Celebration, Education, Inspiration in Ahoskie

On February 6 I attended the first of two performances of “The Winton Triangle,” a historical lecture by Marvin T. Jones enhanced by a series of dramatic and musical performances. Never having seen such a format, I didn’t know what to expect, but found the experience well worth the four hour drive to Ahoskie, just a few miles north of the Pell Mell Pocosin where my father’s ancestors lived.  The evening was a celebration of the 250th anniversary of Hertford County, which was separated from Bertie in 1759.  The charming old theatre’s 400 seats were almost all filled, with an audience that seemed like a representative sample of the county’s population: black, white, Indian, and mixed.   The event was a celebration for the entire community, but the focus was specific to the triracial mixed people who have inhabited the central portion since before the county’s creation 250 years ago.  I write this on Saturday afternoon hoping there is another capacity crowd tonight, and thinking word of mouth in the community can only be extremely favorable today.

Marvin T. Jones was ably assisted by his sister Laverne Jones in the research and the narration, both of them blessed with voices pleasing to the ear and the talent to bring history to life with their narratives and voiceovers.   During my years of Bertie County research I grew to love the accents of the local people I met, because they so reminded me of my grandmother and her family.  After three decades of living in Washington, Marvin still speaks with the rich, rounded tones of the Albemarle Sound country, as does Laverne after decades as a lawyer in New York.  The photographic resources upon which the program relied were tremendous,  thanks to their years of collecting historical photographs of the area.

As an educational program, The Winton Triangle was a complete success, giving a sweeping overview of four centuries along the Chowan with enough detail to satisfy the older history buffs but enough forward momentum to keep the interest of the children in the audience.   After the program, Marvin was so thronged with admirers that I barely got the chance to congratulate him, but I did get to speak to Earl Ijames of the North Carolina Museum of History, formerly of the Archives Deparment, and express appreciation for his help on my many Archives visits.   And as I left, I got the chance to meet Laverne and tell her what a wonderful evening it had been-as I’m sure a hundred before me had just said.

The evening could have succeeded as celebration and education if it had been entirely the work of the Joneses, but the addition of dramatic skits and church choir performances brought it to the level of inspiration.  The history highlighted in the program ranged from frightening (ancestors being obliged to carry identification papers after the Nat Turner insurrection to protect them from potential lynch mobs) to tragic (funeral orations about a promising young community member who lost his life in World War II) to hilarious (a 50s juke joint comes to life with a dance featuring Marvin and his wife, to the uproarious approval of the audience.)  The sequence and pacing of the informational and entertainment segments was just right, and much credit is due to Ralph Hewitt and his local talent for making the atmosphere downright joyous.  The choir selections were well chosen and performed.  And the opening segment of Meherrin Indian drummers was a potent reminder of the region’s history before the first settlement by Europeans and Africans.

The story of the Winton Triangle is inspirational for people far beyond Hertford County or North Carolina.  The photographs we saw of the “free colored” of  Pleasant Plains, Archertown, and vicinity showed a full range of phenotypes.  Some members of the community would immediately be assumed to be white by outsiders, others would be taken to be black, and most would be considered to look biracial.  But many looked more Native American than anything else, and the East Indian roots of the Weavers still seemed very much in evidence in their photographs.  In the midst of a segregated society governed by the One Drop Rule, the mixed race people of Hertford County created a microcosm where people of every skin color and diverse ethnic heritage lived in harmony as a single people.  The Winton Triangle is also inspirational in that the Joneses make the story one of pride and joy, rather than oppression and victimization.  Despite the threatening nature of the society surrounding them, the community celebrated in this production thrived and prospered.  They made Winton an educational Mecca attracting students from all over the state, built a resort in Chowan Beach that drew people of color from other states, and continue to play leading roles in the life of Hertford County.  Looking at the people in the audience, I was inspired by the continuity of their presence since 1740; the families there as free people of color in colonial times remain a dominant influence in all the areas they historically inhabited.

At the end Marvin challenged the audience to bring their own family stories forward to add to the Chowan Discovery Group’s ongoing project to document the multilayered multiracial history of their fascinating community.