Who was the African American mason whose rough-textured, yet elegant, structures appeal so much to us today? What kind of man was he? How did he learn to do what he did?
Oliver Nestus Freeman was born in Wilson in 1882 to Julius Franklin Freeman and Eliza Daniels Freeman. Julius was a carpenter by trade, but also operated a small candy and tobacco shop in Wilson and a strawberry farm about 10 miles east of the city.
Left: Portrait of Oliver Nestus Freeman.
Freeman was an early developer of the former farm land that became Wilson's "eastern suburbs" along the Plank Road. He built a home for his family at 1300 East Nash Street in 1911 and constructed rental housing and custom owner-occupied homes using his distinctive masonry skills. Freeman's houses addressed a serious housing shortage issue in East Wilson, a problem arising as African-Americans moved into the town to work in the booming tobacco industry. In addition, when his church, Calvary Presbyterian, built a new sanctuary in 1923-24, Freeman was an integral part of the construction team.
Left: Freeman poses with his level while working on Calvary Presbyterian church.
Freeman House, 1300 East Nash Street
The Freemans' house was originally a small frame cottage. Later, Freeman enlarged the house and added a stone veneer and ornamental features such as a stone fence and planters, a shell-encrusted mailbox, a bird bath, a fish pond, and concrete lawn ornaments - including the famous 7-foot dinosaur that now stands in front of the Round House.
Right: Freeman's family on the stone porch of their home.
The Tuskegee model of Southern black life encouraged developing good relationships with white neighbors. Black and white worlds were mostly separate, but linked by a strong web of work and personal relationships. Nestus Freeman regularly helped white contractors build houses, churches, clubs, walls and other structures west of Wilson's railroad tracks and in at least a dozen other cities and towns including: Eureka, Greenville, Goldsboro, Edenton, Elizabeth City, New Bern, Wilmington, Chapel Hill, Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Salisbury, Charlotte, Asheville and Warrenton.
When Nestus Freeman worked for white clients, he usually did so as a subcontractor to a white builder. Instead of being responsible for the entire structure (as he was for projects he built in East Wilson), he might have contributed the exterior stonework or perhaps an interior mantelpiece. He is believed to have worked under this type of arrangement when he was employed outside of Wilson. Nestus Freeman's last work was done in Manteo, on North Carolina's Outer Banks, where he gathered seashells to make yard ornaments and miniatures.
Spotting Freeman's Work
First, look for stonework. The stones might be brown or gray, will usually be rough and irregularly shaped, but are never set in straight courses. Rarely, Freeman used rounded river stones. The stones might stand as posts supporting a porch and its roof. They might form a chimney, a low wall around the property, or posts marking a front walk or driveway. Also, look for unusually shaped features, such as a semicircular porch or a low turret encasing the entrance door. Once you have learned how to "see" it, you will always recognize Nestus Freeman's work.
Left and below: World War I Memorial Flagpole base, located at the Wilson County Fairgrounds.
As a prosperous tobacco town, Wilson suffered less than many other places during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Still, times were hard, and few people were building houses. Nestus Freeman had a family to support and called upon his various talents to make ends meet. In 1930, he and wife Willie Mae Freeman took teaching positions at the Wilbanks School, a Rosenwald school ten miles east of Wilson. For a while, Freeman worked as an undertaker and a taxidermist. He also operated Brown's Service Station and Grocer, a gas station and convenience store just across the street from his house.
Left: Oliver Nestus and Willie Mae Freeman
Small in size, Freeman was a big man in the eyes of his community. His family were devout Presbyterians, attending Calvary Church on Pender Street, which he helped build. He played the clarinet, loved to tell stories, delighted in Christmas, and called all his assistants "Buddy." Freeman kept a yard full of pets, including rabbits, chickens, bees, possums, flying squirrels, snakes, and a skunk. There was a cow in the back yard but the big deal was "The Bears!"
Astonishingly, Freeman kept six Siberian black bears at his Nash Street house! Trained to amuse, one could climb a tree and another rode a bicycle. On Sunday afternoons, Freeman would tie up a few bears - some in outfits - in front of his house, where they would pace back and forth begging treats from passerby. All too conveniently, Freeman's gas-and-grocery across the street sold the bags of peanuts the bears liked!
Right: Boy Scouts with Freeman's bears.
Oliver Nestus Freeman's granddaughter, Mary Francis Banks Tate discusses her grandfather's bears and other unique pets and remembers his special relationship with animals in the below clip from Historically Speaking with Lu-Ann Monson.
Building a Place for Veterans
Freeman's distinctive stonework is visible in bungalows he built for both black and white homeowners in Wilson and in chimneys, columns, and other architectural pieces he constructed across the city.
In the 1940s, Freeman, concerned about the lack of affordable housing for veterans returning from World War II service, built a small, circular dwelling as a prototype rental dwelling. Using his fertile imagination and scrap material, including chunks of concrete sidewalk, stones, bottles and scrap wood, Freeman divided the round house into three wedge-shaped rooms.
Nestus Freeman was recycling long before we even knew what that word meant.
-LuAnn Monson, City of Wilson preservationist and rehab coordinator
Left and above: Round House post card, 1940s.
Preserving the Round House
Around 1998, Bill Myers attended a Wilson City Council meeting to ask that the city find a way to save the Round House, which sat in the way of the Freeman Place housing project. He thought it should be moved and converted to a museum for East Wilson. "Where's your money?" the council asked. Myers spearheaded efforts to raise $30,000 with support from the whole community. The city agreed to buy the house from the Freeman family and to move it to its present location.