By KATHLEEN ANGIONE
Vacationers on Ocracoke Island, lured by its pristine coastline and rich maritime culture, seldom notice the tiny, quiet woman who, at 100, is one of the island’s most cherished and unique residents. On most days, friends and neighbors passing by her house will look for her sitting in her recliner, positioned just right to see through the storm door. A woman of kind heart and few words, she always returns a wave hello.
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 sociolinguist from North Carolina State University. Wolfram has 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.”
The first African Americans arrived on the Outer Banks during 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 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.
No one knows why the couple chose the island, but there is some speculation that Winnie’s former owner occasionally visited Ocracoke, according to Alton Ballance, a Bryant family friend. Ballance is the author of Ocracokers, a definitive work on the island’s culture and history.
Like many island men, Harkus earned a living as a carpenter and a boat builder, while Winnie worked as a domestic. Few written details about their life exist, but it was likely difficult. Of the couple’s 12 children, only two — Annie Laura and Elsie Jane — lived to adulthood.
Elsie Jane married Leonard Bryant near the turn of the 20th century, and they chose to stay on Ocracoke. Between 1902 and 1924, they had nine children, including Muzel. She was born on March 12, 1904 — only 39 years after slavery ended and 50 years before the civil rights movement began.
“The connection over the century is just amazing,” says Julie Howard, Muzel’s friend and former next-door neighbor.
“As a small child, she remembered people sitting around talking about people that tried to fly” says Muzel’s caretaker, Kenny Ballance, referring to the Wright brothers’ flight over Kitty Hawk in 1903.
Despite the astounding changes in technology, world politics and culture during her lifetime, Muzel takes things in stride. “Well,” she admits with a shrug, “there have been a lot of changes.”
JUST LIKE FAMILY?
Growing up, the Bryant children may have seemed like any other group of siblings as they played by the shore and “mommucked” their elders, a local term meaning “to irritate or bother.” And although many in the community felt they accepted the Bryants “just like family,” Wolfram discovered that certain social boundaries once existed between Muzel’s family and other Ocracokers.
“They didn’t go to school with the regular kids,” Howard says. “But the white kids their age would teach them.”
“And Mu’ was always very proud of the fact that she could read,” she adds.
Ironically, when the community celebrated Muzel’s 100th birthday last March, the party was held at the same school she and her siblings could not attend.
As Wolfram learned more about Muzel’s life on the island, he uncovered other, more subtle examples of those social boundaries.
At one time the island had a dance hall, he says, describing it as a simple wooden room with a record player and a few metal chairs. “When we asked Muzel if she used to go to the dance hall, she said she did,” he reports. “However, when we asked her if she liked to dance, she said she didn’t know because she had never gone in; instead, she stayed outside, watching the others through the window.”
Those kind of educational and social boundaries, coupled with the isolation of island life, may explain why many of Muzel’s siblings left Ocracoke.
All of the Bryants’ nine children, except Muzel, Mildred and Julius, settled on the mainland, either in North Carolina or in 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 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and her oldest brother, Artis, joined the Merchant Marines.
Muzel’s sisters were equally ambitious. Mildred worked in Washington, N.C., 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 still lives with her daughter. Annie Laura lived in Washington, N.C., where she may have received some schooling, according to Alton Ballance in Ocracokers. She has since moved to a nursing home in Swan Quarter.
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 she only changed her career and location once: During her late teens she worked for relatives in a restaurant in Philadelphia. She returned to the island at age 20, and has lived there ever since.
A SPECIAL CONNECTION
Today, Muzel lives a quiet retiree’s life with her 50-year-old caretaker, Kenny Ballance. His father worked alongside Lewis Bryant, one of Muzel’s brothers, in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Muzel and her sister Mildred looked after Kenny Ballance and his siblings, Alton and Kathy.
Ballance and others on Ocracoke remember Mildred as the more outgoing and talkative of the two sisters. “She taught us to Charleston,” he says, recalling dance lessons. “She was like a mother to us.”
