How We Lived The Development of Community in East Wilson

An Exhibit of the Freeman Round House & African American Museum

In 1856, Noah Lynch, a free man of color, purchased 3/4 acre at Green and Spring (now Douglas) Streets. His deed is one of the earliest filed by an African-American in the town of Wilson. Only 32 free people of color were counted in the town of Wilson in the 1860 census. Few were property owners, and they appear to have lived on both sides of the railroad tracks, often in close proximity to their employers.

Early deeds filed by African-Americans include Lemon Taborn's home and barbershop on Tarboro Street, purchased in 1867 for $600. This ad for Lemon Tabourne's Barbershop appeared in the Wilson Advance, September 24, 1880. Learn more about Lemon Tabourne (Taborn) at Black Wide-Awake.

Other early deeds filed by African-Americans in Wilson include Peter Rountree's purchase in 1869 of 1/3 acres on the south side of the Greenville Plank Road; Washington Suggs' purchase in 1870 of a large lot near what is now Black Creek Road; Spencer and Catherine Gay's purchase in 1871 of a lot in the same area; and Jerry Washington's purchase of 10 acres in 1873 between Stantonsburg Road and the Wilmington and & Weldon Railroad. A pattern was beginning to emerge for African-American land ownership, as white owners relinquished their property to the east of the railroad and south of Nash Street.

Image: Nash Street Looking East, c. 1910, Courtesy of Wilson County Public Library

After the Civil War, many freed men and women chose to leave the countryside and move into town. By 1870 distinct clusters of African-American households had emerged in Wilson, but residential segregation was not well-defined.

By 1880, the town of Wilson had a population of 1475, of whom about 30% were black. Most African-Americans were clustered in neighborhoods south of the Plank Road (now East Nash Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.) East Wilson as we know it today, lay more than 25 years in the future, but black Wilsonians were solidifying claim to the area east of the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. Personal preference, strength in numbers, white hostility, and legal and economic constraints were among the factors that led to the emergence of this district as home to much of Wilson's African-American community.

Influence of Skilled Tradesmen

Middle-class African-Americans, often skilled tradesmen, increasingly bought lots east of the railroad, including a young Samuel Vick, newly graduated from college in Pennsylvania. His father Daniel Vick had bought land along the Plank Road in the early 1880s.

Julius Freeman and family also lived east of the town center along the Plank Road. Other families bought houses along Pender and Green streets as well-to-do whites on the east side of the railroad began to sell off their property in earnest, shifting their residences to the other side of downtown.

In addition to these settlements, African-Americans also staked out toeholds around Lee and Pine streets, South and Lodge Streets, and in the Grabneck Settlement, on West Nash Street.

Image: Julius Freeman, rear, with a class of brick masonry students at Charles H. Darden High School. Julius Freeman, brother of Oliver Freeman, was the first to teach brick masonry at Darden.

From left to right, top to bottom: Wooden "C" Clamps, metal hand-crank drill and bit, metal framing square and wooden "T" square, and tow line with sling hook. These tools are in the collection of the Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House Museum and were used in skilled trades such as masonry and construction.

Housing For Laborers

The tobacco industry exploded onto Wilson's economic landscape in the late 1890s and early 1900s. From the beginning, its warehouses, stemmeries, and redrying plants employed mostly African-American laborers. African-American women made up a sizeable percentage of seasonal workers who found employment in Wilson's tobacco factories.

The demand for housing similarly exploded, and African-American neighborhoods began to sprout up all along the outskirts of the city's burgeoning warehouse district. Black and white developers began building rental housing for workers in the form of one and two-room shanties.

Image: Women feeding tobacco bundles into a redrying machine at the James I. Miller Tobacco Company plant on Tarboro Street. Photo courtesy of the archives of the James I. Miller Tobacco Company, reprinted in Keith Barnes’ The World’s Greatest Tobacco Market: A Pictorial History of Tobacco in Wilson, North Carolina (2007).

Developments in East Wilson

In the absence of public transportation, African-Americans needed to live in close proximity to the factories in which they worked. Small enclaves of black-occupied housing arose south of the tobacco warehouse district along Spring, South, Lodge, Banks, Mercer and Factory Streets, an area called Happy Hill.

“Delay on New Housing Measure May Snag Urban Renewal Plans,” Wilson Daily Times, 29 February 1964. This article from the Wilson Daily Times includes images of some of the housing developed in East Wilson in the early 1900s. Learn more about Wilson's African-American neighborhoods at Black Wide-Awake.

Most African-Americans lived in modest saddlebag houses, shotgun houses, or simple L-shaped Victorian cottages. Black developers, such as Samuel Vick, brothers William and Walter Hines, and the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, as well as white development companies, built hundreds of working-class houses in swaths across east Wilson. Developers also built more spacious housing for prosperous working class homeowners and renters, especially in the bungalow style, which can still be seen on Atlantic, Washington, Vick, and Reid Streets.

William Hines

In March 1913, the Indianapolis Recorder, a nationally focused African-American newspaper, ran a front-page feature on William Hines, a "native of [Wilson] and a forceful character for the intellectual, moral, spiritual, social and economic development of young North Carolinians. Citing Samuel Vick and Biddle University as Hines' influences, the article detailed his entry into the real estate business after establishing a successful barber shop. In just five years, Hines had accumulated 11 houses and "a number of very desirable lots." Hines' real estate investments eventually made him one of the largest builder-owners of rental property in East Wilson.

