Between The Scenes: A Conversation with David Cecelski


No one may know more about eastern North Carolina history than David Cecelski, an accomplished historian who has spent his entire career focused on the place where he grew up. A Chef’s Life fans will recognize Cecelski from season five’s pear episode, where he and his daughter, Vera, showed Vivian how they make pear preserves. We wanted to share our interview with the Harvard-trained historian, encourage our fans to read his blog, and maybe be inspired by his advice to do their own historical research. 

Q: Where did you grow up in Carteret County?
A: My family home place — where my mother’s family is from — is in Harlowe. We grew up there and we grew up in Havelock, which is in Craven County. My father was a Cherry Point Marine who came here during the second World War. He met my mother there.

Q: Since your dad was in the military, did you move around a lot?
A: He was a career Marine from WWII to the Vietnam era. By the time my brother and I came along, he had enough seniority and my mother wanted to be close to her mother that we never traveled around. My father would go off on duty tours but we stayed put.

Q: How did you end up focusing on eastern North Carolina as a historian?
A: When I was young, I just wanted to get out of eastern North Carolina. We all did. Havelock had 2,000 people in it. Harlowe was even smaller. It was hard not to feel a little smothered. Everybody knew everybody and everybody is related to us. It’s still like that — but now I like that. I went away to college at Duke. As soon as I got away, I just wanted to come back. As I became a historian, I felt like the stories of eastern North Carolina were as rich and as unexplored and as deep. I never tire of telling those stories. While most historians do a different time period or a theme, like post-Reconstruction South, I have learned that by going deep in one place that I might find broader truths about American history. I do think there’s a strength to that. I also think it’s a weakness. Sometimes I don’t know as much about the rest of the world as would be helpful.

Q: Reading your blog, I have been fascinated by how you stumble upon these stories, like the post about the family of bird collecters from eastern North Carolina whose eggs ended up at the Field Museum in Chicago. I wonder: how did he find that?
A: One of the positive sides of sticking to one place is while I’m exploring some other subject or sometimes giving a talk somewhere, someone comes up afterwards and hands me a diary. Even some of my books have come out of things I stumbled on while doing other research. With the bird story, I was looking for something related to Collington Island when I ran across the news account of that poor young man who died while looking for kingfisher eggs. For example, I have to give a talk in New York later this week and I’m going to wade into New York Public Library archives while I’m there. I have done enough research to know that the New York Public Library has a Jack Kerouac manuscript that has never been published from when he was in Kinston. His sister briefly lived in Kinston. It may not be interesting. It may be drug-induced hysteria. I’m not going to be a Jack Kerouac specialist. But I am interested in the place. … In this case, this rambling essay that he’s supposed to have written about Kinston may offer insight into Kerouac’s life but he could have gone on the side of the street that opens up a side of Kinston and that may lead some place.

Q: What’s another example of you stumbling across a book idea?
A: When I was younger, some of my African-American neighbors often talked about ancestors who were shipbuilders and boat builders. One elderly woman told me that she had a French ancestor who had escaped when his ship was in New Bern, had run away, been taken in and ended up in Harlowe. On a number of levels, it just didn’t seem very credible. But while looking at many things many years later, I found her ancestor. He had escaped from Haiti. I didn’t know there were a lot of African-American sailors anywhere really. It turns out most watermen in North Carolina were African-Americans before the Civil War. I wrote a book about it. It was just as much a surprise to me. Once I took it serious, I’d look at old slave advertisements: it was one river boatmen and one sailor after another. I discovered they were important conduit for the Underground Railroad. In fact, that was the underground railroad in eastern North Carolina. Hardly anyone went north on the back of a Quaker’s hay wagon. They got with these black boatmen and headed down the rivers, met up with black sailors and some white sailors and tried to get on a boat headed North.

Q: What advice would you give for those who want to explore the history of where they live?
A: One of the things I like about what I do is you don’t have to have any training at all. Start where you are at and talk to the oldest people. Listen to the stories. Go through the old newspapers randomly that are in any public library in the state. You don’t need to go looking. You will find something that strikes your imagination and will strike you as something no teacher ever taught you. Right away, you are doing original research and you are onto a question. It may be something that’s just of local interest. It may be something that has broad interest.