Dec. 1, 2022 will mark the 100th anniversary of one of the largest disasters to befall the city of New Bern.
The Great Fire of 1922 started in the early morning hours on Dec. 1, 1922, destroying 40 blocks including 989 homes and leaving more than 3,000 people homeless with most of the 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 individuals left the area, shifting the population from being slightly more than half Black to slightly more than half white.
Here are five facts about the fateful day
1. Where and how the fire started?
In the early morning hours of Dec. 1, 1922 at approximately 8:30 a.m., a machine belt malfunctioned at The Roper Mill at Rowland Lumber Company which was located in the Riverside community of New Bern where Maola Milk and Ice Cream Company later operated for many years and was the largest lumber mill in the state at the time. Sparks from the friction set ablaze saw dust which traveled throughout the mill engulfing the entire building in fire.
About an hour later, another fire started in the chimney of a home on Kilmarnock Street.
Most of the city's available firefighters were battling the fire at the lumber mill and it was more than half an hour before they would respond to the second alarm. By that time, the fire had begun spreading to other homes in the area due to high winds from unseasonably bad weather on that day.
2. Where were the firefighters?
They were at a football game.
Most of the city's firefighters had left the city on the 7:30 a.m. train to travel to Raleigh for a state championship football game with New Bern High School battling Sanford, a game the team won, but there could be no real celebration as nearly half of their hometown was burned to the ground.
During that time, segregation was still in effect and New Bern's football team consisted of white only players. Although the fires were located mostly in the Black community, officials did not disclose the information about the fires until they had 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 spreading to George Street, the high winds shifted the blazes North and West therefore leaving Cedar Grove Cemetery unscathed. Cedar Grove and Greenwood cemeteries both served as a haven for those looking for a safe place to remain as the fires ravaged their homes and businesses.
4. How many people died during the fire?
Harriett Reeves who was reported to be 105 years old and a former slave was the only person to lose her life during the fire.
There are varying accounts of what happened to Reeves, however according to a 1997 Sun Journal article while being helped from the home, she went back inside to retrieve an unknown item and was overcome by smoke while other sources reported that due to her age and being sickly, she was unable to get out of the home and was consumed by smoke from the fire.
5. What structure, still standing, was born as a result of the fire?
Fort Bragg Air Force Base supplied the city with nearly 1000 tents for those left homeless. Deemed "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 seek medical attention as St. Luke's Hospital, built in 1915, was primarily for whites and was the city's only modern hospital until what is now CarolinaEast Medical Center opened its doors in 1963.
Fifteen years after the fire, Good Shepherd Hospital became the city's first hospital to serve Black patients.
Local author Errol Royal, who was born at 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 Bern Community”.
The former hospital, located at 603 West St., now serves as a senior living facility.
Trail of Flames Tour
The Uptown Business and Professional Association in cooperation with the City of New Bern and the New Bern Fireman's Museum established the Trail of Flames historical tour.
According to trailofflames.org, this tour takes visitors on a virtual tour of some locations affected by The Great Fire of 1922. Tourists will find out how the Great Fire impacted residents of New Bern and get to know the people affected by this tragic event.
Locations included in the tour include:
Good Shepherd Hospital, 603 West St. - The first hospital in the city for African Americans, now operating as a nursing home.
The Charlotte S. Rhone Cultural Center, 608 West Street - Originally constructed as 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 the first Black social worker in Craven County.
West Street School, 700 West St. - The school survived the fire of 1922 and served as a distribution center, kitchen, and housing center for homeless victims.
First Missionary Baptist Church, 819 Cypress St. - This church, which endured several fires, has undergone extensive repairs and restoration over the years. While the fire burned to the front doors, the building was spared. Victims were sheltered in the basement. The building was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
The Greenwood Cemetery, corner Cypress and Bern streets - - Like Cedar Grove, Greenwood Cemetery became an overnight home for many residents fleeing the fire. People camped out among the tombstones with whatever they’d been able to save of their possessions. The walls of the cemetery were lined with furniture.
Ebenezer Presbyterian Church, 720 Bern St. - Founded in 1878, Ebenezer Presbyterian is an outgrowth of the First Presbyterian Church distinguished as one of the oldest Black congregations in eastern NC. The fire destroyed the sanctuary and manse sacrificing all records and furnishings. A new church rose within a year due 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 haven, fire victims spent the first night after the fire sleeping here. Although the cemetery withstood the fire,numerous cedar trees were burned along with wooden mausoleums and caskets leaving their remains in public view.
St. Peter’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion, 617 Queen St. - Founded by James Walker Hood, the original St. Peter’s building was completely destroyed by the fire as it hosted 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 West Street School auditorium was used for worship services.
St. Cyprian’s Church, 604 Johnson St. - The church, without serious damage from the fire, was converted into a hospital for the African American community. Doctors tended to 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, Rev. R.I. Johnson began an effort to provide medical care for Black people in New Bern which led to the financing and construction of Good Shepherd Hospital.
The Rhone Hotel, 512 Queen St. - The historic Rhone Hotel was built in 1923 and owned by three sisters: Henrietta, Amy and Charlotte Rhone. It was used as lodging for Black people who were not welcomed in white hotels. At that time, there were no accommodations for Black people.
Cedar Street Recreation, 800 Cedar St. - The Recreation Center, which was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in August, 2003, was built to serve the Dryborough district, which was mostly destroyed in the Great Fire. A large number of African Americans rebuilt the area with both homes and businesses and erected Cedar Street as a recreation center for African American youths.
This article originally appeared on Sun Journal: 5 things to know about The Great Fire of 1922, a city tragedy