Image: "Constructed as workman's housing in the late 1920s, these houses were occupied by a driver, a porter, and a cook, among others." As each is described in the nomination form for the East Wilson Historic District: "ca. 1925; 2 stories; William Hines tenant house; two-bay, side-hall dwelling with hip roof; built by Hines for tenants." Wilson, North Carolina: Historic Buildings Survey.

Samuel H. Vick

In 1925, Samuel H. Vick hired a surveyor to lay out several hundred lots on a large tract to be called Vicksburg Manor. Nearly one hundred years later, though several original street names failed to stick, the footprint of of Vicksburg Manor remains largely the same - other than U.S. Highway 301 slashing diagonally across it.

Educator, politician, businessman, real estate developer, church leader - Samuel H. Vick was the most accomplished resident of East Wilson in his lifetime.

A letter to Sam Vick from J.H. Williamson (North Carolina Industrial Association) requesting a place to address the people of Wilson at the September 8, 1887 Fair regarding the "progress of the race."

Right: A.B. Caldwell, ed., History of the American Negro and His Institutions, North Carolina Edition (1921).

Sam Vick's family.

Across the Tracks

By the eve of the Great Depression, the boundaries of Wilson's segregated neighborhoods were firm. Though to describe black Wilson as the area "across the tracks" was overly simplistic, the term was largely accurate. These residential patterns persisted long after legal segregation ended in the 1960s. The late 1980s saw the beginning of steady movement of African-Americans into formerly all-white intown neighborhoods and new subdivisions on the north and west sides of the city, as well as the movement of newly-arrived Latinos into areas that formerly had been black only. However, the designation in 1988 of East Wilson as a historic neighborhood helped preserve its status as a distinctive African-American cultural landscape illustrating the socioeconomic diversity of black communities in the Jim Crow era.

In recent decades, as changing demographics move people out of the neighborhood and time takes its toll, East Wilson and other traditional African-American neighborhoods have lost significant numbers of houses and commercial buildings. The spirit of these communities, however, remains.

Oliver Nestus Freeman with group building Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Wilson, NC.

The Book and Garden Club

As active in politics as it is, the Men's Civic Club describes itself as "a social organization of men with civic interests." It is still active today.

Walter Hines Barbershop, 208 East Nash Street, circa early 1940s. Image courtesy of Lisa Henderson. Learn more about this image on Black Wide-Awake.

Community in Church

Prior to Emancipation, enslaved African-Americans worshipped as second-class members in the churches of their masters or among themselves in clandestine "brush arbor" gatherings. In their first years of freedom, many moved to form their own congregations, free from the gaze and interference of whites. In addition to places of worship, churches also provided community.

London's Primitive Baptist Church

In the first years of freedom, new black churches sprung up across Wilson County. London Woodard established London's Primitive Baptist Church just north of the town of Wilson in 1866. The church is the oldest documented African-American congregation in Wilson County. Read more about London Woodard on Black Wide-Awake.

Brick and wood from London's Primitive Baptist Church, built in 1895.

Saint John A.M.E. Zion

African Methodist Episcopal Zion missionaries established St. John AME Zion in 1868. It quickly gained prominence and attracted up-and-coming church leaders, including Rev. Owen L.W. Smith, future U.S. counsel to Liberia.

Rev. Owen L.W. Smith - Photo courtesy of Wilson County Public Library

St. John AME Zion erected the grand red-brick building to the left, which still stands today, in 1915.

Jackson Chapel First Missionary Baptist Church

In 1872 Rev. Andrew J. Jackson organized the First Missionary Baptist Church. Led for many years by Rev. Fred M. Davis, First Baptist later merged with Jackson Chapel to form East Wilson's largest African-American Baptist congregation.

The cornerstone for Jackson Chapel First Missionary Baptist Church was laid by educator and civil rights leader Booker T. Washington during a visit to Wilson in 1910.

Tickets from Booker T. Washington's speaking engagement at the Colored Grading School on November 1, 1910 on his visit to Wilson.

Other Early African-American Churches in Wilson

Rountree Missionary Baptist formed just east of Wilson town limits in 1868. In the 1880s Saint Mark's Episcopal Church and Calvary Presbyterian Church were organized. These institutions, along with Baptist, A.M.E. Zion, A.M.E. and Holiness churches, reflect the differing theologies and worship styles of Wilson's African-American community.

A Sunday school class posing outside the newly built Calvary Presbyterian Church, circa 1895. Samuel H. Vick, who helped found Calvary, was a prominent proponent of Sunday school education. Photograph courtesy of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Raleigh.

Churches & Civil Rights

Evansville (Ind.) Argus, 12 November 1938.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, pastors began to push for civil rights. Out in front was Rev. Richard A.G. Foster, head of Saint John A.M.E. Zion, who speaks out in defense of tobacco workers' rights and lectures white audiences in Wilson on prejudice and racial injustice. Later, Rev. Talmadge A. Watkins of Jackson Chapel offers his church as a meeting place for civil rights activists and helps developed strategies to achieve integration.

Explore our other virtual exhibits to learn more about East Wilson & Oliver Nestus Freeman.

There is more to see at the Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House and African American Museum. Learn more about the Museum and plan your visit at http://www.theroundhousemuseum.com/.


All images and artifacts are in the collection of the Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House and African American Museum unless otherwise noted. These exhibits are virtual versions of physical exhibits located at the Freeman Round House & Museum in Wilson, NC. They were originally curated by Lisa Y. Henderson of Black Wide-Awake. They have been adapted as virtual exhibits by Beth Nevarez Historical Consulting.