I write these words from Atlanta, Georgia. I have lived a lot of places, but I was born in Wilson, North Carolina, on a sultry Friday during the waning days of Mercy Hospital. According to my hospital record, I was a seven pound, ten ounce “colored female” with “excellent home conditions.” On Sunday afternoon, as my mother rested uncomfortably under an open window, begloved matrons from Jackson Chapel and Saint John AMEZ and Calvary Presbyterian tipped through. My introduction to East Wilson.
I haven’t lived in Wide-Awake for more than two-thirds of my life. Newcomers to town wonder that I, from my perch 450 miles away, know this United States Congressman and that council person, this community leader and that one. I know because — wherever this life may take me, however far away I go — Wilson remains my community. I grew up with, or under, these folk. They lived up the street, or down it. I’m not just from Wilson. I’m of it. And each passing year reminds me, and reveals to me, the ways that this is important. For eighteen years, I walked the same dusty streets that my father walked, along paths trod by my grandfather, my aunts and uncles and cousins. My life crossed theirs a dozen times a day. (Even now, when I’m home, old as I am, somebody will see me and: “Wait. Ain’t your daddy name Rederick?”) When my grandmother told me stories of her youth, I didn’t have to imagine Green Street or Five Points or Export Leaf or Cherry Hotel. I knew them. If I didn’t know the men and women that peopled her memories, I knew their children or grandchildren. I know their houses. Maybe been in them.
On dew-bright summer mornings — towels slung over our heads, sucking on plums — my cousin Monica and I would set off for swimming lessons at Reid Street Center. (In bathing suits and flip-flops. What innocence.) We’d walk up Carolina Street and cut through a path to Queen Street, where her mother and my father once lived in a row of endway houses that stood into the 1980s. We’d turn up Queen to Reid Street (where they also lived for a time), then cut north. At the first intersection, Green Street, we stopped to look both ways. We peered west toward what was once our grandfather’s house and, if our eyes had been periscopes, the tiny cottage on Elba Street that sheltered my grandmother when she arrived in Wilson in 1911. Looking east, through frothy crepe myrtles, we stared into the portals of Charles H. Darden High School, alma mater of nearly every adult we knew. (Black Wilson’s schools were named for local heroes.) Skirting Sam Vick Elementary, at which Monica and my father and my aunt (but not I) had conjugated and multiplied, we exchanged our belongings for large numbered safety pins and locked our toes over the edge of the pool. Shivering with us in the early June breeze might have been Tonya and Keith or Ed and Allegro, our friends since birth. Six knobby-legged children lined up as six of their eight parents might have been when they graduated from Darden in the spring of 1952.
My genealogical and historical research strengthens and preserves my connection to the nurturing world of my youth and to the vast web of connections — floating deeper than memory — that root me. With it, through it, I remember and pay homage to the Miss Edie Bells and Miz Speights and Ma Keits, women who watched over us and guided our early steps. Moved us beyond our soft, bland lives of Easy-Bake ovens and go-go boots, Weekly Readers and Buffy-and-Jody, and cast over us a protective patina of Stantonsburg and snuff cans and chicken pastry and good country sense. I am not like any other child from any other place. I’m Wide-Awake Wilson’s child.
I wrote a version of this essay 20 years ago as an introduction to two volumes of genealogical reports I’d conducted concerning African-American families from the Wilson County area. I’ve been at this a long time. Nearly a year ago, I returned to my hometown to give a brief talk on Joseph H. Ward, a distant cousin whose many accomplishments included service to his country as a medical officer in World War I, founding a hospital in Indianapolis, and appointment as director of a veterans hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. I called Cousin Joe “a ‘lost’ son of Wilson.” He was born there in about 1871, but left as a young man, and his name no longer rings bells. After my presentation, I promised to make available for all the many documents pertaining to African-Americans in Wilson County that I encounter in my genealogical and historical research. It’s taken an unconscionably long time, but here it is. A chronicle of the high and low, the well-remembered and forgotten, the women and men and institutions that built my community.
Welcome to BLACK WIDE-AWAKE.