One of the places we visited in our trip to Wilson was the Freeman Round House Museum. The name Freeman is for Oliver Nestus Freeman, a black man who was born in Wilson in 1882. The site consists of a museum building containing historical information about African-American history in Wilson as well as a stone house that Freeman built in 1946.
Freeman was born less than two decades after the end of the Civil War. Despite being granted freedom at a federal level, African Americans faced rampant racism and local laws designed to prevent full rights to land ownership, voting, justice and more. Additionally, former slaves were never compensated for their forced labor that enriched their white owners.
So when Oliver Nestus Freeman was coming of age, he, like many other African Americans in Wilson County, found little economic opportunity. He chose to travel to Alabama to study at the Tuskegee Normal School, where he studied industrial arts. Eventually he returned to Wilson and utilized his construction and masonry skills to build homes. He was instrumental in the architecture of Wilson and also affordable housing for soldiers returning from World War II.
Freeman was also a master of other types of crafts, including sculpture, crochet, and hooked rugs. Shelves displaying his fine work can be viewed inside the round house on the museum grounds.
Also on the museum grounds lies a modern building dedicated to African American history. One of the primary focuses of the museum’s content is education.
In the late 19th century, Wilson had public but segregated schools. But in 1918, an African-American teacher Mary C. Euell was slapped by school superintendent Charles Coon. Euell had been accused of being subordinate to the principal at her school. She was defending herself when Coon slapped her. Euell resigned and pressed charges. Ten other teachers resigned in solidarity.
The incident became a national story. Coon pled guilty and was fined one cent plus costs. African-American parents pulled their children from public schools and formed an independent school, which existed for 10 years.
After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregating schools in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Wilson was one of many municipalities that resisted compliance with federal law. School systems would not fully integrate until 1970, thanks to a federal court injunction. Wilson County schools remained under federal oversight until 1997.
The museum also has a nice focus on the musical history of Wilson’s African American community. From school choruses to gospel quartets to rhythm and blues and funk, Wilson has a rich musical history. Soul singer Lee Fields was born in Wilson in 1951.
Jazz band The Monitors was formed in the 1950s by two music teachers, Bill Myers and Cleveland Flowe Jr, and still plays to this day. Roberta Flack sang with the band in its early days.
In 1938, music also brought a spot of hope for integration in Wilson. White and black members of the community showed up to a black church for a concert. Check out this news clipping:
The Freeman Round House Museum is free, handicap accessible and open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays 10am – 3pm.