St. John’s AME Zion Church – Downtown Wilson, NC

I am continuing to celebrate Black History Month by sharing photos and information from my recent visits to local historical sites with ties to African American history. St. John AME Zion Church is one of several historic Black churches in Wilson, North Carolina. I chose it to visit before I visited the Freeman Round House Museum, but I was glad to see that information about the church was included at the Round House Museum—information which helped me to put the site in context. Much of the information below is from the Round House Museum, which again, I highly recommend.

Established in 1868, the St. John African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is one of the oldest African American churches in Wilson. After slavery ended, African Americans formed their own church congregations, a freedom often denied them in slavery. Enslaved people had to either worship as second-class citizens in the churches of their enslavers or secretly in groups at risk of punishment.

The national African Methodist Episcopal Zion church movement began in 1800 when the first AME Zion church was built in New York in response to discrimination toward Black members of a Methodist church congregation. The denomination was officially established as separate from the Methodist Church in 1821. It then began spreading to the South, advocating for abolition and supporting newly freed African Americans.

The congregation of St. John AME Zion Church was formed in 1868, but the church building pictured here was built in 1915, around the same time that Jackson Chapel First Missionary Baptist Church was built, another historically Black church in downtown Wilson. Jackson Chapel’s cornerstone was laid by Booker T. Washington when he visited Wilson in 1910.

Black churches played vital roles in the building of African American community, the Civil Rights Movement, and the social lives of Black Wilsonians. St. John AME Zion’s pastor, Rev. Richard A.G. Foster, used his position to speak in support of tobacco workers’ rights, work that was at that time dominated by African Americans, and to white Wilsonians about prejudice and racism.

Another pastor of St. John AME Zion, Owen L. W. Smith, who was born into slavery, later served as the US minister to Liberia.

St. John AME Zion church recently celebrated its 150th anniversary and continues to serve the community from this beautiful, historic structure.

The Freeman Round House Museum and Wilson’s Black History

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.

The Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House Museum in downtown Wilson, NC. Photo by author.

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.

Some examples of smaller items created by Freeman and some tools he would have used in his work. On display at the Freeman Round House Museum. Photo by author.

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: or follow them on social media.


Twitter: @RoundMuseum

Boyette Slave House & Slavery in 19th Century Eastern North Carolina

In honor of Black History Month I am sharing several local historical sites with significant connections to local Black history.

First up is the Boyette Slave House. A lesser-known site, the house is located in rural Kenly, but not far off Hwy 222. I visited recently and took a look around. The site is just the small structure itself (it measures just 16x12x8 feet), a wayside side that provides some basic history of the structure, and a small, partial fence enclosing the building, but the site is very significant in terms of Black history. One of very few remaining slave dwellings, the house is a rare piece of history that could shed light on what life was like for enslaved people in the United States. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but is privately owned.

Both the National Register nomination form and the wayside sign provide information about the Boyette family that owned the 400 acre farm that the slave dwelling was a part of, but less about the enslaved people who lived in the home. The names of several of the people enslaved by the Boyette family were included in George Boyett’s will, probated in 1852: Silvia, Caroline, Maryan, Alfred and James. These names are included in a footnote in the National Register nomination form.

In 1850 George and his son Larkin collectively enslaved 8 people. In 1860, after George’s death, Larkin and his wife Chloe Bagley enslaved 4 people. The farm produced corn and sweet potatoes as well as livestock and hay (as of 1850). After the Civil War, in which George’s son Larkin fought for the Confederacy, Larkin diversified his father’s farm and grew a wider variety of crops.

According to the National Register nomination form, the house is estimated to have been built sometime between 1800 and 1852. The National Register nomination, filed in 1979, focuses on the house’s distinctive and rare architectural features–It is one of very few remaining examples of a “fragile and ancient” medieval building style brought to the United States by European colonists. This style features hewn planks joined together with full-dovetail notches and dowels. The chimney is an especially well-preserved example of a stick and mud chimney. This architectural style was common for slave dwellings in the 19th century, when more substantial structures had moved to less flammable materials for chimneys. Many slave dwellings were made of similar materials and in a similar style, but when slavery ended many were demolished or fell into disrepair, making this dwelling unique today.

