Drybrough May Be Added To National Register

Jan 20, 2015

The local African American community Dryborough  is close to getting national recognition as a historic landmark.

Here in eastern North Carolina, pre-Civil War, a thriving African American community started churning into existence, in a part of what we now know as New Bern.   Dryborough had humble beginnings as only the second incorporated town in Craven County.  By mid-century it boasted many professional residents and its own hospital and library. After Great Fire of New Bern in 1922, much of Dryborough was leveled.  The community never made a true come back but it is making its mark on history with an expected designation as a National Historic District, part of downtown New Bern. Mac McKee has more today, on Dryborough and why this historic African American community may finally get the  recognition it deserves. 

On Wednesday, a public meeting facilitated discussion on the nomination process.  New Bern City Planner and Historic Preservation Commission Administrator Kevin Robinson says the city’s preservation plan gives priority status to Dryborough.

“We’ve got four other historic districts here and none of them tell the African American side of the story here in New Bern.  So that’s very helpful and it’s very important that we recognize that.”

Robinson says a State Historic Preservation Office grant of $15,000 was awarded in July for a survey of the area, to determine more accurately the age of standing historic structures. The survey also lists the architectural details and historical significance of each building.

“It would be preferable that Dryborough be its own stand alone National Historic District. However, with its size and features that have been lost, State Historic Preservation Office and others involved thought it would be better at this time to add it to the national district downtown (New Bern).  So this will be basically an annex to downtown, an extension to downtown.”

Situated at the edge of New Bern, Dryborough was incorporated in 1806.  Retired educator and native of New Bern Ethel Martin Staten grew up in the community.  She’s also the founder of the Historic Dryborough Neighborhood Association. 

“A lot of people were coming in to the area to work on the train tracks and to work in the train depot which was actually a growing thing at the time, and one of the reasons why New Bern eventually annexed Dryborough, due to the fact that she was losing her popularity and economic status to Fayetteville, Wilmington and other places that were really where the trains were taking off.”

Originally, the town was located north of Queen Street to Cypress Street, and from West St. to Howard St. The boundaries of the community grew as its popularity among African Americans gained steam.  Staten says Dryborough was home to many prominent African American leaders, including John Thomas Barber, better known as J.T. Barber, who served as the first principal of West Street School. It was also home to the first African American model for Pepsi Cola, Loretta Smith.

 “I.H. Smith Sr. was one of the prominent persons and of course he was very instrumental in developing houses into Dryborough and the section that he developed became known as Smithtown.”

Smithtown along with the community of Dryborough was devastated by the Great Fire of New Bern in 1922.  City Planner Robinson says there are only a few original buildings still standing.

“I believe that there are a couple of churches that survived the fire.  I believe that two of them may have been moved but they are the original structures.  And I think at least two houses on the northern end of Dryborough managed to survive the fire.  There’s at least a handful of properties that pre-date the fire and it’s going to be important to document those.”

The study, which will give more information on the history of Dryborough landmarks, will be completed in late Spring.  Robinson says they have until August to submit the surveys and nominations for national historic designation.  It could be December before Dryborough makes its name in  the National Register.  If the designation is granted, Robinson says tax credits could help fund the restoration of what's left of historic structures in Dryborough.  I'm Mac McKee.