East Wilson Historic District

Wilson City, Wilson County, NC

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The East Wilson Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]

The East Wilson Historic District in Wilson, a major manufacturing and commercial center in eastern North Carolina, is a distinctive early twentieth century Southern Afro-American cultural landscape. This predominantly residential neighborhood contains the core of the black community that grew up east of the railroad tracks adjacent to the flourishing tobacco warehouse district. The East Wilson Historic District comprises almost 1,200 buildings, including a variety of worker house types: the "shanty;" the saddlebag; the shotgun; and the "square-built." Here, too, middle-class blacks owned houses reflecting national styles: the Queen Anne; the Colonial Revival; and the Bungalow. The domestic architecture ranges from the area's beginnings ca.1890 to the beginning of the Second World War, when changing demographics began to erode the vitality of East Wilson. The East Wilson Historic District is of statewide significance because it is one of North Carolina's major, intact black neighborhoods, and is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as a tangible representation of Wilson's black heritage. Although many individuals made contributions to the community, the most prominent of East Wilson's early residents were Dr. Frank Hargrave, who in 1905 established Wilson's first hospital for blacks, in the district, and Samuel H. Vick, a black businessman, developer, educator, postmaster, and religious leader who was the major landowner in East Wilson. The East Wilson Historic District has a blend of traditional worker housing and stylish, middle-class residences illustrating a socioeconomic diversity rarely discussed in scholarship concerning American black history. Perhaps the most significant of the many black builders who lived and labored in the district was Nestus Freeman. Wilson's most skilled stonemason, Freeman built numerous bungalows as well as a group of five unusual stone houses and sheds in the district between the 1920s and 1940s. His own home (1300 East Nash Street) is a stone-faced bungalow, and his yard is adorned with an assortment of whimsical concrete fantasy creatures.

The East Wilson Historic District includes 68 buildings built between 1937 and 1941 that are listed as Contributing in the district. They include a number of typical, frame shotgun houses, double shotgun houses, and bungalows; several notable stone houses built by black stonemason Nestus Freeman; a Tudor Revival cottage (1300 East Nash Street) that exemplifies the style within the district; and the [former] Vick School, one of the two landmark educational facilities in East Wilson.

Black Ethnic Heritage

The emergence of the separate black community in Wilson paralleled the growth of the city as a whole. Situated in the upper coastal plain of eastern North Carolina, the City of Wilson grew from a crossroads trading settlement in the early nineteenth century to the nation's leading tobacco market by 1919.[1] The major impetus to Wilson's expansion was the construction of the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad in 1840.[2] This north-south railroad bestowed on Wilson economic advantages that surrounding crossroads settlements lacked, and thus spurred commercial and cultural growth. By the Civil War, Wilson had attracted numerous members of the local planter class, who played leading roles in creating businesses, manufactories, and private academies. Although the commercial district and principal residential streets took shape west of the tracks, to the east, along Railroad Street, several early white leaders built imposing homes, as well as helped establish the Wilson Collegiate Institute in 1859 (403 Oak Avenue).[3] In 1860 Wilson's population included 537 whites, an undisclosed number of slaves, and 32 free blacks. The freedmen also lived on both sides of the tracks, and according to the 1860 census, were employed in a variety of skilled occupations: pottery, shoemaking, carpentry, and blacksmithing.[4]

After the war, Wilson's racial composition and the pattern of distribution of whites and blacks began to change dramatically. Wilson's antebellum black contingent was augmented by ex-slaves who were abandoning farms for factories in great numbers across the state.[5] Reflecting this trend, the number of blacks in Wilson stood at 264 in 1870 (26 percent of the total population), and had reached 1,131 (31.4 percent) by the turn of the century.[6] Increasingly, postwar black migration to Wilson was concentrated east of the railroad tracks, separate from the expanding white neighborhoods and central business district on the west side. Such a segregated pattern of settlement on the outskirts of the built-up urban core typified newly established black districts throughout North Carolina and the South in this period.[7] According to Howard Rabinowitz, who has studied Raleigh's Afro-American community, black residential segregation usually resulted from a combination of black preference, white hostility, and economic constraints.[8] Similarly, in East Wilson, observes local writer Mary Freeman-Ellis, blacks congregated in the district to be near family, friends, and churches, as well as due to the very limited housing afforded them in white areas of the city.[9]

While East Wilson developed east of the railroad tracks, an entity set apart from white Wilson, the black community was both physically and economically linked to white-owned industries. The 1900 and 1910 federal censuses list blacks working in brickyards, a box factory, a cotton oil mill, and a large guano factory, all of which stood within the railroad corridor and were owned by whites.[10] Other East Wilson residents worked for the railroad itself. But, by far, the major employer of local blacks, as well as the principal source of wealth in the entire city, was the thriving tobacco industry.

