Women’s History Month: Celebrating Wilmington Women Who Made An Impact

It’s Women’s History Month and we’re celebrating the women who helped shaped Wilmington into the community that it is today.

Here are just a few of those women.

Hannah Block

Hannah Block was the first woman elected to the Wilmington City Council as well as the first woman to serve as mayor pro tem. During World War II, she volunteered with the Red Cross and headed up the local water safety program. She eventually become the first woman to be head life guard on North Carolina’s coast. Throughout the 1940’s, she taught swimming, life-saving, and water safety courses for the Red Cross at Carolina Beach.

Block, using her past as a jazz singer in New York City, volunteered her time to perform for the troops at the local USO. Block also recruited and trained a group of 60 young women who visited and entertained troops at nearby military bases prior to deployment.

Block’s various wartime efforts earned her the title, “Mrs. World War II Wilmington.” In 1997, the Wilmington Community Arts Center was renamed in her honor.

Minnie Evans

Minnie Evans was one of the best known African American folk artist of the 20th century. Born in rural Pender County but raised in Wilmington, Evans first began to draw at the age of 43 when she heard a voice tell her she must “draw or die.” This set off a torrent of artistic creation that earned her international recognition in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Evans’ artwork was often based on Bible-influenced dreams and visions that she had had since childhood. Evans also worked as a gatekeeper at Airlie Gardens until 1974 and continued to paint and draw after entering a nursing home.

Her artwork hangs in prominent museums throughout the East Coast including the Cameron Museum of Art in Wilmington.

Anna McNeill Whistler

Anna McNeill Whistler was born in Wilmington in 1804. She was made famous in the renowned painting, “Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother,” commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother.”

Shortly after her birth, Anna McNeill moved with her family to New York. In 1831, she married George Washington Whistler, a close friend of her brother.

After growing up in the U.S. and Russia, attending West Point for a brief time and then moving to Paris to study art, the Whistlers’ son, James, began to split his time between Paris and London. He continued to develop his craft, becoming an important figure in contemporary art circles and generating controversy for his greater focus on color and arrangement than on realism.

Anna Whistler moved to London in 1863 to live with her son, and, in 1871, he painted her as the figure in “Whistler’s Mother.”

Caterina Jarboro

Caterina Jarboro was born Catherine Yarborough in Wilmington in 1898. She was baptized at St. Thomas Catholic Church, and attended the church school and Gregory Normal School. She became the first internationally-acclaimed African American opera singer, and took Caterina Jarboro as her stage name.

She made her operatic debut in Milan in 1929, and became the first African American woman to perform in a U.S. opera house in 1933.

Jarboro performed at Thalian Hall in 1932 and 1933 in benefit concerts for St. Luke A.M.E. Zion Church. She retired from singing in 1955. Jarboro was given a star on the Wilmington Walk of Fame in 1999.

Amy Morris Bradley

Amy Morris Bradley had a distinguished career as an influential educator who helped establish free education in North Carolina. After serving as a nurse in the Civil War, Bradley volunteered to head up a Boston philanthropic organization’s effort to provide free schools for poor children in Wilmington.

Bradley arrived in Wilmington in Dec. 1866 and went door-to-door to try and drum up support for her free school. In Jan. 1867, she took over the abandoned Dry Pond Union Schoolhouse and welcomed her first three pupils.

Two months later, the school would have more students that it could, with students signing up for a waiting list. From Nov. 1868 to Jan. 1869 — thanks to generous donations from the Wilmington community and other prominent benefactors — Bradley opened the old Union School to 223 pupils and three teachers, the Hemenway School to 157 students, and the Pioneer School in Masonboro Sound to 45 students.

In two short years, Bradley enterprise had grown from a one-teacher, three-pupil school to a complete school system with eight teachers, 435 students, and three buildings.

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