During the Great Depression, writers contracted by the Works Progress Administration collected more than 2,300 oral histories from formerly enslaved people. At least five women and men shared their recollections of slavery in Wilson County. For the upcoming exhibit I curated documenting enslaved African-Americans in Wilson County, I asked four contemporary Wilsonians to lend their voices to bring to life the transcripts of four oral history interviews. Each person has roots that have been chronicled in Black Wide-Awake, and I am deeply grateful for their enthusiastic participation.
Say Their Names opens a week from today at Wilson’s Imagination Station Science and History Museum. I look forward to seeing you there, but if you’re unable to make it, I hope you’ll make your way to the museum this year.
Photographs courtesy of Brooke Bissette, Imagination Station.
The closing day of Black History Month is the opening day of Say Their Names: Reclaiming Wilson, North Carolina’s Slave Past. I’m immensely honored to have been invited by Wilson’s science and history museum, Imagination Station, to curate this exhibit, which grew from a talk I gave at Wilson County Public Library a few years ago.
Say Their Names will be on display through the end of 2020, and I hope you’ll get to Wilson before then to see it. I’d love to see you on opening day, too, when I’ll be there to greet and thank you.
When I was in Wilson this past weekend, I had the great good fortune to spend a couple of hours with Lewis and Tinia Howard Neal at Mr. Neal’s remarkable Garage Museum in Daniel Hill. The museum is, literally, packed to the rafters with photographs, news clippings, vintage tools and farm implements, political paraphernalia, and other items Mr. Neal has collected, curated and neatly labeled. His focus is local history and culture, with a strong emphasis on artifacts relevant to Wilson’s African American community.
[Obviously, in this way, Mr. Neal is a kindred spirit, but it turns out that I also share ancestry with both him and Mrs. Neal. I haven’t figured out my DNA connection to him, but Mrs. Neal is a direct descendant of Nelson and Marinda Locust Eatmon (via their daughter Rhoda Eatmon, who married Zealous “Deal” Howard), and I am descended from Nelson Eatmon’s kinsman Toney Eatmon.]
Mr. Neal opens the doors of his museum as a community meeting space and welcomes visitors. Please call for an appointment.
Digging through some files, I found this 2001 program for the dedication of the Freeman Round House in its first iteration as a museum. An insert acknowledged those who had donated generously to the building’s renovation. I — away in Atlanta and only loosely aware of the plans — am not named among them, but my parents are. As I scanned the list, I took note of the dozens of early supporters who passed away before the new, expanded museum opened last fall. I am honored to pick up the mantle and carry it forward to continue the good work they began and to preserve Wilson’s African-American history.
Flyer in personal collection of Lisa Y. Henderson.
Wilson cut the ribbon on the Oliver N. Freeman Round House and Museum of African-American History Sunday. I was blessed with the opportunity to consult on and curate much of the content and to draft most of the text accompanying the permanent exhibit. I’m so happy and so proud and so honored and so humbled. Preserving and presenting the history of the community that raised me is my ministry.
… “Oh? I’m on the program?”
I was too geeked about the museum to think straight enough to rehearse something, so I just let my heart speak. I said that I was born at all-black Mercy Hospital just before it closed. I was born on the cusp of segregation and integration — Wilson as it was and as it would be. Though I have not lived in Wilson for more than 30 years, something powerful that I had absorbed on Carolina Street, where I spent my first decade, or Queen Street, where my father grew up, or Elba Street, where my grandmother grew up, had stayed with me. I began to curate Black Wide Awake in 2015 as a way to preserve and present the stories of the people and places of home. Since then, I’ve gained as much I’ve given, including the singular honor of contributing to and creating for the Round House museum. I’m honored and deeply grateful, I said.
Photo by Janelle Booth Clevinger.
Congressman G.K. Butterfield, Jr., friend and neighbor, son of East Wilson, took the mic and gave tribute to the real MVP, William E. “Bill” Myers, whose tenacious vision over nearly two decades bent larger Wilson toward doing right by the historical and cultural legacy of our side of the tracks. Mr. Myers was feeling a little under the weather and could not be present, but surely felt the waves of love and appreciation rolling toward him from Nash Street.
George K. Butterfield, Jr., United Stated House of Representatives. (And The Monitors? Well, get to know them.)
With that, Michael E. Myers, Board chairman Ken Jones, and the Freeman family cut the ribbon, and the community stepped into the full flower of the renovated Round House and Museum.
East Wilson bona fides: in the museum’s foyer, W. and C., two of Bill Myers’ grandsons. Both are descendants of Judith Davis, Rev. Fred M. Davis, William B. Davis and Parker Battle. In addition, W. is descended from “Picture-Taking” George W. Barnes and Benjamin Mincey.
The Round House itself is now largely dedicated to the life and accomplishments of Oliver N. Freeman.
Before the crowd arrives.
A little interactive oral history.
The medical history of East Wilson.
Please support the Freeman Round House and African-American Museum. Admission is free, but donations are vital to this small institution’s mission and are much appreciated.
1202 Nash Street East, Wilson, North Carolina
A couple of weeks ago, the Freeman Round House African-American History Museum broke ground on its new exhibition hall. When I was in Wilson last weekend, workmen — the occupational descendants of Oliver and Julius Freeman — were pouring cement for the hall’s foundation. The addition is being developed by a professional design team, and I look forward to seeing the museum’s holdings displayed and interpreted in their brand-new facility!
The Round House and Oliver Freeman’s famous concrete dinosaur, which once stood in his front yard.
Please support the Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House Museum as it begins to expand its walls.
The Round House preserves, promotes, and presents African-American history, art, and culture to all citizens of Wilson, NC and its surrounding region. From community trailblazers to nationally known personalities, the museum strives to increase awareness and appreciation of the numerous contributions that local people of color have made to society.
The Round House building was constructed by Oliver Nestus Freeman, who was born in 1882 in Wilson County to former slaves. He was educated at the Tuskegee Normal School in Alabama and returned to Wilson to build houses, including a number designed to help alleviate the shortage of affordable housing for soldiers returning from World War II. Freeman’s services were especially sought out for his fine stonework.
The museum’s expansion plans will allow it to showcase Freeman’s unique stone three-room round house, as well as offer additional exhibition space, a community conference room, and a resource center.
Please consider giving during The Round House’s fundraising campaign.