Bertie County, NC: Taking the 1700s into the 20th Century
Hunter Bear (John R. Salter)

See also Black-Belt Thunder.
See also North Carolina Movement for web links.

Bertie [it's pronounced Burr-Tee] is a large county, mostly rural and 70% Black — with some small Native communities, mostly in the White Oak Swamp area. It's still dominated economically by planters and very small town businesspeople and, in the mid-60s, it was one of the ten most economically poor counties in the United States. There was virtually no industry back then and there's little now. It was old Tuscarora Indian country and a major base for that Iroquoian nation but, around 1715, most of the Tuscarora removed to upstate New York and became the sixth nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. But some remained in their traditional places in North Carolina and still remain.

Back in the '60s, in my day, a state official in Raleigh had been publicly quoted as saying that, "Going to Bertie County is going into the 1700s."

When we began our North Carolina Black Belt campaign [I was Field Organizer for SCEF — the Southern Conference Educational Fund], we started in Halifax County — well to the west of Bertie. It was trench warfare, pure and simple. That intractably segregated and poverty-ridden county was tightly organized against any modicum of social change — Klan, Birch Society, North Carolina Defenders of States Rights [the N.C. affiliate of the white Citizens Councils.] With a whirlwind of grassroots meetings in Black and Indian communities, boycotts and demonstrations, we produced a massive voter registration drive which — following violence at the polls and economic reprisals — resulted in our winning a sweeping voter rights victory in Federal Court in Raleigh. The result of that was the registration of thousands of Blacks, and many Indians as well, for the first time since Reconstruction. [This was a year before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in1965.] Other Halifax victories followed — the county was essentially broken in a year, though we had mop-up —  and the news of all of this spread into other Black Belt counties which well fit well into our longer-term multi-county organization goal.

And I found myself speaking, as I had in the Halifax campaign, sometimes three times a night but now in churches in different counties. While we sowed the seeds of activist organization in those, I concentrated the primary thrust of our efforts on a county by county basis. Things moved fast and productively.

In an effort to spread "the word" even further, we organized a very large scale Civil Rights and Anti-Poverty Conference to be held at the Indian Woods Baptist Church, in early March, 1965, out in a rural setting, in Bertie — into which we had not yet entered officially. The conference was extremely well publicized over much of northeast/east North Carolina — and I'd lined up a fine array of speakers and workshop leaders. One of those, for the always important freedom music dimension, was my old Arizona friend, Clyde Appleton, then in North Carolina as a music prof — and currently on our Sycamore and Bear Without Borders discussion lists. Ms. Ella Baker, a fine friend always and a SCEF staff colleague, was the keynoter.

When we arrived at the Indian Woods church about forty-five minutes before the affair was to begin, only the church's committed clergyman's car was in the parking lot. A large pig was wallowing happily in a nearby mud puddle. But, as per "Southern Time," a vast number of people, some in rented buses, arrived en masse just a little late. The conference drew 1,043 people from 14 counties and went from about 10:30 am deep into the night. It was hailed in the region and the state itself as a major success.

At the conclusion of the conference, a key local Bertie leader approached me. Rev. W.M. Steele was a man of direct statement. "We want you", he said emphatically, "here in Bertie. And as fast as you can come." [He had, I learned later, once been a rural school teacher but had been fired for teaching the students the intricacies of math — and showing them how their sharecropper families were being cheated by the plantation owners at settling-up time.]

I was certainly game. The next day, I met with a Steele and a number of others. This was the essentially secular dimension. There was another, mandatory meeting required — a very important meeting with the religious Elder of the county, a man around 90 years of age. He headed the county-wide Ministerial Alliance. "We have to meet with him," said Steele, " nd he definitely wants to meet you.

I had no problem with that. In my black suit and with Steele by my side, I met a few a few days later with the Patriarch. He sat in a chair, the more senior Bertie clergy adjacent to him, younger clergy a bit further back. The arrangement and the ethos struck me as tribal. Steele introduced me — many of the clergy had been at the Conference — and I sat in a chair directly in front of the awsome elder who I now saw as the Primary Chieftain. He looked me over carefully and then, in a not unfriendly fashion, asked me a number of pertinent personal questions, followed by several very apt ones on my organizing approach. I responded fully. Then, suddenly, with a huge and warm smile to me, he stood. We all stood and he extended his hand which I shook. There was a prayer.

Things moved with powerful whirlwind speed in Bertie. I spoke all over the county and, as formal organization took shape, we effectdively addressed a variety of issues. The Bertie Klan, not nearly the force it had been in Halifax, tried desperately to mount an offensive, but had to settle for a number of cross- burnings. We clearly had the initiative.

A major issue was the refusal by the County Board of Commissioners to approve the entrance of Federal food commodities and the new Federal Food Stamp Program into the county. The planters wanted neither for obvious reasons — primarily to keep the sharecroppers down and totally dependent — and the urban merchants, such as they were, while not wanting commodities, did want — for commercial reasons — the food stamps.

We organized close to six hundred sharecroppers, Black — and some Tuscaroras from the swamp country — and marched through the small county seat of Windsor to the courthouse on the day the commissioners met. This had been preceded by our written demand notification to them: we wanted both commodities and stamps. And we also told them that we were coming in numbers. [The U.S. Department of Agriculture was amenable to both programs concurrently in especially needy counties.]

The high sheriff and a few deputies on the courthouse steps watched us as we marched up and down — truly a mass — in front of the courthouse. Behind the building were many other lawmen — some regulars, some specially deputized for the occasion. Finally, the door opened. A very ancient old white man, a commissioner, came out. Looking at the hundreds of very dark faces and mine, he asked — knowing, of course, very visually precisely who I was — "Is Mistah John Salter here?"

I raised my hand. "We would like you to come in," he said politely, "and meet with us."

"I'll be glad to," I replied, "but we have local leaders who must also come." He nodded, again politely.

Inside, we negotiated for about an hour and a half. Upshot: the Bertie County Board of Commissioners approved the entrance of both Federal food commodities and the new Federal Food Stamp Program.

That was for sure a good day. And there were many other productive Bertie adventures — and then we were in Northampton County and some others.

All of it worked out very well indeed.

Here are some interesting photos from the historic Black Belt Conference in Bertie County. They were taken by our very good friend and colleague, the late J.V. Henry.

And here is our Link to our classic Black-Belt Klan story: Handling the Klan on Easter Sunday, 1965.

In Solidarity,
Hunter Bear

Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by Na4shdo4i4ba4i4 and Ohkwari'

For the new, just out (11/2011) and expanded/updated edition of my "Organizer's Book," Jackson Mississippi: —  with a new and substantial Introduction by me:

Our community organizing course
Personal Background Narrative (with many links)

Copyright © Hunter Bear (John R. Slater), 2011

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