During the Civil War, the town of New Bern became a “Mecca for Freedom” according to historian Joe A. Mobley. Thousands of slaves sought refuge and safekeeping there. After Union troops drove Confederate forces away from New Bern in 1862, eastern North Carolina slaves overwhelmed the area. Soon New Bern, and particularly James City, became what historian William S. Powell described as “the largest refuge in North Carolina for black men and women” (Powell, p. 628).
The Union Army, aware of the influx of former slaves and their families, established the “Trent River Settlement” in 1863. Located on the Trent River near New Bern on land once owned by Richard Dobbs Spaight, the settlement was headed by Reverend Horace James (1818-1875). James served as an Army chaplain, and the Union allowed him to manage the growing colony, almost 3,000 blacks had moved to the settlement by 1865. By the end of the Civil War, the Trent River Settlement was renamed James City, in honor of Reverend James who later served as an agent for the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands.
James City transformed into an independent community during the Reconstruction era, full of free black men and women who started to appeal for suffrage and residential rights. Citizens of James City started to build churches, start businesses, and farm the land around the city while outside groups such as the Teachers from the American Missionary Association and the Freedmen’s Bureau founded schools and hospitals in the community. Joseph Green, a delegate selected by residents in James City, represented the community in 1865 at the state convention to demand homestead and universal male suffrage for citizens in James City.
By the end of the 1860s, James City had experienced a time of harsh weather, a reduction in outside aid, and new landowners reestablished by the federal government. One year torrential rains had led to meager crops during harvest time. The Freedmen’s Bureau lessened its role as a financial benefactor to James City, and the federal government eventually allowed the land’s original owners full ownership of the area in 1867. Soon the population had drastically tapered off by the 1880s; black men and women paid rent to the new owners coupled with the fact that farmers, once owning their entire crop, now only received a third of the profit of their harvest.
Despite the decrease in population and increase in poverty, James City residents refused to submit to white authority and overbearing landowners. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church took the role of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the local body bestowed financial support to James City residents. In addition, James City workers and farmers formed a labor union and went on strike in 1881 to oppose low wages. Yet, despite the cohesion and tenacity of James City, the landowners of the town began a campaign to remove the black men and women from their town.
In the 1880s and 1890s, Mary and James A. Bryan, the owners of James City, had started to increase rent with the plan to evict tenants from their town. The black families in the community offered $2,000 to buy ownership of the city but James Bryan did not want to sell. Eventually, James City residents filed suit against the Bryan family for grievances on payment of rent and for compensation for house repairs and other landlord responsibilities. The Supreme Court of North Court reviewed the case in 1892, and to the black community’s dismay, ruled in favor of the Bryan family.
After the case, the black men and women of James City left for different areas, but others, adamant in their will to stay in the community, remained in the community. While some black families moved away to start a “new” James City, about 700 black men and women continued to pay rent to the Bryan family or own their own houses in the town. Today, James City remains an unincorporated town in Craven County. The James City Historical Society along with the A.M.E. Zion Church have created programs that conserve the black history of the area.