Wilmington’s Black leaders want historic district to preserve neighborhood landmarks

Along Wilmington’s South Seventh Street, a push is underway to establish a historic district to preserve a neighborhood with key ties to the history of Wilmington’s Black community.

Among the movement’s top goals are repairing and preserving The Wilmington Journal and Gregory Congregational Church along with establishing a center for the community’s young people, said Kojo Nantambu, the pastor of Wilmington’s Temple of Truth, Light and Life church and a community activist.

Nantambu is one of several Black community leaders across North Carolina who have talked off and on in recent years about establishing a new historic district along Seventh Street, he said. Initially, the group focused on repairs to The Wilmington Journal – a newspaper that has historically served the city’s Black community.

The Journal’s office, which is located on Seventh Street between Nun and Church streets, saw significant damage during Hurricanes Florence and Matthew. The paper, which began publishing in 1927, raised $95,000 through a telethon and an online fundraiser to buy its building outright and repair the damage.

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As local Black leaders discussed restoring The Wilmington Journal, they recognized Gregory Congregational Church – another “milestone” in the Black community – sat just around the corner from the newspaper’s offices, Nantambu said.

Gregory Normal School, which sat near the present-day Gregory Congregational Church, was the first school in Wilmington that allowed Black students after the Civil War, Nantambu said.

Later, the nearby church became a place of worship for some of the Black community’s most prominent members. It also was the site where students holed up and were reportedly fired upon by white vigilante groups as they protested the segregation of Wilmington schools in 1971.

To Nantambu and his fellow organizers, it made sense to connect the landmarks.

Wilmington’s Black leaders want the historic district to preserve their historic neighborhood landmarks. Wilmington’s South Seventh Street is where most prominent Black members live.

“What we wanted to do was to unite Gregory and the Wilmington Journal,” he said.

Because many of the Black community’s most prominent members, including businessmen and doctors, lived along Seventh Street, Nantambu said the group is pushing to establish a historic district that runs the length of the street with a focus on the area around Gregory Congregational Church and The Wilmington Journal.

“These were not just isolated buildings or buildings built off somewhere by themselves,” he said. “These were buildings that were very strong institutions in the black community and in the heart of the black community.”

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The street was also home to various Black-owned boarding houses, restaurants, barber shops and other businesses.

In addition to a historic district, Nantambu said he would like to establish a center that would develop young people in the Black community. It would be “a place where activists could learn to be more engaged in the politics of the city and more engaged in the intellect of the city and building the city,” he said.

He hopes a future center could help develop the community’s next advocates and journalists “because the most important thing that a community can have is its own voice,” Nantambu said.

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Nantambu said the group is in the early stages of working to establish a formal historic district, which he hopes will preserve the area from some impacts of gentrification. He also believes maintaining the landmarks will help inform and inspire future generations within Wilmington’s Black community.

“We cannot just put up signs on the corner and say, ‘Oh, this is where the Wilmington Journal stood, and this is where Gregory Church was.’ No, they need to be there,” he said, “so that our children can walk by and say, ‘This is Gregory Church.'”