March 12, 1904 ~ February 18, 2008
Meet Muzel Bryant, whose lineage on Ocracoke goes back to the Civil War. While history books were chronicling the resolve of the postwar American spirit, equally passionate and entrepreneurial African American families, such as the Bryants, often were left out of the story. Muzel is a rare link to that near-forgotten past. “She’s a treasure in Outer Banks History” says Walt Wolfram, a socialinguist from NC State University. Wolfram had studied Muzel’s speech and her life for a decade. “She’s the last living African American who was born and still lives on Ocracoke” -(2004) The first African Americans arrived on the Outer banks in the early 1700s as slaves brought from Virginia and Maryland, according to Wolfram. By the Civil War, coastal North Carolina had a significant slave population, and more than a 100 slaves lived on Ocracoke. After the war ended in 1865, all of Ocracoke’s former slaves left the island. The only two African Americans to move from the mainland to Ocracoke were Muzel’s grandparents, Harkus and Winnie Blount. Like many island men, Harkus earned a living as a carpenter and a boat builder while Winnie worked as a domestic. She was born on March 12, 1904- only 39 years after slavery ended and 50 years before the Civil Rights movement began. She was one nine children to Leonard and Elsie Jane Bryant. Jane and Leonard both worked at the Doxsee Clam Factory at the turn of twentieth century enterprise established on Cockle Creek (now often known as Silver Lake) across from the Ditch from the present day Coast Guard Station.
They didn’t go to school with the regular kids, but the white lids their age would teach them. All of the Bryant’s nine children except Muzel, Mildred and Julius, settled on the mainland, either in North Carolina or the northern states. The youngest, John Thomas, moved to Elkin and was a chauffeur for the Reynolds family, of Tobacco fame. Two of Muzel’s brothers, Lewis and Jeffrey, worked for the US Army Corps of Engineers, and her oldest brother, Artis, joined the Merchant Marines. Muzel’s sisters were equally ambitious, Mildred worked in Washington, NC. and Baltimore for nearly 15 years, returning to the island in the early 1940s. Mamie moved to Connecticut and later taught school in New York city where she lives with her daughter. For most of her life, Muzel stayed on Ocracoke. She began working as a domestic at age 14, and her employers eventually included historic Ocracoke families such as the O’Neals, the Braggs and the Ballances. She never married and only changed her career and location once. Kenny Ballance was her caretaker in her later years, his father worked alongside Lewis Bryant, one of Muzel’s brothers, in the US Army Corps of Engineers, and Muzel and her sister Mildred looked after Kenny Ballance and his sibling, Alton and Kathy. Eventually after Mildred passed in 1995 at the age of 87 Muzel moved out of her family’s house and in with Ballance. Given his family’s history with the Bryants, taking care of Muzel seems only natural. (courtesy of Holiday magazine 2004, article by Kathleen Angione)
Muzel celebrated her 100th Birthday in March of 2004, It was a big celebration with a community party, social hour and dinner in the Ocracoke school gym, she arrived in grand style in a limousine and was greeted by approximately 300 guests from the Ocracoke community and off-island well wishers. Host for the gala event was her longtime friend, Kenny Ballance. As the star of the evening, Musie was honored by several guest speakers who remarked on her life and family. They included Mary Bryant, her niece from manhattan, Leon Bryant, a cousin from the mainland and a Hyde County Commissioner, Ruthie King, a friend from Atlantic and Alton Ballance, an Ocracoke friend. In nod of her fondness for chocolate candy, she received cases of chocolate bars and a letter of congratulations from Hershey’s. Following the dinner and speeches, Musie and her guests continued on to Howard’s Pub for a dance and music provided by the Ocracoke Rockers.
|Muzel’s Baby Dolls||A Cradle from the Bryant Family||Muzel’s Handmade Rocker|
Linguistic Lessons: Although Muzel Bryant isn’t one to chat the day away, she has made valuable contributions to linguistic research, says Walt Wolfram. “Her speech has been very important in terms of our understanding of the development of African American English”. An expert in African American dialects, Wolfram began studying the speech of Outer Banks residents nearly two decades ago. He soon saw a unique opportunity in Muzel Bryant, Ocracoke’s sole African American resident. Because Muzel rarely had contact with mainland African Americans, Wolfram wondered if her speech matched other Ocracokers, who, after centuries of physical and cultural separation from the mainland, had developed a dialect known as the “Ocracoke Brogue”. He discovered that her speech had some elements of the local dialect, but it also reflected features unique to African American Vernacular English. “To be perfectly honest”, he reports “this is not what I expected”. A person’s speech often assimilates to neighboring groups in certain syntactical ways, he explains, but Muzel’s speech did not match this pattern.
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