Wilmington is a port city in — and is the county seat of — New Hanover County in coastal southeastern North Carolina, United States. The population is 112,067; according to the 2010 Census it is the eighth most populous city in the state. Wilmington is the principal city of the Wilmington Metropolitan Statistical Area, a metropolitan area that includes New Hanover and Pender counties in southeastern North Carolina, which has a population of 263,429 as of the 2012 Census Estimate.
Wilmington was settled by European Americans along the Cape Fear River. Its historic downtown has a one-mile-long Riverwalk, originally developed as a tourist attraction, and in 2014 Wilmington's riverfront was named the "Best American Riverfront" by USA Today. It is minutes away from nearby beaches. The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Wilmington, North Carolina, as one of its 2008 Dozen Distinctive Destinations. City residents live between the river and the ocean, with four nearby beach communities: Fort Fisher, Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, and Kure Beach, all within half-hour drives from downtown Wilmington.
In 2003 the city was designated by the US Congress as a "Coast Guard City". It is home port for the , a United States Coast Guard medium endurance cutter. The World War II battleship is held as a war memorial. Located across from the downtown port area, the ship is open to public tours. Other attractions include the Cape Fear Museum, the Wilmington Hammerheads United Soccer Leagues soccer team, and the training camp site for the Charlotte Hornets. The University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) provides a wide variety of programs for undergraduates, graduate students, and adult learners, in addition to cultural and sports events open to the community.
Wilmington is the home of EUE Screen Gems Studios, the largest domestic television and movie production facility outside of California. "Dream Stage 10," the facility's newest sound stage, is the third-largest in the US. It houses the largest special-effects water tank in North America. Since the studio's opening in 1984, Wilmington has become a major center of American film and television production. Numerous movies in a range of genres and several television series, including Iron Man 3 and NBC's Revolution, have been produced there.
The ethnic European and African history of Wilmington spans more than two and a half centuries. Giovanni da Verrazano is reportedly the first European to observe the area, including the city's present site, in the early 16th century. The first permanent European settlement in the area came in the 1720s when English colonists began settling the area. In September 1732, a community was founded on land owned by John Watson on the Cape Fear River, at the confluence of its northwest and northeast branches. The settlement, founded by the first royal governor, George Burrington, was called "New Carthage," and then "New Liverpool;" it gradually took on the name "New Town" or "Newton". Governor Gabriel Johnston soon after established his provincial government there for the North Carolina colony. In 1739 or 1740, the town was incorporated with a new name, Wilmington, in honor of Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington.
Some early settlers of Wilmington came from the Albemarle and Pamlico regions, as well as from the colonies of Virginia and South Carolina, but most new settlers arrived from the northern colonies, the West Indies, and the British Isles. Many of the settlers were indentured servants, mainly from the British Isles and northern Europe. As the indentured servants gained their freedom, the colonists imported an increasing number of (permanent and much less expensive) African slaves as laborers into the port city. By 1767, slaves accounted for more than 62% of the population of the Lower Cape Fear region. Many worked in the port as laborers, and some in ship-related trades.
Wilmington's commercial importance as a major port afforded it a critical role in opposition to the British in the years leading up to the Revolution. Additionally, the city was home to outspoken political leaders who influenced and led the resistance movement in North Carolina. The foremost of these was Wilmington resident Cornelius Harnett, who served in the General Assembly at the time, where he rallied opposition to the Sugar Act in 1764. When the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act the following year, designed to raise revenue for the Crown with a kind of tax, Wilmington was the site of an elaborate demonstration against it.
On October 19, 1765, several hundred townspeople gathered in protest of the new law, burned an effigy of one town resident who favored the act, and toasted to "Liberty, Property, and No Stamp Duty." On October 31, another crowd gathered in a symbolic funeral of "Liberty". But before the effigy was buried, it was found that Liberty still had a pulse, and celebration ensued.
Dr. William Houston of Duplin County was appointed Stamp Receiver for Cape Fear. When Houston visited Wilmington on business, still unaware of his appointment, he recounted,
"The Inhabitants immediately assembled about me & demanded a Categorical Answer whether I intended to put the Act relating [to] the Stamps in force. The Town Bell was rung[,] Drums [were] beating, Colours [were] flying and [a] great concourse of People [were] gathered together." For the sake of his own life, and "to quiet the Minds of the inraged and furious Mobb...," Houston resigned his position at the courthouse.
Governor William Tryon made attempts to mitigate the opposition to no avail. On November 18, 1765, he pled his case directly to prominent residents of the area. They said the law restricted their rights. When the stamps arrived on November 28 on the H.M. Sloop Diligence, Tryon ordered them to be kept on board. Shipping on the Cape Fear River was stopped, as were the functions of the courts.
Tryon, after having received his official commission as governor (a position he had only assumed after the death of Arthur Dobbs), was brought to Wilmington by Captain Constantine Phipps on a barge from the Diligence, and "was received cordially by the gentlemen of the borough." He was greeted with the firing of seventeen pieces of artillery, and the New Hanover County regiment of militia who had lined the streets. This "warm welcome" was spoiled, however, after a dispute arose between Captain Phipps and captains of ships in the harbor regarding the display of their colors. The townspeople became infuriated with Phipps and threats were made against both sides. After Tryon harangued them for their actions, the townspeople gathered around the barrels of punch and ox he had brought as refreshments. The barrels were broken open, letting the punch spill into the streets; they threw the head of the ox into the pillory, and gave its body to the slaves. Tryon moved his seat of government to New Bern instead of Wilmington.
