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Did Wilmington ever have a carnival? (The history of the Jonkonnu celebration)

Ben Steelman

The closest thing was the Jonkonnu — also known as the John Canoe, John Connu, John Kunner, Johnkannaus 0r Junkianous, as the celebration was variously known. This annual celebration, held on Christmas morning, on Christmas Eve or as close to Christmas as possible, was a unique feature of Wilmington life in the 1800s.

Moses Ashley Curtis, a schoolteacher in Wilmington, described the ceremony in his diary entry for Dec. 25, 1830:

“The (N)egroes have a singular custom here … of dressing out in rags & masks … They are accompanied by a troop of boys singing, bellowing, beating sticks, dancing & begging. Three or four of these John Cooners as they are ycleped (called) made their appearance today. One of them was completely enveloped in strips of cloth of every color which depended in the most ragged confusion from every part of his ebony hip. Over his face was drawn the nether part of a raccoon skin from the center of which hung the tail … On each side of that tail appeared two holes through which shone the whites of his eyes …  Then dancing & his rags flying & his flexible nose gamboling about his face, singing with a gruff voice in concert with his satellites.”

The group, made up entirely of men, went from house to house, singing a distinctive song. (White sources can never agree on the words, but the refrain seemed to run “Hel-lo, here we go” or “Hay-ho, here we go.”) They solicited and accepted a small donation from each home after singing and dancing. (Louis T. Moore remembered the request as being phrased: “Give poor Kuner one cent for my lady and me!”)

Emma Woodward MacMillan, in “A Goodly Heritage” (1961), recalled making little colored gift bags for the Kuners as a little girl.

The men — in groups that ranged from three to eight to as many as a hundred —  generally painted their faces or wore “Kuner face,” i.e., masks with big noses. (According to local history librarian Beverly Tetterton, Halloween masks were sometimes called “kooner masks” in Wilmington until very recently.)

All the men were swathed in colorful cloths or rags, except for one figure, the spokesmen, who dressed in his Sunday best and addressed the audience, especially whites. The leader of the group was the “Ragman,” who was completely masked and whose dress was especially elaborate. Some of the men appear to have made themselves up, comically, as women.

They accompanied their song and dance on a variety of instruments, including animal bones, mouth harps, triangles, rattles, tambourines and apparently any other noisemakers that could be found.

“North Carolina appears to have been a virtual island of the Jonkonnu on the North American continent,” wrote the historian Elizabeth Fenn in an April 1988 article in the North Carolina Historical Review. The custom was unknown in Charleston, Savannah and the deeper South (although a celebration had been reported in Key West, Fla.)

Similar carnivals were reported in Beaufort, N.C., in Edenton, in Hillsborough, at Somerset Place Plantation on the Albemarle Sound and as far north as Suffolk, Va. Winslow Homer seems to have painted Kuner dancers preparing to perform in his 1877 painting “Dressing for the Carnival, Portsmouth, Va.” Wilmington’s celebration, however, was the largest and most elaborate.

Fenn linked the celebration to “junkanoo” parades on Jamaica, the Bahamas and other islands of the Caribbean. Many of these celebrations survive to this day.

Wilmington’s Jonkonnu custom continued after the Civil War. A Dec. 18, 1874, item in the Wilmington Star, quoting members of the “Independent Mask Club,” indicated that some of the Kuners would parade on horseback. (The celebration that year, according to the Star, apparently included a mock wedding “of Rebecca and Isaac at the Market House” at the foot of Market Street.)

As early as 1853, the Wilmington Daily Journal complained that “The Kuners have been dwindling down for years.” Fenn quoted an elderly African-American resident of Wilmington from the early 1900s who said, “Kooner was ragin’ here ’bout 1882, but it done died out ’bout 1900.” Some sources claim the Wilmington riot/coup of 1898 ended the Jonkonnu for good.

Henry Bacon, McKoy, however, reported that adolescent white boys took up the kunering custom for many years in the early 1900s. In his 1957 book, “Wilmington, N.C.: Do You Remember When?” McKoy included a photograph of himself as a boy, with several friends, masked and dressed for the occasion.

African-American author David Bryant Fulton, who lived in Wilmington for many years, wrote a dialect poem titled “De Coonah Man” about Jonkonnu in Wilmington. Irene Smalls wrote a children’s book, “Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade,” based on the Wilmington Jonkonnu tradition. Illustrated by Melodye Benson Rosales, it was published by Little, Brown in 1996.

A re-enacted Jonkonnu celebration was staged at the Bellamy Mansion Museum in 2008.

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