Although more shy than her younger sister, Muzel’s presence was still felt among the community. She was known for her daily walks along the unpaved, sandy road near her house.
“We used to say she’d lurk in the bushes,” Howard remembers with a smile. The road didn’t have a shoulder, she explains, and Muzel had to walk at the edge, often obscured by overgrown bushes and tall oak trees.
“She used to walk up and down the street and watch who was coming,” Howard recalls. People often stopped their cars or came out of their houses to chat with her.
Howard remembers one particular gentleman who regularly came down the road to talk with Muzel. “We used to kid and say, ‘oh, he’s courtin’ Muze!” says Howard. And many mornings, another neighbor would leave a newspaper in Muzel’s driveway for her to read.
“She kept a real close connection to everybody, just by her presence out there,” observes Howard.
But occasionally Muzel’s walks turned more adventurous, remembers Ballance.
“I looked one day, and she was going down the road in an old weapons carrier!” he says.
Ballance and his friend were headed to the post office when they spotted Muzel cruising down the street. “I said… ‘Wasn’t that Muze that just went by in that old Army weapons carrier?'”
The owner of the vehicle, an employee at the old Coast Guard station, had seen Muzel walking along the road. “He stopped and put her in there… and the two of them were going up the road!” says Ballance.
These days, Muzel doesn’t go out walking as much. Shortly after Mildred died in 1995 at age 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.
“It’s been a struggle, ain’t it Mu’?” he asks her playfully. “You having to look after me?” She chuckles and nods in agreement.
Muzel possesses a certain quiet politeness that seems rooted in a different era. She may ask a new visitor where he or she is from, or if they like the island. But that’s about it. She only offers her thoughts when asked.
Even those who know her well won’t catch her complaining about aching hips, stiff joints or the music kids listen to today. She exudes a calm happiness, one that accepts her age but refuses to let go of her character and self-sufficiency.
“You would never know she’s about the house,” says Ballance. “She’s no problem at all.”
Even as floodwaters seeped through their floorboards during Hurricane Alex in August, Muzel looked after herself when Ballance, who works for the National Park Service, got caught at work. “I couldn’t get home — the tide came in so quick, and she was here through the whole hurricane by herself,” he says.
A NEW CENTURY
As Muzel’s 101st birthday approaches this March, she is in better shape than many people decades younger. Her body is healthy, her mind is sound, and her cholesterol is lower than Ballance’s — a fact he indignantly admits.
Her daily routine isn’t much different than most senior citizens. After a bowl of Rice Krispies and a glass of orange juice, she enjoys reading the morning paper. “She looks to see if she or I are in the obituary column,” Ballance quips. “If we’re not, then the day goes on!”
When Muzel sits in her recliner or out on the porch, neighbors and friends offer greetings as they walk down the street. She sits up slightly and squints through her large, round glasses. Once she recognizes the passerby, she smiles and raises her small hand in a delicate wave.
During the rest of the day she likes to read, watch television and take naps, according to Ballance. And on Saturday nights, Muzel tunes into “The Lawrence Welk Show,” courtesy of cable television. “Seven o’clock, like clockwork,” says Ballance. “Don’t miss it.”
But the secret to Muzel’s long life probably has more to do with her flexible spirit and sense of fun than her daily routine.
Next to her armchair sits a small shelf with dozens of brightly colored stuffed animals. “I have a lot of toys,” Muzel says, motioning to her collection on the shelf. Near her feet sits Babe, a stout, brindle bulldog that Muzel says keeps her company during the day.
And Muzel hasn’t forgotten how to have a good time. After her 100th birthday party, she celebrated with the crowd at the famous Howard’s Pub until almost 2 a.m.
She simply outlasts people, notes Ballance.
“She’s outlived everyone on O’cock!”
This article was published in the Holiday 2004 issue of Coastwatch.
For contact information and reprint requests, visit ncseagrant.ncsu.edu/coastwatch/contact/.