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.

Council Recap: Exploring Downtown Campus Purchase, Greenville Loop Trail Construction To Begin, more

Wilmington City Council held its second regular meeting of January and first up, council received an update from the Wilmington Housing Authority, including progress on returning residents displaced by mold remediation back to their homes and the agency’s intention to redevelop their properties in the future.

“Preservation of our stock, rehabilitation of our stock, and redevelopment of our housing stock,” said Tyrone Garrett, executive director of the Wilmington Housing Authority. “We have three priority locations: Solomon Towers, Hillcrest and Houston Moore.”

Next, council awarded a construction contract for section one of the Greenville Loop Trail, which will run along Holly Tree Road from College Road to Pine Grove Drive.

Construction on this voter-approved bond project will begin in March and is expected to finish by the end of the year.

The additional sections of this trail will get underway later this year. When complete, the Greenville Loop Trail will stretch the length of Greenville Loop Road and down Holly Tree Road to College Road.

Next, council appropriated $55,000 from the New Hanover Community Endowment to purchase sport wheelchairs for the city’s athletics program.

Currently, every child in the city’s basketball program has the opportunity to give wheelchair basketball a try.

By encouraging children to take part, athletics staff hopes to promote inclusion and further normalize adaptive sports, and to eventually offer more program options to disabled residents.

“Offering adaptive sports removes barriers to access to athletics for our citizens and when typically abled athletes participate, it brings awareness to adaptive sports. It builds understanding and empathy,” said Andrea Talley, the supervisor for the city’s athletics programs.

Lastly, council appropriated $750,000 to enter into an offer to purchase a 12.5-acre campus at the north end of downtown.

The ordinance allows for a fully refundable $500,000 deposit which provides the city with 120 days to evaluate all aspects of the potential acquisition. The ordinance also provides $250,000 in order to conduct due diligence on the property.

Formerly home to PPD, the site includes 370,000-square-feet of office space and a 1,000-space parking deck.

This site could provide the city with a cost-effective solution to its long-term space needs, allowing the consolidation of departments under one roof, and save millions of dollars spent on the upkeep of aging buildings.

“The space needs study has revealed that we are getting further and further and further behind with regard to space needs downtown,” said City Manager Tony Caudle. “We have not done anything for the downtown offices and it is clear from our perspective that we need to do something with regard to getting that space renovated or replaced as soon as possible.”

If purchased, the city would divest itself of numerous properties, but Thalian Hall would not be sold and would remain as-is. Police, fire and the operations center would also remain in their current specialized facilities.

City Council will me again on Feb. 7th at 6:30 p.m. For more on this meeting, visit WilmingtonNC.gov.

City To Consider Purchase Of Thermo Fisher’s Downtown Campus

At its January 24 regular meeting, Wilmington City Council will consider an agenda item to provide a fully refundable $500,000 earnest money deposit to explore purchase of a 12.5-acre campus in the city’s northern downtown. The deposit provides the city with 120 days to evaluate all aspects of the potential acquisition. The campus includes a 1,000-space parking deck, 370,000 square feet of office space, and two adjoining development tracts.

The office building currently houses Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Wilmington offices and the purchase agreement would include a lease for a portion of the building to Thermo Fisher for a period of at least three years. The city would occupy a significant proportion of the building and the rest of the space would be made available for lease at market rate.

“Acquiring this 12.5-acre campus in northern downtown could provide a highly creative and far more cost-effective solution to the city’s long-term space needs, especially in view of the opportunities to offset the purchase cost”

The purchase agreement includes a negotiated sales price of $68 million for the entire campus, including office furnishings, which reports a combined real and personal property tax value of $141 million as of 2022. The city’s costs could be substantially offset by selling several of its current office buildings, which would no longer be needed, excluding historic Thalian Hall/City Hall. Selling the adjoining development lots and leasing excess office space would further offset the city’s acquisition costs. Depending on final terms, the Thermo Fisher lease could generate around $2 million annually and additional space would also be made available for lease.

An overview of Thermo Fisher’s downtown campus.

Acquiring the campus would allow the city to:

  • Consolidate departments currently housed across multiple different office buildings under one roof and meet the city’s long-term space needs
  • Divest as many as six city office facilities that would no longer be needed, providing new opportunities for downtown revitalization
  • Utilize the campus’s existing parking deck to provide additional parking capacity for the city’s growing northern downtown, including the nearby Riverfront Park and Live Oak Bank Pavilion
  • Sell or otherwise develop the campus’s adjoining development tracts to offset acquisition costs and further bolster revitalization efforts in the former industrial site

In 2021, the City of Wilmington hired an architecture firm to conduct a long-term space needs assessment. Over the course of many years, city departments grew to occupy multiple office facilities, including several aging facilities with increasing costs to operate and maintain. In November 2022, the architecture firm presented a final report, estimating $90-96 million in capital needs to redevelop a right-sized city administration building.

“In view of our space needs assessment, acquiring this 12.5-acre campus in northern downtown could provide a highly creative and far more cost-effective solution to the city’s long-term space needs, especially in view of the opportunities to offset the purchase cost and add parking capacity. Over the course of the 120-day due diligence period, city staff will thoroughly analyze the costs and benefits of the acquisition so that City Council can make an informed decision,” said City Manager Tony Caudle.

The January 24 council meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall and can be viewed live on Spectrum channel 8 or streaming online on the city’s YouTube channel and at wilmingtonnc.gov.

Council Recap: Construction To Begin On First Section Of Masonboro Loop Trail, more

Wilmington City Council held its first regular meeting of the new year on Jan. 10 and first up, council proclaimed 2023 as the Year of the Trail. This statewide initiative encourages residents to get out and enjoy everything our trails have to offer.

“And I just want to say thank you for all the work that you folks do to make this a reality for our community and all of the taxpayers that have supported the bonds in the past and the City Council for the initiatives of moving the trail system, especially the Gary Shell Cross City Trail, to fruition. And we just want to say thank you,” said Mayor Bill Saffo.

Council also proclaimed the week of January 16th as Community Risk Reduction Week, recognizing the hard work the Wilmington Fire Department does to reduce preventable fires.

Next, council received the annual report from the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, reviewing an eventful year for the agency.

“And despite recent rate increases necessitated by the pollution from our upstream neighbor, Chemours, our water and sewer services remain the most affordable in the region,” said Kenneth Waldroup, the executive director of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority.

Council also approved a $1.52 million contract for the construction of the first section of the Masonboro Loop Trail. Phase one of this voter-approved bond project will run from Masonboro Elementary School to Navaho Trail, connecting the school, nearby neighborhoods, and local businesses. Work is scheduled to begin next month and will take approximately six months to complete.

Next, council authorized the purchase of the 1.88-acre Salvation Army property located at 820 North Second Street. At a cost of $4.8 million, the property holds both near- and long-term strategic value for the continued economic development of the north end of downtown.

“It’s a compliment to the current portfolio, with Project Gateway being immediately north of this property and provides additional opportunity for the city to shape the way in which the north end of downtown develops,” said Aubrey Parsley, the director of Economic Development for the city.

Lastly, council passed a resolution adopting the 2022 Parks, Recreation and Open Space Comprehensive Plan. This plan will help guide the work of the Parks and Recreation division for the next decade, continuing to help make Wilmington a safe, accessible and healthy place to live.

City Council will meet again on January 24th at 6:30 p.m.

For more on this meeting, visit wilmingtonNC.gov.