5 things to know about The Great Fire of 1922, an urban tragedy

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December 1, 2022 will mark the 100th anniversary of one of the greatest disasters to hit the city of New Bern.

The Great Fire of 1922 began in the early morning of December 1, 1922, destroying 40 blocks including 989 homes and leaving over 3,000 people homeless with most destruction in the black community.

According to a previous Sun Journal article, the city took over much of the Queen Street property, not allowing African Americans to rebuild. As a result, and due to the loss of jobs, many black people left the area, causing the population to drop from just over half black to just over half white.

Story:How These 5 Historic Events Impacted New Bern’s Black Community

Here are five facts about the fateful day

1. Where and how did the fire start?

In the early morning hours of December 1, 1922 at approximately 8:30 a.m., a machine belt malfunctioned at Rowland Lumber Company’s The Roper Mill, located in the Riverside community of New Bern, where Maola Milk and Ice Cream Company later operated for many years and was the largest sawmill in the state at the time. Sparks from the friction ignited the sawdust that traveled throughout the mill, engulfing the entire building on fire.

About an hour later another fire broke out in the chimney of a house in Kilmarnock Street.

Most of the city’s available firefighters were battling the sawmill fire and it took more than half an hour before they responded to the second alarm. By then the fire had begun to spread to other homes in the area due to high winds due to unseasonable bad weather that day.

2. Where were the firefighters?

They were at a football game.

Most of the city’s firefighters had left town on the 7:30 a.m. train to Raleigh for a state championship football game with New Bern High School against Sanford, a game the team won, but there could be no real celebration as nearly half of their hometown was burned to ashes.

During this time, segregation was still in effect, and the New Bern football team consisted of only white players. Although the fires were located primarily in the black community, officials did not release information about the fires until after they won the game and were on their way home.

3. What stopped the fire from spreading to other areas of the city?

Ironically, it was a cemetery.

Once the fire began to spread to George Street, high winds moved the flames north and west, leaving Cedar Grove Cemetery unscathed. Cedar Grove and Greenwood cemeteries both served as havens for those looking for a safe place to stay as fires ravaged their homes and businesses.

4. How many people died in the fire?

Harriett Reeves, 105, a former slave, was the only person to die in the fire.

There are varying accounts of what happened to Reeves, but according to a 1997 Sun Journal article while being helped out of the house, she went back inside to retrieve an unknown object and was engulfed in smoke. while other sources reported that due to his age and being sickly,

5. Which structure, still standing, was created following the fire?

Fort Bragg Air Force Base provided the city with nearly 1,000 tents for the homeless. Considered “Tent City”, families with no place to go resided in the makeshift homes for two years.

During this time, it was realized that African Americans needed a place to see a doctor because St. Luke’s Hospital, built in 1915, was primarily for whites and was the only modern hospital in the city. city ​​until the present CarolinaEast Medical Center opened in 1963. .

Fifteen years after the fire, Good Shepherd Hospital became the city’s first hospital to admit black patients.

Local author Errol Royal, born at the Good Shepherd Hospital, discusses the history of the facility as well as the Great Fire of 1922 and other local historical events affecting the black community in his latest book “Traces of Places and Faces of African Americans from the New Community of Bern”.

The former hospital, located at 603 West St., now serves as a seniors’ residence.

After:New Bern’s Black History Comes to Life in New Book Series

Flame Trail Tour

A hand-painted mural highlights the corner building at Queen Street and Darst Avenue in New Bern, North Carolina.  The mural depicts the Great Fire of 1922, a historic event where 40 blocks of New Bern caught fire and displaced much of the city.  The storytelling mural featuring a rising Phoenix is ​​painted by MARHMI, a group of community artists from the Dominican Republic. [Gray Whitley / Sun Journal Staff]

The Uptown Business and Professional Association, in cooperation with the City of New Bern and the New Bern Fireman’s Museum, has put together the historic Trail of Flames tour.

According to trailofflames.org, this tour takes visitors on a virtual tour of some of the places affected by the Great Fire of 1922. Tourists will discover how the Great Fire affected residents of New Bern and learn about those affected by this tragic event. .

Places included in the tour include:

  • Good Shepherd Hospital, 603 West St. – The city’s first hospital for African Americans, now operating as a nursing home.
  • The Charlotte S. Rhone Cultural Center, 608 West Street – Originally built as the West Street Colored Library in 1936, now used for community cultural events. It is named in honor of Charlotte S. Rhone who was among the first African American women to be registered as a nurse in North Carolina and Craven County’s first black social worker.
  • West Street School, 700 West St. – The school survived the 1922 fire and served as a distribution center, kitchen, and shelter for homeless victims.
  • First Missionary Baptist Church, 819 Cypress St. – This church, which has suffered several fires, has undergone extensive repairs and restorations over the years. As the fire burned to the front doors, the building was spared. The victims were housed in the basement. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
  • Greenwood Cemetery, corner of Cypress and Bern Streets – – Like Cedar Grove, Greenwood Cemetery has become a night home for many residents fleeing the fire. People camped among the tombstones with whatever possessions they could salvage. The walls of the cemetery were lined with furniture.
  • Ebenezer Presbyterian Church, 720 Bern Street – Founded in 1878, Ebenezer Presbyterian Church is an outgrowth of the First Presbyterian Church distinguished as one of the oldest black congregations in eastern North Carolina. The fire destroyed the sanctuary and the presbytery, sacrificing all the archives and the furniture. A new church rose in a year thanks to the dedication of its members. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to its history and unique structure.
  • Cedar Grove Cemetery, Corner of Queen and George Streets – Serving as a shelter, victims of the fire spent the first night after the fire sleeping here. Although the cemetery withstood the fire, many cedars were burned along with mausoleums and wooden coffins leaving their remains for public view.
  • St. Peter’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion, 617 Queen St. – Founded by James Walker Hood, St. Peter’s original building was completely destroyed by fire while hosting the fifty-nine sessions of the NC Conference. The bishop, ministers, delegates and parishioners had to flee for their safety. Until the church was rebuilt, the auditorium at West Street School was used for worship services.
  • St. Cyprian’s Church, 604 Johnson Street – The church, without serious fire damage, was converted into a hospital for the African American community. Doctors cared for patients in the basement as well as upstairs and downstairs. The first African-American baby born after the fire was born here. After the fire, the rector of St. Cyprian’s, the Reverend RI Johnson, launched an effort to provide medical care for black people in New Bern, which led to the funding and construction of the Good Shepherd Hospital.
  • The Rhone Hotel, 512 Queen St. – The historic Rhone Hotel was built in 1923 and is owned by three sisters: Henrietta, Amy and Charlotte Rhone. It served as accommodation for blacks who were not welcomed in white hotels. At that time, there was no accommodation for black people.
  • Cedar Street Recreation Center, 800 Cedar St. – Previously part of the Trail of Flames tour, the center was built as a recreation center for young African Americans. The building was destroyed during Hurricane Florence in 2018 and then demolished.

The city is currently rebuilding the center, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, at a new location.

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