Coastal Review Online is featuring the work of North Carolina historian David Cecelski, who writes about the history, culture and politics of the North Carolina coast. Cecelski shares on his website essays and lectures he has written about the state’s coast as well as brings readers along on his search for the lost stories of our coastal past in the museums, libraries and archives he visits in the U.S. and across the globe.
A retired state trooper named Bobbie “Bob” Edwards sent me a message a few weeks ago. He told me that he had read my recent story about the bombing of an African American church in eastern North Carolina in 1966. He said my article had brought back memories. He had seen the church explode, he told me. He had been the only eyewitness.
Mr. Edwards had been stationed in Craven County, North Carolina, between 1965 and 1971. On the night of the church bombing, he was in his third year of what would be a 32-year career in the State Highway Patrol. Now 81 years old, he has retired to Yadkin County, North Carolina.
Mr. Edwards and I exchanged a few messages and then we arranged to talk on the phone a couple days later. When we did talk, the first thing that struck me about him was the way his voice sounded like the people I grew up with. I could tell that he was from eastern North Carolina.
The second thing that struck me about him was something else about his voice. I know you can’t always judge a person by their voice, but what I heard was a special kind of decency and kindness.
* * *
I only learned the real story of the church bombing a few months ago, when an African American gentleman named Chris Johnson got in touch with me. Mr. Johnson is a retired army first sergeant who lives in Texas now. His family belonged to the Cool Springs Free Will Baptist Church at the time of the bombing. His memories revealed the story of the church bombing for the first time and formed the foundation for my article, “The Bombing of the Cool Springs Free Will Baptist Church.”
Unknown persons — almost assuredly Ku Klux Klansmen — bombed the Cool Springs Free Will Baptist Church in Ernul, North Carolina, on April 9, 1966. Trooper Edwards was only 24 years old at the time. He is white, like all state troopers were at that time. He had grown up on a tobacco farm in a little crossroads called Contentnea, just outside the town of Kinston, 30 miles to the west of Ernul. He had been raised, he said, “in a Christian home.”
He had been on patrol that spring night. It was about 11:30 in the evening, and he was driving slowly down the Old Brick Road, which local people also call the “Nine Foot Road.”
The road dates to the 1700s and is part of what many years ago was called the King’s Highway or the Post Road. The road ran all the way from Boston to Charleston. There are not many places where you can still drive on the old bricks, but Ernul is one of them.
An old legend says an enslaved man with no legs built the section of the road that passes through Ernul. They say that the man worked on a low platform that had wheels, and he built the road with bricks that were used as ballast stones on ships that came up the Neuse River.
The Old Brick Road in Ernul is still only 9 feet wide and when two cars meet, one has to pull onto the shoulder.
Edwards told me that night was very dark. Ernul was just a tiny little place. It didn’t have any street lights and the only businesses were a country store and a roadside inn out on U.S. 17, a two-lane road. The Cool Springs FWB Church was set back in the woods anyway, he told me, so he was used to it being dark and quiet that time of night.
He told me that the explosion shook his patrol car like an earthquake. At first, he thought that somebody was shooting at him. He slammed on his brakes, rolled onto the ground next to his patrol car with his revolver drawn and prepared to defend himself.
That was when he saw what had happened. “The whole front of the church was blown out,” he remembered. There were splintered boards and broken pews and Bibles and hymnals scattered everywhere. He knew instantly that the Ku Klux Klan had done it.
He looked closer and found no fire and nobody had been in the church at that hour. He returned to his patrol car and radioed headquarters. Sheriff deputies and FBI agents soon showed up, and they told him that they would handle the crime scene and he could go back on patrol.
* * *
Edwards remembered that the church bombing occurred in the early days of school desegregation in that part of Craven County. Racial tensions were high, and there had been a good deal of Ku Klux Klan violence.
A few days after the church bombing, the principal at the Farm Life School in Vanceboro, a small town 10 miles north of Ernul, reported that the school had received a bomb threat. Students and teachers were evacuated and sent home. No bomb was found.
Two days later, unidentified white men threw stones at Black children trying to get on a school bus. Another morning a carload of white men tried to force a school bus to the side of the road. They targeted the bus because some of the schoolchildren were Black. White children and Black children had never gone to the same schools in that part of Craven County, so they had never previously ridden the school bus together.
The bus driver managed to get away from the white men. Instead of continuing his route, he returned to the school without picking up the children on the rest of his route. The principal called the State Highway Patrol and Edwards was one of the troopers that answered the call.
When the bus driver returned to his route, Edwards followed the bus in his patrol car. On subsequent days, he rode on a school bus carrying a riot shotgun. For the next two weeks, he and other state troopers rode on every local school bus. Patrol cars followed the buses as well.
* * *
Edwards recalled that the Ku Klux Klan held a rally and a parade in Vanceboro two weeks later. He remembers Klansmen being on one side of the town’s main street and outraged Black citizens standing on the other side of the street.
