New Online Directory Offers Glimpse Into Wilmington's Past

Jul 22, 2020

  The New Hanover County Public Library is now providing an online directory of the City of Wilmington. And while the directory is new, the information in it goes back over 100 years. WHQR reports on what the information tells us  -- and how it could better inform the history of the 1898 coup d’état.  

The Black Lives Matter Movement has spurred new interest in our racially-divided past, including the history of a white supremacist government overthrow in Wilmington in 1898

Travis Souther is the local history librarian for New Hanover County. He’s compiled a data set from old city directories that include almost 27,000 entries from 1897 to 1902.  

 

“Calvin Aiken who is an African-American porter [...] and in the year 1900, his business is at 822 North 4th, but he’s also living at 1112 North Sixth, but then I don’t I see him in 1902 or later.”

And Souther says the public can use the index to explore certain demographics in Wilmington:

 

“You can definitely see that the percentage of African-Americans in the city is changing. This is just another resource to help tell the story; it’s not meant to be an end-all, be-all. But it’s meant to be a tool for researchers to go, okay, is this block seeing a significant change in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, based on race?”

Jan Davidson is the Historian at the Cape Fear Museum. 

Davidson says the Wilmington City Directories from that period were usually created by a business. She says they’re good sources of information, but they have limitations:

“So if you’re publishing something in 1897, you may have actually collected that information a little bit earlier. And not everybody ends up in them, [...] but they’re an excellent snapshot of the community in between the years of the Census.” 

According to Souther, in 1897, there were 122 black-owned businesses in Wilmington, and by 1902 there were just 83. But one year later, the number rebounded to 107. Davidson of the Cape Fear Museum puts that into context: 

“So I don’t think anybody wants to downplay how significant and awful 1898 was. But it wasn’t like everybody just got up and left. People still had lives here." 

And the Black families who stayed pioneered a new community:

 

“And then when you look at when folks talk about how important Williston was as a school -- and how many people who came out of that school who were doctors and educators. I mean, Williston doesn’t become a high school until 1923, so there’s a rich 20th century African-American story here as well.” 

An enduring question of the 1898 coup is whether there was a large scale confiscation of black-owned property. In the North Carolina Commission Report on the events of 1898, they found no widespread evidence of these seizures. So, while this index might provide clues as to where Black citizens lived and operated their businesses -- it won’t necessarily show any white take-overs of property. 

Jan Davidson says property deeds might shed some light but,  

“It’s never going to say I sold this property because I was afraid to live here. It’s going to say, I sold this property and this other person bought it.”

The Cape Fear Museum has online materials about the coup -- and they’ll have a new multimedia site to showcase in the coming weeks.