Black History Report: New Bern's William Henry Singleton

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NEW BERN, NC (WITN) Each Wednesday in February we'll be marking Black History Month as we take a look at the contributions made by African Americans in the rich history of eastern Carolina.

Our first journey takes us back to the Civil War era where William Henry Singleton, born a slave in 1843, led the first group of African Americans in New Bern to fight for our country's unity.

Historical documents show Singleton was born on the Nelson Plantation in New Bern and that his father was either Thomas or William Singleton.

Bernard George with the New Bern Historical Society says his father's race is largely agreed upon, saying "His father was white."

George says it's likely that Singleton and his white father had no relationship.

George says according to Singleton's narrative - "Recollections of My Slavery Days," he was very close to his mother. So when Singleton was sold to a plantation in Atlanta, Singleton found a way back to New Bern -- over 100 miles away. But when he came back -- he was in hiding .

George says, "He was hidden by his mother in a potato bin under the floor boards of the house and she hid him there for three years until he was eventually discovered by his master again and sold again."

Much of Singleton's teenage years were spent resisting bondage and fighting for his freedom.

So when the Civil War began in 1861 Singleton was quick to get involved.

George says, "He became an attaché, a man servant to one of the officers in the Calvary, in the Confederate Calvary that drilled here."

But George says Singleton didn't want to be a servant -- he wanted to be a Union soldier.

So when Singleton approached a Union soldier about fighting, and was declined -- Singleton decided to start his own regiment -- gathering up a thousand black men.

George says, "They drilled through these very streets you see around here, with corn stalks, for weapons."

In 1862 when New Bern was captured by Union forces -- Singleton met President Lincoln. Lincoln declined Singleton's colored regiment to fight for the Union cause -- but encouraged Singleton for the future.

Once the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863 -- Singleton's men became the first North Carolina colored regiment, later known as the 35Th Regiment, United States colored troops.

Singleton was honorably discharged in 1866 -- and after his service he moved to the North and lived the rest of his days active in the AME Church, Veterans groups and civil rights.

George says his legacy is his love for freedom, and his dedication to citizenship.

Singleton lies at rest in New Haven, Connecticut -- but George says the soldier -- born to a prominent white man and a black slave -- serves as a reminder that roots go deep here in eastern Carolina.

George says, "It's unique in the South in that these families are connected by blood. Whether you like it or not."