Whereas cotton had been the region's key cash crop during the period of postwar recovery ("Wilson is one of the best cotton markets in the state," sang The Wilson Daily Mirror in 1887), several years of poor harvests and rock-bottom prices in the 1880s prompted farmers to devote increasingly more land and labor to flue-cured tobacco.[11] By 1900, Wilson had become one of the largest markets for the crop in North Carolina, selling 15 million pounds in five warehouses.[12] The western edge of the black district, south of Nash Street, was dominated by tobacco-related facilities at the turn of the century. The 1904 Sanborn Map of Wilson depicts 13 prizeries (warehouses), a stemmery, and several redrying houses in this area.[13] Between 1900 and 1910, both the American and Imperial tobacco companies erected impressive redrying and stemming facilities near the railroad tracks.[14] These companies were major employers of East Wilson's rising black population. Indeed, black employment in Southern tobacco factories was so pervasive that historian Frenise Logan described such unskilled work as characteristically "Negro jobs."[15] The prevalence of blacks in the industry, Logan observed, was quite simply because whites considered this labor as particularly undesirable. Work in the tobacco factories in the early 1900s was mainly a hand process, performed under especially deleterious conditions (extreme dust, little ventilation or lighting), and for poor wages. In other large industries, notably textiles, and in the skilled trades, whites vigorously opposed black employment, fearing the substitution of cheaper black help for white employees. Thus excluded from skilled and higher paying jobs, Logan concluded, blacks were largely confined to "nonpromotional menial and semi-menial jobs" in the leaf factories, as well as in the personal service fields, such as washerwomen and seamstresses for females, and pressers and barbers for males. Better paying entrepreneurial and professional occupations were usually in areas reserved to the race as a result of segregation: preachers, teachers, and morticians.[16]

The employment of East Wilson's early blacks tended to reflect these discouraging occupational tendencies; but an examination of individual cases also reveals a variety of avenues to success and personal fulfillment in the work place. In a family history published in 1978, Norma Jean and Carole Darden describe how their uncle, Camillus Darden, ingeniously secured the only franchises in Wilson County to sell RCA Victor phonographs and Harley-Davidson motorcycles in the 1910s. Darden eventually attended mortuary school and assumed ownership of his father's, Charles H. Darden's, prosperous undertaking business.[17]

Mary Freeman-Ellis, who authored a family history in 1986, shares similar experiences of black accomplishment and pride. She describes a strong local commitment to the success of black businesses in the early 1900s. Residents patronized the black-owned stores in the district even though the products they sold were not always the most fashionable nor the least expensive.[18]

Nestus Freeman, Mary Freeman-Ellis' father, was one of a group of successful black builders to live and work in East Wilson. Educated at the Tuskegee Normal School, he rose to middle class status as an accomplished builder and real estate developer. Historian Hugh B. Johnston has characterized Freeman as Wilson's most skilled stone mason whose services were in great demand in white as well as black Wilson.[19] A colleague of Freeman's, Alonzo Coley, constructed bungalows for black clients, as well as worked in a barber shop. He advertised himself as a "licensed architect" after completing a drafting course at the local black high school.[20]

East Wilson's two most prominent early residents and persons of significance in the history of North Carolina's blacks were Dr. Frank S. Hargrave and Samuel H. Vick. A physician educated at Shaw University in Raleigh, Hargrave moved to Wilson in the early 1900s. Here, in 1905, he helped establish the city's first hospital for blacks (a white hospital had been built in the 1890s). This private health care facility was located in a house on East Green Street. Hargrave then spearheaded a drive to build a new and larger hospital for blacks. The Wilson Hospital and Tubercular Home (later known as Mercy Hospital) was erected in 1913 on the site of the former hospital. Designed by the local white architectural firm of Benton and Moore, this Neo-Classical Revival structure still stands in the East Wilson Historic District, a symbol to Hargrave's accomplishments as well as to early twentieth-century black health care in North Carolina. The building is vacant and in disrepair, having ceased operation as a hospital in 1964.[21]

Samuel H. Vick (1863-1946), Hargrave's close friend, was a successful black businessman, developer, educator, and postmaster. Vick was Wilson's postmaster from 1889 to 1894 and again between 1898 and 1903. His appointment to this office by black congressman Henry P. Cheatham reflected the political influence of blacks in the city and in other communities within North Carolina's Second Congressional District (known as the "Black Second") during the second half of the nineteenth century.[22] The remarkable Samuel Vick also served as principal of the local black graded school; established Wilson's first black bank, the Commercial Bank, in 1920; owned the Globe Theater in East Wilson; organized the Lincoln Benefit Society, Inc., a fraternal insurance company; and assisted in the founding of the black hospital. In both civic and church affairs, Vick's influence was statewide. He served as a Presbyterian missionary in the early 1900s, established Odd Fellow Lodges across North Carolina, and vigorously stumped for political candidates who supported black causes.[23]

