Nearly all grave markers from the last 30 years or so are machine-cut, their lettering precise and even and utterly predictable. In Wilson County’s African-American cemeteries, however, even a casual perusal of older markers reveals artisanal work. Though there are many styles, one font repeatedly snags the eye — squarish letters with flared serifs and, especially, 9’s with long, pointed tails. These engravings are the work of marble cutter Clarence Benjamin Best, who, for more than 50 years, chiseled lambs, stars, stylized flowers and Masonic emblems, as well as pithy grammatically idiosyncratic epitaphs, into slabs of stone. I have found his work in rural Wilson County cemeteries and as far afield as Wayne, Edgecombe and Greene County, but Rest Haven cemetery is the ground zero of his oeuvre.
Best, whose monument business operated from his home on the outskirts of east Wilson, got his start as a marble cutter at Wilson Marble Mantle & Tile Company on North Railroad Street. By the early 1920s, he was designing and cutting headstones for African-American clients, perhaps initially as a side gig. He seemingly worked at every price point, offering custom monuments that collectively testify to his skill and endless creativity.
Clarence Best is just one of North Carolina’s unsung vernacular artists. These samples are a tribute to the breadth of his work:
- James Brody Artis, died 1963. June S. Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County. GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.
- George and Beulah Best, died undated and 1972. William Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County.
- William and Mary Kittrell, died 1952 and 1947. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Likely a repurposed machine-etched stone. Not uncommonly, Best was off with his spacing estimates for lettering and here had to squeeze in the H. for William Kittrell’s middle initial.
- Ben Hart, died 1951. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Modern asymmetric concrete slab inset with etched black glass.
- Virginia Hooks, died 1972. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Virginia Hooks and her mother Donella died within months of one another. The shapes of their stones differ, but the style is much the same — name, dates, and a long epitaph. For Virginia, some extra verbiage crept in: WE MISS YOU NOW OUR HEARTS ARE SORE AS TIMES GOES BY WE MISS YOU NOW OUR HEARTS ARE SORE AS TIMES GOES BY WE WILL MISS YOU MORE. YOUR LOVING SMILES AN GENTLE FACE. NO ONE CAN FILL YOUR SPACE.
- Donella Hooks, died 1972. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. TO SOME, SHE MAY BE FORGOTTEN/ TO OTHERS, JUST PART OF THE PAST/ BUT TO THOSE WHO LOVED AND LOST HER/ HER MEMORIES WILL ALWAYS LAST/ JUST A CLUSTER OF BEAUTIFUL LOVE SPRAYED WITH A MILLION TEARS/ WISHING GOD COULD HAVE SPARED HER/ FOR JUST A FEW MORE YEARS. (The last line shoe-horned in.)
- Jacob Edwards, died 1950. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson.
- Archie Harris, died 1935. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. WE LOVED YOU BUT GOD LOVED HIM BEST.
- Matthew and Lillian Williams, died 1968 and 1975. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Pink granite was an unusual medium for Best. Names engraved on the front. On the back, astonishing and enigmatic carvings. Depending from banners, two large peaches (hearts?) carved with a plump fish for Lillian and a rifle for Matthew.
- Henry and Mamie Lucas, died 1942 and 1962. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. A rather plain piece with lettering somewhat rougher than usual.
- Charles and Gertrude Jones, died 1963 and 1968. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. All Best’s main motifs — extra deeply incised family name, flowers, decorative border and religious epitaph.
- Maggie Ellis, died 1964. Hilliard Ellis cemetery, Wilson. Dogwood design at top center.
- Daisy Price, died 1965. Elm City colored cemetery. Extraordinary piece with stylized angel.
- Dewey Gaston, died 1946. Elm City colored cemetery. A unique lily of the valley motif, symbolizing Christ’s second coming.
- Link Bell, died 1959. Pyatts Chapel A.M.E. church cemetery, Edgecombe County. This oddly proportioned marker was perhaps the recycled top half of a broken slab.
- Clarence Winstead, died 1968. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church cemetery, Stantonsburg.
- Lucy Edwards, died 1971. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church cemetery, Stantonsburg. An apparently recycled marker, as tablet seems to have been chiseled clean.
- Lucille Ellis, died 1964. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church cemetery, Stantonsburg. A heart engraved with a dainty ‘LOVE’ depending from a dogwood flower.
- Fannie Newsome, died 1960. William Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County.
- Ada Artis Rowe, died 1964. William Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County. Unusual ablet in the form of a closed book.
- Sarah Artis Speight, died 1950. Artis Town cemetery, Greene County.
- Ruel and Louise Bullock, died 1969 and 1968. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Masonic and Eastern Star emblems.
- Malissia Hill, died 1929. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. An early model, the tails of the 9’s are rounded. Off-center epitaph.
