The Untold Story of East Wilson Wilson, North Carolina's African American History

Welcome to the Freeman Round House & African American Museum's Virtual Exhibits

An Introduction to East Wilson

The railroad has historically split Wilson into black and white. On one side, a story well told. Across the tracks, from slavery through Jim Crow and into the era of integration, an untold story of perseverance and pride, success and self-reliance, kinship and community.

East Wilson's business district, c. early 1920s. Image from postcard, available in Historic Wilson in Vintage Postcards by J. Robert Boykin III, 2003. Learn more about the history clues you can find in this image at Black Wide-Awake, a blog by Lisa Henderson about Wilson's African-American history.

The Roots: Early East Wilson

In 1908, T.M. Fowler Co., a popular map-maker, issued a "Birds Eye View of Wilson," which had a population of about 7,000 at that time. The map focuses on the town's western, most prosperous districts, laying out block after block in exquisite detail. At the top left corner of the map, however, we see the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad slicing across the landscape. Beyond its tracks -- East Wilson, the city's African American community. The map was drawn based on the priorities and prejudices of the era.

"Birds eye view of Wilson, North Carolina 1908," Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Around the map's border are drawings of what were considered the city's most prominent buildings--factories, businesses, churches, and the courthouse among them. None of East Wilson's buildings are highlighted. East Wilson is relegated to the periphery of this map, but some of its buildings can be made out. Crowded among East Wilson landmarks are the homes of its residents -- the proud multi-gabled two-story dwellings along Green Street, and the shotguns and saddlebag houses of narrower streets like Viola and East. Beyond them the map fades to smudgy trees and fields even though "the colored settlement" extended east and south.

Beyond the Map

The 1908 Fowler map tells an incomplete story. Even unfinished, however, the map managed to capture the essence of East Wilson at the moment this African-American neighborhood was emerging in response to larger Wilson's newfound wealth and opportunity as a flourishing tobacco market. By the early 20th century, much of the physical landscape that still grounds Wilson's African-American heritage was in place, and its most prominent residents were making moves that would shape the community to this day.

Wilson and The Railroad

The Atlantic Coastline Railroad that can be seen on the 1908 map was originally the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. Building of the railroad began in 1836 with plans to connect Wilmington to Weldon on the Roanoke River, linking Eastern North Carolina to markets in Virginia and beyond. In 1839, the railroad completed tracks through was is now Wilson County, establishing a stop at Toisnot Depot--the beginning of today's city of Wilson.

Image: Wiggins Mill Bridge, circa 1880. Courtesy of Wilson County Public Library

By 1900, the Atlantic Coast Line had absorbed the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad and other small southeastern railroads to operate tracks extending from Richmond, Virginia, to Jacksonville, Florida. The railroad contributed to Wilson's tobacco boom and thus to the growth and prosperity of its black community.

Image: Fishing on Contentnea Creek, Wilson, NC (circa 1880). Courtesy of Wilson County Public Library

Refocusing the Map

Gray's New Map of Wilson, North Carolina, 1882. Image & edits courtesy of Lisa Henderson of Black Wide-Awake.

The Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House Museum refocuses the bird's-eye, zooming in to explore in detail the people and places that built East Wilson and nurtured the community in good times and bad.

Who lived in East Wilson?

Where did they live and play and work and worship?

How did they negotiate the pitfalls and strictures of segregation, and how did they resist and fight for social and economic equality?

How did they lay the foundations for the community we know today?

Explore the below exhibits to find out the answers to these questions and more.

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.