Firsts:

A Field Guide to
Greensboro, NC

South Elm Neighborhood


WHAT CAME FIRST?

Learning history can be like reading a list of firsts: the first president, the first automobile, the first person on the moon. History-telling is focused on the maverick leaders, the lone visionaries, the sudden epiphanies that supposedly changed the world in an instant. In one moment, life was normal. In the next, a new era began.

Yet the revolutionary drama of our celebrated firsts is misleading. We read that historic change occurs at the hands of an individual genius, but this eclipses the collective path from A to B, the essential experience of citizens, tinkerers, and teachers that run the continuum of time passed. Shining the light of history illuminates the monumental, but blinds us to the power of ourselves and our neighbors: the history of the future.

In the streets and side yards of South Elm, the firsts of the spotlight seem far away, but the firsts who created today’s world, and the ones who still unfold the eras that shape this lifetime, are behind every door and stand on every curb.


A Man Named Gill

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN MENTIONED IN GREENSBORO PUBLIC RECORDS

According to meeting notes from 1840, the Greensboro Board of Commissioners decided to beautify the town by planting American Elm trees. The person they hired was a man named Gill. Typical of the prejudice of the time, the meeting notes identify Gill as African American, and do not bother to mention his last name. But he was paid $34 for the work - as much as the town’s police officer and the water pump mechanic were paid combined. Gill’s trees grew for 60 years, and Elm Street was named after the picturesque canopy they created over the street.

One old elm remains, in the empty lot at Bragg and Elm Streets (Point of Interest #5 on site map). It is too far from the street to be one of Gill’s trees, but it is the right age. Dutch Elm Disease came to Greensboro in 1962 and devastated the elm population. It is likely that all of Gill’s elms would have died, passing the disease down the street and throughout town, but they were cut down around 1900 to give Greensboro a more urban look. This tree survived because of its isolation.

The main streets north, south, east, and west shall be planted with elm trees during the coming Spring at regular distances from each other and at regular distances from the houses.

GREENSBORO BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS, NOTES FROM 1840


South Elm Zoning Pioneer

Downtown now can be just about any use you can think of, but when we moved here it was counter to the current thinking at the time. We just really wanted to do it.

JO LEIMENSTOLL

Downtown was full of homes in Greensboro’s early days, but things changed in the 1960s. Jo Leimenstoll, Professor of Interior Architecture at UNCG, will tell you that most cities had a phase when downtown zoning prohibited residences. “There was an idea that people should live in neighborhood suburbs, that mixed use downtowns weren’t healthy. So Greensboro didn’t allow residential use downtown.”

Jo and Jerry Leimenstoll were the first family to move downtown onto South Elm Street in the 1980s. At the time they moved in, single-family homes without commercial use at the street level were not allowed. So the Leimenstolls convinced the Greensboro Zoning Commission to approve special spot zoning just for their home.

The Leimenstoll’s son, Will, grew up on South Elm Street. He still laughs about how strange living downtown was to his friends at school. “We used to invite friends over and their parents could never find the house. Before cell phones, they would just drive back home, and say, ‘I’m sorry, we couldn’t figure it out.’ Geographically, it is not hard to find. Our address is on the door!”


Image courtesy of St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church Archives

Close-up from Birds Eye View of the City of Greensboro, Looking North, 1891; published by Ruger and Stoner, Madison, Wisconsin

THE FIRST ST MATTHEWS

The detailed illustration above shows Warnersville Methodist Episcopal Church (Labeled J: Methodist Church, Colored) as the original church building (1866) and the parsonage (1888), previous to the construction of the brick church building (1904) from the photographs.

Warnersville Methodist Church

GREENSBORO’S FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN CHURCH

Located near the corner of what was South Ashe and West Lee Streets, Warnersville Methodist Episcopal Church (now known as St. Matthew’s United Methodist) was the first church building and religious community built and organized by the newly emancipated African American population of Greensboro. Built in 1866 and led by Rev. Matthew Alston, the religious community and the church building itself have a rich history of firsts in the South Elm neighborhood. In 1873, Bennett College, now an important Greensboro institution, began in the basement of the church with an inaugural class and staff of seventy elementary and secondary students. The church building was also the meeting place for Greensboro’s first African American scouting troops.