This home represents a form of slavery–smaller farms worked by the family and less than 10 enslaved people–that many don’t think of when thinking of slavery. As I found while working on the Still Standing Visitor Evaluation Project, most people think of plantation slavery with rows of slave cabins on the outskirts of a large (500-1,000 acres) plantation farming cash crops. But enslaved people lived a variety of experiences. In 1860, there were 331,059 enslaved people in North Carolina, about a third of the state’s total population. Many of these lived and worked on plantations, but others worked on small farms, or doing skilled artisan work or trades, or as house servants in rural and urban areas.

The Boyette Slave House is important as it preserves one way of life for enslaved people in the early to mid 19th century in North Carolina. Slave dwellings provide built evidence of the institution of slavery and can be used to highlight and discuss enslaved people’s lived experiences, their resistance to slavery through forging family and cultural ties despite their lack of freedom, and the myriad of little ways in which they created a life, a home, even as they worked without pay and were held against their will. This small cabin holds so many stories left untold, but is a preserved document of slavery in our community. Enslaved people lived here.

Boyette Slave House is located on Glendale Road in Kenly, North Carolina, off of Hwy 222. The structure is privately owned, but it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. It was restored in 1981, with repairs made to the roof and the distinctive mud and stick chimney. Some information about the structure is available on the Johnston County Visitor Bureau’s website.

Have you visited the Boyette Slave House? Locals, did you know it was there?

We’ll Take a Cup of Kindness Yet: History of “Auld Lang Syne”

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne? For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

This is the classic song sung on New Year’s Eve after the ball drops in Times Square each year, and all around the world as well, to usher in the new year and mark the ending of the old. Most would recognize it when they hear it, but what does it mean and where did the tradition of singing it at New Year’s celebrations come from?

Let’s start with what the title of the song literally means. “Auld lang syne” is Scots for “old long since” or “long long ago” or “old times.” “For auld lang syne”, as the words appear in the chorus of the song, could be translated as for the sake of old times. The song poses the question of whether old times should be forgotten and then answers that old friendships should be remembered.

The song was written as a poem by Robert Burns in 1788. The words are set to the tune of a traditional folk song. It has been used to mark the end of the year, but also other sorts of endings including funerals, farewells, and the ends of parties. The song also takes words from an earlier song by James Watson (1711). Used commonly in Scotland for Hogmanay (New Year’s) celebrations, the popularity and use of the song has spread far and wide around the world.

Guy Lombardo is credited with popularizing the use of the song at New Year’s Eve celebrations, at least in the United States. He and his band (His Royal Canadians) played the song live every year on his New York City radio (and later TV) New Year’s Eve concert from 1929 to 1977. This concert was the popular precursor to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin Eve. Originally from a part of Ontario that had a large Scots population, Lombardo and his band were accustomed to bands ending their shows with the Scottish standard. It is Lombardo’s version that is played in Times Square every New Year’s right after the ball drop. But the song has been covered extensively and is considered a musical standard.

Happy New Year everyone! May it bring new adventures, new memories, and joy to you all.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Time for Scary Ghost Stories

“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories, and tales of the glories of, Christmases long, long ago.”

A Christmas classic, this 1963 song by Andy Williams describes Christmas traditions, including some we no longer practice. What do scary ghost stories have to do with Christmas? Isn’t that more for Halloween?

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was written by Edward Pola and George Wyle in 1963 and recorded by Andy Williams that same year for his first Christmas album. It’s an up-tempo celebration of all things Christmas, particularly spending time with family and friends and the general merriment of the season. The line about scary stories seems out of place in the Christmas classic, but it has its roots in Christmas traditions of the Victorian Era.

It was during the Victorian Era (1837-1901; the reign of Queen Victoria) that Christmas became more widespread and popularly celebrated in England and the United States. Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert brought many Germanic Christmas traditions to Britain. These then trickled over to the United States. One of the most noteworthy was that of decorating the Christmas tree.

Other modern Christmas traditions with roots in Victorian England include sending Christmas cards, caroling, and enjoying Christmas crackers (cookies/sweets). However, one tradition didn’t quite carry over to today — the telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve.

In Victorian England, families and friends would gather around on Christmas Eve and tell each other spooky stories of ghosts and the supernatural. The tradition had roots even older stretching back hundreds of years to folk traditions of telling ghost stories in the winter as a way to pass the evenings. It was thought that winter, being dark and cold, was the best season for ghost stories.

It was during the Victorian era that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by 3 spirits. A Christmas Carol also helped to popularize Christmas celebrations as well as notions that the holiday should be associated with family, gathering together, goodwill, and charity.

