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80+ Interesting Facts About Wilmington (History, Famous People, and More!)

Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on March 9, 2024.

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The beaches nearby, and things to do around this awesome Cape Fear River city await, but we think you should first know these interesting facts about Wilmington, North Carolina. History is all over here, and so are the names of famous people who’ve lived here.

They include Michael Jordan, President Woodrow Wilson, and other important contributors to American society, culture, and government. We won’t spoil any more facts about Wilmington, so you’ll just have to keep reading below!

Here’s an outline if you want to jump ahead:

  • Facts About Wilmington (Stats and Geography)
  • Famous People from Wilmington (or Honorary Wilmingtonians)
  • The History of Wilmington
  • Facts About Wilmington Today

Read More: Interesting Facts About North Carolina

Facts About Wilmington (Stats and Geography)

Map of North Carolina highlighting New Hanover County
Image Credit: David Benbennick, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Wilmington is a city in southeastern North Carolina.
  • What County is Wilmington, North Carolina in? Officially, it is the New Hanover County seat.
  • If you look at a map, you’ll notice that Wilmington is where I-40 ends and that the city lies along the Cape Fear River.
  • The city is about a 2 hours’ drive from Raleigh, 2-1/2 hours from Durham, and 1-1/2 hours from Fayetteville. Wilmington is an ideal day trip destination from each of those places, and an excellent weekend getaway from larger cities such as Charlotte.
  • How big is Wilmington, NC? Wilmington occupies nearly 53 square miles (52.97), with much of its area (51.41 square miles) and a smaller portion (1.56 square miles) on water.
  • According to the 2020 census, the Wilmington NC population is 115,451. It’s the 8th-most populous city in North Carolina.

Read More: The Best Beaches in North Carolina

Famous People from Wilmington (or Honorary Wilmingtonians)

Famous People from Wilmington NC

A few of these famous people are mentioned among other facts about Wilmington. There are just so many who were born in Wilmington or who have resided here, that we felt compelled to dedicate a whole section to them.

  • David Brinkley (TV Anchorman and News Presenter, Born in Wilmington in 1920)
  • Charlie Daniels (Musician, Born in Wilmington in 1936)
  • Roman Gabriel (1969 NFL MVP and Quarterback, Born in Wilmington in 1940)
  • Althea Gibson (Professional Tennis Player and Golfer, Moved to Wilmington )
  • Cornelius Harnett (Revolutionary War-era Statesman, Moved to Wilmington Shortly after Birth)
  • Michael Jordan (Greatest Basketball Player of All Time, Born in Brooklyn, New York, but Moved Here at Age 5)
  • Sonny Jurgensen (Hall-of-Fame NFL Quarterback, Born in Wilmington in 1934)
  • Charles Kuralt (Journalist, Born in Wilmington in 1934)
  • Meadowlark Lemon (Famous Harlem Globetrotter, Born in Wilmington in 1932)
  • Anna McNeill Whistler (Subject of Whistler’s Mother, Born in Wilmington in 1804)
  • President Woodrow Wilson (Lived in Wilmington from 1874-1882)

Read More: Bands from North Carolina

The History of Wilmington

From here, the majority of facts about Wilmington come from its rich history.

Before Wilmington (Until 1740)

Masonboro Island near Wilmington NC
Masonboro Island.
  • In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano is believed to be the first European to see the Cape Fear region. The Italian explorer sailed along much of the Atlantic Coast, documenting his travels for King Francis I of France.
  • At that time and for thousands of years, Native Americans occupied the area.
  • They continued to do so until after the Tuscarora War between 1711 and 1715, which led to many native deaths and displacement. As a result, more European settlers began arriving in North Carolina.
  • Today, you can still find arrowheads (along with shells) on the shores of Wilmington and surrounding islands.
  • Official dates vary but between 1729 and 1733, but English settlers established a town where Wilmington stands today, naming it “New Carthage.”
  • Many of the settlers owned enslaved people, who were largely responsible for the building of the town.
  • Additional name changes (New Liverpool, New Town, and Newton) followed in the 1730s.

Read More: Carolina Beach State Park (and 7 Great Things to Do There!)