In 1970, urban renewal initiatives led by the Redevelopment Commission of Greensboro displaced most of the original Warnersville community and the church buildings were demolished. The church was relocated to Asheboro and Florida Streets, where the religious community continues its legacy of civic service. In 2008, they appointed their first female pastor, Rev. Dr. Arnetta Beverly.

No evidence of this historic building remains at the original site, now a parking lot for the Greensboro Housing Authority. There are very few early photographs of the building and little mention of its significance in many of Greensboro’s mainstream histories. The footprint of the original church has been marked on the map included in this South Elm neighborhood guide (Point of Interest #4 on site map), as derived from historical research and Sanborn Insurance maps.

Sanborn Insurance Map, 1896

Sanborn Insurance Map, 1913

Locations of early church buildings on the Lee Street lot according to Sanborn Insurance Maps. Original wooden building to the east (1866), brick structure to the west (the new church built in 1904), and the parsonage to the south.

The early history of the church is filled with stories of sacrifice, dedication, and spirit of determination to minister to the congregation and the community as a whole. The early congregation was always closely associated with the educational, civic, and social life of the community.

SAINT MATTHEWS UNITED METHODIST CHURCH HISTORY
COURTESY OF DR. MARY SCARLETTE, CHURCH HISTORIAN


Native Trees of South Elm

Illustration of

American Elm

Ulma Americana

Illustration of

Southern Red Oak

Quercus falcata

Illustration of

Box Elder

Acer negundo

Illustration of

Willow Oak

Quercus phellos

Illustration of

Easter Red Cedar

Juniperus virginiana

Illustration of

Longleaf Pine

Pinus pilasturis

FIRST INVASIVE PLANT

Broadleaf Plantain
Plantago major

The Broadleaf Plantain hitchhiked to North America with Puritan colonizers. Native Americans called the plant “white man’s footprint” because it thrived in the damaged ecosystems that surrounded sites of European colonization.


Southern Railway

FIRST RAILWAY TO THE INTERIOR

The Southern Railway (near Point of Interest #1 on site map) was the first railroad in North Carolina to connect the interior of the state with the commerce of the coast. The groundbreaking was held in Greensboro in 1851. A few decades later, the tracks crossing South Elm had become so busy there was a post office on either side.

On the eight railroads and their branches reaching Greensboro, 21 passenger trains carrying 197 cars and thirty-one freight trains carrying 733 cars, arrive and depart daily.

ALBUM OF GREENSBORO, 1892

But the railway did more than shape the economy of Greensboro.

The rail line is more of a social barrier than it is a physical barrier. The rail line was essentially a racial barrier that allowed for segregation to occur. On the other hand, it did allow a black entrepreneurial class to flourish [south of the tracks]. It’s just that you couldn’t cross that line. You had a lot of innovation from the African American class that breeched that line for sure. But in terms of the formality of the barrier, it was pretty rigid.

KEITH DEBBAGE, UNCG PROFESSOR OF GEOGRAPHY

WHY HERE?

The Southern Railway was built on a natural ridge. It is bordered by North Buffalo Creek near Lake Daniel Park, and South Buffalo Creek along I-40.

You run railroads along drainage divides because you’re going to build fewer stream crossings and you don’t need so many trestles because you’re up on the ridge.

MIKE LEWIS, UNCG PROFESSOR OF GEOGRAPHY


References

Ann Walter-Fromson, Guilford Native Plant Society; Elise Allison, Greensboro Historical Museum; Album of Greensboro, 1892; Jo and Jerry Leimenstoll; Will Leimenstoll; Dr. Mike Lewis, UNC-Greensboro Geography Department; Dr. Keith Debbage, UNC-Greensboro Geography Department; Dr. Mary Ann Scarlette, Historian, St Matthew’s United Methodist Church; Nicole Smith, City of Greensboro Planning Department; Greensboro, 1808-1904: facts, figures, traditions, and reminiscences, by James W. Albright; Greensboro North Carolina by Otis L. Hairston Jr. Black America Series/Arcadia 2003; Greensboro, by Gayle Hicks Fripp. Images of America/Arcadia 1997; North Carolina Railroad Website; http://www.ncrr.com Art Work of Greensboro, N.C. The Gravure Illustration co., 1904.; USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database; Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps.

Extended References