A native of Maine, Amy Morris Bradley (1823-1904) first came south as a nurse for Union soldiers during the Civil War. After the war, she founded some of Wilmington’s first public schools. Courtesy, New Hanover Co. Public Library, North Carolina Room. Identifier #00.009
“The light of the body is the eye.”
Matthew 6: 22-23
I never grow weary of looking at the portraits in the New Hanover County Public Library’s “Cape Fearians” Collection.
Wilmington native Katie Mae Smith Abraham toured the southern states with Silas Green from New Orleans in the 1920s and early 1930s. Black-owned and operated, the legendary tent show featured acts as varied as blues legend Bessie Smith and minstrel-style vaudeville routines. Photo courtesy, New Hanover Co. Public Library, NC Room. Identifier #00.700
The librarians who put the collection together must be astonishingly knowledgeable of the history of Wilmington and that whole part of the North Carolina coast.
Imam Abdul Shareef of the Tauheed Islamic Center on Castle Street in Wilmington, 1988. Courtesy, New Hanover Co. Public Library, NC Collection. Identifier #00.279
It is an extremely well curated collection, obviously gathered with great thoughtfulness and care.
Children at a summer tutoring program at St. Luke AME Zion Church in Wilmington, 1970. Courtesy, New Hanover Co. Public Library, NC Room. Identifier #00.421
The oldest portraits are etched daguerreotypes made in the decade or two before the Civil War, as well as an oil painting or two.
Most though are photographs. They cover the time period roughly from the 1860s to the present day. You can find more than 800 of them in the library’s Digital Collections, available to us all even in these times of Covid-19.
Elizabeth Fishblate Buck (1891-1931), was the daughter of Wilmington’s first Jewish mayor. After her husband was hit with financial and health crises, she studied dress making and design and opened an unforgettably posh millinery shop in downtown Wilmington. Courtesy, New Hanover Co. Public Library, NC Room. Identifier #00.134
The subjects of the portraits include local architects and builders, housewives and women’s club leaders, visionaries and villains.
We know little of Bertha Barlow: she was a weaver living with her mother in Wilmington in the 1890s. She later married and moved to Charlotte. She died of pneumonia at the age of 36. Courtesy, New Hanover County Public Library, NC Room. Identifier #00.321
They include quite a few of the white supremacists that orchestrated the Wilmington massacre and coup d’etat in 1898.
Joe Wright was one of the Wilmington 10, a group of civil rights activists that were wrongly convicted of arson and conspiracy and sentenced to 29 years in prison in 1971. He was only 17 years old at the time. Courtesy, New Hanover Co. Public Library, NCC. Identifier #00.020
But they also include suffragists, Black Power activists, social reformers and civil rights pioneers.
School principal Miss Julia Hill and her student Opal Herring at a May Day celebration at Pembroke Jones Park in Wilmington, 1935. Courtesy, New Hanover Co. Public Library, NC Room. Identifier #00.412
And everyone in between.
This jaunty group of Cape Fear River pilots includes men that were blockade runners during the Civil War. Thomas Newton (left) and Julius Dosher are sitting in the front, while Joseph Newton, an unidentified man, Joseph Bensel and Thomas Brinkman stand behind them. Courtesy, New Hanover Co. Public Library, NC Room. Identifier #00.037
The portraits also show teachers, midwives, military veterans, businessmen and women, sports stars, singers and actresses, fishermen and farmers and a few children, too– and many, many others.
Detail of a portrait of William B. Gould I. Early in the Civil War, Gould escaped slavery on the Nixon plantation north of Wilmington by confiscating a vessel and sailing to a Union ship. He immediately enrolled in the Union navy. Already highly literate while he was a slave, he kept a remarkable diary of his time in the navy that his great-grandson, Stanford law professor William Gould IV, published in 2002. Courtesy, New Hanover Co. Public Library, NC Room. Identifier #00.171
Taken together, they make up a remarkable mosaic of faces from the history of Wilmington and the surrounding area.
Peter Nichols Fick (1853-1914) was one of many German immigrants that settled in Wilmington in the mid-1800s. He was a fireman for the City of Wilmington for 17 years. Courtesy, New Hanover Co. Public Library, NC Room. Identifier #137
In today’s post I am featuring a small sample of the collection’s photographs. I must confess that I chose this particular group of men, women and children a bit unconventionally, at least for a historian.
Internationally acclaimed opera singer Carterina Jarboro on a return visit to her hometown in the early 1980s. Born in Wilmington in 1898, she made her operatic debut in Milan, Italy in 1929 and became the first African American singer to perform at a major U.S. opera hall in 1933. Courtesy, New Hanover Co. Public Library, NC Room. Identifier #00.587
I could have chosen them for their fame or their presence at especially significant historical events.
Or I could have chosen them for how they open windows into the broader story of American history.
Wilmington resident Katherine Rehder (1903-1964) was a captain in the U.S. Nurses Corps during World War II. Photo courtesy, New Hanover Co. Public Library, NC Room. Identifier #00.445
But I didn’t. I chose them because of their eyes, and what I imagine I see in them, and by the lines on their faces, and what I think I see in them, too.
Unidentified woman, Wilmington, 1912. Courtesy, New Hanover Co. Public Library, NC Room. Identifier #00.423
We are really all so wondrous, and so incredibly brave and fragile and utterly beautiful all at once.