An inside look at the black history treasure 'hiding' in downtown Raleigh

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Joel Brown Image
Tuesday, February 4, 2020
Pope House a black history treasure in downtown Raleigh
Pope House is a black history treasure in downtown Raleigh.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- On the 500 block of South Wilmington Street in downtown Raleigh lies a part of the city that a hundred years ago was a thriving community of black professionals and homeowners -- eager for success after slavery.

Today, only one home remains. Once owned by one of North Carolina's first black medical doctors. ABC11 Together was given an all-access look inside the house that Dr. Pope built.

Most drivers speed north into downtown Raleigh on Wilmington Street -- without even a glance to the right to notice the now lonely home on the 500 block. The Pope House, once the beacon of black life in Raleigh is buried in a canyon of high rises and skyscrapers.

"It's crazy. It's sitting here hiding in plain sight," said Jonas Pope, IV whose family is "hiding" inside this home.

3D locator map of the Pope House in Raleigh

The house was built in 1901 by Dr. Manassa Pope, one of the three black physicians first licensed to practice medicine in the state. He moved to Raleigh at the turn of the century to earn a medical degree from a then newly-founded Shaw University Medical School.

Dr. Pope was a renaissance man -- serving in the first all-black regiment in the Spanish-American War; he launched his own drug company; he became a civil-rights warrior, politician, and at-home physician to countless black Raleighites - who in a segregated South had no other access to health care.

It's a proud history that some of Pope's direct descendants, such as Jonas, are only now coming to fully realize.

"Growing up in Northampton County, I've always felt like our family name, our family had a lot of pride and that we came from greatness, if that makes sense. I just never knew where I got that feeling from," Pope said.

Ernest Dollar is director of the City of Raleigh Museum which owns and operates the Pope House Museum, the first and only African-American house museum in North Carolina.

"The Pope House is one of the very few African-American house museums (in the country)," Dollar explained.

The nearly 120-year-old two-story home, which has only been inhabited by members of the Pope family, is jam-packed with photos and artifacts. It's a trove of 20th-century black family life.

"Dr. Pope represented an incredible black elite class we have here in Raleigh," Dollar said. "Dr. Pope was college-educated, professionally-trained and not many cities can boast of this professional class."

The area encompassing the Pope House, up to Hargett Street, was called Raleigh's Third Ward. While some residents were black professionals like Dr. Pope, many were black working-class poor -- eager to leave Raleigh and the racism of the south for better opportunities in the north.

As one of the city's only black doctors, Pope hatched a plan to leverage the respect he received from whites to uplift the Raleigh he knew in Third Ward. In 1919, he ran for mayor.

"Dr. Pope also ran on the ticket with two other African-Americans. Now they admitted they did not expect to win considering the adversity that faced them," Dollar said.

And the headwinds against Dr. Pope were strong. A racist cartoon of Pope ran in the News and Observer showing a black devil hovering over Raleigh snatching white citizens. Pope and the others did not win.

"But what they really wanted to do by this one act was to wake up African-Americans politically," Dollar said.

For Jonas Pope, IV, it is a wood-and-brick monument to the transformational legacy of an ancestor.

"It's a really big deal. I think everybody wants to know where they came from and know their family history. But everybody doesn't have it readily available like we do," Pope said. "I realize how fortunate we are as a family to have a museum."

The Pope House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. It's open every Saturday for tours from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. with one-hour tours every hour.