This Month in New Bern History – June 2024

June 13, 2024

Lasting Impacts of a Forgotten New Bern Family

In 1905 if you visited the small town of Vineyard Haven on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, you might have seen the “William H. Dewey Lunchroom, Hair Dressing and Boot Blacking Parlor.”  What you might not have known was the fact that the owners of this establishment were from New Bern, and once had a connection to the Attmore-Oliver family whose home is the present-day headquarters of the New Bern Historical Society.

William Henry Dewey, aka “Henry,” was born into slavery with his mother, father, brother, and sister. After emancipation, when Henry was eight, his mother died, and the family struggled to support themselves.  In 1871, at the age of thirteen, Henry found work as a “waiter boy” for Dr. George S. Attmore.

Gaston Hotel, circa 1910, South Front Street, New Bern. Postcard
from Ernest Richardson III collection.

When Henry turned sixteen, he apprenticed and lived with a local barber, and later began a new apprenticeship at the Gaston Hotel.  At the age of twenty, he married Presbaretta “Etta” McIlvaine who would bear thirteen children although only three would survive to adulthood. In 1881, Henry became the head of the Barber Shop at the Gaston Hotel due to the death of the owner.

Henry became a well-known and popular barber and involved himself in many activities that advanced opportunities for Blacks. He loved politics, and in 1882 at the Republican County Convention, he introduced a resolution to endorse George H. White for nomination as district solicitor. That nomination prevailed, and White was later elected for two four-year terms.

Henry organized an Emancipation Day celebration every January from 1884-1889. These celebrations always included a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation which continues today in many Juneteenth celebrations.

Henry was interested in philosophy, and in August of 1883, he organized and became President of the Philosophical Literary Society of New Bern whose purpose was to “cultivate a love for the true, the beautiful, and the good and to help men to become leaders of the people in all Departments of Art, Science and Literature.” New Bern Daily Journal, Tue. Sep 04, 1883, Page 1.

In 1886, while continuing to barber at the Gaston, Henry purchased a newspaper, the “People’s Advocate”, the only political newspaper in Craven County and only one intended for Black readership. He became the editor, published four pages every Saturday, and renamed the paper “The Golden Rule.”

Due to in-fighting in the Black political community, Dewey became embroiled in lawsuits both personally and professionally. In 1887, Henry sold the barber shop in New Bern and moved to Wilmington to open a barber shop at the Gregory Hotel. This was the era of “Jim Crow” laws and disenfranchisement which resulted in a mass exodus of Blacks, including the Dewey family. By 1899 the Dewey’s moved to Waltham, Massachusetts and then to Haverhill where Henry opened a Barber and Hairdressing shop. He organized the 31st anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation in Haverhill for New Years Day, 1894. There was prayer, poetry, dance, and an oration by Dewey himself. It was the last time Dewey organized this event.

The family next moved to Chelsea where their three sons, William Henry Jr. aka “Billy”, Miles, and Harold attended school and became involved in vaudeville. When the Dewey family moved to Vineyard Haven circa 1905 there were only two Black families living there. Here they opened their barber shop and lunchroom.

The family’s last move was to Boston where Etta died in 1913, at the age of fifty-seven. Their three sons continued in show business. Billy became a professional singer, dancer, and comedian, starring in the all-Black 1921 jazz musical hit, “Shuffle Along” which helped to jump start the Harlem Renaissance. Miles became a ragtime dancer, professional singer, and stage performer. Harold became a singer and performer with the Crane Stock Company of Washington, DC. Despite their talent and popularity, all three died in relative obscurity in the 1940’s-50’s. William Henry Dewey - “waiter boy,” barber, and entrepreneur - died in Massachusetts in 1916 at the age of 58. No obituaries were published for any member of this family despite their many accomplishments, and they have remained forgotten over time.

Much of the information in this article was derived from a story written in the Martha's Vineyard Times by Chris Baer. Chris discovered the Dewey family in Martha's Vineyard and contacted us to find out about the New Bern origins of this family. Thanks to Chris who readily shared his research and article with us.

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