Samuel Vick also invested in real estate throughout East Wilson. The major landowner in the district, he named some of the key streets in the neighborhood for his daughters, Elba, Carolina, and Viola, as well as for important black leaders and institutions, Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee. He sold lots and built rental property, including rows of shotgun housing along East Vance, South Vick, and other streets in the district.[24]

By 1920, the individual accounts of self-determination and financial achievement in East Wilson had added up to a substantial black middle class. This status group typically owned their homes and often operated businesses along East Nash Street or even in the main business district across the tracks. Here, in the city's commercial core, black barbers, in particular, owned shops catering to a white clientele. The black middle class was a diverse group that comprised not only the anticipated assemblage of ministers, morticians, and teachers in the local black schools, but also tradesmen, porters, doctors, factory foremen, and even one photographer.[25] In East Wilson in the early nineteenth century, a black resident could be assured prominent social status by gaining steady employment outside the tobacco factories and earning enough money to own a home on East Green Street. Here, observes one long-time East Wilson resident, the community's "high society" lived.[26] In 1910, approximately 50 percent of the houses along the street were owner-occupied, compared to 18 percent for the remainder of the district.[27] During the first two decades of the century, East Green's occupants included both Samuel Vick (622 E. Green Street) and Dr. Frank S. Hargrave (624 E. Green Street), as well as J.D. Reid (600 East Green Street), principal of the Wilson Graded School for blacks, photographer George Barnes (803 E. Green Street), printer Charlie Thomas (619 E. Green Street), barbershop proprietors William Hines (615 E. Green Street) and Walter Hines (617 E. Green Street), Reverends Hardy B. Taylor (721 E. Green Street), and Otto Sanders (700 E. Green Street), Jesse Norfleet, a porter (623 E. Green Street), and railroad fireman Hardy Johnson (705 E. Green Street). East Green was also the most verdant street in the community. Oaks planted by Vick lined both sides as well as the middle of the street, from Pender Street three blocks east to Vick Street. Most of these trees were lost when East Green was paved in the late 1920s.[28]

Architecture: Houses

The houses occupied by Green Street residents represented an assortment of vernacular and nationally popular forms, originally decorated with Queen Anne-inspired millwork and turned-post porches. Subsequent remodelings may have taken their toll on front verandas and applied sawnwork, but original shapes are intact, and the overall architectural scale of the street remains little changed. Perhaps two of the oldest dwellings here are the L-plan cottage occupied by Reverend Otto Sanders (700 E. Green Street) and the house of printer Charlie Thomas (619 E. Green Street). Both structures retain original motifs, and the Thomas House is especially intact, including slender turned posts, delicate jigsaw brackets, and a triple-A roof design. A sister house stands in the East Wilson Historic District at 122 Pender Street East (Alice Jones House). However, they are two of only three I-houses known to have been built in East Wilson.

More popular among the early black middle class were one- and two-story Queen Anne residences with stylishly irregular massings. Between 1900 and 1915, outstanding double-pile, hip-roofed cottages with projecting wings and spacious porches appeared in East Wilson, asserting the middle-class status of their occupants. Along East Green Street, examples were built side-by-side by Reverend Hardy Taylor and barber Charles Thomas. Two blocks north, on East Vance Street, store clerk Ximena Pitt (903 E. Vance Street), and Nazereth Pierce, an insurance agent (905 E. Vance Street) erected similar designs.

Certainly the most notable of the two-story Queen Anne residences was built by Samuel Vick. Depicted in the 1908 bird's-eye view map of Wilson as towering over neighboring houses on East Green Street, this turreted structure still dominates the 600 block. In all, 12 two-story houses in the Queen Anne style arose along East Green and East Pender, an adjacent street that was rapidly filling with the homes of leading black families in the 1910s. All of these dwellings would have fit comfortably in Wilson's fashionable white neighborhoods of the early twentieth century.

Although the black middle class made its architectural mark early in East Wilson, the district emerged primarily as a working-class area. The earliest city Sanborn maps show one- and two-room "shanties" and "tenements" scattered about the railroad corridor.[29] Black businessmen, notably Vick and barber shop owners William and Walter Hines, invested in an assortment of shotgun and two-room (mostly saddlebag type) dwellings for black tenants.[30] Major white developers, particularly Boykin, Townsend Realty Company, did so as well.[31] Viola Street, sometimes called the "back street" by East Green residents, Vance Street, Ash Street, and Narroway Street ("back of" Pender) were populated by versions of these house types in 1910. In an area known as "Little Raleigh," where Manchester Street meets East Nash Street near the tobacco warehouse district, rows of saddlebag quarters stood in the early 1900s. These simple duplexes, which numbered 20 within a three-block span, constituted one of the district's predominant tenant house types during the first decade.

