It’s March and that means it’s Women’s History Month. Today 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 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 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.
Althea Gibson, a 1949 graduate of Williston High School in Wilmington, was a tennis legend who smashed barriers to inclusion in the sports world on her way to becoming one of the most dominant tennis players in history.
Gibson, at just 23 years old, became the first African American to compete in what is now the U.S. Open in 1950. During a three-year stretch, she became the first African American to win the French Open (1956), the U.S. Open (1957, 1958) and Wimbledon (1957, 1958).
This impressive streak helped land her on the covers of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated – the first time an African American woman had appeared on either covers.
Gibson’s trailblazing accomplishments weren’t just limited to the tennis court. At 37, she became the first African American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour.
The Althea Gibson Tennis Complex at Empie Park in Wilmington is named in her honor and her historic contributions toward a more equitable society.
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 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.
Lethia S. Hankins taught in the New Hanover County school system for 36 years. She served on the Wilmington City Council from 2003 to 2007, was chairman of the Wilmington Housing Authority Commissioners, was a trustee of Cape Fear Community College and was a former chairwoman of the New Hanover County Human Relations Commission, according to her obituary from the StarNews.
She co-chaired the 1898 Foundation, a nonprofit formed in 1997 to commemorate the centennial of the coup d’etat that overthrew a legally elected biracial city government in Wilmington. As co-chairwoman, she presided at the dedication of the city’s 1898 Memorial on Nov. 5, 2008.
Born in Georgetown, SC in 1934, her family moved to Wilmington while she was an infant.
Hankins graduated from Williston Industrial High School in 1951.
After graduating from what is now N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, Hankins taught briefly in Hillsborough before joining the faculty of Williston in 1958. Hankins taught English and drama and was the longtime yearbook adviser.
After Williston was closed in the wake of county desegregation, Hankins was transferred to Hoggard High School. There, she worked closely with her colleague Bertha Todd on trying to defuse racial tensions, helping to organize student “Speak Outs” to clear the air. She continued teaching at Hoggard and later at Laney until her retirement in 1994.
Hankins served on the boards of the Cape Fear Area United Way, the Wilmington YWCA and the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts. She was a lifelong member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and a past president of its Alpha Psi Omega chapter in Wilmington.
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.”