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A businessman with a prolific history of mason work throughout Wilson is the namesake for the Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House and African-American Museum, but the exhibits that debuted Sunday tell the stories of generations.
“The African-American story in Wilson County is a story first of all of slavery, a story of reconstruction, a story of violence and domestic terror. It is a story of voter disenfranchisement, a story of poor African-American families struggling to raise a family and achieve the American dream,” said U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield. “It is a story of unrelenting effort on the parts of our ancestors to establish educational opportunities both in the city of Wilson and Wilson County and in Elm City.
“...Oliver Freeman was an intellectual who subscribed to the theory of Booker T. Washington and that is to drop your bucket where you are and build a community.”
It is in that spirit that volunteers and officials, led by museum Executive Director Bill Myers, dedicated years of work to move the round house to the current site and open the museum in 2001. The hard work continued as board members gave tours and raised funds for the expansion.
“I’m not even from Wilson, but I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of something in terms of what we’ve done here,” said board member Ken Jones. “This museum shows what can happen when you work together.
“This is for all people. This is a museum of history that tells the story that we all should be aware of as we move forward. We just want to move Wilson forward.”
Unfortunately, a respiratory illness meant Myers had to watch the culmination of his work through Facebook Live.
“Bill Myers is not here, but his heart is,” said Butterfield, before turning to the camera and speaking to Myers. “Bill, you get well, my friend. We’ve got this, but you get well.”
Design Dimension Inc. President Betsy Peters Rascoe, who led the exhibit design and installation, said it was amazing to see the more than 100 people from throughout the region gather together and celebrate the museum.
“It is pretty amazing,” she said. “It feels a little bit overwhelming and it is really sad Bill is not here to see all this because I feel like he is the one who really put the fire in me to make this the best it could be.”
Local historian Ellen Russell shared some of Freeman’s lesser-known history with the crowd before the ribbon was cut.
“Why is he so enduringly remembered? I think it might be the bears or maybe it is the round house itself,” she said, noting Freeman had several bears as pets and was often seen walking the bears down Nash Street. “For some reason, Wilson has never forgotten that Oliver Nestus Freeman was somebody who mattered. We’re here today to celebrate him and the community he cared about.
“...Oliver Nestus Freeman left a powerful legacy for Wilson, one especially important to the African-American community.”
In addition to building many houses throughout the region, Freeman often financed the homes for black families who struggled to obtain a bank loan. He also ran a gas station and grocery store, and he built an amusement park in east Wilson.
Freeman’s great grandson, Robert Charles Tate, was among the relatives who attended the auspicious occasion. Tate was joined by his 5-year-old daughter, Nylah, and wife, Evita.
“I’ve heard so many stories about him through the years, but I think what stands out is how industrious he was and how much of a businessman he was,” Tate said. “A lot of that was overlooked because of the eclecticness, but he was pretty much a renaissance man. There wasn’t to much he didn’t do, so it is cool to know how I got some of my skills and traits.”
The museum is open for tours from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and by appointment. Admission is free, but donations such as the $10,000 from the Freeman family and $5,000 from Butterfield on Sunday are always appreciated. To learn about the museum, visit www.theroundhousemuseum.com/.