Concurrently, the shotgun house was emerging as East Wilson's most prolific domestic form. This house type, in particular, gives the East Wilson Historic District distinctive architectural cast, as the form rarely was built for whites in the city. The greatest early concentration of shotgun houses was along the 600 block of Vance Street, where Samuel Vick built at least fifteen.[32] During the next three decades, 1910 to 1940, a host of developers erected shotguns houses throughout the area. In the 1910s, the characteristic shotgun dwelling was two bays wide (about 15 feet), three rooms deep, with a gable-front roof. The structure was treated with gable returns and turned or chamfered porch posts. The simple interiors included bracketed and reeded mantels. White businessman J.C. Hadley, for example, invested in 12 of them along the 1000 block of Robeson Street, and built about an equal number on the 1300 block of Carolina Street.[33] The popularity of the two-bay, three-pile shotgun persisted throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the simple classical trim then replaced by bungalow-type features: exposed rafters and tapered porch posts on brick piers, or functional square supports. Between 1930 and 1941, the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, a black-owned firm based in Durham, financed the construction of 20 such cottages along Cemetery Street.[34] East Wilson's most impressive row of shotguns, these dwellings represent the culmination of the type. For after World War II, fewer and fewer examples of this narrow, wooden house type were built, as investors opted for more cost-efficient duplex plans, usually constructed of concrete block. Whether in long, tightly packed rows, or as discrete units tucked in among larger dwellings, the shotgun house reflected the character of East Wilson's early twentieth century expansion. As Wilson's black population soared to 5,193 between 1900 and 1920, and then to 6,205 by 1930 (51 percent of Wilson's total population), shotgun houses boomed. Their number rose from less than 50 in the 1908 Sanborn Map to 330 (36 percent of the district's housing stock) in 1930, the year of the last Sanborn Map.[35] The standard single-family shotgun house rented for about two dollars a week in that year, and was heated by wood or coal stored in a shed in the backyard. The great majority of shotgun dwellers labored at one time or another in the bustling tobacco factories — men earning about eight cents an hour during the Depression, women less — usually walking or pedalling bicycles over unpaved streets to work.[36]

One may contend that the shotgun house represented an improvement in living conditions over the one-room "shanties" and two-room saddlebag duplexes that were its contemporaries. Indeed, the house was roomier than the shanty and afforded more privacy than the saddlebag plan. However, typically composed of only three rooms, with the kitchen at the rear, and devoid of a hallway, quarters were cramped and privacy minimal. Furthermore, though families did not have to share their units with others, shotgun houses were normally crowded together on 25-foot wide lots. As one current resident graphically puts it, "You can't spit out your window without the spit landing in the living room of the house next door!"[37]

In addition to the proliferation of shotgun dwellings, a variety of both new and traditional house types appeared. As noted, black developers, like their white counterparts, constructed narrow shotguns for tenants; but evidence also suggests that blacks were more inclined to erect designs that offered greater space and privacy for their tenants. Black landlord William Hines, for instance, owned the district's only two-story, single-family tenements. Between 1920 and 1925, Hines built about 15, each a narrow, two-bay form with a hip or gable-front roof, and a side hallway — a feature lacking in the traditional shotgun house. Today, rows of three exist along East Green Street, Carroll Street, and Vick Street. Also during the 1920s, Hines' brother, Walter Hines, built a line of two-room-deep cottages with entrance halls and projecting kitchen and bedroom bays. However, although the designs selected by the Hines brothers offered the black worker more room, these units were, nevertheless, squeezed into economical 25-foot wide parcels.[38]

During the 1920s and 1930s, black tenants regularly occupied two locally new house types: the double shotgun and four-room, square cottage. Developers erected models on available tracts around the fringes of the expanding district, which by 1940 encompassed 50 blocks. The double shotgun effectively replaced the saddlebag as the duplex of choice among developers, and an intact row of three lines the 700 block of East Vance Street. The four-room, square cottage, meanwhile, represented a more spacious alternative to the one-family shotgun house. One local realtor remembers black families, all too familiar with the confines of the shotgun, specifically requesting "square-built" quarters.[39] Many of these square houses were also built with greater attention to style than earlier tenant housing. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, white developer/contractor Robert Rice built several blocks of gable-end, four-room units treated with such bungalow elements as recessed porches, shingled gables, and deep eaves supported by decorative, geometric brackets.

