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  • Chowan Herald

    Novelist Alexander discusses life of Black biz woman Josephine N. Leary

    By Chris Day The Daily Advance,


    ELIZABETH CITY — Novelist Kianna Alexander discussed Chowan County real estate owner Josephine N. Leary’s life at Museum of the Albemarle’s “History for Lunch” program on Wednesday, May 8.

    Alexander’s “Carolina Built” is a novel that’s based on actual events from Leary’s “remarkable life,” she told audience members.

    Josephine Napolean Leary lived from April 1856 to March 1923 and her life was “marked by so many different ups and downs” and challenges that “she had to face or overcome” to achieve her success, Alexander said.

    “She rose from humble beginnings in enslavement to amass a real estate portfolio that included land, commercial and residential properties,” the author said.

    One of those properties is the downtown Edenton building that still bears her name and is home to the Chowan Herald’s newspaper office. The Josephine Leary Building was built in 1894 and is located off South Broad Street near the Edenton waterfront. The building encompasses three storefronts at 421, 423 and 425 South Broad Street.

    Leary was originally born in Williamston but later moved to Edenton with her husband, “Sweety” Leary, who was a barber.

    In 1875, at age 19, Leary purchased her “signature property” on South Broad Street, Alexander said.

    “It was deeded solely to her and we know from historical records that the purchase price was exactly $1,030,” she said.

    In September 1893, Leary’s business was dealt a significant setback when her South Broad Street property was destroyed in a downtown fire. Several newspapers from around the state reported on what was known as the “Cheapside” fire, Alexander said.

    “The area where the building was at the time was called Cheapside,” she explained. “The reason that they called it Cheapside was because everything there was built out of wood.”

    Several structures, including Leary’s properties at 421, 423 and 425 South Broad Street, had been made out of wood and were destroyed in the blaze. The fire is believed to have started after an oil lantern that had been left on tipped over, according to Leary. There also was a barrel of liquor nearby and it, too, was knocked over, she said.

    “What you have here is kind of a ‘fuse situation’ where now there’s liquor running down the street and the fire is following the path of the liquid, which is highly flammable,” Alexander said. “And that entire block between King and Water streets was basically destroyed and turned to ash.”

    Leary faced the question of what to do with the property, sell it or build a new building in the same location. She chose the latter but decided to use brick instead of wood to help make the building that still stands today more resilient to fire and other risks.

    Leary also had the building constructed to resemble the original building’s architectural form.

    “The was that it looks today is a restoration of the original way that it looked during her time,” Alexander said.

    It was also Leary’s decision to have her name “J.N. Leary” emboldened across the rooftop façade, Alexander said.

    In 1881, Leary purchased the property of a barber shop that she and Sweety had been renting at 317 Broad Street. The couple used a portion of the profits Sweety earned from cutting hair to make the purchase.

    Leary had been reinvesting the profits, “so the money that was made in the barber shop, Josephine was responsible for tucking that away,” Alexander said.

    Leary owned other properties, including a house she used for rental purposes and a small tract in Elizabeth City. The Leary family home was located in the 100 block of South Broad Street but the house was demolished in 1960.

    By the time Leary was 25 she had given birth to two daughters. In her long lifetime, 17 states joined the Union and there were 15 different presidential administrations, according to Alexander.

    The author noted that there were actually 16 presidents in Leary’s lifetime, because President Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms.

    Leary witnessed not just the Antebellum and Civil War eras, she also lived through the Redemption and Reconstruction eras after the war, the beginning of the Great Migration at the turn of the 20th century, World War I and the dawn of the Roaring Twenties.

    Leary died of cancer in 1923. She outlived her husband Sweety by about 20 years.

    On Feb. 2, 2022, the Edenton Town Council voted unanimously to declare Feb. 22, 2022, as Josephine Napolean Leary Day.

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