Roanoke Island, NC

About the Site

Roanoke Island, a thirteen-mile island in the Croatan and Roanoke Sounds, located between the Outer Banks and the mainland coast of North Carolina, is well known as the site of the Lost Colony, where the first settlement of British colonists disappeared in 1587. The untold story of Roanoke Island, however, is its role in the development of Outer Banks African American speech. During the Civil War, the 1862 Battle of Roanoke Island ended Confederate resistance along the Outer Banks and stripped the Confederate army of one of their most vibrant maritime routes for provisions. This Union victory also escalated an influx of freed and runaway slaves to the North Carolina coast and compelled the creation of the Freedmen's Colony of Roanoke Island. The goal of this Freedmen's Colony was to establish a self-sufficient African American community. By the end of the Civil War, the population of the Freedmen's Colony of Roanoke Island was nearly 3500. Unfortunately, the colony was disbanded when the former residents of the island demanded their land back after the war. Following the forced disintegration of the Freedmen's colony, about 300 African American residents remained on Roanoke Island. Many of the approximately 250 current African American residents of Roanoke Island can trace their ancestry back to these people who remained on the island from the Freedmen's Colony. Many of these same community members today have taken an interest in preserving the history and traditions of the rich African American community on the island. Now, in the face of an increasing, permanent white population (approximately 2,000) and thousands of tourists who inundate the island during the summer season, the African American community maintains strong intra-ethnic solidarity. The overwhelming majority of African Americans on the island continue to reside in the same area that has served as the center of the African American community for as long as current residents can remember.

Research Questions

NCLLP staff members have interviewed many African American Roanoke Island residents. The quantitative analysis of Outer Banks regional features and core diagnostic structures of AAE allow us to determine patterns of dialect alignment over time. The generational patterns revealed in our investigations to date depict differences and similarities in the AAE spoken on Roanoke Island over apparent time. However, significant levels of individual variation in each generation are also attested, challenging generalizations about consistent changes over time. The mixed dialect alignment among Roanoke Island African Americans supports the conclusion that regional speech patterns can serve an important role in the development of different varieties of AAE. Thus, Roanoke Island is a significant complement to the studies of other African American regional enclaves in North Carolina and beyond.


Carpenter, Jeannine. 2004. The Lost Community of the Outer Banks: African American Speech on Roanoke Island. NCSU Master's Thesis.

Extension Projects

Freedom's Voice: Celebrating the Black Experience on the Outer Banks, museum exhibit at the Outer Banks History Center in Manteo, NC