Although much of East Wilson's expansion in these decades was characterized by blocks of look-alike worker housing, the black middle-class continued to grow as well. Its increase reflected not only the overall prosperity occurring in Wilson during the 1920s, but also the maturing of the black community. The "flush 1920s" as one Wilson historian described this decade, were marked by industrial expansion along the railroad tracks, commercial development within the central business district, and the emergence of new residential streets throughout the city.[40] Bolstered primarily by unprecedented tobacco sales, averaging 66 million pounds annually in the 1920s, building construction peaked. Blacks benefited from this prosperity, finding skilled employment as carpenters, brick masons, plasterers, and painters. They also took jobs as porters in the new hotels and railroad station, custodians in the new banks, and as chauffeurs (and mechanics) for the major tobacconists, who now owned automobiles. All of these occupations paid more than the seasonal work in nearby farms or in the tobacco processing plants. Black women, too, saw increased opportunities in the service occupations, which helped supplement family incomes. One skilled and enterprising black seamstress, Ada Winstead, even operated a thriving business for white patrons in the heart of Wilson's business district.[41]

Greater opportunities were also opening up east of the tracks. Here, too, booming house construction kept blacks employed in the skilled and semi-skilled trades. And in contrast to white Wilson where contractors were white, black contractors, notably Freeman, Coley, and Louis Thomas, built homes for black clients. Freeman today is best known for the stone houses he constructed in the East Wilson Historic District between the 1920s and 1940s (Nestus Freeman House, 1300 E. Nash Street; Dr. Joseph Cowan House, 1115 E. Nash Street; Nestus Freeman Rental House, 204 Vick Street). About 1945, he built a unique stone "Round House," which he advertised in postcards as ideally suited to the housing needs of the returning G.I. (Nestus Freeman's Round House, now located at 1202 Nash Street). However, neither Freeman nor other builders ever duplicated its circular form and pie-shaped plan.[42]

Although Freeman's stone dwellings represent some of Wilson's more distinctive residential designs, the vast majority of black homeowners desired homes in conventional styles. During the 1920s, one very clear symbol of elevated social status in the black community was the Colonial Revival house. Such prominent citizens as Dr. Hargrave (624 E. Green Street), Dr. Matthew Gillam (805 E. Nash Street), also a physician, and mortician Camillus Darden (108 E. Pender Street) erected new houses in this style. Darden is known to have commissioned the prolific Wilson architect Charles Benton to design his two-story brick residence at 122 East Pender Street, which today stands as one of East Wilson's most fashionable homes, and the finest example of the Colonial Revival.[43]

The most prevalent architectural style of the decade, however, was the bungalow. While distinguishing bungalow elements regularly appeared on a variety of worker cottages, members of the black middle class built a number of handsome, textbook examples. By the mid-1920s, first-rate story-and-a-half bungalows with engaged porches and sturdy tapered columns had been built by merchants Peter Lupe (717 Viola Street) and Ed Nicholson (103 Vick Street), and pharmacist Darcey Yancey (913 E. Green Street). Nestus Freeman designed and built a stone-faced version for Dr. Joseph Alan Cowan (1115 E. Nash Street), while remodeling his own residence into a bungalow, as well. Smaller variations including a rich assortment of one-story, hip-roofed and gable-front designs, arose throughout the expanding east end. The 1200 block of East Washington Street, for example, contains seven varieties of one-story bungalows, occupied in the 1920s by an assortment of skilled laborers and tradesmen. According to a long-time homeowner, the principal developer of this block was white contractor John Deans. He divided the south side into parcels 50 feet wide, and then presented buyers with a booklet of suitably compact bungalow models from which to choose.[44]

Although less popular in East Wilson than either the bungalow or Colonial Revival, the Tudor Revival style also appeared by the end of the 1920s. Typically designed with a brick facade and steeply pitched front-facing gable, a small number of black homeowners built examples throughout the 1930s. Carpenter Louis Thomas and brick mason John Barnes collaborated to build several one-story Tudor Revival cottages on East Green Street. Their clients were pharmacist Isaac Shades (602 E. Green Street) and barber Sidney Boatwright (722 E. Green Street). Perhaps the East Wilson Historic District's finest expression of the style was built by brick mason Benjamin Harris for his own residence (312 Finch Street). According to his wife, it took Harris seven years to complete the two-story house during the Depression.[45]

Commercial, Religious, and Institutional Buildings

East Wilson's residential expansion was accompanied by rapid growth in black commerce, religious affairs, and civic institutions. All these activities contributed to the architectural fabric and added to the ranks of the middle class. The principal black-owned businesses and churches were established near the railroad tracks, along East Nash and Pender streets west of the district. Blacks differentiated this expanding "downtown" from the larger, white "uptown" west across the tracks.[46] Throughout the district, small grocery stores and gable-front churches steadily increased. The 1930 Sanborn map, for instance, shows 25 groceries (compared to only four in 1913), usually one-room, wooden buildings situated on fractions of corner lots.[47] Nine food stores that predate World War II survive in East Wilson. The majority, including the larger ones, such as "Harrell's" (315 S. Pender Street) and "Cain's" (909-911 E. Nash Street), were owned and operated by whites. A notable exception was Ed Nicholson's market (and wood lot), that he established on East Nash Street, beside his bungalow residence. This store, however, was razed in the 1960s.