First Facts About Wilmington (1740 to 1799)

  • In either 1739 or 1740, the town was given the name “Wilmington” in honor of Spencer Compton, who was the Earl of Wilmington.
  • Wilmington grew into an important port city because of its location along the Cape Fear River.
  • The area’s abundant longleaf pine trees provided naval stores for Great Britain’s shipbuilding industry, further boosting the Wilmington economy.
  • Wilmington was the scene of the first armed resistance against the British, protesting the Stamp Act of 1765. They abducted the then-reluctant stamp master and forced him to resign.
  • The home of John Burgwin, a prominent Wilmingtonian, was built in 1770 on the 1744 city jail lot. The home still stands today as the Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens.
  • British forces commanded by Major James Henry Craig occupied Wilmington in January 1781.
  • Lord Charles Cornwallis joined the occupation in April 1781 but soon left to begin marching to Yorktown, where he’d surrender to Washington.
  • Speaking of Washington, President George Washington visited Wilmington in 1791 as part of his Southern Tour. He stayed at the corner of Front and Dock streets in the Quince Family Home.

Read More: 100+ Unique Things to Do in North Carolina

Pre-Civil War Facts About Wilmington (1800-1860)

Facts About Wilmington NC
  • After the Revolutionary War, Wilmington struggled to grow due to a lack of good road infrastructure.
  • A few factors changed this, including:
    • Improvements to the Cape Fear River.
    • Wilmington’s existing ports
    • The invention of steam-powered vessels.
    • The railroad—Wilmington became the terminus for three railroad lines.
  • Wilmington became a net exporter and quickly grew as a result, until the Civil War led to a Union blockade.
  • Thalian Hall was completed in 1858. While the building has undergone changes over the years, it remains a unique combination of City Hall and performing arts center.
  • In 1859, construction began on a 10,000-square foot, 22-room mansion for Dr. John D. Bellamy. Enslaved workers and free Black artisans finished Bellamy’s Mansion in 1861. Despite a destructive fire in 1972, the mansion and the property’s former slave quarters still stand today as the Bellamy Mansion Museum of History & Design Arts.
  • According to the 1860 census, Wilmington’s population was 9,553, nearly equal to Atlanta.

Read More: The NC Museum of History (+7 Things We Love About It!)

Civil War Facts About Wilmington

Things to do in Carolina Beach Fort Fisher
Fort Fisher.
  • On May 20, 1861, North Carolina became the last state to secede from the Union.
  • Even though a Union blockade was placed over the North Carolina coast, Wilmington was heavily fortified. The city occupied a fortunate position 28 miles up the Cape Fear River, out of range from Union Navy guns.
  • The presence of Fort Fisher, Fort Caswell, and Fort Anderson nearby further aided Wilmington’s defense.
  • All these factors helped the city resist occupation by the Union for much of the Civil War.
  • The lucrative business of blockade running also grew popular in Wilmington during the Civil War. English and Scottish merchants transported luxury items and war goods and foreign crews back and forth to the West Indies via steamer ships. The practice grew into a more organized industry, even passing through the blockade to transport goods all the way to England.
  • Wilmington became the Confederacy’s main Atlantic port city in 1862 when Norfolk, Virginia fell to the Union.
  • As many Wilmington landowners moved further inland to avoid the fighting, they left enslaved populations largely unsupervised. As a result, a group of men led by William Gould and George Price led an escape down the Cape Fear River. They would be picked up by the USS Cambridge on September 22, just as Lincoln was preparing the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • The Union eventually focused its attention on Wilmington and Fort Fisher, the last major Confederate stronghold on the coast.
  • Fort Fisher was also sometimes referred to as “Gibraltar of the South.”
  • The First Battle of Fort Fisher from December 23-27, 1864 led to a Union withdrawal, but the South’s victory was shortlived.
  • Union forces returned and attacked on January 13, 1865. During the Second Battle of Fort Fisher, the Union was successful after two days. The fall of Fort Fisher was a huge blow to the Confederacy, and the war would end just a few months later.
  • The attack on Fort Fisher was the largest amphibious attack by US forces until Normandy during World War II.
  • On February 22, 1865, Wilmington fell to Union forces, after a series of three engagements near the city. Many of Wilmington’s homes and buildings were spared from the fighting, and still stand today.

