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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A Carolina Place old-timer recalls her time as one of its first Black residents

Freda Ford sits on the front porch of her home on Wolcott Avenue. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — Freda Ford has lived in her old cottage home in Carolina Place since 1976, when she and her husband Ed were the only Black people living on their block of Wolcott Avenue, located near Wallace Park. 

She said her white neighbors were welcoming, particularly a man who lived across the street in those days.

“We’d have to go to work real early, and Mr. Jones was staying over there then, and Mr. Jones would say, ‘I’m looking out for you Freda. Howdy, howdy.’ And I would say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Jones.’ And he’d always be watching me when I had to leave the house early. I had very beautiful neighbors, real nice neighbors,” Ford recalled.

She sat on her front porch next to her neighbor and close friend Ania Welin.

After the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 — when a mob of around 2,000 white supremacists overthrew a biracial government and killed as many as 60 people — development began pushing east of downtown Wilmington. 

In 1906, the first homes of the Carolina Place neighborhood began sprouting up along a new trolley line from downtown Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach.

Ford’s house was built in 1912.

Travis Gilbert, executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation, said there was a certain “Whites only” covenant that existed in Carolina Place around the time when Ford moved in. 

“The birth of Carolina Place is a divergence of two movements: the invention of the trolley streetcar and the extension of its line from downtown to Wrightsville Beach, and the ‘City Beautiful’ movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” Gilbert said.

The movement was spurred by initiatives in European and American cities to create attractive urban landscapes, he said, with tree-lined streets, landscaped parks and nice boulevards. The eastern line of Carolina Place is bordered by Burnt Mill Creek, where Wallace Park was eventually created. He said such beatification was an afterthought in downtown Wilmington, a product of the Industrial Revolution. 

When the trolley line allowed middle-class craftsmen and tradesmen working downtown to escape to greener streetcar suburbs, only white families moved into the new homes being constructed in Carolina Place. According to Gilbert, the land was first bought and developed by the American Suburban Corporation, a Virginia firm experienced in the development of suburbs. They won the land at an auction with the highest bid of $20,000.

In 1906, the Wilmington Messenger Daily announced the sale of the company’s first 500 lots at Carolina Place. It was the city’s first residential suburb, but one that did not allow black families as residents.

Eventually, amid the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the enforced segregation laws of the Jim Crow era began to crumble; but long-held racial tensions, exacerbated a half-century earlier by the violent coup, did not disappear from the city entirely.

It was in the Jim Crow South where Ford was born, on a farm just west of the Cape Fear River.

‘Life was good’

Freda Ford shows a picture of herself, second to right, and her seven siblings taken in the 1970s at Greenfield Lake. Her youngest sister, pictured far left, is the only sibling who is still alive; she lives on Orange Street, a few blocks west of Ford’s house. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

“I was born in the country, on a farm in Leland. There was 10 of us,” Ford said.

Born in 1936, she grew up on land near the river settlement of Leland. Due to its location west of the Brunswick River and at the crossroads of the Augusta, Columbia, and Wilmington Railroads, Leland in the mid-20th century was a small transportation hub surrounded by farmland. Long ahead were the years it began an explosive suburban sprawl, which eventually earned it the title of North Carolina’s fastest growing city. 

Ford was one of eight children, each of whom at some time or the other helped tend to various crops, including tobacco. 

“Life was good; we enjoyed it, running up and down the road,” Ford recalled. “We’d go to the highway just to see the cars and wave at ‘em. We’d have to be back home before sundown so we wouldn’t be in trouble.”

Sitting on a white rocking chair, Ford began flipping through old picture frames of her family. One was a picture of the eight siblings standing together in the tall pine trees of Greenfield Lake in the ‘70s. 

She then stretched out two portraits of her mother and father, the latter pictured wearing a thin dark tie, a fedora perched high on his forehead above a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. He played in the band at her childhood church. 

“Boy he could beat that drum,” she remembered. “He’d beat that drum and have everyone running around hollerin’ and praisin’ the Lord.”

Eventually the family scattered as the brothers and sisters married and moved away. After a short stint in Connecticut, Ford and her husband moved back to North Carolina and in 1976, bought their home on Wolcott Avenue for $20,000.

The home is one of many modest bungalows that give the neighborhood its historic charm. On its front porch, one can look west through a tunnel of covered porches, set only feet apart, extending all the way to 20th Street. Over the years, the house’s vinyl siding has been worn and weathered and its roof is in need of repair. 

After Hurricane Florence, a young man who Ford had fostered years ago came back to rebuild her waist-high picket fence, painting it a bright, pure white that is common in the neighborhood. Rocking chairs and potted plants brighten the fading facade of the front porch, where hundreds of conversations have taken place over the years between Ford and her neighbors.

When Ford first came to the neighborhood, she had to overcome the reluctance of her husband to live in a mostly white neighborhood.