Churches traditionally have been especially vital to the spiritual and social life of the American black community.[48] Although blacks have certainly erected monumental edifices for worship, their communities historically have been filled with small, architecturally modest religious structures. As early as 1912, 14 churches stood in East Wilson (compared to seven in the white community), and by 1941, 27 churches were spread across the district.[49] They represented a variety of denominations: Free Will and Primitive Baptist; Adventist; Episcopal Holiness; Catholic; A.M.E. Methodist. Only three of these churches survive intact, but six others, remodeled or replaced with newer facilities after the war, stand on their original, early twentieth century sites. Today all of the East Wilson Historic District's churches, a number of them operating out of storefronts, carry on the traditional role of black churches as neighborhood-centered institutions serving small congregations.

East Wilson's most important civic buildings were built in the 1920s and 1930s, when public-supported education finally began to satisfy the scholastic demands of the district's black youth. Until 1924, the main school was the Wilson Colored School. Established about 1900 in a two-story, wooden building on Stantonsburg Road, it served only the elementary and middle grades. Young black scholars seeking additional formal education were compelled to leave the city for various private, church-affiliated academies.[50]

Then, in 1922, East Wilson was granted the county's first black high school. The Wilson Colored High School was built on a large tract of vacant land at the east end of the district. Charles Wilson, a Columbia, North Carolina architect designed the two-story, brick structure in the Tudor Revival style (Darden-Vick School, 504 East Carroll Street). The high school attracted young blacks from all corners of Wilson County to East Wilson, where they usually lived with relatives.[51] A number of black teachers moved to the city as well, often living collectively in a newly built apartment house (1001 Washington Street), or boarding in private homes.[52] Finally, in 1939, a new brick elementary school named for Samuel Vick was completed at 802 East Reid Street. The old wooden facility on Stantonsburg Road was ultimately razed in the early 1950s, though residents still identify the property as "the schoolyard."

Post World War II

Since World War II, East Wilson, like other areas of the city, has lost numerous homeowners as well as part of its original economic base. Many sons and daughters of early residents have moved north; others, if wealthy, have built homes in Bel Air, an exclusive black subdivision east of the district. Some East Wilson natives, now retired, have returned to homeplaces after living decades in Northern cities. But others, including some life-time residents, have built modern ranch-style homes on streets around the edges of the historic district, such as Fikewood and Blakewood Drive. Today, even East Green Street, the East Wilson Historic District's most prestigious street, and once dominated by homeowners, contains over 70 percent rental property.[53]

The construction of modern shopping malls and smaller retail centers has led to the decay of Wilson's business district on both sides of the railroad tracks. Tobacco factories, now primarily situated along outlying highways, continue to hire East Wilson's residents; but the growing mechanization of the stemming and drying processes has reduced the dependency on unskilled, manual labor. New industries, notably Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, employ some residents. However, unemployment in the district [in 1988] is the highest in the city, and income levels are the lowest.[54]

To conclude, the architectural scale and building types in the East Wilson Historic District reveal a cultural landscape that is distinctively early twentieth century, Southern, and Afro-American. Concentrated east of the railroad tracks in Wilson, North Carolina, the East Wilson Historic District's houses, schools, churches, and stores embody the emergence of a segregated black community in a Southern city. In addition, East Wilson's blend of traditional worker housing and stylish, middle-class residences illustrates a socio-economic diversity rarely discussed in scholarship concerning American black history.[55] Therefore, to the extent that the East Wilson Historic District represents a vital part of Wilson's particular development, it also contributes to a deeper understanding of the black experience in the South.


