Women’s History Month is a time, among others, to celebrate the amazing accomplishments women have made in history. Many of these women are familiar to us, but there were several prolific women who lived right in North Carolina.
This Women’s History Month, learn about three prolific women who impacted the greater Wilmington area and left behind great legacies.
Minnie Evans was a Black surrealist and visionary artist born in Long Creek in Pender County, NC on December 12, 1892. In 1893, a year after Evans’ birth, her mother moved the family to Wilmington. Evans worked as a domestic worker in the Pembroke Jones’ household, a family that eventually opened up the now popular tourist attraction, Airlie Gardens. A spiritual woman, Evans started pursuing her art in 1940 after receiving visions where god told her that she “must paint or die.” Much of Evans’ artwork was inspired from biblical scriptures and the surroundings of Airlie Gardens, where Evans worked as a gatekeeper from 1948-1974. She eventually sold her artwork at Airlie Gardens. In 1975, Evans had her first solo exhibit debut at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
Evans passed away on December 16, 1987 after living the long age of 95. In 2004, several artists created a memorial sculpture in Evans’ honor as the Bottle Chapel, using inspiration from Evans’ artistic style. You can View this sculpture, as well as biographical information about Minnie Evans, in Airlie Gardens.
Mae Rachel Freeman was a Black educational activist born in Elizabethtown, N.C. on July 27, 1941. She lived much of her adult life in Wilmington, NC, where she accomplished much of her advocacy work for the educational systems for children. Ms. Freeman was active in the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) at the school attended by her children. She joined the Board of Directors of the YWCA and later became Chair of Board. Eventually, she was appointed to the New Hanover County Board of Education and elected the next term. Freeman advocated for increased teacher pay, more school funding, and the overall sustainability of schools statewide.
Freeman died in 1996 after a long battle with Sarcoidosis, an illness she had struggled with since age 13. Her legacy lives on in Wilmington in several ways. The Rachel Freeman School of Engineering in Wilmington was named in her honor, as well as the Rachel Freeman Endowed Scholarship at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. In 2010, the YWCA named its Women of Achievement Rachel Freeman Unsung Hero Award in her honor. Freeman was survived by her husband, Bill, and their five children: Rodney, William, Darnell, Sharon, Elise, and Melissa.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Ervin was a professor, writer, and activist born in Grand Island, Nebraska in 1965. At some point in her life, she came to live in Wilmington, NC, where she eventually worked as an associate professor of Rhetoric and Composition at UNC Wilmington from 1994-2007. Ervin was a mover and shaker in the women’s movement in Wilmington; she was instrumental in founding the Women’s Resource Center (now the Gender Studies and Research Center), which failed to get support from the university administration for many years. The center was finally established in 2002; Ervin served as the center’s first director from 2002-2004.
Ervin passed away in 2008 at the age of 43 after a long battle with breast cancer. Ervin’s legacy continues to live on through the Elizabeth “Betsy” Ervin Women’s Resource Center Scholarship, which is offered to select honors students minoring in Women and Gender Studies.
Women’s History Month is a great reminder of all the women throughout time who have accomplished amazing things. We wish everyone a great Women’s History Month and encourage you to take the time to celebrate women in history and in our present time.