Read More: 20+ Great Things to Do in Carolina Beach (and Nearby!)

Reconstruction to Insurrection (1866-1899)

Things to Do With Kids in Wilmington Airlie Gardens
Airlie Gardens.
  • The Wilmington National Cemetery was established after the war for Union soldiers who died during the area’s attacks. Soldiers from American wars and conflicts since the Civil War are also buried here.
  • At this time, the demographics of Wilmington, NC was about 55% Free Blacks, and emancipated enslaved people. This portion of the Wilmington population, after the war, quickly owned businesses, took on skilled jobs, and had a voice and representation in local government.
  • In 1871, George Mabson was the first Black attorney in North Carolina admitted to the bar.
  • In 1874, Woodrow Wilson moved to Wilmington with his father, who was the minister of the First Presbyterian Church. The future 28th president would live here until 1882.
  • Dr. James Francis Shober, North Carolina’s Black doctor, opened his medical practice in Wilmington in 1878.
  • Pembroke and Sarah Jones purchased a parcel of land in 1884. The land formed the core of today’s Airlie Gardens, which are now a part of the New Hanover County Parks & Gardens Department.
  • The Cape Fear Museum was founded in 1898 as the “Cape Fear Museum of History and Science.” It’s the oldest museum in North Carolina.
  • Caterina Jarboro was born in Wilmington on July 24, 1898. In 1933, Jarboro became the first Black female opera singer to sing with a major company, performing at the New York Hippodrome.
  • In the 1890s, a statewide White supremacy campaign began and would upend the advances made during the reconstruction period.
  • This led to one of North Carolina’s most tragic events, on November 10, 1898. A group of white supremacists carried out a riot and insurrection. They killed 60 to 300-plus people, destroyed Black-owned property throughout the city, and expelled opposition White and Black politicians from Wilmington. Further, there was no intervention into the violence, demonstrating acceptance of these terrorist acts by authorities.
  • Laws were also passed to take away voting rights and would remain in place until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