  1. A record 42,330,509 pounds of tobacco were sold in Wilson in 1919, more than in any other tobacco market in the United States. This figure is cited in Nannie May Tilley, The Bright-Tobacco Industry, 1860-1929 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press), p.353. Wilson's role as the nation's leading tobacco market is discussed in Tom Butchko, "National Register Nomination for the Wilson Central Business-Tobacco Warehouse District, Wilson, North Carolina," (Raleigh: North Carolina, Division of Archives and History, 1983), Item 8.
  2. Robert C. Bainbridge and Kate Ohno, Wilson, North Carolina Historic Buildings Inventory (Wilson, North Carolina, 1980), pp.3-5. The town was named for General Louis D. Wilson, a state senator from Edgecombe County who died of yellow fever in 1847, during the Mexican-American War.
  3. Ibid., p. 5.
  4. Eighth Census of the United States, 1860: Wilson County, North Carolina, Population Schedule. The number of slaves living in Wilson is difficult to calculate, for the 1860 Slave Schedule lists all the slaves owned by slave owners living in Wilson, and not specifically those slaves residing in town.
  5. See, for example, John Frazier Hart, "The Changing Distribution of the American Negro," Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 50, (June 1960), pp.242-266.
  6. Ninth and Twelfth Censuses of the United States 1870 and 1900: Wilson County, North Carolina, Population Schedules.
  7. For discussion of black urban settlement in North Carolina, see Wilmouth Carter, The Urban Negro in the South (New York: Vantage Press, 1962); Joe A. Mobley, "In the Shadow of White Society: Princeville, A Black Town in North Carolina, 1865-1915," The North Carolina Historical Review, 63, (July 1986), pp.340-372]; and Mobley, James City: A Black Community in North Carolina, 1863-1900 (Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1981).
  8. Howard N. Rabinowitz, "A Comparative Perspective on Race Relations in Southern and Northern Cities, 1860-1900, with Special Emphasis on Raleigh," in Black Americans in North Carolina and the South, ed. by Jeffrey J. Crow and Flora J. Hatley (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), p.140. Mobley, in his monograph on Princeville, observes that the white population of Tarboro perceived segregated Princeville as "a way to keep displaced former bondsmen at a social distance..." At the same time, though, blacks benefited from the moral and financial sustenance, as well as the physical protection, offered by the black community. See Mobley, "Princeville," pp.340-342.
  9. Mary Freeman-Ellis, The Way It Was (Wilson, North Carolina: Mary Freeman-Ellis, 1986), p.26. A copy of this family history is available at the Wilson Public Library.
  10. Twelfth and Thirteenth Censuses of the United States, 1900 and 1910: Wilson County, North Carolina, Population Schedules.
  11. The Wilson Daily Mirror, September 13, 1887.
  12. Butchko, Item 8, p.5. See, too, Tilley, pp.353-357. Wilson also boasted a cigarette manufacturing plant in 1900. See Tilley, pp.604-605.
  13. Sanborn Map of Wilson, North Carolina, (New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1904).
  14. Butchko, Item 8, p. 7.
  15. Frenise A. Logan, "The Economic Status of the Town Negro," The North Carolina Historical Review, 35, (October 1958), pp.448-460.
  16. Ibid., p. 457.
  17. Norma Jean Darden and Carole Darden, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978).
  18. Freeman-Ellis, pp. 20-27.
  19. Interview with Hugh B. Johnston, Professor Emeritus, Atlantic Christian College, May 14, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  20. Interview with Pauline Coley, Alonzo Coley's wife, April 6, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  21. Bainbridge and Ohno, p.176. Mimi Railey, "Mercy Hospital: Health Care in East Wilson," Wilson Daily Times, July 16, 1983; Agnes Stevens, "Saving Mercy Hospital," Wilson Daily Times, November 1, 1985.
  22. Eric Anderson, Race and Politics in North Carolina, 1872-1901: The Black Second (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), pp.168-169.
  23. Ibid., p. 179.
  24. Interview with Robert Vick, Samuel Vick's son, May 1, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  25. In the 1920 Wilson business directory, the first to identify black businesses (with an asterisk), four black-owned barber shops were located in Wilson's central business district. See Wilson, North Carolina Directory, 1920 (Wilson, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia: Hill Directory Company, Inc., 1920).
  26. Interview with Robert Williams, life-time East Wilson resident, April 3, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  27. These percentages were derived through an extensive door-to-door survey of East Wilson residents, combined with a content analysis of the 1941 Hill's Directory of Wilson, North Carolina, the earliest city directory to identify home ownership.
  28. Interview with Dolores Hines, daughter of early East Green Street resident William Hines, April 7, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  29. Sanborn Map of Wilson, North Carolina, (New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1893 and 1897).
  30. Dolores Hines interview.
  31. Interview with William Poythress, President of R.E. Townsend Realty Company, May 5, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  32. Sanborn Map of Wilson, North Carolina, (New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1913).
  33. Interview with Jesse McPhail, East Wilson resident, March 10, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  34. Interview with Lula Hill, long-time resident of Cemetery Street, April 6, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  35. Sanborn Map of Wilson, North Carolina, (New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1908 and 1930).
  36. McPhail interview.
  37. Interview with Roscoe Williams, East Wilson resident, April 10, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  38. Hines interview. See, too, Bainbridge and Ohno, p. 181.
  39. Poythress interview.
  40. Butchko. Item 8, p. 12.
  41. Interview with Otha R. Davis, Ada Winstead's grandson, March 27, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  42. Interview with Mary Freeman-Ellis and Connie Banks, daughters of Nestus Freeman, April 5, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  43. Interview with William James, Camillus Darden's grandson, May 10, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina. See, too, Bainbridge and Ohno, p.185. A partial list of architect Charles Benton's work can be found in Bainbridge and Ohno, p.234.
  44. Interview with Della Hardy, long-time resident of East Washington Street, March 22, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  45. Interview with Lucille Harris, April 10, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  46. Interview with James Farmer, life-time East Wilson resident, May 12, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  47. Sanborn Map of Wilson, North Carolina, 1930.
  48. A thoughtful description of the role of the church in a Southern black community can be found in Elizabeth Rauh Bethel, Promiseland: A Century of Life in a Negro Community (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981).
  49. Wilson, North Carolina Directory, 1941 (Wilson, North Carolina and Richmond, Virginia: Hill Directory Company, Inc., 1941).
  50. Robert Vick interview. Mr. Vick attended a private high school in Charlotte, North Carolina.
  51. Interview with Edward Barnes, retired principal of Charles H. Darden High School in Wilson, May 11, 1987. Wilson, North Carolina.
  52. Barnes interview. Mr. Barnes, for example, boarded with the Darcey Yancey family, who lived across the street from the high school.
  53. Wilson, North Carolina Directory, 1987 (Richmond, Virginia: R.L. Polk and Company), pp.63-64.
  54. For example, whereas the average household income for Wilson was $15,500 in 1980, the income level for two study areas in East Wilson was $8,650. Unemployment was 17 percent in East Wilson in 1980, versus six percent for the city as a whole. See City of Wilson, "Rental Rehabilitation Program, 1984-1985," unpublished report, January 31, 1985. 13pp; and City of Wilson, "Community Revitalization Target Area Application, Wilson, North Carolina, 1983-1984," unpublished report, April 29, 1983, 36pp. Both reports summarize Wilson's rehabilitation efforts in East Wilson and present statistical evidence to justify future federally funded community development projects. Copies of these and other related reports are available for public perusal at City of Wilson Division of Community Development, Wilson, North Carolina.
  55. A main reason for this omission is that scholarly studies have typically dealt with the history of blacks on a broad regional or national level. Recent scholarship concerning specific black communities have focused on villages populated by small farmers. See Bethel, Promiseland, and Mobley, James City and "Princeville."


