This Month in New Bern History – Apr 2023

How it All Began
by Claudia Houston, Historian, New Bern Historical Society

The New Bern Historical Society proudly celebrated its 100th Anniversary on April 19, 2023!
A century of service is a significant achievement for any organization, especially a small nonprofit. The Historical Society's mission today is “to promote and celebrate New Bern and its heritage through events and education” such as Ghostwalk, homes tours, historical programs, and more. But that's changed substantially over the years. Let's take a look at how the Historical Society was established and its focus one hundred years ago.

A notice was placed in the Personals section of the afternoon edition of the Sun Journal, April 19, 1923, as follows:

Historic Society
Persons interested in the organization of a Historical Society in New Bern are asked to be present at a meeting to be held at the home of Mrs. Richard Duffy, on Johnson Street, tonight at 8:30 O’Clock.

Minette Chapman Duffy

This meeting was initiated to start a branch of the State Historical Society for “the preservation of the wealth of historic material to be found in New Bern for future generations.” Nineteen people attended this first meeting and fourteen others who were unable to attend asked to join. Among them were some of the most prominent citizens of New Bern at the time. Judge Romulus A. Nunn was elected President and Mrs. Minnette Chapman Duffy was elected first Vice President. Many of the names from those first meetings as well as later years are still familiar today, including Duffy, Hollister, Ward, and Carraway.

Subsequent meetings were in the homes of members. Attendance was taken by roll call and attendees responded with an interesting fact about New Bern history. Members prepared papers to present at meetings and an occasional address was made by a historian or official active in archival work or historic preservation. The focus of the Society was the Colonial period, which included the founders of New Bern as well as the role of citizens during the American Revolution.

As the Historical Society began to collect information, items were made in triplicate: one for the Society, one for the State office in Raleigh, and one for the local library. They also acquired books and other written materials regarding New Bern’s history. Much of this collection of information and books became the nucleus of the New Bern historical collection in the Kellenberger Room of the New Bern-Craven County Public Library today.

During the summer of 1927 the Historical Society paid for the construction and erection of historical markers made of cypress with a white background and black lettering, celebrating noteworthy events and structures around town. This early sign program gave birth to the state program and the historical markers we enjoy today throughout North Carolina.

The Society grew and in 1929, under the leadership of President Minnette Chapman Duffy, the Society sponsored a remarkably successful New Bern Historic Celebration and Pageant. Governor O. Max Gardner as well as other notables joined an astounding 10,000 spectators in attendance. Mrs. Kate B. Reynolds of Winston-Salem underwrote the expenses, advancing $5000 with the provision that any funds remaining be returned to her. After the event, $3500 was sent back to Mrs. Reynolds, who returned the check “for the restoration of Tryon Palace”. That was the first donation in that important effort – a significant turning point in New Bern history.

Three months after the 1929 Celebration the world plunged into a Depression. No meetings of the Historical Society took place until a reorganizational meeting was held on December 1, 1941. Six days later WWII began. After two meetings the Society remained inactive until the early 1950’s. You'll learn more about our history in future articles about the fabulous fifties and the changes in the Historical Society along the way.

We're celebrating our 100th anniversary of community service with a special exhibit at the North Carolina History Center’s Duffy Gallery. This exhibit, entitled “Through the Looking Glass, A Journey with the Storytellers” is free and open to the public through January 5, 2024. This exciting exhibit is a special birthday gift from us to the community!

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