The living legacy of the 'Rhone Sisters' of New Bern


NEW BERN, Craven County - Throughout February, which is set aside as Black History Month, we've learned about the contributions of many African-Americans to our community.

For March, which is set aside as Women's History Month, the contributions of outstanding women will be at the forefront. Some of those women were African-American sisters, Charlotte, Henrietta, Carrie and Amy Rhone, who left a great heritage in New Bern.

With the city of New Bern being very rich with history, it is very easy for some of that history to be forgotten or lost entirely. This is especially the case for history related to the black community, whose many contributions were not acknowledged in the past and in many cases even destroyed during the country's turbulent history with racism and segregation. In cases where they have stood the test of time, they have not been well preserved due to lack of funding. But the legacy of the Rhone sisters of New Bern has continued to live on due to efforts by an organization they were instrumental in bringing to New Bern.

Members of the Climbers Club have been preserving and sharing the legacy of the Rhone sisters as well as the significant contributions of other prominent African-American community leaders in New Bern's history. Retired Trent Park Elementary School Principal, Carol Becton, is the vice president of the Climbers Club, which was founded by the Rhone Sisters in 1921. Becton and members of that organization have been instrumental in keeping the legacy of the Rhone sisters alive.

"They have been described as dynamic and a force here in New Bern, and I like that because it does definitely describe them," said Becton.

Born to John and Henrietta Rhone, in New Bern, the Rhone sisters, as they have come to be known, were a family of entrepreneurs who lived in the section of the city that was home to a growing black population that included freed African-Americans and those escaping slavery. They were born in the 1870s during the post Civil War era, when the United States of America saw an enforcement of racist Jim Crow laws, even though slavery had been abolished.

The challenges of that era did not deter the sisters, who also had two brothers, James B. Rhone, born in 1876 and Walter Rhone, born in 1879. It is unknown when their brothers died. Charlotte who was born in 1874 and died in 1965, dreamed of becoming a nurse.

"Here in North Carolina, there were six schools that would not admit her and that was the law at the time. She was black and a Negro and so could not be admitted and that did not stop her," said Becton.

Around 1898, Charlotte eventually enrolled at the Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C., which was affiliated with Howard University, an all black college. She was able to pursue her nursing education and graduated in 1901. She was also a graduate of North Carolina Normal College, later renamed North Carolina Central University in Durham, and taught physical education at North Carolina College. In 1903, she become the first black registered nurse in the state.

Despite those accomplishments, Charlotte was faced with the arduous reality of the time.

"Obstacles continued to prevail because she wasn't able even then to get a job because hospitals, white hospitals were not hiring black nurses and she could not get a nursing job here in New Bern," Becton said.

She then pursued a profession as a social worker, becoming the first black social worker in Craven County and rising to Assistant Superintendent of the County Welfare Department.

Charlotte's older sister, Caroline 'Carrie' Marie Rhone, who was born in 1872 and died in 1962 and was married to one the states' wealthiest African-Americans. Her husband, Isaac H. Smith, was a realtor and finance broker who served in the N.C. House in 1898. Carrie Rhone-Smith's wealth and influence became the engine behind many of the undertakings of the Rhone sisters.

A collective tragedy for the city of New Bern, recounted by historians and residents, would catapult the sisters into legacy status. In 1922, the Great Fire of New Bern destroyed more than 40 blocks of homes and left thousands homeless and injured. Many lost their homes and for many in the black community, their only chance at a quality life post Emancipation. It was a watershed moment for the city and a turning point for the black community.

Despite the tragedy, the ugly head of racism super ceded humanity as injured blacks were turned away from the primary hospitals which were only taking in injured victims who were white. The nearest hospital which could treat blacks was 80 miles away. This spurred the priest of St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church, Reverend R.I. Johnson to turn it into an emergency center.

The Rhone's were parishioners at that church. Carrie's home which burned down in the fire was right across from the church. Charlotte's nursing skills came in very handy during that difficult time. Thus, along with member of their church, the community, and under the leadership of Reverend Johnson, they joined in efforts to raise funds to build the Good Shepard Hospital. It would serve as a hospital for black people in the city when it opened it doors in 1938.

In the after math of the fire the Rhone sisters also realized there was an opportunity for something else that was missing in the city. A hotel specifically for black travelers who were not being lodged at establishments owned by whites.

"They needed a new home themselves but they built this for Negro travelers who when they traveled all over the south they didn't have any place to stay," said Becton.

The historic Rhone hotel was built in 1923 on Queen Street and was listed in what was called the Green book.

"It covered those areas in the United States which blacks could not go, which was pretty much everywhere but provided information on places that they could. For New Bern there were 2 places with the Rhone Hotel being the main one," added Becton.

A replacement, brick house named "The Isaac Smith & Carrie Rhone Smith House", grand for its time, was built and still stands at 607 Johnson St.

Amy, born in 1883 and Henrietta born in 1888, ran the hotel from their home on the top floor, which they shared with older sister, Charlotte. The hotel saw a stream of black travelers and porters from the train station across the street. The hotel is now a private home but has been designated as a historic site and flies the city's flag.

The Rhones also played an instrumental role in the fundraising and construction efforts for the West Street Colored Library, located at 608 West St. It was built in 1936 because blacks were denied access to the public library. It has now been renamed The Charlotte Rhone Cultural Center and the Climbers Club is its custodian. The club will hold its first ever Charlotte S. Rhone award there at 11.45 on Saturday, March 4. It is part of their women's history month celebrations. The club will be honoring five women of color in the community who are making a difference.

Additional Source: New Bern Historical Society