Anderson, Eric. Race and Politics in North Carolina, 1872-1901: The Black Second. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Bainbridge, Robert C. and Ohno, Kate. Wilson, North Carolina: Historic Buildings Inventory. Wilson, North Carolina: City of Wilson, 1980.

Bethel, Elizabeth Rauh. Promiseland: A Century of Life in a Negro Community. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.

Bird's Eye View of Wilson, North Carolina. Drawn and published by T.M. Fowler, Morrisville, Pennsylvania, 1908.

Butchko, Tom. "National Register Nomination for the Wilson Central Business-Tobacco Warehouse Historic District." Raleigh: North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1983.

Carter, Wilmouth. The Urban Negro in the South. New York: Vantage Press, 1962.

City of Wilson. "Application for Rental Rehabilitation Program." Unpublished report completed January 31, 1985. 13pp.

City of Wilson. "Community Revitalization Target Area Application, Wilson, North Carolina, 1983-1984." Unpublished report completed April 29, 1983. 36pp.

Darden, Norma Jean and Darden, Kate. Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978.

Freeman-Ellis, Mary. The Way It Was. Wilson, North Carolina: Mary Freeman-Ellis, 1986.

Hart, John Frazier. "The Changing Distribution of the American Negro." Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 50, June 1960, pp.242-266.

Logan, Frenise A. "The Economic Status of the Town Negro." The North Carolina Historical Review, 35, October 1958, pp.448-460.

Mobley, Joe A. "In the Shadow of White Society: Princeville, A Black Town in North Carolina, 1865-1915." The North Carolina Historical Review, 63, July 1986, pp.340-372.

________James City: A Black Community in North Carolina, 1863-1900. Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1981.

Rabinowitz,ยท Howard N. "A Comparative Perspective on Race Relations in Southern and Northern Cities" in Black Americans in North Carolina and the South. Edited by Jeffrey J. Crow and Fiora J. Hatley. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Sanborn Map of Wilson, North Carolina. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1893, 1897, 1904, 1913, 1922, and 1930.

Southern, Michael. "The I-House as a Carrier of Style in Three Counties of the Northeastern Piedmont." In Carolina Dwelling, edited by Doug Swain, Raleigh: North Carolina State School of Design, 1978. pp.70-83.

Swain, Doug. "North Carolina Folk Housing." In Carolina Dwelling, edited by Doug Swain. Raleigh: North Carolina State University School of Design, 1978. pp.78-45.

Tilley, Nannie May. The Bright-Tobacco Industry, 1860-1929. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1948.

United States Department of Commerce. Bureau of the Census. Eighth, Ninth, Twelfth, and Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1860, 1870, 1900, and 1910: Population.

Vlach, John M. "The Shotgun House: An African Architectural Legacy." Pioneer America, January-July 1976], pp. 47-70.

Wilson Daily Mirror. September 13, 1887.

Wilson Daily Times. October 24, 1981; July 16, 1983; November 1, 1985.

Wilson, North Carolina Directory. Wilson, North Carolina and Richmond, Virginia: Hill Directory Company, 1920, 1941.

Wilson, North Carolina Directory. Richmond, Virginia: R.L. Polk and Company, 1987.

‡ Richard Mattson, Preservation Consultant, East Wilson Historic District, Wilson County, North Carolina, nomination document, 1987, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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