Last changed: February 13. 2003 6:14AM
Landmarks in black history
By Ben Steelman
For Bertha Todd, one of the little-known gems of Wilmington is Pine Forest Cemetery.
With its entrance arch at the northern end of 16th Street - just one block east of the better-known Oakdale Cemetery - Pine Forest dates before the Civil War as a burying ground for slaves and free persons of color.
In 1871, the city deeded the property over to a private, nonprofit company, with a board composed of black community leaders.
"There is so much history there," said Ms. Todd, a retired school administrator and a former co-chairwoman of the 1898 Foundation, a local commemorative group.
"There's the Shober plot - not many people realize that James Francis Shober, the first black physician in North Carolina, is buried there. Not many people realize that George Mabson, the first black lawyer in North Carolina, is buried there. The president of A. & M. College in Greensboro for more than 30 years, James B. Dudley, is buried there.
"These are things that are overlooked by blacks and whites."
Drivers can spot state highway markers for Dr. Shober and Mr. Dudley along Wilmington streets. Other local landmarks in African-American history aren't as well-marked or as well-known.
It's not that many people haven't tried.
In 1996 and 1997, a public history class at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, working under Dr. Margaret M. Mulrooney, identified 17 black heritage sites in Wilmington and wrote about them in a pamphlet.
The Carolinas Heritage Tourism Network, an outgrowth of the 1898 Foundation and the N.C. Black Chamber of Commerce, later issued its "African-American Guide Map" to Wilmington, distributed through the Cape Fear Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In their 1998 volume, Strength Through Struggle, on Wilmington's African-American community, local historian (and former Star-News staff writer) Bill Reaves and librarian Beverly Tetterton identified more than 70 historic sites by address, many of them no longer standing.
Still, it's been hard to get the word out.
"Right now, we're pretty much dormant," said Kenneth Davis, an activist with the 1898 Foundation and the Tourism Network.
Down by the Riverside Tours, a private group that specialized in black heritage sites, suffered a setback when one of its guides, Jackie Peoples, died last month.
Mr. Davis is quick to acknowledge help from director Judith Grizzell and others with the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Still, he added, "There is not a lot of effort put into promoting African-American tourism."
Such an effort could pay off for the city, he argued. In New Orleans, officials pushed a black-heritage effort keyed to the summer months, traditionally the off-season for that city's tourism. "It's really been a popular thing for them," Mr. Davis said.
"It's a win for everybody," he added. "When you talk about bringing tourism in, you're talking about dollars."
A big problem, Mr. Davis said, is ensuring some landmarks will still be around for tourists to see.
Generally, historically black churches, such as St. Stephen AME at Fifth Avenue and Red Cross Street, St. Mark's Episcopal at Sixth and Church streets and Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church, are being maintained by their congregations and are in good shape.
So are some of the historically black schools, such as Peabody School, named for philanthropist George Peabody and active from the 1880s. The surviving building, at 507 N. Sixth St., is now headquarters for New Hanover County Community Action Inc., which operates local Head Start programs.
Other black heritage sites, however, might be in jeopardy, Mr. Davis said.
One example is the old Wilmington office of the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. at 510 Red Cross St., just across the street from St. Stephen AME.
Founded in Durham in 1899, N.C. Mutual pioneered selling insurance to black clients at a time when white-owned companies often refused them coverage. From 1923 to 1952, it was headed by Charles C. Spaulding, a Clarkton native who had joined the company as its sole agent and rose to become its president.
By the 1940s, it was perhaps the largest black-owned and operated business enterprise in the world, with more than 700 agents and 375,000 policy holders.
At present, the building is not in use, Mr. Davis said.
Another example is the former home of Dr. Hubert A. Eaton (1916-1991) at 1406 Orange St. Dr. Eaton's family recently put the modest house with large yard up for sale.
One of Wilmington's few black M.D.s at the time, Dr. Eaton and his family served as plaintiffs in most of the major desegregation lawsuits in New Hanover County in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, including the one that desegregated local public schools. He eventually served as chairman of the board of trustees of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Dr. Eaton also was a ranked amateur tennis player in the 1930s and '40s, at a time when the game was still segregated into black and white associations. During the 1940s, he served as surrogate father and mentor to Althea Gibson while the she attended Williston High School.
