Excerpt: Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900, by Catherine W. Bishir

bishir_crafting_PBFrom the colonial period onward, black artisans in southern cities—thousands of free and enslaved carpenters, coopers, dressmakers, blacksmiths, saddlers, shoemakers, bricklayers, shipwrights, cabinetmakers, tailors, and others—played vital roles in their communities. Yet only a very few black craftspeople have gained popular and scholarly attention. Catherine W. Bishir remedies this oversight by offering an in-depth portrayal of urban African American artisans in the small but important port city of New Bern. In so doing, she highlights the community’s often unrecognized importance in the history of nineteenth-century black life.

In the following excerpt from Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900 (pp. 38-43), Bishir highlights the life of artisan Donum Montford, a free black man in nineteenth-century New Bern who possessed land, trained his own apprentices, and even had the right to vote.


The notice in the New Bern newspaper described a small object in simple terms intended to restore it to its owner. The wording also implied much about the owner’s identity and the community in which he lived and worked. The specialized tool indicated that he cut and installed window panes as part of his trade. Its diamond head, for scoring precise lines, identified it as an implement of high quality, and its monogrammed handle suggested his attachment to it. The reward of $1.50—a day’s pay or more for a skilled worker—revealed his strong desire to regain the lost object and his financial capacity to offer such a sum. The laconic reference to the location where he had lost the glass cutter revealed that the community was small enough and Donum Montford and his place of residence so well known that newspaper readers would know where to look for it.[1]

At the time he placed the notice in 1810, plasterer and brickmason Donum Montford was about forty years old, a newly married head of household, and a master craftsman who had five local children as his apprentices. He and his wife, Hannah, made their home among white and black neighbors, and they became members of Christ Episcopal Church. He owned slaves and real estate, and as a male taxpayer he qualified to vote.

In 1810 Montford had been a free man for just over five years. It is easy to imagine that he had received his diamond glass cutter as a gift on the occasion of his manumission in 1804 or bought it himself as a token of his status. However he came to own it, he likely valued it for more than practical reasons. The possession of craft tools was an established symbol of artisan identity. During and after the American Revolution, urban white craftsmen in the North brandished the tools of their crafts as they marched in parades, trade by trade, to assert their patriotism or defend their economic position. Although such a scene was seldom replicated in North Carolina, artisans here, as elsewhere, understood the meaning as well as the utility of owning tools.[2] When a master artisan presented his graduating apprentice with tools to begin his trade, or a parent bequeathed tools to a child who followed in his or her craft, the transfer marked a life stage as well as meeting a practical need. Seldom did apprentice bonds specify the items to be given, though in one case in piedmont Rowan County in 1805 the county court bound Sam, a free boy of color, to Joseph Clarke to learn the blacksmith’s trade and ordered Clarke to give Sam “when of age an Anville, Sledge & Hammere Shoeing tools, & two pr. of Tongs.”[3] In contrast to a slave, who legally owned nothing, not even himself, a free artisan took pride in owning his tools. Whether Montford retrieved his glass cutter or not—which, as we shall see, he may have done—his initials on it, like his advertisement for its return, denoted his attachment to this emblematic possession of an artisan.[4]

Montford’s advertisement for his glass cutter also leads us into the complex world of black artisan life in early national–period New Bern. As a man who spent roughly half of his life in slavery and half in freedom, Montford shared many experiences with the thousands of enslaved and free black craftspeople who constituted much of the skilled workforce of the urban South. In slavery and in freedom, he participated in dimensions of black artisan life that New Bern had in common with other southern cities. But his experiences also reflected the city’s particular character and circumstances: during the decades following the American Revolution—later recalled as the town’s “golden age”—New Bern’s prosperity and especially the values and actions of its illustrious white and black leaders combined to create an era of unusual opportunity for artisans of color.[5]

For most black artisans in the antebellum South, being born into slavery placed clear limits on their future. No matter how skilled they might be, seldom could enslaved artisans expect to trace the customary path from apprentice to master that white artisans pursued. For Montford, as for a remarkable number of his fellows in New Bern, however, the timing and circumstances of his birth together with his skills, industry, ambition, and relationships enabled him to realize such hopes as he moved from slavery to freedom and became a master of apprentices and slaves, a property owner, and a voting citizen. Only as Montford’s life drew to its close in the 1830s did he and his fellow artisans of color witness the onset of oppressive racial laws that chilled the hopes of New Bern’s black craftsmen for themselves and for their children.