A Christmas Carol’s continued popularity is actually one of the few ways our modern society continues to include those “scary ghost stories” of the Victorian era.

It’s not surprising that Victorians would include the practice of ghost stories in their Christmas celebrations given that era’s fascination with and culture surrounding darker topics such as death, including elaborate mourning etiquette, death photography, and more. (A topic for another day, perhaps, but you can read more here.)

Why the writers of the 1963 song decided to include the then relatively defunct tradition is uncertain. But the song itself has become a traditional part of Christmas and can be heard throughout the season, both the original and its many cover versions. The song’s original version is regularly included in top 10 lists of the most popular Christmas songs.

Read more about Victorian Christmas traditions below:

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside:” Context & Controversy

Baby Its Cold Outside

Last holiday season controversy erupted over a radio station’s decision to ban “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” And this year, John Legend & Kelly Clarkson’s new version has stirred up opinions on the song once again. What is the controversy all about? And what’s the context for the original song’s lyrics? Read more below about the historical context for the song, and how it comes off in the present.

Written in 1944 by Frank Loesser for him and his wife to sing together at parties, the song’s lyrics are a call and response between a man and a woman discussing whether or not a woman should stay or leave the man’s house on a cold winter night. Frank and his wife Lynn Garland sang it for the first time at the end of their housewarming party to indicate to guests that it was time to leave. They were then invited to lots of parties and asked to be the closing act. The song first appeared publicly in the 1949 film, Neptune’s Daughter, a romantic comedy. It is performed twice in the movie–once in reverse gender roles with the woman wanting a man to stay.

For today’s listeners, in an era of the #MeToo movement, high-profile sexual assault cases, and ongoing dialogue about consent and how often women face sexual harassment, some of the song’s lyrics sound a bit alarming, most notably when the female voice asks “What’s in this drink?” or when her clear “the answer is no” is met with the man’s continued encouragement to stay.

Most women can imagine what that pushiness feels like or can remember a time when their “no” was ignored by a man–from requests as simple (yet still uncomfortable) as a drink at a bar, their phone number, or a dance, to situations much more serious and violent.

In today’s society where efforts are helping to give women more of a voice, the lyrics to the song can sound a bit coercive at best and like ignoring lack of consent or date rape at worst.

However, there are several other lines in the song that demonstrate the woman’s actual desire to stay at the man’s house, especially when the lyrics are read in the historical context in which they were written.

The female voice expresses her desire to stay several times–first when she says, “Maybe just a half a drink more” and later when she says “maybe just a cigarette more” as well as the ending of the song where the male and female voices sing in unison that it’s cold outside. While none of these lines are a clear yes, they can be interpreted as deciding to use that “excuse” for her staying.

But why did she need an excuse? For the same reason that none of her indications that she wants to stay are terribly clear or explicit–Because of societal expectations in that time period (1940s-1950s). Women faced much more scrutiny about their relationships and sexual behavior than they do now (when they still face more scrutiny than their male counterparts). Women with “good reputations” were expected to turn down a man’s advances even if they actually wanted to stay the night, meaning men did not expect or try to get clear consent.

The woman’s lines in the song also speak much more to her concern about what her family and neighbors would think about her staying than they do to her not wanting to stay. She names a number of family members that would be concerned or suspicious if she didn’t return home including her mother, brother, father, sister, and aunt and also wondered what the neighbors would think. (Also, this point is poked fun at in the new John Legend & Kelly Clarkson version where he asks why she still lives at home. In the 1940s, many women would have lived at home until they married.)

“At least I’m going to say that I tried.” This line really speaks to the heart of the issue–“good” girls had to at least say they tried to turn a man down. And she could say that given her many “attempts” to leave.

Today’s conversations about consent are important. Historically, men didn’t wait to get consent since they expected a woman to say no. Women in that time period did not have as much of a voice in their personal relationships because of those societal expectations. This song actually shines a light on why consent is so important–clarity is needed rather than trying to read body language and clues while men and women juggle society’s expectations of them versus their own desires.

I can understand why some are uncomfortable hearing this song in today’s society in which the man’s lines sound coercive and pushy, but with the historical context in mind I hear the song as the woman wanting to stay and ultimately deciding to do so–society’s opinion on her decision be damned. Though I also see the problematic societal standards that put the woman in a position in which a real no could have easily been ignored or misinterpreted.

In recent years, some artists have attempted to address issues with the song heard with a modern ear.

