The Howe Family of Wilmington, North Carolina, encompassed at least four generations of men of color active in the city’s building trades. As traced in William Reaves’ Strength Through Struggle: The Chronological and Historical Record of the African-American Community in Wilmington, North Carolina 1865-1950, they included Anthony Howe (d. 1837) and his sons Anthony (ca. 1807-after 1870), Pompey (d. by 1869), and Alfred Augustus (1817-1892); Anthony’s sons Anthony Jr. (dates unknown), Washington (b. ca. 1827-after 1870), John Harriss (ca. 1841-1902), and Valentine Howe (ca. 1842-1904); and at least four of John H. Howe’s sons who followed their father and uncles into the building business. Although these men erected many buildings, thus far relatively few have been identified as their work.
According to family tradition, Anthony Walker Howe was born in Africa, sold into slavery and transported to the Lower Cape Fear area in the 18th century, where he was bought by a man named Walker and then sold by Walker’s widow to Col. Robert Howe. On Howe’s plantation, Anthony employed building skills learned in his native land and was soon involved in plantation construction projects. Family tradition also relates that local Native Americans had left a baby girl known as Tenah at the Howe plantation, and in time she wed Anthony Walker. They and their children took the name Howe. (It is said that Col. Howe freed Anthony, Tenah, and their children, but the first members of the family to appear in census lists of free people of color are sons Anthony and Alfred in 1860.) Anthony Walker Howe died in 1837 and Tenah survived him until 1852. they were buried in a family cemetery, and their remains were moved subsequently to Pine Forest Cemetery, where many of their family members would be buried as well.
In the 1860 census of Wilmington, free black carpenters Anthony and Alfred Howe were listed as next-door neighbors. Anthony Howe, aged 53, was married to a woman named Betsy and had two small children at home. Alfred Howe, aged 46, was married to a woman named Mary, and their children included Mary, Isabella, Alfred, and John. Anthony and Alfred each owned personal property valued at $300. Only a few doors away lived carpenter Israel Howe, aged 60, probably a kinsman. John D. Bellamy, Jr., who was a boy during construction of his family’s Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington, recalled that “the Howes” were involved in its construction. Other antebellum Howe projects have yet to be identified, though it is likely that they worked with leading architect-builder James F. Post projects other than Bellamy Mansion.
More is known of the Howes’ postwar activities, for they thrived as leading citizens and builders in an era of strong black community and economic life in Wilmington. Having been free artisans before the war, and having established relationships with men such as James F. Post, they were well situated to practice their trades after the war.
Adapted from North Carolina Architects and Builders: A Biographical Dictionary, http://ncarchitects.lib.ncsu.edu (All rights retained.) This web site is a growing reference work that contains brief biographical accounts, building lists, and bibliographical information about architects, builders, and other artisans who planned and built North Carolina’s architecture.