20th Century Facts About Wilmington

Things to Do With Kids in Wilmington Battleship North Carolina
  • Wilmington’s shipyards supported the World War I effort and the local economy benefited as a result.
  • Alexander Sprunt & Sons moved into the Front Street building once occupied by the Cape Fear Flour and Pearl Hominy Mill in 1919. The company shipped cotton to ports throughout the world. Today, the collection of eight buildings is known as the Cotton Exchange, housing a variety of shops and restaurants.
  • In 1920, David Brinkley was born in Wilmington. His newscasting career spanned six decades for NBC and ABC. Brinkley won multiple prestigious awards and also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Brinkley passed away in 2003 and is buried at Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington.
  • The Cape Fear Garden Club was founded in 1925. It remains the oldest and largest garden club in North Carolina, and also one of the oldest in the US.
  • Also in 1925, Jazz bassist Percy Heath was born in Wilmington. He’d grow up in Philadelphia and play with big names like Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie.
  • Christian Adolph Jurgensen was born in Wilmington in 1934. Better known as Sonny Jurgensen, he quarterbacked the Philadelphia Eagles (1957-63), winning an NFL championship in 1960. He followed that up with a long stint with the Washington Redskins (1964-74). Jergensen was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
  • In 1936, Charles Edward Daniels (Charlie Daniels) was born in Wilmington. His musical career spanned five decades, garnered numerous Billboard Hot 100 singles (including #1 for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”), multiple awards, and a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
  • Roman Gabriel was born in Wilmington in 1940. He starred at New Hanover High School and NC State, a two-time All-American quarterback. Gabriel played 16 years in the NFL, mostly with the LA Rams. Roman was also the first quarterback of Filipino-American descent.
  • During World War II, the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company was created as part of the Emergency Shipbuilding Program.
  • Prisoner-of-War camps also operated in Wilmington during the war, housing 550 German POWs from 1944 to 1946.
  • North Carolina’s State Port Authority was approved in 1945 and remains a huge factor behind Wilmington’s economy.
  • In 1946, Althea Gibson moved to Wilmington and enrolled at the segregated Williston Industrial High School. Among many honors, she was the first Black woman to play in the United States Tennis Association’s National Indoor Championships. Gibson became the first African-American to win the French Open (then the French Championships) in 1956. During her illustrious career, Gibson won 11 Grand Slam tennis tournaments and is a member of both the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. She also became the first Black player to join the Women’s Pro Golf Tour in the 1960s.
  • Wilmington College opened in 1947. Today, we know it as the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
  • The first-ever Azalea Festival began on April 9, 1948. It remains an annual spring tradition.
  • A shock to Wilmington’s economy came in 1955 when the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad (ACL) announced plans to relocated its headquarters to Jacksonville, Florida. December 15, 1955 is also known as “Black Thursday” in Wilmington. The relocation completed in 1960.
  • Ray Charles Leonard was born in Wilmington in 1956. You might know him better as Sugar Ray Leonard, one of the world’s all-time greatest boxers.
  • The Wilmington Industrial Education Center was founded in 1958. Today, it’s known as Cape Fear Community College.
  • Fort Fisher was declared North Carolina’s first National Historic Landmark in 1961. Today, it’s managed by the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources as Fort Fisher State Historic Site.
  • The Battleship North Carolina also arrived in Wilmington in 1961 and was dedicated in 1962. Today, it remains one of Wilmington’s most popular attractions.
  • Wilmington was named an All-American City in 1966.
  • In 1968, 5-year-old Michael Jordan moved to Wilmington with his family.
  • A Marine Science Center opened in 1976 near Fort Fisher and Carolina Beach. Today, it’s known as the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher and is one of the best aquariums in NC.
  • To honor the city’s railroad history, the Wilmington Railroad Museum was established in 1979 in parts of the former ACL headquarters. It’s one of our favorite things to do with kids in Wilmington.
  • Construction began on the Wilmington Riverwalk in 1980. It was fully completed in on November 18, 2017.
  • In 1981, Michael Jordan scored 30 points in the McDonald’s All-American Game. After being recruited by quite a few big-name schools, Jordan decided to take his talents to Chapel Hill and play for the UNC Men’s Basketball Team.
  • Producer Dino de Laurentiis visited the area for production of the film Fire Starter. He went on to build EUE Screen Gems Studios, which has produced more than 400 films and TV productions.
  • I-40 opened in 1990, with Wilmington at its eastern end. This led to a huge influx of tourists from Raleigh and other places along the highway.

Read More: 20+ Carolina Beach Restaurants (Great Food for All!)

Facts About Wilmington Today

Wilmington NC Riverwalk
  • Today, Wilmington’s main industries include:
    • Shipping (hence the nicknmame “Port City.”)
    • Tourism
    • Manufacturing
    • Movie and TV production (hence the nickname “Wilmywood.”)
  • The city’s history is recognized throughout Wilmington’s revitalized downtown and beyond. Visitors and residents alike view Wilmington as a thriving (and scenic) city and gateway to some of North Carolina’s most popular beach destinations. The off-season is even appealing, thanks to milder weather and plenty of things to do.
  • In 2016, mobile phone app Untappd became a subsidiary of Wilmington-based Next Glass. The app helps users track the beers they’ve consumed or plan to drink at a later date. Whether you’re visiting your favorite Wilmington brewery or drinking elsewhere, Untappd is a great way to check in and stay connected with fellow beer lovers.
  • Speaking of beer, Mad Mole Brewing in Wilmington opened in 2018 as America’s first solar craft microbrewery.
  • In 2018, Michael Jordan donated $2 million to aid Wilmington’s Hurricane Florence recovery efforts. This is one of many philanthropic efforts from Jordan to Wilmington and many other places throughout the world.
  • Wilmington was declared as the first World War II Heritage City in the US by President Donald Trump.

The city’s story continues to evolve and we look forward to sharing more facts about Wilmington with you.

Do you have any interesting facts to share? We’d love to read them in the comments section or in our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group.

Beyond Facts About Wilmington (Travel Guides)

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