Friday, April 19, 2024

Where We Live: This historic funeral home was rescued from the grave

This historic funeral home on 7th street in downtown Wilmington was recently resurrected. Built in 1898, its original black owner fled during the Wilmington Race Riot later that same year. It operated as a black-owned funeral home in the 1900s and now functions as a residential living space for the Smiths.

WILMINGTON— The site of the Smith Funeral Home provided end-of-life services for black families in Wilmington for over 75 years.

In 2014, the Smiths — of no relation to the original Smiths — saved the historic home from demolition.

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“It was a rundown funeral home and we’re Smiths also so it’s kind of funny,” Nancy Smith said. “Another funny thing is that we closed on Halloween — you know, you don’t pick your closing date.”

Smith said that when she first walked through the dilapidated home, she could see sunlight from the roof shining through.

Gut job

“It was a total gut job,” she said. “If you looked up you could see through the ceiling to the second floor, through the ceiling through the roof, you could see daylight.”

She credits her husband, Harry Smith, for his belief in himself and the potential of the rundown structure.

“He’s a very positive person,” she said.

As a professional craftsman, Smith was able to salvage materials in fixer-uppers he was working on to use in his lengthy project.

“We knew that the house was in danger,” Smith said. “N.C. Preservation Trust owned the house and they were desperately trying to find somebody to take it.”

He’d work on a project, earn a little money, then work on bringing the historic funeral home back to life.

“From the day we bought it, it was two years, eight months and 13 days until we got a certificate of occupancy,” Smith said. “That’s how long it took to get to where it was livable.”

Black-owned and operated

The site at 402 7th St. operated as a viable funeral option for black families in Wilmington during a time of discrimination and violence.

“There’s a dispute over whether it was the first or the second African-American funeral home in Wilmington because up until then only white people had funeral homes,” Smith said.

Smith said in 1933 it was the Simmons Funeral home, and in 1949, the original Smiths bought the property.

“This was built and owned by a black grocer,” Smith said. “He finished it in 1898 and then the 1898 massacre happened and he left the home.”

In the absence of records that reveal who occupied the home after its original owner fled, much of the history after the Wilmington Race Riot is unclear.

“There’s no records of who claimed it after he abandoned it,” Smith said. “The story is that in 1898 they burned down his store and he left in the middle of the night.”

Back to life

The Smiths applied their appreciation of history in reviving the broken-down building. They even dedicated an entire room to funeral-related items.

With a bar made from a casket, framed, handwritten instructions on how to prepare a body in a casket, and an embalming table with tools leftover at the property, the Smith’s bar is a bit morbid.

During parties, they have guests lay on the embalming table to take a special shot.

402 North 7th Street will be featured on the Azalea Festival Garden Tour on April 14 and 15. Tickets are available online for the tour, presented by Delinda Harrelson and Associates, which features eleven historic homes.

Where We Live is a weekly feature looking at the homes and unique places to stay in the Cape Fear Region.

Do you have a home, on or off the market, that our readers may be interested in seeing? Let us know at

Johanna Ferebee can be reached at or @j__ferebee on Twitter

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