Taylor, Henry (1823-1891)
Henry Taylor (1823-1891), born a slave, was a prominent carpenter and citizen in Wilmington during the mid and late 19th century. Although few specific projects have been attributed to him, Taylor family tradition associates him with the construction of the immense Bellamy Mansion. He is best known as the father of Tuskegee architect Robert R. Taylor.
Booker T. Washington, a close associate of Robert Taylor, cited Henry Taylor in The Story of the Negro as exemplifying the numerous individuals who “though nominally slaves, were practically free.” Drawing upon information from Robert , Washington stated that Henry Taylor was “the son of a white man who was at the same time his master. Although he was nominally a slave, he was early given liberty to do about as he pleased.” According to Robert, Henry was born near Fayetteville, the son of his white owner, Angus Taylor, and an enslaved woman who probably belonged to Angus as well. Angus may have had Henry trained as a carpenter to assure that he could support himself. Henry moved to Wilmington, where he became a carpenter-builder as well as forming a mercantile business with a white ship owner.
Henry Taylor was one of many free and enslaved men of color who participated in Wilmington’s city-wide building boom. Family tradition states that he was one of the carpenters who erected and finished the large Bellamy Mansion in 1859-1861. The elaborated, columned mansion, designed by James F. Post and his assistant architect Rufus Bunnell, was widely noted as having been constructed by black artisans. Taylor’s role was carried through family memories, and in 1999 his granddaughter Gladys Whiteman Baskerville and her extended family held her hundredth birthday celebration there.
After the war, Taylor operated a grocery business on Nutt Street while continuing in the building business. In 1868 he received $1,800 for constructing the Hemenway School and improving the schoolyard. Active in civic life, Taylor was a member of Giblem Masonic Lodge, the second black Masonic lodge in the state; he served on the finance committee to erect the lodge building in 1871, and it is probable that he was involved in construction of the building, which still stands. He was a founding member of Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church and was active in the Republican Party. He was buried in Pine Forest Cemetery.
Taylor married Emily Still, a native of Fayetteville, and he built the family’s home, the Henry and Emily Taylor House, which stood at 112 North 8th Street, and he also built the John E. Taylor House next door for his son and family. Henry and Emily Taylor raised a family of four children—John Edward, Anna Maria (Whiteman), Sarah Louise (Shober), and Robert Robinson—all of whom distinguished themselves. John Edward Taylor remained in Wilmington and became a prosperous businessman and the first black man appointed Deputy Collector of Customs in the city, a position he held for twenty-five years. Anna Maria attended Howard University, as did her future husband, Dr. James Francis Shober, the first black physician with an M. D. degree to practice in North Carolina; a native of Winston-Salem, he spent his career in Wilmington. Sarah Louise Taylor likewise attended Howard University and married John Henry Whiteman, a prominent Wilmington businessman.
Especially noteworthy on the national scene was Robert Robinson Taylor (1868-1942), the first African American to graduate from MIT and one of the first professionally trained black architects in the United States. As described by architectural historian Ellen Weiss, he forged a long career as an architect at Tuskegee, where he became a close friend of Booker T. Washington. In 1943, shortly after his sudden death, a Wilmington public housing complex formerly called New Brooklyn Homes was renamed for Robert Robinson Taylor.
Robert Robinson Taylor’s son Robert Rochon Taylor became an important corporate and civic figure in Chicago, for whom the large Chicago public housing complex, Robert Taylor Homes (completed in 1962), was named. Among Henry Taylor’s descendants through this branch of the family is his great-great-great granddaughter Valerie Jarrett, a civic and political leader in Chicago who in 2009 became White House Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama.
- Catherine W. Bishir, The Bellamy Mansion, Wilmington North Carolina: An Antebellum Architectural Treasure and Its People (2004).
- William M. Reaves and Beverly Tetterton, “Strength Through Struggle”: The Chronological and Historical Record of the African-American Community in Wilmington, North Carolina, 1865-1900 (1998).
- David Remnick, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (2010).
- Robert R. Taylor to Charles Taylor, Sept. 28, 1929, Taylor Files, Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama, courtesy of Ellen Weiss.
- Booker T. Washington, The Story of the Negro (1909).
- Ellen Weiss, Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington (2011).
- Ellen Weiss, “Robert R. Taylor of Tuskegee: An Early Black American Architect,” Journal of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, 2 (1991).
- Clarence G. Williams, “From ‘Tech’ to Tuskegee: The Life of Robert Robinson Taylor, 1868-1942,” http://libraries.mit.edu/archives/mithistory/blacks-at-mit/taylor.html.
- Dreck Spurlock Wilson, ed., African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary 1865-1945 (2004).
- Dates:1859-1861Location:Wilmington, New Hanover CountyStreet Address:503 Market St., Wilmington, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).
Catherine W. Bishir, The Bellamy Mansion, Wilmington North Carolina: An Antebellum Architectural Treasure and Its People (2004).
Tony P. Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina: An Architectural and Historical Portrait (1984).Note:Post's ledger records "Plans and Specifications" and "Commission [on] $21,000 for Dr. John D. Bellamy for $100 and $1,050," respectively; a note at the end of the Bellamy entry states "To amount agreed upon as being due in June 1866," so apparently Post's bill was not settled until after the war. Rufus Bunnell's recollections of his time in Wilmington describes the progress of the construction in detail.
- Dates:Ca. 1868Location:Wilmington, New Hanover CountyStreet Address:Corner of 4th St. and Campbell St., Wilmington, NCStatus:No longer standingType:EducationalNote:Mary Tileston Hemenway of Boston funded construction of two schools in Wilmington. One was the Hemenway School at 4th and Campbell Streets (NLS), named for her husband; the other, named Tileston School on Ann St., still stands with several additions. Taylor's role in building Hemenway School is noted in William Reaves and Beverly Tetterton, "Strength Through Struggle": The Chronological and Historical Record of the African-American Community in Wilmington, North Carolina, 1865-1900 (1998). A successor Hemenway School was built by contractor James F. Post at 210 N. 5th St. It too has been lost.
- Dates:1884Location:Wilmington, New Hanover CountyStreet Address:114 N. 8th St., Wilmington, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:The 2-story, frame house with Italianate details is described as having been built by Henry Taylor for his son John Edward Taylor and family.