Some reverse the gender roles in the song such as She & Him’s version (the video for which also addresses the “creepy” factor) or a live version performed by Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Do those versions change any of the meaning for you?

A songwriting duo changed the lyrics to reflect conversations about consent. And John Legend’s version also makes that effort. Take a listen and let me know if you think this song needs such an update.

Do you think the song should be taken out of radio rotation? Does it sound creepy to you? Does knowing the historical context change your take on it? Let me know in the comments!

Dumbarton Oaks Museum & Gardens

Recently, I toured Dumbarton Oaks, which is a research library and collection in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The collection and estate was donated to Harvard University by Robert and Mildred Bliss, collectors of art and artifacts from around the world. The Blisses were particularly fascinated with Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, as well as gardening and landscape design. The Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Garden reflects these interests.

We toured two main exhibits at the Museum and then spent the majority of our visit enjoying the gardens.

One exhibit we viewed focused on textiles from Byzantine. Entitled “Ornament: Fragments of Byzantine Fashion,” it demonstrated the way that Byzantine garments were dismantled, with the ornamental sections of clothing cut away from the bulk of the garment which would have been plain or solid in color. These more ornamental fragments were sold by traders. The exhibit explores the themes in the designs commonly found on these Byzantine garments, and related objects.

The Museum’s display style was much more like that found in art museums or anthropology museums, rather than my area of expertise–history museums, and the Byzantine empire is far from the usual topics and time periods I study, but I enjoyed viewing these pieces, amazed by how well many of these textiles were preserved, several hundreds of years later. I was also interested to learn that researchers are able to gleam information about the people who wore these clothes from the stains and folds of these garments, which were removed from the burials of medieval Egyptians. They also speak to the aesthetics of the period.

Of more interest to me were the Pre-Columbian artifacts from Mexico and South America. This exhibit was in a beautiful array of circular areas and hallways with floor-length windows all around. These artifacts spoke to the religious and cultural life of the pre-conquest indigenous groups of Latin America.

Finally, we toured the gardens, which were designed by Beatrix Farrand, in consultation with Mildred Bliss. Beginning in 1921, the two women drew on their knowledge of European garden tradition in order to create the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. The garden consists of a series of terraces. It was designed and evolved over 30 years with every single element carefully considered and chosen. Read more about Dumbarton Oaks Museum & Gardens at their website.

The Monster Mash: 3 Interesting Facts About the Halloween Classic

The Monster Mash. It was a graveyard smash.

Monster Mash was released in 1962. Written by Bobby Pickett and Leonard Capizzi and recorded by Pickett and “the Crypt-Kickers.,” the single hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart from October 20-27, 1962 and has been a Halloween favorite ever since. Here are a few fun facts about this Halloween classic.

  1. The song features Pickett doing an impression of Boris Karloff, a famed horror movie actor. He also does a Dracula impression for one line in the song.
  2. The song was inspired by and danced to the Mashed Potato dance craze of the era. Monster Mash was danced like the Mashed Potato except with Frankenstein monster arm and hand movements.
  3. Interestingly the sound effects in the song were very low budget. The coffin sound was created by removing a nail from a piece of wood; the cauldron bubbling was simply a straw bubbling water; and the chains rattling were just chains being dropped on a tile floor.

The song tells a story loosely similar to Frankenstein but with a fun, dance twist. A mad scientist’s monster comes to life and performs a new dance which became very popular and led to a party with other monsters.

Below is the video from Bobby Pickett performing the song on American Bandstand October 13, 1964.

“I Put a Spell on You:” From Radio Ban to Disney Movie Favorite

What are the origins of a popular song that has become a Halloween favorite? A breakup, a blues singer, and a drunken recording session.

A song many know because of its numerous cover versions, “I Put a Spell on You” is now included on Halloween playlists, owing partly to its inclusion in the movie Hocus Pocus. However, even before its more overt connection to the Halloween holiday, the song was thought of as shocking, demented, and dark, but not solely for the lyrics which suggest witchcraft or voodoo. Originally written and performed  by Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins,”I Put a Spell on You” was released in 1956 and is the song that earned Jalacy the “Screamin’ Jay” nickname. It was Hawkins’ screaming delivery of the song and his resulting performance style that really gave the song its powerful yet outrageous and slightly sinister tone. The song transformed Hawkins’ career and he became the pioneer of the subgenre of “shock rock,” a genre later popularized by artists including Alice Cooper, KISS, Ozzy Osborne, and Marilyn Manson.

