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392 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 29 halftones, 7 maps, appends., notes, bibl., index

ISBN  978-1-4696-0875-4
Published: November 2013

Crafting Lives

African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900

By Catherine W. Bishir

From the colonial period onward, black artisans in southern cities--thousands of free and enslaved carpenters, coopers, dressmakers, blacksmiths, saddlers, shoemakers, bricklayers, shipwrights, cabinetmakers, tailors, and others--played vital roles in their communities. Yet only a very few black craftspeople have gained popular and scholarly attention. Catherine W. Bishir remedies this oversight by offering an in-depth portrayal of urban African American artisans in the small but important port city of New Bern. In so doing, she highlights the community's often unrecognized importance in the history of nineteenth-century black life.

Drawing upon myriad sources, Bishir brings to life men and women who employed their trade skills, sense of purpose, and community relationships to work for liberty and self-sufficiency, to establish and protect their families, and to assume leadership in churches and associations and in New Bern’s dynamic political life during and after the Civil War. Focusing on their words and actions, Crafting Lives provides a new understanding of urban southern black artisans’ unique place in the larger picture of American artisan identity.

About the Author

Catherine W. Bishir is curator of Architectural Records Special Collections at North Carolina State University Libraries. She is author or co-author of six books, including North Carolina Architecture.


“Pays tribute to this . . . part of African-American life that . . . is seldom told.”
--Durham Herald-Sun

“Bishir’s immensely readable, entertaining new book is a welcome contribution to the literature and a first-rate reconstruction of the obscure world of New Bern’s nineteenth-century artisans of color.”
--The North Carolina Historical Review

“The true value [of Bishir’s book] lies upon the compelling personal histories of New Bernian artisans who remained largely anonymous up to now.”
--Art Libraries Society of North America

"In Bishir's able hands, these urban artisans of color emerge as complex and fascinating people who led communities, brought about change, and paved the way for future African American triumphs and challenges."
--John David Smith, Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

"With all the patience and precision of a New Bern tailor or tinsmith, Catherine Bishir has crafted a compelling picture of a gifted, embattled, and far-flung community of artisans. The implications of this masterful study ripple well beyond the coastal counties of North Carolina, nudging all of us to rethink our sense of the southern past."
--Peter H. Wood, author of Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer's Civil War

"This is a meticulously researched study of free and enslaved African American artisans in North Carolina. Using a host of sources, including wills, account books, court records, newspapers, and bills of sale, Catherine Bishir constructs the richest history of black craftspeople that I have seen. The work is enhanced by its focus on a particular place, but the rich information Bishir has unearthed about these men and women in New Bern has much to tell us about African American artisans' experiences and practices throughout the wider South."
--Heather Andrea Williams, author of Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery

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