We Built This: the exhibit.

Preservation of Wilson presents

We Built This: Profiles of Black Architects and Builders in North Carolina

1 September-31 October 2023

Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House & African-American Museum
1202 Hines Street SE
Wilson, NC 27893

This traveling exhibit, presented by Preservation North Carolina, highlights the stories of those who constructed and designed many of North Carolina’s most treasured historic sites. Spanning more than three centuries, We Built This provides more than two dozen personal profiles and historic context on key topics including slavery and Reconstruction; the founding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Black churches; Jim Crow and segregation; and the rise of Black politicians and professionals.

10 A.M.–3 P.M.
Free Admission

Big thanks to Preservation North Carolina and Wilson Arts for helping bring this exhibit to Wilson.


Don’t miss this fantastic exhibit! Wilson’s most notable African-American builders were Oliver Nestus Freeman and John Mack Barnes, but other early craftsmen included brickmasons like Julius F. Freeman Jr. and Benjamin A. Harris Sr., and carpenters like Julius F. Freeman Sr., Short W. Barnes, John R. Reid, Louis Thomas Sr.,

We built this!

I’m proud to have contributed to this amazing exhibit celebrating North Carolina’s Black architects and builders. To celebrate the exhibit’s debut and to enable more people to see it during these pandemic times, Preservation North Carolina will be sharing a story every Wednesday highlighting a Black builder (or those, like Black Wide-Awake, who research in this area). 

Please follow Preservation North Carolina on Facebook or @presnc on Instagram, or see their website at I’m looking forward to #wbtwednesday!!

923 Washington Street.

The one hundredth in a series of posts highlighting buildings in East Wilson Historic District, a national historic district located in Wilson, North Carolina. As originally approved, the district encompasses 858 contributing buildings and two contributing structures in a historically African-American section of Wilson. (A significant number have since been lost.) The district was developed between about 1890 to 1940 and includes notable examples of Queen Anne, Bungalow/American Craftsman, and Shotgun-style architecture. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

As described in the nomination form for the East Wilson Historic District, this building is: “ca. 1930; 1 story; Alonzo Coley house; bungalow with unusual hip and side-gable roof configuration and shed dormer; aluminum-sided; Coley was a carpenter.”

Alonza Coley also built the houses at 914 and 918 Washington Street. Per the “Statement of Significance” section of the East Wilson nomination form: “A colleague of [O. Nestus] 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.”

In 1917, Alonzo Coley registered for the World War I draft in Wilson. Per his draft registration card, he was born 8 September 1890 in Pikeville, Wayne County; resided at 105 East Street; worked as a carpenter for Barney Reid “in the Town of Wilson;” and was single.

Alonzo Coley, 26, of Wilson, son of Christopher and Sarah E. Coley of Wayne County, married Pauline McQueen, 23, of Wilson, daughter of Anthony and Jenny McQueen of Roland, North Carolina, on 14 March 1918. Presbyterian minister H.B. Taylor performed the ceremony in the presence of Maud Battle, Laura Coley and Lula Lewis.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Washington Street, house carpenter Lonzo Coley, 29; wife Paulean, 26; daughter Elma, 6 months; sister Edith, 16; and boarder Bula Thompson, 17.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 923 Washington Street, owned and valued at $2000, building carpenter Lonie Coley, 35; wife Pauline, 34; and children Elmer, 10, Mary E., 8, Richard L., 7, Robert J., 4, and Pauline, 2.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 923 Washington Street, owned and valued at $800, carpenter Alonzo Coley, 50; wife Pauline, 46, cleaner at post office; mother Sarah, 71; and children Elma, 20, beauty parlor operator, Maratta, 18, Robert J., 14, and Pauline, 12.

Alonzo Coley died 2 November 1967 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 8 September 1890 to Christopher and Sarah Coley; lived at 923 Washington Street; and was a laborer. Informant was Pauline Coley.

Photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, February 2019.

Oliver N. Freeman.


O.N. Freeman

From North Carolina Architects and Builders: A Biographical Directory:

Oliver Nestus Freeman (February 22, 1882-September 28, 1955) was a prolific, creative, and multi-talented craftsman active in Wilson from about 1910 to his death in 1955. He became the community’s preeminent brick and stonemason and also worked in tile, but he is best known for his stonework on his own buildings and throughout the community.

“Born in rural Wilson County, the son of Julius Freeman, a carpenter, and Eliza Daniels Freeman, Freeman was educated at the Tuskegee Normal School where he majored in industrial arts. Training and experience in construction, including masonry work, constituted an important part of the Tuskegee program. As a young man, Freeman taught at Tuskegee and later at the Wilbanks School in Wilson County. He married Willie May Hendley, originally of Nashville, Tennessee, whom he met at Tuskegee. The Freemans became friends with both Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver through the Tuskegee connection. The couple settled in Wilson about 1910, and there Freeman constructed a modest brick house at 1300 East Nash Street, where they raised four children, and which has remained in the family.

“Freeman identified himself to the census takers of 1910 and 1920 as a brickmason, but he was skilled at all types of masonry work. Especially distinctive is his bold, rough stonework for foundations, chimneys, columns, and other architectural elements throughout Wilson, especially for the city’s many fine bungalows. Besides his work on buildings, he created imaginative masonry sculptures that enhance many Wilson gardens.

“Freeman’s best known works are those he built for himself. After constructing a brick cottage for himself and his wife in about 1910, in the 1920s he transformed the Oliver Nestus Freeman House into a stone bungalow. Over the years he added stone and concrete garden sculptures to his property, including a 7-foot dinosaur. In addition, he constructed nearby a rental dwelling, to help with the local housing shortage. Known as the Freeman Round House (1940s), the locally unique house of rough stone features a circular plan divided into wedge-shaped rooms. Long a landmark of the community, in recent years the round house has been preserved and opened as a local museum.”

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Another of Freeman’s buildings — Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, 612 Vance Street NE, Wilson.

Photo of Freeman courtesy of; photo of church taken by Lisa Y. Henderson in May 2016.