“I Put a Spell on You” was not originally intended to be associated with Halloween at all. It was Hawkins’ delivery of the song in the 1956 recording and the resulting live performances that would change everything for the song and for Hawkins. Hawkins, who had operatic dreams, but was working as a traditional blues singer, originally wrote the song as a blues love ballad. With lyrics about getting a lover back after a breakup, the song was influenced by his own personal life. He recorded it as such in 1955, but the track didn’t go anywhere. However, the story goes that a year later when he decided to try rerecording it, the producer brought in food and large quantities of alcohol to the recording session and got everyone drunk resulting in the most well-known version of the song.

However, the resulting version of the song also got it banned from radio. In 1956, Hawkins’ singing, screaming, and grunting, complete with animal noises, sounded overtly sexual to mainstream audiences. The fact that Hawkins was Black contributed to this racist take on the song. Even a toned-down version wasn’t played on most radio stations. Despite the radio ban, the song was Hawkins’ most commercially successful one, though it never made the top charts.

Hawkins’ live performances of the song did little to allay the concerns of many groups. He took to appearing on stage in a coffin, rising out dressed in a “screaming wardrobe”  including zebra stripes, bright colors, and sometimes a loin cloth, holding a spear or a skull on a stick that would sometimes smoke his cigarette while he sang, and with tusks in his nose and a turban on his head.

The NAACP denounced his act with concerns that he was propagating stereotypes of African Americans as cannibals or witch doctors. Some African American newspapers and magazines ignored Hawkins, not wanting to promote his music. The song was released in the era of Jim Crow segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. Many in the Black community had concerns about the act being consumed by white audiences for which it upheld dangerous and negative images of Black people.

Despite all of this, the song was Hawkins’ biggest hit, with Hawkins being featured in DJ Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Revue. The song has gone on to be covered by numerous artists. Some of the most well-received covers include those of Nina Simone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marilyn Manson, Bette Midler (in Hocus Pocus), and Annie Lennox, but there have been many more.

Nina Simone’s cover was especially well done with the song taking on a whole new meaning when sung with her amazing voice. Simone slowed the track down more to the ballad tempo it was originally meant to be, but with powerhouse vocals and jazz style scatting. The track became so much a part of Simone’s body of work that she titled her autobiography “I Put a Spell on You.”

Bette Midler’s rendition in Hocus Pocus has become particularly popular at Halloween owing to the movie’s rising popularity as a cult classic. It seems to be more popular as it ages with references to it on signs, t-shirts, and more as Halloween approaches. Midler as Winifred Sanderson changes many of the lyrics to fit the spell she was casting while singing but hers is one of the more well known uses of the song, though it has appeared in several other movies and in commercials.

Jalacy Hawkins’ song had a long life after him as artists continue to cover it. However, the song and its influence on his stage persona changed his career trajectory so much that he had difficulty getting other records taken seriously and many shied away from playing his records because of fear of associating with him, even when records were more traditional. He didn’t really benefit financially from the song despite the fact that many covers of it happened in his lifetime.

Read more about Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins, who had a difficult childhood, served in the armed forces, and had a relatively successful boxing career, all before the release of “I Put a Spell on You.” Links to further reading below.


These first two links are obituaries for Jay Hawkins.

Biography of Jay Hawkins.

This is an especially interesting article that follows the trajectory of the song over time and speaks to the likelihood that Hawkins’ version was unsuccessful because of racial biases of the time, while later white performers’ versions of the song were more commercially successful and bigger hits on radio charts. It also suggests that Hawkins’ performance style confronted white audiences’ desire to appropriate black music while society still maintained segregation and oppression of African Americans.

#19forthe19th: Women at Work

Women have always worked. But the nature of that work and where it took place has changed over time. In the United States, before the late 19th century, the majority of women’s work was domestic, but as economic and social changes took place, women began working outside of the home and in more varied roles.

I wrote about women’s work for a chapter of my master’s thesis. Below is a short excerpt from that chapter that explains the changes over time and gives details about women’s work including women-owned businesses. Since my thesis focused on the Wilmington area, it includes statistics and information from the Cape Fear region.

