Museum expands mission of sharing African American accomplishments

A Wilson museum dedicated to the preservation of African American history has reopened with triple the display space and more room to accommodate visitors.

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Coleen Hanson Smith
, freelance reporter
This article was written for our sponsor, the City of Wilson.

A Wilson museum dedicated to the preservation of African American history has reopened with triple the display space and more room to accommodate visitors.

The Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House and African-American Museum operated for more than 15 years in an 800-square-foot round house built by Wilson native and stonemason Oliver Nestus Freeman.

The Wilson City Council helped fund a second building, featuring an additional 2,200 square feet of exhibit space, that opened in late 2018. The new display space has greatly expanded, but not changed, the museum's mission.

Executive Director Bill Myers said the museum has always sought "to teach the next generation what you don't read about in textbooks."

As soon as visitors enter, they are greeted by an exhibit about the history of Wilson across many decades. From there, the museum honors the black pioneers who helped shape the local government, arts, sports, education, medical and religious communities here in the city.

"It serves to honor the many pioneers who helped shape this community – and to bring awareness to the history of African Americans here in Wilson," Myers said. "Museums like ours allow us to share history in a creative and respectful way, and to demonstrate our appreciation for the unique cultures that have come together to build this exceptional community."

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Admission and all events are free to the community.

History in the Making

The museum was just a pipe dream back in 1999 when the idea to establish the city's first African American museum was presented to the Wilson City Council. The plan called from the relocation of the round house from a side street to its current place along a major road.

Moving a historic home and opening a museum comes with a significant price tag, so city council issued a challenge to Myers, a local resident and long-time educator who had endorsed the museum. If Myers could raise $15,000 in the community, they'd consider the idea.

"The community rallied like we never anticipated," Myers said. "Just like that, we raised more than double our $15,000 challenge, and from there, the community came forward with gifts of all kinds to get the museum ready. Painters and electricians offered their services for free, local educators volunteered as landscapers and a bus of students all the way from Pennsylvania came to dig a walkway to the museum."

The Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House Museum opened its doors in 2001. Since then, the museum has welcomed thousands of visitors from at least 41 states and four foreign countries.

The museum serves to preserve, promote and present African American history, art and culture to all citizens of Wilson and the region at-large to increase the awareness, understanding and appreciation of cultural traditions and African American contributions to society.

Some highlights include an interactive video wall, a colorful arts wall, some of the original tools Freeman used to build the house, historical medical instruments, and not to mention the original construction of the home itself, as well as the grounds.

The museum also hosts a popular Summer Concert Series. Designed not only to share and enjoy local music, the Summer Concert Series also aims to educate the next generation about the history of the music they're listening to – whether it's rhythm and blues, gospel or classical.

What's in A Name?

The museum's name comes from the building's architect and his creative style, which is evidenced by the home's unique round footprint.

Oliver Freeman was the son of a former slave who was born and raised in Wilson, where he returned after attending the Tuskegee Normal School in Alabama. He helped construct a number of houses in Wilson to alleviate the shortage of housing for soldiers returning from World War II.

Freeman's innovative architectural style can be recognized throughout Wilson.

The round construction of the museum, which has drawn a great deal of interest, is actually modeled after the style of round huts in Africa. In order to keep the house round, Freeman used unique materials such as tobacco sticks and pine trees, and stones laid in unique patterns.

When he wasn't building, Freeman was active in and committed to his community – serving on government committees and working to improve the city.

He loved and owned many animals and could be seen walking or teaching tricks to his five pet bears, or tending to his snakes, squirrels or other pets. Examples of his work can be seen all over the museum, both inside and out.

Today, Freeman's great-granddaughter, Gloria Freeman, serves on the museum's Board of Directors.

The Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House and African-American Museum is located at 1202 Nash St. E in Wilson.

This article was written for our sponsor, the City of Wilson.


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