Black History Month Chronicles Wilmington’s Past

Black History Month is celebrated in February but, you can always learn more about these important and essential stories of Wilmington’s Black Community year-round.

Here are just a few of these stories:

The 1898 Memorial Park

One of Wilmington’s most prominent memorials is the 1898 Memorial Park, located at 1081 North Third Street. The memorial honors the countless number of African American citizens who were killed or exiled when a mob of white supremacists overthrew the duly elected, bi-racial city government on November 10, 1898. It is the only successful coup d’etat recorded in United States history. The park was dedicated on November 8, 2008. 

Learn more about the 1898 Massacre here.

William Benjamin Gould and Orange Street Landing

Since Wilmington’s incorporation, the Cape Fear River has played a key role in the City’s history. Perhaps, though, one of the most important functions it served is a gateway to freedom for enslaved people. The intense water-related activity led to an Underground Railroad on the river.

In 1862, in the cover of darkness, 22 people escaped slavery by way of the Cape Fear River after commandeering three small boats at the foot of Orange Street and rowing 28 nautical miles until they were picked up by Union blockading ships.

Their journey to freedom was recorded in the diary of William Benjamin Gould and is now commemorated in Downtown Wilmington at Orange Street Landing on Cape Fear as part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.

RELATED: A Self-Guided Tour of Wilmington’s African American Heritage.

Major General Joseph McNeil

Major General Joseph McNeil, a Wilmington native, was among the four courageous men from North Carolina A&T State University known as The Greensboro Four who helped inspire a civil rights movement in 1960 when they staged a sit-in at the “white only” counter at Woolworth restaurant in Greensboro. News of the sit-in quickly spread throughout North Carolina and the rest of the South where similar sit-ins were organized.

In 2019, the city designated a section of North Third Street in McNeil’s honor.

Althea Gibson

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.

Meadowlark Lemon

Wilmington native Meadowlark Lemon was known as the “Clown Prince of Basketball” and entertained fans as a member of the Harlem Globetrotters for 24 years.

Lemon joined the Globetrotters in 1954 at the age of 22, appearing in more than 16,000 games in more than 100 countries during his career.

His flashy showmanship, slapstick comedy, and unique athleticism helped him become one of the most popular athletes in the world.

Lemon was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2003.

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.

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.

Abraham Galloway

Abraham Galloway was born on Feb. 8, 1837, in what is known today as Southport. Galloway grew up enslaved and moved to Wilmington when he was 10 years old, working as a brick mason. When he was 18, Galloway escaped Wilm. on a boat, reaching Canada w/ the help of the Underground Railroad.

In 1861, he began working as a spy for the Union Army where he scouted marine landings in advance of the Union campaign along the North Carolina coast. Galloway eventually left military intelligence, in favor of focusing on recruiting Black soldiers for the Union and political aspects of the abolition movement. During this time, his approval and influence within the community spread across coastal North Carolina. He even managed to rescue his mother from Wilmington and move her to Union-held New Bern.

In 1864, Galloway led a group of Black southern delegates to meet President Lincoln to argue for citizenship and suffrage. He moved his family to Wilmington in 1865 and was later nominated as North Carolina’s first black elector. He was elected to the state Senate in 1868, representing New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

He died unexpectedly at 33 years old. Around 6,000 people attended his funeral in Wilmington.

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