“Ed would say, ‘You know what? We’d better not move in that house. Because they gonna set us afire. We’d better move on out,'” Ford remembered. “And I’d tell him, ‘Jesus went in first. You stay on out but I’m going on in.’ Everybody was beautiful. Everybody was beautiful, they really was.”

Ford’s legacy in Carolina Place

A coffee table in Freda Ford’s living room is stacked neatly with ten birthday cards, in honor of her 84th birthday several days before. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough

Over the years, her mother, father, and all but two sisters have passed away. 

“I was 62 when the last one died, when Sarah Lee died. None of them lived to be 80. I’m the only one – 84 now. I have one sister remaining, Edith; she’s the baby of us all. I told Edith, ‘My God, we both goin’ in the dirt together,” she said, leaning back in her chair with an emphatic laugh. 

After Ford’s father died “many moons ago,” she said her mother moved across the river into Wilmington, ten blocks west of her own house toward downtown and the river.

“He was a carpenter; he had a seizure and he fell off the ladder and died. It was a heart attack, that’s what they said. And mother just couldn’t stand that country no more, so she sold the property,” Ford said. 

After her husband died in the mid-80s, their only son, Raymond, moved to Kansas City where for the next 32 years he worked as a truck driver. He moved back to Wilmington in 2006, and he now sees his mom often. Ford’s last remaining sister, Edith, lives in their mother’s old house on Orange and 12th Street. 

Over the past three decades, Ford has seen people come and go. When the neighborhood was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, a wave of young families began buying up the old homes, which in addition to bungalows included Queen Anne and Colonial Revival homes built throughout the South in the early- to mid-1900s. 

But amid the ebbs and flows of the neighborhood’s residents, Ford has become a fixture of the neighborhood – “The mayor!” she said with a laugh – and found at least one new family of her own. Sitting on the top of the front steps, at Ford’s feet, Welin talked of how much the old woman has meant to her own family.

“I have three children, and Freda has held every one of ‘em on her lap,” Welin said.

She remembered a time she drove Ford around Carolina Place after Florence flooded Wallace Park and blew hundreds of trees and limbs onto the houses. This caused her old friend to laugh, as she did often. When Ford moved back to Wilmington in the ‘70s, the sight of a white woman driving next to an old Black lady in the passenger seat would have been a unique sight. The racial tension boiling beneath the surface since 1898 had not yet subsided.

“They’d see you walking and pass by you,” Ford said. “Rain, sleet, shine or snow, they wouldn’t pick you up. White people wouldn’t pick you up. Things have changed since then. And Ania’s been good ever since I met her. I can’t tell the difference between us, just the color of our skin. She’s a beautiful person.”

After her son moved to Kansas City, Ford became a foster mother and eventually adopted and raised three of her own children. Her first was a blind six-year-old girl from Charlotte. She said people asked then why she would adopt a blind child. 

“And I’d say, ‘She human.’ And I’ve had her for 30 years. Her name’s Latrice. She was so smart and sweet. Oh God honey she was something,” Ford remembered.

Latrice began weaving baskets at age 12, and later took courses at Central Piedmont Community College but had to stop because of the cost. Now, she lives in Concord near her birth city, Charlotte, where she knits foot stools, placemats, and baskets. She even weaves hats for premature babies, Welin said.

Another adopted daughter, Kayawna, was sitting on the other end of the porch, relaxing on a stationary bike. In the living room inside, Kayawna’s bachelor of science diploma from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University hung framed on the mantle in front of a large painting of a vase of flowers. She had studied journalism and broadcast production.

Beneath the mantle, a coffee table was stacked neatly with ten birthday cards, in honor of Ford’s 84th birthday several days before. A blue card read “Mom, you are loved,” above bright flower petals shaped into a heart.

Before Welin left, a young couple biked by on the sidewalk. Their two-year-old son was sitting in a high seat on the woman’s handlebars.

“Hey, sweetheart. Throw me a kiss!” Ford called out. 

“Happy birthday, Miss Freda!” the man told her. “You all dressed up like you’re going to church!”

The group shared a hearty laugh before the mother gave her an ‘air hug,’ a common gesture in the neighborhood during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“It’s gonna be so we can hug again,” Ford replied. “Bye bye baby.”

A young couple and their two-year old child talk with Freda Ford on her front porch. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)
Freda Ford waves goodbye to her neighbors. “It’s gonna be so we can hug again,” Ford told them. “Bye bye baby.”
Freda Ford holds up pictures of her parents. Her father played in the band at her childhood church. “Boy he could beat that drum,” she recalled. “He’d beat that drum and have everyone running around hollerin’ and praisin’ the Lord.”
Ania Welin, left, sits with her close friend and neighbor Freda Ford. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough
After leaving Freda Ford’s front porch, Ania Welin walks down a sidewalk on Wolcott Avenue towards her home. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

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