Know your town, know its history

Published 2:58 pm Monday, July 17, 2023

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One of my favorite passions is preserving as much of Washington’s African American history as I can. In the 15 years I have been researching and preserving Black history for Washington North Carolina, I want to make sure you know the history of this town, as much of the history and some of its architecture is as vibrant as it was over 100 years ago.

The Geraldine Vivian Walker House located at Fifth and Gladden Street is just one example of how prosperous this part of Washington was. Gladden Street was known as ‘Prosperity Row’ in the 1940’s and 50’s was the heartbeat of the Black community.

Mrs. Walker was a local legend in her own right and a very well-known beautician. She was the granddaughter of the wealthy Abraham Wilder (born 1875) who owned his own ships and ship yard that was located at Water Street between Market and Bonner Streets, where Mac Hodges Festival Park is today.  He originally worked at Chauncey’s ship yard and later brought it naming it Wilder’s Ship Yard. Abraham also helped built mine sweepers for the government when he worked at the Morehead City government shipyard during World War II.

Abraham’s father, Richard Wilder (born 1844) was a ship builder and ship owner as well. His ship the ‘Spray’ was a three-masted schooner that imported molasses from the West Indies to eastern North Carolina.  The Wilder’s name was prominent in Washington as several of Abraham’s brothers worked for Chauncey’s Ship yard as ship builders.  Abraham worked first as a stevedore or dock worker loading and unloading cargo ships at the ship yard.  One of his brothers, George H. Wilder, was a foreman at the Chauncey’s ship yard. He and Abraham were carpenters and helped build the 522 seat James Adam’s Floating Theater at Chauncey’s shipyard in 1913.

The renowned ship was where Edna Ferber spent several days aboard gathering information for her novel ‘Show Boat.’  The novel in 1917 inspired lyricists Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein Jr. to pen the words to a song that became a legend on Broadway. Most people will remember ‘Old Man River’ from Show Boat as being the most well-known song from the play.

How wonderful to know Washington’s very own Wilder family was tied to history in this way as well as the maritime history that honors their name.

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-curator of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.