Artisans Black and White: The Southern Urban Scene

As Donum Montford traversed the streets over the years, from his home on Broad Street to the bookstore or the marketplace, to the wharf, work site, or church, he witnessed scenes akin to those common in most other southern towns. New Bern, like its sister cities, bustled with enslaved and free, black and white artisans along with hundreds of other workers of every color and status. Whether blacks composed a majority of the local population, as they did in New Bern and a few other towns, or a substantial minority, as in many southern cities, black artisans formed a constant presence in the human and economic landscape.

Montford and his contemporaries lived in a prime era for handicrafts all across America. Especially in the South, where industrial mass production had only begun, the work of local craftsmen still defined the economy and character of most communities. Although port towns like New Bern imported many items from northern or foreign cities, daily life for most townspeople took place amidst the products of their neighbors’ handicrafts, as they drove carriages through the streets, welcomed or served guests in rooms adorned with stylish moldings and warmed by efficient fireplaces, noticed a smartly tailored coat on a passerby, packed fish into barrels, weeded a garden with an iron-headed hoe, or went to sea in a well-caulked ship.

In his daily rounds Montford, like most urban southerners, encountered scores of black and white craftspeople, from youths to aged men and women, busy in a wide range of trades. If he wanted a new coat, he could visit the shop of white tailor Reuben Bell, where black and white apprentices and journeymen plied their shears and needles, or he might search out free black tailor John Bragg and his family of needleworkers. If he decided to purchase a silver tablespoon for his wife, he might consult one of the local white silversmiths, such as Freeman Woods or William Tisdale, but when he needed to have his tools or his wagon repaired or a horse shod, he could turn to the slave Willoby or another enslaved blacksmith at white blacksmith William Conway’s forge. To replenish his supply of barrels and buckets to transport oyster shells or mix lime mortar, he went to a workshop where enslaved coopers, such as Abram, America, and Bill, shaped, heated, and bent wooden staves and bound them together with iron bands to form containers large and small. At the waterfront, jostling with black boatmen, pilots, and vegetable hucksters, he could watch enslaved ship carpenters Tom and Henry ascending and descending the mast of white merchant Thomas McLin’s schooner, Rapid, as they repaired the vessel on behalf of white shipbuilder Thomas Sparrow.[6] At his brick kiln and at construction sites throughout town, Montford expected to practice his trade in company with his own slaves and apprentices along with a familiar cast of artisans black and white.

In common with most southern cities—and in contrast to the situation in the North—the city’s black and white, enslaved and free artisans frequently worked together. Southern artisans who traveled north observed that life and labor in the North were more segregated than anything they had experienced at home. What a northern visitor to New Bern found unusual or even objectionable Montford and his fellow residents took for granted: in every local building project for which records identify the workmen, artisans of both races were on the job.

In 1816 and 1817 Montford regularly passed the site on Craven Street, near Queen Street, where craftsmen familiar to him were building a residence for white attorney John R. Donnell. Typifying the city’s best Federal-period architecture, the freestanding two-and-one-half story dwelling had brick walls expertly laid in Flemish bond and every intricate detail of woodwork and plaster beautifully rendered. Directing the project as well as executing the elaborate carpentry was white house carpenter Asa King, who had several other notable buildings in town to his credit and likely had enslaved carpenters working with him. The principal brick contractors were white brickmasons Wallace Moore and Joshua Mitchell. Most of the other artisans were black, including free painter Benjamin Wade and slaves such as brickmason Daniel and carpenters Elijah and York. Montford supplied bricks from his brickyard, and Donnell also paid “Mr. Forbes’s Boys”—slaves of merchant Stephen Forbes—to select bricks from Forbes’s kiln. Donnell employed “negro Boston” for framing two houses at “Mr. Kings Saw Pit,” where Boston laid out and with the help of other hands assembled and raised heavy timber frames from the joists and beams cut by sawyers who were probably slaves as well.[7]

A few years later, Montford participated in the diverse workforce at a major public construction project—the Craven County Jail, a few blocks south on Craven Street. In 1821 he and his workmen fired 100,000 bricks at his kiln and hauled them to the building site as a portion of the more than 400,000 bricks needed for the job. White brickmason Joshua Mitchell spent day after day laying up the Flemish-bond brick walls at the rate of fifteen shillings per day, sometimes with his slave Jacob, who “worked with me at Jail.” In 1822 and 1823 white house carpenter John Oliver and his slaves raised the roof, installed skylights, and finished and fitted the windows, doors, and partitions. Montford returned in 1824 with his artisans Tony and Lawson to lathe and plaster the interior walls, caulk around the door and window openings, and apply whitewash with the help of his laborers Charles, Edmond, and Romey. Throughout the city’s years of prosperity, similar scenes played out on nearly every block in town.[8]


From Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900 by Catherine W. Bishir. Copyright © 2013 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Catherine W. Bishir is curator of Architectural Records Special Collections at North Carolina State University Libraries. She is author or co-author of six books, including North Carolina Architecture. Her book Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900, is now available in paperback.


  1. [1]I have used a skilled worker’s day’s pay as the principal benchmark for comparison of monetary amounts. This has proved more accurate for New Bern than reference to current dollar amounts based on inflation over the years. Not only did relative values of specific items vary markedly from present-day values, but the inflation-based charts suggest overall cost multipliers much smaller than New Bern figures indicate. Inflation-rate sources generally indicate a multiplier of about 15 times between 1810 and 2010. However, comparison of actual costs of labor, property, and goods in ca. 1810 New Bern and those of 2010 show a multiplier of at least 100 and sometimes twice that. For example, in 1810–20 a skilled white or free black carpenter or brickmaker in New Bern made from $1 to $2 per day (typically upwards of 10 hours per day). Today a good carpenter or brickmason in a mid-level North Carolina city earns from $20 to $35 per hour. Costs of such items as real estate, tools, clothing, and food rose at various rates. A modestly priced town lot sold for $50–$80 in 1820 and a prime one for perhaps $500 to $1,000. A custom-tailored “great coat” for a rich lawyer cost $6.25 in 1834. Comparable items cost at least 100 times as much in 2010, and land runs higher.
  2. [2]On the significance of artisans’ tools, see Sidbury, “Slave Artisans in Richmond,” in Rock, Gilje, and Asher, American Artisans, 49, 55, and Gilje, “Introduction,” in ibid. For a rare instance of such artisan displays in North Carolina, see Bishir, Brown, Lounsbury, and Wood, Architects and Builders in North Carolina, 187–88, on the activities of craftsmen constructing the State Capitol in Raleigh in the 1830s.
  3. [3]Minutes, Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, Rowan County, North Carolina, vol. 7 (1800–1807), p. 299, May 7, 1805, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, N.C.
  4. [4]Donum Montford, Estates Papers, Craven County Estates Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  5. [5]“A Citizen,” New Bern Spectator, December 9, 1831, on New Bern’s “golden age.”
  6. [6]Ships and Merchants Shipping Records, 1830–1831, Craven County Records, North Carolina State Archives, Office of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Raleigh (NCA&H), cited in Cecelski, The Waterman’s Song, 42. On the Sparrow family of shipbuilders, see Herzog, “The Early Architecture of New Bern,” 347–51.
  7. [7]John R. Donnell Letter and Account Book. See Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern, on the Donnell house and on Asa King, who also executed fine carpentry work at the Eli Smallwood house. Donnell was the son-in-law of the late Richard Dobbs Spaight Sr. and Mary Jones Spaight.
  8. [8]Treasurer of Public Building Accounts, Craven County Records, NCA&H; Bishir, “Philadelphia Bricks for New Bern Jail.” Maintenance and repair of the eighteenth-century Craven County Courthouse likewise involved the work of various free artisans and their slaves. In 1825, Donum Montford and his crew accomplished whitewashing and repairs, for which he charged 12 shillings 6 pence per day for his own work and that of his son Nelson as well as for Annanias and Richard, while Daniel, perhaps an apprentice, earned 10 shillings a day. Montford also recorded work by women and girls—Siply, Nelly, Lydia, Rachel, Ginny, and Sally—on unspecified tasks; enslaved women commonly worked as field hands, but it is rare to find records of their work on construction projects. These women earned for Montford three shillings per day. In 1827 white house carpenter Martin Stevenson worked six days on the courthouse at the rate of 17 shillings 6 pence per day, while his “man Daniel” worked there for eleven days at 10 shillings per day and his “boy Emanuel” seven days at 6 shillings. In 1828 Stevenson did additional carpentry at the courthouse, assisted by Daniel, John, Alford, and Emanuel. Treasurer of Public Building Accounts, Craven County Records, NCA&H.