As Dr. Eaton explained in his memoirs, Every Man Should Try, the experience was intended to polish the young tennis prodigy from New York City, so she would be prepared to challenge her sport's color barrier. Apparently, it worked; Ms. Gibson went on to become the first black player at the U.S. Open and French Open tournaments, and in 1957 and 1958, she won the women's singles championship at Wimbledon.
From the street, you can still see the tennis courts on which a teenaged Althea practiced.
"I would like to see a nonprofit secure that building and use it as a heritage museum," Mr. Davis said. "You'd think that somebody who knew tennis would like to hit the ball around where Althea Gibson did."
Some black heritage landmarks have disappeared with time.
One used to stand at the foot of Front and Market streets: the old open-air market, demolished in 1881. Before the Civil War, all sorts of goods were sold there, including slaves.
That market, however, also was the site of an intriguing ritual, held each New Year. Dozens, even hundreds, of slaves - most of them skilled craftsmen or builders - would lease themselves out for a year's labor, splitting the proceeds with their white owners and pocketing some of the money themselves. By careful saving, some of these slaves were able to buy their freedom and that of their relatives.
Antebellum Wilmington came to support a large work force of slave and free black construction workers, who did much of the labor on such landmarks as Thalian Hall/City Hall, at Third and Princess streets, or at the Bellamy Mansion at Fifth Avenue and Market Street.
At the Bellamy Mansion, now maintained as an architectural museum, the initials "WBG" have been found in the plaster. These have been linked to William B. Gould, a slave plasterer who escaped the city during the Civil War and later served in the U.S. Navy. His great-grandson, William B. Gould IV, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, is scheduled to lecture in Wilmington in April.
Another laborer at the Bellamy Mansion was Henry Taylor. After the Civil War, Mr. Taylor became a building contractor, a grocer, an active member of the Republican party and one of the city's principal landowners.
One of his sons, John E. Taylor, who lived at 114 N. Eighth St., graduated from Howard University, served as Wilmington's city clerk and treasurer, was briefly the port's deputy collector of customs and was a prominent local real estate dealer.
Another son, Robert R. Taylor, became the first black graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1892. A nationally noted architect, he designed a number of buildings on the campus of Tuskegee Institute, including the house of Booker T. Washington. Robert R. Taylor is buried at Pine Forest.
Another antebellum builder was David Sadgwar, the founder of a Wilmington dynasty. He and his son Frederick Sadgwar built a family home in 1872 at 15 N. Eighth St. Frederick Sadgwar, who graduated from Lincoln University, founded a Freedmen's School at Whiteville, then returned to Wilmington, where he operated a number of businesses and worked as a contractor.
Frederick Sadgwar's daughter Caroline attended Fisk University in Nashville, where she was a member of the celebrated Fisk Jubilee Singers. She married Alexander Manly, the editor-publisher of the Wilmington Record. His newspaper office, on South Seventh Street between Nun and Church, was burned during the Wilmington riot of 1898.
The Manlys were forced to flee the city, however Caroline's sister Felice remained in the city as a longtime teacher at Williston School. She and her father later converted to the Baha'i faith, which teaches universal brotherhood and the essential truth of all world religions. The Sadgwar house now serves as Wilmington's Baha'i Center.
After the Civil War, many of these builders constructed their own churches. One outstanding example is St. Stephen, built by its own members beginning in 1880.
Blacks also formed their own civic and fraternal organizations, such as the Giblem Lodge building at Eighth and Princess streets. Built in 1872, the building houses one of the first Prince Hall Masonic lodges in North Carolina. At one time, it also housed the city's first library for black readers, and in 1875, it was the site of a black "Agricultural and Mechanic" fair.
Although the 1898 Foundation grew out of efforts to mark the centennial of the riot of 1898 - when armed whites seized control of city government from an elected coalition of black and white Republicans - Mr. Davis prefers to emphasize more positive examples in highlighting historic sites.
"We can't focus on one day of violence," he said. "We'd rather look at the success stories."
Ben Steelman: 343-2208
©Copyright 2003, Wilmington Star (SC, USA)
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