2024 marks the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, a federal law that ended segregation and prohibited discrimination. Wilmington's rich and complex history includes significant events and individuals who played a role in advancing social justice on a local and national level.

When planning a visit, consider exploring the city's civil rights history. Museum exhibitions, tours and attractions tell the stories of how residents navigated Jim Crow and of African Americans' contributions to bring about equity and equality. Here is a small sample of places and events highlighting this period.

1898 Wilmington Massacre

After the Civil War, the city's African American community thrived with a growing middle class and many Black citizens held government positions. White supremacists formulated a plan to strip Blacks of economic and political power. On Nov. 10, 1898, white supremacists murdered many Black residents and deposed the city's multiracial government. The 1898 Wilmington Massacre was the only successful coup d’état in American history. The coup aided the expansion of Jim Crow segregationist policies, which remained in effect until the 1960s.


Learn more about the massacre and its aftermath at the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science or book a tour on demand with WilmingtoNColor Heritage Tours. The self-guided Wilmington History Tours African American History app includes 1898 landmarks. The 1898 Monument & Memorial Park honors the victims of the massacre.

Jim Crow Era: A Segregated Community

With the expansion of Jim Crow laws across the South, African Americans were forced to use separate public facilities. The Green Book, a guide published from 1936 until 1966, informed Black motorists about safe places to stay and businesses that catered to African Americans. Explore the history of several locations in the Wilmington area through the New Hanover County's digital Greenbook Guide. Stops on the WilmingtoNColor Heritage Tours include Payne's Tourist Home, which housed famous guests such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. The tour highlights sites such as the former Community Hospital that provided health care for the Black community.

Shell Island Resort and Sea Breeze

Beach resorts, Shell Island and Sea Breeze, accommodated Black tourists seeking to bask in the sun. Located in Wrightsville Beach, Shell Island was among the first Black resorts in the country. The popular destination operated for three years before fires forced its closure in 1926. Sea Breeze was built in the 1920s by the Freeman family and Black developers near Carolina Beach. Barrier Island dredging near Freeman Beach and the destruction caused by Hurricane Hazel contributed to the resort's demise. Sea Breeze continued to decline following integration. Today, Freeman Park offers overnight camping and four-wheel drive access to beach-goers. Learn more about the resorts through the Cape Fear Museum’s Cape Fear Stories exhibit.


Williston Senior High School

Williston school provided high-quality education to the Black community for over a century. Founded by abolitionists in 1866, Williston began as an elementary school and served as a high school from 1923 to 1968. Williston graduates include Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon and tennis champion Althea Gibson. The school closed in 1969 following the desegregation of the school system. The Williston Auditorium at Cape Fear Museum contains memorabilia and photos documenting the school's legacy.


Did You Know? On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled to speak at a voter drive at Williston but stayed in Memphis for the "Poor People's Campaign." He was assassinated that evening in Tennessee.

Trailblazer: Dr. Hubert Eaton

Dr. Hubert Eaton was instrumental in desegregating public institutions, including New Hanover Public Schools, Wilmington College (now the University of North Carolina Wilmington), the City of Wilmington's Municipal Golf Course and the YMCA. He was among the Black doctors who fought for access to public hospital facilities. Historical markers recognizing his legacy stand at Dr. Eaton's home at 1406 Orange St., now the headquarters for One Love Tennis Foundation and near the historic New Hanover County Courthouse (corner of Third & Princess St., Wilmington).


Did You Know? Dr. Hubert Eaton was a tennis champ and trained Althea Gibson, the first Black tennis player to win a Grand Slam title.

Joseph McNeil and the Greensboro Sit-In

Wilmington native and Williston graduate Joseph McNeil and three other North Carolina A&T State University students took a stand against segregation by initiating the sit-in campaign at the F.W. Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, on Feb. 1, 1960. The students refused to leave after being denied service because of their race. The sit-in triggered a wave of protests nationwide and became a defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement. The northern section of Third Street in Wilmington is designated as "Maj. Gen. Joseph McNeil Commemorative Way." Visit the Cape Fear Museum's 20th-century gallery to learn more about McNeil.

Wilmington Ten

Wilmington's struggle with desegregation made international headlines following the arrest of the Wilmington Ten, a group of students and supporters wrongly convicted of arson and conspiracy during the 1971 school integration protests. On Feb. 6, 1971, violence erupted between white supremacists and students. The student protestors and supporters were blamed for the firebombing of a grocery store; 10 were arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison. Their case drew national attention and support for their release. Their convictions were overturned in 1980 and they received full pardons 32 years later. The Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ on Nun Street, where students organized the protest, is a site on the NC Civil Rights Trail.


Burnett-Eaton Museum & Journey Wilmington African-American Tours

The Burnett-Eaton Museum Foundation offers a heritage block tour and a comprehensive narrative of the African American Civil Rights movement and its impact. The museum, a part of the National Park Service African American Civil Rights Network, honors individuals who fought against discrimination and segregation. The Burnett-Eaton Museum (410 N. 7th St., Wilmington, (910) 795-8597) is open by appointment Tuesday through Sunday. To schedule a Journey Wilmington African-American History Walking or Riding Tour, contact museum founder, Islah Speller at spellerislah@yahoo.com.

Civil Rights Resource: UNCW's The Civil Rights Movement in Southeast North Carolina archives provide an overview of school desegregation, equal employment and access, and voting rights. Contact UNCW's Randall Library to view its archives.

For additional African American historical sites, check out the Guide to African American History.