Six years ago my husband and I bought a house in Wilmington, North Carolina, and this year we decided to paint it. The coastal weather can be particularly hard on wooden houses, and the white paint was not only cracked and peeling, but my husband had deemed the color “boring.”

The color selection process is rarely easy, and in our case we had to deal with a few extra layers of complexity. Our house, you see, is not just old – it is 150 years old.  And it isn’t in just any neighborhood – it is in the downtown historic district.  And we are just not the owners of an old, historic home – we are the stewards of its legacy.

Our house is known as the Sampson-Johnson house.  It was built in 1860 by James D. Sampson, a free black carpenter.  According to the Negro History Bulletin, January, 1940, James Drawborn Sampson was the son and slave of a rich planter in Sampson County.  “In 1819, when James was about 18, his father carried him to Wilmington, North Carolina, found a suitable location, set him up as a carpenter (James had been well-trained in in this work) and liberated him.”   The account further describes Mr. Sampson as training other slaves to be carpenters, while secretly teaching them to read and write, a “hazardous undertaking [that] had to be done in secret, for a person found thus guilty was sentenced to outward disgrace and a thorough lashing.”

Mr. Sampson died at the onset of the Civil War, and his home and much of his property were confiscated.  Fannie A. Johnson purchased the house in 1872, and it remained in the Johnson family until 1943, when Dr. Daniel C. Roane, an African-American physician from Connecticut, bought it.  The house then served as both a residence and doctor’s office for more than 30 years.

All this history was merely theoretical until we met one of Dr. Roane’s grandsons, who just happened to be walking by the day we moved in to the house.  We were once again reminded of our home’s legacy a few months later when we met one of James Sampson’s direct descendants who knew our house and its connection to her family.

So, keeping in mind the house’s history and the restrictions of the city’s historic district zoning , what color do you select?  

Here at the North Carolina Community Foundation, we are the stewards of endowment funds that donors have established over the years to support their specific charitable interests.  We constantly strive to honor “donor intent,” as these endowments serve as the fundholder’s enduring legacy, so I took these lessons from the Foundation and applied them – with some modification – to my own situation.

There was no way we could really know what color Mr. Sampson had originally chosen for the house – it had been scraped and repainted too many times over its lifetime - so we opted for a collaborative approach that involved a palette of colors appropriate to the age and style of the house, a lively back porch party during which neighbors voted on their favorite paint chip and the application of four different colors on the back wall for comparison purposes.   A local code enforcement officer provided the due diligence and final approval.  Let me know what you think

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