and unshakable will. "I would ask God, don't move the mountain, just give me the strength to climb it, " she told me.

In Dorcas E. Carter's words: 

Dorcas E. Carter. Photo by Chris Seward, 2001. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer.

The fire took place on Dec. 1, 1922, the day after Thanksgiving. On Fridays it was always my mother's day to dust and get the house ready for Sunday. But this morning, when we were in the midst of dusting upstairs, in our bedroom, the fire whistle had blown. Roper's mill was on fire.

About noon another fire broke out on Kilmarock Street. When the fire engines finally left Roper's mill and got there, three houses were already burned. The homes all had wooden shingles, and it was dry. The wind was high that day, 70 miles an hour, they said, and the fire got from under control and then it started spreading.

The fire whistles just kept blowing. You could see the blaze and the smoke just covering the sky. The fire leaped over West Street and caught Bern Street, and it burned there awhile. When the fire caught Louis Ward's house, that's when it looked like my mama panicked, because we lived nearby, just off from George Street, at the end of Cedar Grove Cemetery. Many people were rushing up George Street, dragging trunks along. Some would be crying. Maybe their house had already burned, and they were just trying to reach some place safe.

My mama said, "I'm going into the house and collect some of our belongings." When she started taking clothes from the line, I ran into my playhouse that my father had built and packed all my dolls and toys in a box. They were going to be saved, because I was an only girl and I would have to have something with which to play. That's when mama told me to take my little brother and go up and sit on Mrs. Whitley's steps and wait for her.

The fire kept spreading. Finally, I could see it coming up George Street. The fire had leaped over Howard Street and was coming around Pasture Street, too. We were going to be encircled. On Pasture Street was the Presbyterian church, so it was burned. Rue Chapel, AME church, was also burned. The bells of our church, St. Peter's AME Zion, started tolling. Some of the people coming up the street said, "St. Peter's is on fire! St. Peter's is on fire! Oh my Lord, it's burning!"

I had heard people say that on Judgment Day the world would be all afire, and I'm thinking, this is Judgment Day.

When Mama finally arrived, we kept going and going until we reached Dunn's field. This is where people were taking refuge -- in Dunn's field, and in the cemeteries, Greenwood and Cedar Grove. Sparks were flying, and sometimes the sparks would burn their furniture anyway. I saw a spark go on a truck and strike a piano and burn it.

The Red Cross put up Tent City, so many people were homeless. I really wanted to stay in Tent City, because I had a lot of friends there. But my grandmother didn't want my mother to go, because she was kind of frail and had a young baby. We stayed for nine months at my aunt's house on Bern Street, seven of us in one room: two brothers at the head of one bed, a brother and I at the foot. The reason we made it: One struggle was everybody's struggle.

That fire left 3,000 people homeless, all black people. Some of them became so disheartened that they went north, and some of them never returned. Because what happened is -- and they don't like me to tell this -- the city of New Bern condemned all that property where the black people lived. They would not let you rebuild your home. Until this day, it bothers me, because I don't know why they condemned the black property.

My community had beautiful homes that looked just like the historic New Bern homes right now. All of George Street was so pretty, and prosperous. The people always dressed so modest, so cultured. You could see the men escorting the ladies, lifting them up to the curb, all dressed with their canes and derbies. They owned their own homes, and they were self-made people. We had butchers and merchants, tailors, brick masons, carpenters, a blacksmith, a shoemaker, a barbershop. We had morticians, doctors, lawyers. It was a very dedicated, family neighborhood, until the fire came and destroyed it.

The next morning after the fire, my brothers and I wanted to go back and find our home. We went down George Street and we knew we lived the third house down. We didn't find anything but cinders. Everything was leveled, nothing but chimneys standing, like a ghost town.

Being an 8-year-old, I wouldn't know my mother's distress. With five children and no place to go, she had to be distraught. And then living with somebody else, you know it was hard. For a child, it could be an adventure. My uncle had a horse and a wagon, and he used to take us for rides. Things like that are all we children thought about.

But in my mother's heart and mind and soul, I know she was distressed. I'm sure she had a lot of days that she thought about a lot of things, but you wouldn't know. Sometimes I just sit, I look at her picture and I wonder what went through her mind. I wonder what she endured. You don't know what goes on in the hearts of people.

David Cecelski is the Whichard Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at East Carolina University.

Audio Recording: Interview with Dorcas Elizabeth Carter by Angela Hornsby-Gutting, 25 June 1999, K-0235, in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/sohp/id/15260

Image Credits:

Seward, Chris. "Dorcas E. Carter."  Photograph. 2001. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer. 

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