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.
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.
GREENSBORO BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS, NOTES FROM 1840
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 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.
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.
SAINT MATTHEWS UNITED METHODIST CHURCH HISTORY
COURTESY OF DR. MARY SCARLETTE, CHURCH HISTORIAN
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.
ALBUM OF GREENSBORO, 1892
But the railway did more than shape the economy of Greensboro.
KEITH DEBBAGE, UNCG PROFESSOR OF GEOGRAPHY
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.
MIKE LEWIS, UNCG PROFESSOR OF GEOGRAPHY
Ann Walter-Fromson, Guilford Native Plant Society;
Elise Allison, Greensboro Historical Museum;
Album of Greensboro, 1892;
Jo and Jerry 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.