Many changes in women’s work took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One such change was in the demographic makeup of women entering the workforce. In 1890 more than 90 percent of women over the age of 35 were married. Before 1890, the “vast majority” of married women did not engage in paid labor, instead “contributing to the family economy in other ways.”[1] After 1890 married women began to more frequently take jobs outside of the home. Women were having fewer children, resulting in fewer years spent in raising children. Technological advancements reduced and eased housework and made many goods previously produced in the home readily available for purchase. The reduction in family size and the new technology freed up time for many married women. Alice Kessler-Harris argued that these women, no longer spending much of their lifetimes birthing and raising children, “would need to find meaningful survival activity” and some, especially those who outlived their partners, “would need to support themselves by finding paid work outside the household.”[2]

Kessler-Harris’s arguments points to two main reasons for women engaging in work outside of the home, for economic survival and for mental or emotional fulfillment. Since colonial times, single women, widows, and poor women were more likely to work for wages, needing to support themselves in absence of a husband or father or contribute to the earnings of a husband.[3] However, with the changes in the home pointed out by Kessler-Harris, as well as changes in the 1920s resulting from women’s wartime work, the flapper movement of the 1920s, and women’s newly earned suffrage, the early twentieth century saw more women, married or otherwise, pursuing work for other reasons, including boredom, ambition, rebellion, and independence, as well as need. These motives, of course, differed by race and class.[4]

By the mid-twentieth century, women held a larger variety of jobs, but still remained less represented in the workforce than men.[5] These changes over the first decades of the twentieth century are also reflected in the census records. In 1940 there were still six times as many employed males as females in Brunswick County, but only about two times as many in New Hanover County. This is likely due to the city of Wilmington’s increased population and urban employment opportunities. In terms of women as business owners and employers, in 1940 there were nearly ten times as many male as female employers and own-account workers in Brunswick County and 11.5 times as many male employers as female in the state of North Carolina. However, there were only 2.7 times as many in New Hanover County, making New Hanover County unique in the state for its higher proportion of women employers at that time.

Women’s employment generally increased over the course of the twentieth century; however, their occupations were concentrated in certain fields, such as domestic service and professional occupations. Women’s dominance in domestic service and professional occupations in the Cape Fear Region mirrors larger trends in women’s work in the twentieth century. Domestic service was an especially predominant occupation for African American women. Tera Hunter found in her study of black women’s work from the Civil War through the early twentieth century that “more than 90 percent of black female wage-earners were still confined to domestic work at the turn of the century.”[7] In the Cape Fear region, domestic workers were also majority African American, with domestic work being one of the few options for black women in the early twentieth century. As late as 1995 African American women still made up 63% of housekeepers, child care workers, and cleaners.[8] In terms of professional occupations, Kessler-Harris found that “by 1920 a cadre of trained and eager women had carved out a series of professional areas, many of which were loosely construed as nurturing,” such as nursing and teaching.[9] Cape Fear women’s large numbers in professional fields and domestic service fields represent larger trends in women’s growing presence in the paid labor force.

Beyond census records, another rich resource for contextualizing women’s work and roles in business is the city directories for Wilmington. These sources list local businesses as well as individuals and organizations. The city directories for the years 1900, 1905, 1909-10, 1915-16, 1919-20, 1930, 1934, 1940, 1944-45, and 1950, published by Hill Directory Company, revealed several trends in women’s work and were exceptionally helpful in gathering information about women-owned businesses.[1] By focusing on the business listings rather than the personal listings, some trends in women’s businesses can be determined.

The most numerous occupations or businesses held by women from 1900 to 1950 were boarding houses, clothing retailers, bakers and confectioners, dressmakers, florists, grocers, music teachers, and nurses. Not only did these professions include large numbers of women, but they also largely excluded men, demonstrating the gender segregation of the workforce. Boarding houses were overwhelmingly one of the biggest businesses operated by women in Wilmington. The city directories revealed that in 1900 at least 21 women were listed as the proprietors of boarding houses. Of those 21, 19 were listed as “Mrs.” and only two were listed as “Miss,” indicating that boarding houses were predominantly operated by married or widowed women.[2] In 1905 even more women were listed as boarding house owners with the number reaching 45.[3] More than 40 women operated boarding houses in 1910.[4] The number continued to remain relatively high at 11 in 1930 and 19 in 1940.[5] However, in 1950 there were only two women listed as boarding house proprietors. This shift did not indicate an exodus from the profession though. Instead, 32 women were listed as the proprietors of “furnished rooms,” many of them the same women once listed as boarding house owners.[6] Furnished rooms provided less amenities to lodgers, offering a room with either a hot plate or access to a shared kitchen where boarding houses had provided communal meals to their guests. Furnished rooms were thus less labor-intensive for landladies. The shift may have been caused by changes in women’s access to other occupations as well as changes in ideas of family privacy.[7]

