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“If you can cross the creek to Roanoke Island, you will find ‘safe haven.’”
During the American Civil War, word of a “safe haven” in North Carolina spread throughout the state and attracted thousands of enslaved people to Roanoke Island. Enslaved African-Americans risked punishment, family separation and even their lives to reach the freedom waiting for them on Roanoke Island.
Outer Banks Group Superintendent David E. Hallac invites community members and visitors alike to visit the First Light of Freedom Memorial in the plaza at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site Visitor Center to self-reflect on the importance and meaning of this safe haven. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site was listed as a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site in 2002.
On May 14, 1863, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands established a Freedmen’s Colony to train and educate former enslaved African-Americans so that they could participate in their own free and independent communities. Until it was disbanded in 1867, the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony was home to 3,500 formerly enslaved—men, women, and children. It was a first community of its kind in North Carolina.
At its height, the colony provided its residents with freedoms and opportunities they had not previously been afforded. Residents of the colony for the first time had access to farmland, schools to obtain higher education, places of worship, and opportunities to develop trades and skills necessary to earn a living. Colony descendants still reside on the island.
The colony was an important first step on a journey for equality and freedom that continues. It is for that reason that those Freedmen and their descendants, who remained here after closure of the colony in 1867, have called the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony the “First Light of Freedom.”