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SOHP Home > Projects > Davis Oral History Fund > World War II

World War II: Memory and Community in Coastal North Carolina

Coordinated by historian David Cecelski, the Southern Oral History Program's Memory and Community in Coastal North Carolina Project has focused on counties where defense industries and military bases sparked rapid and unprecedented change during World War II. In 1941, the coast was still a region of sharecroppers, small farmers, fishing villages, and timber camps. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, however, three of the country's largest military bases sprang up almost overnight in eastern North Carolina. Thousands of civilian workers poured into the war industry, and many women and African Americans entered skilled occupations for the first time. By the time the war ended, the formerly isolated and self-sufficient world of the coast had been changed forever. With assistance from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources and funding from the Walter Royal Davis Oral History Fund, the SOHP has completed almost 70 interviews with a wide range of individuals - men who built the military camps, "boom town" opportunists who flocked there, men and women who lived in communities displaced by the government, and those who found permanent jobs in the military installations. The project has also recorded the stories of people who patrolled the shore for saboteurs and cared for the survivors of German U-Boat attacks. Together, these interviews represent the most complete portrait of World War II's impact on rural southern communities to date.

When the military moved into coastal North Carolina in 1941, some residents were forced to leave communities that had been their homes for years. Interviewee Mary Carter Stone of New Bern remembered the last worship service at the Little Witness Baptist Church. All of the residents of the condemned settlements of Tar Neck, Toon Town, and Gum Neck attended services one last time before the bulldozers destroyed their church. "All the men and women were crying," Stone recalled. Another woman added that some of the older residents "never got over losing their cemetery and the church. It put them in their graves." The members of the Little Witness Baptist Church congregation were among thousands of coastal North Carolina residents displaced by the war.

While the war brought destruction and dislocation for some on the home front, it resulted in phenomenal economic opportunities for others and also altered race relations in coastal North Carolina. Revered Leon Nixon, whose family owned a "color-blind" juke joint and motel during the war, remembered, "After midnight there weren't no black and white." Challenges to segregation also took place in military camps, where black workers in skilled positions demanded to ride on desegregated buses. Women also benefited from new occupational opportunities during the war. Among the interviewees for the project were women who held jobs as aircraft painters, electrician supervisors, and other non-traditional positions, thereby shattering conventional notions of women's work.

Cecelski has published articles on the Memory and Community in Coastal North Carolina Project in Southern Exposure, the North Carolina Literary Review, and Coastwatch. UNC-CH graduate students who have conducted interviews for the project include Will Jones, Natalie Fousekis, Melynn Glusman, Karen Thomas, and Lu Ann Jones.

The Southern Oral History Program
Center for the Study of the American South
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410 East Franklin St., CB# 9127, UNC-CH
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