City Spotlight: Wilmington, NC

Photo of an 1880 outing. Reprinted from Along the Cape Fear by Susan Taylor Block (pg. 10, Arcadia Publishing, 1998).

One of the largest cities in North Carolina, the Wilmington area was first inhabited by different indigenous tribes for thousands of years prior to its settlement by English colonists in the 1720’s. The area held several different names during the early-to-mid 18th century, including “New Carthage,” “New Liverpool,” and even “Newton” before it was reincorporated as Wilmington in 1740 in honor of the Earl of Wilmington. Many of the settlers who came to Wilmington during this time came from the northern British colonies, the West Indies, and the British Isles, but settlers from as close as South Carolina and Virginia could soon be found in the town as well. Many of these early settlers were indentured servants or slaves brought from Africa to fuel the growing labor demands. By 1767, the majority of the population in the Wilmington area were slaves, working in various ports ‚Äčand plantations throughout the region.

Frozen in time by the photography firm operated by Charles W. Yates and Alexander Orr Jr., this c. 1880 image captures romantic sailing ships and industrial steamers on the cape Fear (pg. 13, Arcadia Publishing, 2007).

Dating from 1847, this is the first known photograph of Wilmington and the earliest outdoor image of North Carolina. (Courtesy Amon Carter Museum; Fort Worth, Texas). Reprinted from Then & Now: Wilmington, by Susan Taylor Block (pg. 10, Arcadia Publishing).

Wilmington also served a major role in the years leading up to the American Revolution, and during the war itself – residents such as Cornelius Harnett helped to lead the resistance against the ruling British government, and Wilmington was the site of many protests against taxes (particularly the Sugar Act and Stamp Act) implemented by England. The Stamp Act in particular was heavily protested throughout not only the Wilmington area - in one episode, a mob including the mayor and aldermen of Wilmington confronted the governor over ships seized for delivering papers without stamps, recovering the seized ships and effectively protesting the tax, which was repealed only a month later.

By the 19th century, Wilmington had begun to see many of the major technological innovations that had developed within the country, including the railroad (which was completed by 1840), and gas lighting by the 1850’s. The city also opened its first public school during the 1850’s, and built a new, more established City Hall. The city continued to develop until the beginning of the Civil War, when it became the most major base for the Confederate Army, due to its essential placement as a port. Though it served as the largest base for the Confederates, it was captured by the Union army during the Battle of Wilmington in 1865.

While the war provided freedom to the largely enslaved population of Wilmington, this was not agreeable to all those who lived there. The Reconstruction era was tenuous for Wilmington, where free Blacks had established a unified community, and had even been elected to some local offices. Unfortunately, this newfound freedom and power angered many of Wilmington’s more conservative white residents who, during the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, ran prominent white and Black progressive officials out of the city, and murdered up to 100 Black residents. As a result, the state of North Carolina shortly after passed a new constitution which sought to keep Blacks from rejoining political offices and voting; this constitution would remain in place until the 1960’s civil rights act.

This 1900 image was identified as “Shell Road,” but is better known today as Market Street. Reprinted from Then & Now: Wilmington, by Susan Taylor Block (pg. 15, Arcadia Publishing, 2007).

Modern Wilmington has attempted to reinvent itself within its historic setting, serving as one of North Carolina’s largest coastal tourism destinations. With three beaches near the city, which prides itself on a more progressive culture, Wilmington has become a hub for those who seek a Southern American city with both a rich historical aspect and modern affinities.

The strand just east of the Boardwalk at Carolina Beach, c. 1960. Reprinted from Then & Now: Wilmington, by Susan Taylor Block (pg. 37, Arcadia Publishing, 1998).

Long before becoming U.S. president, actor Ronald Reagan won the popular vote at the 1959 Azalea Festival. Reprinted from Then & Now: Wilmington, by Susan Taylor Block (pg. 44, Arcadia Publishing, 1998).

After the Civil War, Alexander Sprunt and Son Champion Compress transformed Wilmington into an international cotton exporting port. It employed 800 people and had offices in England and Germany. In the 1880’s, when this photograph was made at the company wharf, up to 4,000 bales a day left Wilmington on schooners, steams, railroads, and carts. Reprinted from Then & Now: Wilmington, by Susan Taylor Block (pg. 50, Arcadia Publishing, 1998).