Other notable professions included dressmaking and millinery shops. For example, in 1950 there were twenty-eight dressmakers in Wilmington. Women also appeared increasingly in later years as stenographers, notaries, real estate and insurance agents, and other office-type jobs. There were a few notable instances of women working outside of “feminine” occupations, but alongside husbands. There was one lawyer, one physician (osteopath), and one chiropractor who fell into this category. Other trends in women’s work in the Cape Fear Region included teaching, nursing, and clerical work.[8] By 1920, 80 percent of North Carolina’s teachers were women, the James Walker School of Nursing graduated more than 1,000 nurses between 1902 and 1970, and by 1940 15 percent of employed women worked in retail, clerical work, or service professional jobs. Textile mills were also leading employers of women in the region, including Delgado Cotton Mill.[9]

As can be seen, many of the occupations or businesses that women engaged in used “traditional” domestic skills or catered to women clientele. Boarding house proprietors served as hostesses, managing a home and providing meals. Dressmakers made women’s clothing, reproducing the traditional women’s task of cloth production in the home, and producing goods for female consumers. These were considered acceptable, feminine professions and they attracted a largely female workforce. As Kessler-Harris found, “most women, even professionals, still found themselves in job categories that were heavily female.”[10]

The ways in which businesses and individuals were denoted in the city directories also points to connections between race and gender when examining women’s work and businesses in the twentieth century. The city directories differentiated individuals and proprietors of businesses by race and further differentiated women by marital status. African-American individuals or businesses are denoted with an asterisk or the letter ‘c’ in parenthesis alongside their names. This action denotes the racial segregation at the time, and helps to provide some information about the differences in African-American and white women’s work.

African American women can predominantly be seen as the proprietors of eating houses and lunch rooms, as opposed to the separately named category of restaurants, a symptom of segregated establishments. African American women appeared much less often in other businesses such as boarding houses and as music teachers or nurses. African American women appeared as midwives where white women did not and are also among dressmakers and hairdressers. Personal listings in the city directories also revealed African American women to work often as washerwomen and seamstresses.[1] African American women appeared frequently in separate businesses from white women. Black women were more likely to be listed as hairdressers, eating house proprietors, and midwives. The businesses that African American women engaged in in Wilmington were also popular in other cities across the South. Hunter found that women in Atlanta also operated restaurants, clothing stores, hairdressing shops, and worked as midwives. Midwifery was also one of the few professional occupations African American women were able to break into, following teaching and nursing.[2] The differences in work of black and white women points to different gender expectations across race as well as different limitations in work opportunities.


[1] City directories, 1900-1950.

[2] Hunter, 112.

[1] Wilmington City Directories, Hill Directory Company, 1900-1950, North Carolina Room, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, North Carolina.

[2] City of Wilmington Directory, Hill Directory Company, 1900, New Hanover County Public Library North Carolina Room, Wilmington, NC.

[3] City of Wilmington Directory, 1905.

[4] City of Wilmington Directory, 1909-1910.

[5] City of Wilmington Directory, 1930, 1940.

[6] City of Wilmington Directory, 1950.

[7] Joanne J. Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1991, 73-75. Meyerowitz explores the changes in lodging of urban workers in Chicago around the turn of the twentieth century, offering some explanation of the differences between boarding houses and furnished rooms that can help explain the shift in Wilmington in the twentieth century.

[8] Women’s Work A Century’s Worth: A Cape Fear Scrapbook.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kessler-Harris, 116.

[1] Kessler-Harris, 109.

[2] Ibid, 110.

[3] See Cynthia Kierner, Beyond the Household: Women’s Place in the Early South, 1700-1835, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), 1998.

[4] Kessler-Harris, 224-229.

[5] Ibid, 114-115 and Historical Census Browser, 1940, University of Virginia, Geospatial and Statistical Data Center, 2004, Retrieved May 23, 2014,

[6] Historical Census Browser, University of Virginia, Geospatial and Statistical Data Center, 2004, Retrieved May 23, 2014,

[7] Tera W. Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1997, 111.

[8] Women’s Work A Century’s Worth: A Cape Fear Scrapbook, (Wilmington, NC: Women’s History Project Committee), 2001, Accessed May 14, 2015, Internet Archive,

[9] Kessler-Harris, 116-117.