On February 18, 1766, two merchant ships arrived at Brunswick Town, without stamped papers. Each ship provided signed statements from the collectors at their respective ports of origin that there were no stamps available, but Captain Jacob Lobb of the British cruiser Viper seized the vessels. In response, numerous residents from southern counties met in Wilmington. The group organized as the Sons of Liberty and pledged to block implementation of the Stamp Act. The following day, as many as a thousand men, including the mayor and aldermen of Wilmington, were led by Cornelius Harnett to Brunswick to confront Tryon. The governor was unyielding to their defiance but a mob retrieved the seized ships. They forced royal customs officers and public officials in the region to swear never to issue stamped paper. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766.
In the 1830s, citizens of Wilmington became eager to take advantage of railroad transportation. Plans were developed to build a railroad line from the capital of Raleigh to Wilmington. This was later changed when the citizens of Raleigh did not care to make the venture of a stock subscription to secure the railroad. The end point was changed to Weldon. When construction of the railroad line was finally completed in 1840, it was the longest single line of railroad track in the world. The railroad also controlled a line of steamboats that ran from Wilmington to Charleston; it was widely used for passenger travel and transportation of freight. Regular boat lines served Fayetteville, and packet lines traveled to northern ports. The city was a main stop-over point, contributing greatly to its commerce.
By mid-century, the churchyard of St. James Episcopal Church and other town cemeteries had become filled with graves. On November 16, 1853, a group of citizens, organized as "The Proprietors of the Wilmington Cemetery," was formed to develop a new cemetery. Sixty-five acres of land around Burnt Mill Creek was chosen as the site for what would be called Oakdale Cemetery. It was the first rural cemetery in North Carolina. The cemetery's first interment, on February 6, 1855, was six year-old Annie deRosset. Many remains from St. James churchyard were relocated to the new cemetery.
The Wilmington Gas Light Company was established in 1854. Soon after, street lights were powered by gas made from lightwood and rosin, replacing the old street oil lamps. On December 27, 1855, the first cornerstone was laid and construction began on a new City Hall. A grant from the Thalian Association funded the attached opera house, named Thalian Hall. The city opened its first public school, named the "Union Free School", in 1857 on 6th Street between Nun and Church Streets.
During the Civil War, the port was the major and busiest base for Confederate and privately owned blockade runners delivering badly needed supplies from England. It was captured by Union forces in the Battle of Wilmington in February 1865, approximately one month after the fall of Fort Fisher had closed the port. As nearly all the military action took place some distance from the city, a number of antebellum houses and other buildings survived the war years.
Wilmington Insurrection of 1898
The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 (formerly called a race riot) occurred as a result of the racially charged political conflict that had occurred in the decades after the Civil War and efforts to establish white supremacy. In the 1870s, the Red Shirts, a white paramilitary organization, used violence and intimidation to suppress black voting, helping Democrats to regain power in the state legislature and end Reconstruction. In 1898, a cadre of white Democrats, professionals and businessmen, planned to overthrow the city government if their candidates were not elected. Two days after the election, more than 1500 white men attacked and burned the only black newspaper in the state and ran off the white Republican mayor and aldermen (both white and black), overthrowing the legitimately elected municipal government. This is the only such coup d'état in United States history.
On November 10, 1898, nearly 1500 white men, led by the Democrat Alfred M. Waddell, an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate in 1896, marched to the offices of the Daily Record, as they had been angered by its publisher Alex Manly. The mob broke out of control, shattering windows and setting fire to the building. Violence later broke out across town in Brooklyn, the black neighborhood that was attacked by mobs of whites. Waddell and his men forced the elected Republican city officials to resign at gunpoint and replaced them with men selected by leading white Democrats. Waddell was elected mayor by the newly seated board of aldermen that day. Prominent African Americans and white Republicans were banished from the city in the following days.
Whites attacked and killed an estimated 10-100 blacks. No whites died in the violence. As a result of the attacks, more than 2100 blacks permanently left the city, leaving a hole among its professional and middle class. It became majority white, rather than the majority black it was before the white Democrats' coup.
Following these events, the North Carolina legislature passed a new constitution with voter registration requirements for poll taxes and literacy tests that effectively disfranchised black voters, following the example of the state of Mississippi. Blacks were essentially disfranchised until after Congressional passage of the civil rights acts of the mid-1960s.
World War II
During World War II, Wilmington was the home of the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company. The shipyard was created as part of the U.S. government's Emergency Shipbuilding Program. Workers built 243 ships in Wilmington during the five years the company operated.
The city was the site of three prisoner-of-war (POW) camps from February 1944 through April 1946. At their peak, the camps held 550 German prisoners. The first camp was located on the corner of Shipyard Boulevard and Carolina Beach Road; it was moved downtown to Ann Street, between 8th and 10th avenues, when it outgrew the original location. A smaller contingent of prisoners was assigned to a third site, working in the officers’ mess and doing grounds keeping at Bluethenthal Army Air Base, which is now Wilmington International Airport.
National Register of Historic Places
The Audubon Trolley Station, Brookwood Historic District, Carolina Heights Historic District, Carolina Place Historic District, City Hall/Thalian Hall, Delgrado School, Federal Building and Courthouse, Fort Fisher, Gabriel's Landing, William Hooper School (Former), Market Street Mansion District, Masonboro Sound Historic District, Sunset Park Historic District, USS NORTH CAROLINA (BB-55) National Historic Landmark, James Walker Nursing School Quarters, Westbrook-Ardmore Historic District, Wilmington Historic District, and Wilmington National Cemetery are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.