At the end of the rally, gunfire broke out. Edwards was on duty there, but he could not tell whether the Klan or the Black citizens fired first. He did know that for a time there was a good deal of shooting. The state troopers and the local police eventually restored the peace. They didn’t arrest anyone, but they did confiscate rifles and other weapons.
Edwards told me that other state troopers confided to him that some of the local sheriffs and their deputies sympathized with the Klan. He had also heard that at least some of them were KKK members. He said that he did not know for sure if that was true though.
I asked Edwards about his own racial views in the 1960s and now. I also asked him about his outlook on the civil rights movement and the Ku Klux Klan when he was stationed in Craven County.
He told me that he often felt caught in the middle during those years. The Klan detested state troopers, he said, and most Black people looked at the troopers with deep suspicion and often as enemies of the African American community. (The State Highway Patrol, by the way, only began accepting Black recruits in 1969.)
“I just tried to do my job and be fair to everybody,” Edwards told me. He said that he had been raised a Christian. “You’re supposed to love your fellow man and I tried to do that,” he told me.
I told him that I had heard those words from many other white Christians, including men that had been Klansmen in the 1960s. I told him that I was inclined to be skeptical. But I have to admit: there was something about the way that Edwards said those words that made me believe him.
* * *
Edwards remembered the man that was head of the Ku Klux Klan in that section of Craven County in the 1960s. His name was Raymond Mills, and he and two other white men had been charged with setting off a series of bombs in New Bern in 1965. New Bern is 15 miles south of Ernul and is the seat of Craven County.
The bombs targeted a civil right meeting at an African American church and a mortuary owned by a local NAACP activist. Mills and the other two men originally faced federal and state charges. However, federal authorities withdrew their charges, and the men pled guilty to reduced state charges and were given only probationary sentences.
“The Klan, seemed like every time they got charged with something, they’d get out of it,” Edwards recalled.
Many local people were convinced that Mills was also behind the bombing of the Cool Springs FWB Church. Nobody was ever charged with the crime, however.
Edwards told me that he had met Mills two or three times. While on patrol, he had stopped him for traffic violations. He said that Mills was much like the other Klan leaders whose speeches he had heard when he was on duty at the public rallies that the KKK held in local farm fields.
“A cantankerous sort,” he said. “Disliked the government.” During the traffic stops, Mills did not want to show him his driver license and did not think that a member of the State Highway Patrol had a right to require him to show it. “He was that kind of fellow,” Edwards told me.
Later that year, a Klansman shot a state trooper not far from Ernul, on the road between New Bern and Bayboro. That happened during a traffic stop.
* * *
Edwards told me that he did not know the minister at the Cool Springs FWB Church, but he did get to know the Black minister at one of its sister churches, St. Joseph’s Free Will Baptist Church. They first met when he stopped the minister because he had a light out on a logging truck that he operated when he wasn’t in the pulpit or otherwise serving his parishioners.
Located 13 or 14 miles north of Ernul, on the other side of Vanceboro, “St. Joe’s” was the site of at least one large civil rights meeting around the time of the church bombing in Ernul. Unknown persons, believed to be Klansmen, had bombed St. Joe’s five months before the bombing at the Cool Springs FWB Church.
Edwards told me about the traffic stop. When he examined the minister’s vehicle registration card, he had noticed that it was due to expire that day. He had told the minister that was the case.
The minister told him that he was aware of the registration’s expiration date, but times had been hard and he did not have the money to renew it. He explained that was why he was taking the load of logs to the mill that day. If he got a good price for them, he’d be able to renew his registration.
Edwards suggested that they pray over the matter. That may seem a little unusual in some places, but it’s the kind of thing that’s not hard to imagine at all where I grew up.
“Maybe we should just pray that you get enough money for that license tag,” he told me he told the preacher.
Sitting in the patrol car on the side of the road, the two men closed their eyes and prayed. They prayed that God might bless them both, but that God might most particularly bless the reverend and help him to get a good price for his logs so that he could renew his registration.
According to Edwards, their prayers were answered. The Reverend did get enough money from the sale of his logs to renew his registration. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Trooper Edwards later introduced the minister at St. Joe’s to the minister at his church.
Edwards told me that he and the two preachers sometimes got together in the weeks after that traffic stop. They’d sit on his minister’s front porch. The two clergymen would talk about the Bible and discuss theology, while the young state trooper mostly sat quietly and listened.
“Start with the church bombing, but bring it ‘round to loving your neighbor,” Edwards suggested to me, when I asked him if he minded if I wrote a little something about his memories of the night that the Cool Springs FWB Church was bombed.
I told him that I would do my best. I was going to tell him something else, too, but I decided that there was no need: he already seemed to know that history isn’t just about the things that we have seen in the past, but also about what we have in our hearts.