In honor of Black History Month I am visiting local historical sites of significance in African American history. I am learning so much about local Black history. My first post of the month was about the Boyette Slave House in Kenly, NC (Johnston County). Today I am shifting to neighboring Wilson County.
Downtown Wilson is home to a small, but important museum called the Freeman Round House Museum. Oliver Nestus Freeman (1882-1955) was a stone mason born in Wilson. He went to the Tuskegee Normal School in Alabama where he studied construction technology and learned stone and brick masonry. He taught for some years, first at Tuskegee and later in Wilson. A creative man of many talents, he created stone houses, stonework for chimneys, fireplaces, columns, porches, and other design elements of homes, sculptures, and more. The Round House was one of his several contributions to the architecture of Wilson.
In the 1940s Freeman was concerned about the lack of affordable housing for veterans returning from service in World War II. Originally created as a prototype rental home for these returning veterans, the Round House was divided into three wedge-shaped rooms. Freeman was resourceful and used found items in his stonework including sidewalk concrete, shells, bottles, marbles, and more.
In addition to the Round House, Freeman adorned his own home with stonework and his yard with his stone sculptures. His work can be spotted around Wilson, where he worked on homes for both Black and white homeowners. He also traveled across the state to work, from Asheville to Elizabeth City and Wilmington and lots of towns in between.
Freeman, an an African American man living during segregation, also saw a need for a recreational area for Wilson’s Black population. He created Freeman’s Park in the early 1900s with an amusement park and picnic ground on farmland he owned. He dug out a lake and made canoes for visitors to use. The exact location of the park is unknown today.
The Freeman Round House Museum tells the story of the creative stone mason Oliver Nestus Freeman, largely within the small round house itself, but the museum includes a second building, more recently built, that tells the stories of the African American community of Wilson, largely situated in East Wilson.
The Museum traces the development of the historically Black neighborhood of East Wilson, from shortly after Wilson’s incorporation in 1849 through school integration in the 1970s and into the present. The museum exhibits do an excellent job of explaining how the community came to be, not only physically as newly freed slaves left the countryside for the city after the Civil War, and settled in East Wilson as white homeowners moved out of the area, but also meaningfully, as Blacks in East Wilson created churches, associations, and institutions of their own in the face of segregation, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination.
The exhibits also trace the story of segregated public schools including a local school boycott in the early 1900s, years before the Civil Rights Movement spread across America, to protest the mistreatment of a Black teacher by the white school superintendent. The exhibits culminate in the slow history of local school integration.
I learned so much from these exhibits about the Black history of the area that I was born and raised in, stories that I hadn’t heard until now. I highly recommend visiting this museum.
For more information about the Freeman Round House Museum visit their website: http://www.theroundhousemuseum.com/ or follow them on social media.