Alabama Family Will Donate Historic House for Renovation as African-American History Museum

(NOTE: This is a news release I've sent out about the effort to renovate one of Plymouth's oldest and most historic structures.)

An Alabama family with North Carolina roots will donate an early 19th-century house dating back to the earliest days of Plymouth's history for renovation and use as a museum depicting African-American history and culture.

The house, listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Picot-Armistead-Pettiford House, will be donated by the family of Velma and James Braye of Tuskegee Institute, Alabama to a non-profit organization to be designated in Plymouth. The donation was arranged by the Plymouth Small Town Main Street Committee, with assistance from senior historian Carl Westmoreland of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

The Brayes, their daughter Linda Bulls, son-in-law George Bulls, and granddaughter Salena Bulls decided to donate the house after a private meeting in Plymouth April 1 that included family friend Peter McNair, Westmoreland and his wife Carol, and representatives of the Plymouth Small Town Main Street Committee.

Earlier that day, nine-year-old Salena Bulls said she thought it would be "great" if the house was used as a museum. "Like Salena, I think it's a wonderful thing that the house will be utilized as an African-American history museum," said Velma Braye, who grew up in the house. "It's something I've been wanting since 2000.

Braye's mother, Gladys Whitley, who died in 2000, was the house's last occupant.

Westmoreland said the house is a "capsule of history" whose historic stature is enhanced by its unusual succession of owners.

"Each owner made a significant contribution to Plymouth and to the whole notion of American striving and attainment," Westmoreland said.

The two-story wood-frame house overlooking the Roanoke River was built in 1814 by physician Julian Picot, a Frenchman who is thought to have come to the settlement that is now Plymouth in the 1780s after being shipwrecked on Ocracoke Island. Picot arrived in Plymouth at about the same time the town was established in 1787. Plymouth was incorporated in 1807, only seven years before Picot bought a lot at the corner of West Main and Monroe streets where he built the house.

Plymouth, located about six miles upstream from where the Roanoke River empties into the Albemarle Sound, became one of North Carolina's busiest ports after the nearby Dismal Swamp Canal opened in 1805. Ships loaded at Plymouth traveled down the Roanoke, across the Albemarle Sound, and through the canal to the deepwater port about 100 miles away at Norfolk, Virginia.

In 1844 the title to the house and lot was transferred to Robert Armistead, a Plymouth merchant. Robert Armistead died in 1857, but his brother Thomas lived in the house until after the Civil War. Plymouth saw heavy fighting during the war, and Thomas Armistead's house was one of only a handful of buildings that weren't heavily damaged or destroyed before the war ended in 1865.

Local oral history has long linked the house to the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves in the Antebellum South find their way to freedom. But some historians challenge that theory because the 1850 Census indicates that both Armistead brothers owned slaves.

Thomas Armistead's house was sold at a public auction in 1886 to William H. Hampton. The house stayed in the Hampton family until 1913, when it was bought by Jane Brinkley. The following year, Brinkley sold the house to Reuben Pettiford, an African-American brick mason.

Westmoreland, the historian, noted that this transaction in which a white owner sold a house to a black buyer was very unusual in 1914.

Reuben Pettiford died in 1916, but his descendants still own the house. The fact that the house has stayed in the hands of an African-American family for nearly a century and was used as a boarding house and hotel for blacks during the so-called "Jim Crow" era of segregation also is historically significant, Westmoreland said.

"We are delighted that the Braye family has decided to make this huge contribution to our effort to improve downtown Plymouth," said Willie Drye, chairman of Plymouth's Small Town Main Street Committee. "The Picot-Armistead-Pettiford House is one of North Carolina's most historic buildings, and the restoration of this great old house as a museum of African-American history and culture will be a milestone for our downtown commercial district. This will be a wonderful addition to our collection of museums focusing on Plymouth's rich maritime, Civil War and natural histories."

The Small Town Main Street Committee will immediately launch a fund-raising effort to put a new roof on the house and stabilize the historic structure, Drye said. Advisors from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources will help plan the roof, he said.


Taneya said...

Hi Willie,

I learned of this news from a friend of mine. My family is from Plymouth (the McNair family) and I also maintain the Washington County NCGenWeb site. I did a blog post about the museum at http://goo.gl/gTxve that I thought you may wish to see. I'm going to try and stay abreast of the news with the museum. I am very glad to read of these developments!

Donna Campbell Smith said...

This is so exciting! I grew up hearing the stories of a tunnel from the house to the riverfront for the purpose of slaves escaping to the north. I always wondered though how a tunnel could be dug and not collapse since the area is swampy. I hope that mystery will be solved.

I am descended from Charles Latham, the Latham (Burgess) House on East Main was my mother's homeplace.

Anonymous said...

When my Elder, Cousin Gladys occupied the property, I stayed at the house several times during my visits to Plymouth when spending quality time visiting my loving relatives. I am elated that family members are donating the house; their efforts will make it an important historical landmark, a tribute to our breathtaking Black History and more memorable of my Elder as well. Perhaps, one day, I will see it on television during Black History Month when a variety of Black historical facts are bestowed to the world!

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Joe Hardison said...

I befriended Mrs Whitley in the 1970s and she allow me a peek into the tunnel. She was so protective over her home and it was a great honor to be allow this opportunity. I could only see a short distance inside so I can't say how far it went. She wouldn't allow me to enter and investigate only to look so I know the hidden entrance was there. I certainly hope those in charge of restoration will see this beautiful piece of history throught to its completion.