- Betty J. Levy, died 1975. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Marble plaque inset into brick. Among Best’s last works.
- Addie W. Taylor, died 1963. Masonic cemetery, Wilson.
- Rev. R.J. Young, died 1933. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Masonic emblem.
- Short W. Barnes, died 1943. Masonic cemetery. A delicate cross top center.
- John and Mary Hogans, died 1951 and undated. Elmwood cemetery, Goldsboro, Wayne County. In God we trust, and a cross sprouting leaves.
- Henry Sharper, died 1945. Elm City colored cemetery. Bird in tympanum (symbolizing eternal life) perhaps machine-cut. Veteran of World War I.
- William H. Hall Sr., died 1925. Bethel A.M.E.Z. Church cemetery, Stantonsburg. One of the earliest stones, before Best settled in on the pointed 9’s.
- Georgina Hall, died 1933. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church Cemetery, Stantonsburg. A tiny off-center cross leans curiously atop the tablet.
- Edward Newsome, died 1956. Fremont colored cemetery, Fremont, Wayne County.
- Milton and Nora Reid, died 1961 and 1965. Turner Swamp Baptist Church cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County.
- Locus. Turner Swamp Baptist Church cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County. Perhaps a repurposed machine-cut stone. (The scroll at top is not Best’s work.) The incised trapezoid below the deeply cut tablet is unusual.
- Walter M. Foster, died 1928. Odd Fellows cemetery, Wilson. A fine early work framed in delicate florals with an epitaph whose freehand font diminishes in size.
- Gus and Cora Armstrong. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Bizarrely proportioned lines of lettering.
In the 1900 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: farmer Benjamin Best, wife Eliza, and children Virgin N., Mildred, Junius, Sopremia, Benjamin, Corinthia, Remantha, Olian, and Clarence. Benjamin and Eliza reported having been married 25 years, and Eliza reported that 10 of the 12 children she had borne were living.
In the 1910 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: widow Eliza Best, 53, with children Junius, 29, Rematha, 20, Allen, 18, and Clarence, 16, plus grandchildren Suprema, 5, and Martha A., 3.
On 24 January 1917, Clarence Best, 22, of Wilson township, son of Benjamin and Eliza Best, and Geneva Smith, 22, of Gardners township, daughter of Henry and Mahala Smith, were married in Gardners township by C.H. Hagans, a Primitive Baptist minister. Fred Woodard, John Barnes and Len Woodard witnessed.
Clarence Best registered for the World War I draft on 5 June 1917. He reported that he was born 22 October 1894 in Wayne County, North Carolina; that he resided at RFD #4, Box 4, Wilson; and that he worked as a stone rubber at Wilson Marble Mantle & Tile Company. He claimed that he supported his wife and his mother and her two grandchildren. He was described as medium height and build, with brown eyes and black hair.
In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Saratoga Road, marble cutter Clarence Best, 26, wife Geneva, 26, and son Clarence H., 1, plus Eliza Best, 68, Martha Ann Best, 11, and Suprema Hooks, 11. Next door, Junius Best, 38, wagon factory assembly man, wife Mary A., 27, and children Mary Olivia, 2, and Colonius, 4 months.
Eliza Best died 1 September 1929 in Wilson of “injury of rt. leg; cut her leg on a piece of tin.” She resided at 1310 East Nash Street, Wilson, and was the widow of Benjamin Best. She was about 64 years old and had been born in Wilson County to Jim Ellis and Zannie Applewhite. She was buried in Rountree cemetery; Clarence Best was informant.
In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 203 East Nash Street, marble works polisher Clearance Best, 37, wife Geneva, 37, and son Clearance, 11. Nearby: wagon factory laborer Junious Best, 47, wife Mary, 39, and children Mary, 12, Colanelus, 11, Mattie, 7, and Rematha, 2.
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: marble dresser Clarence Best, 46, wife Geneva, 46, and son Clarence H. Best, 21, tobacco stemmer, plus nephew Frank Brake, 14.
In 1943, Clarence Herman Best registered for the World War II draft. He reported his home address as 1306 East Nash Street, Wilson; his date of birth as 3 October 1918; and his closest relative as Clarence Benjamin Best, his father. His employer was Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte, North Carolina.
Genevia Smith Best died 23 September 1969 in Wilson. Per her death certificate , she was born 19 August 1896 to William Henry Smith and Martha (last name unknown.) She was buried at Rest Haven cemetery; Clarence Best was informant.
Clarence B. Best died 18 November 1980 in Wilson. The double headstone he had created after his wife’s burial — with extra pointy 9’s, a cross, and a slighty too-long epitaph — awaited his death date as a final entry. When the time came, it was, of course, incised perfectly by machine.
Be honest & true. Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.
Wilson Daily Times, 23 May 1951.
All photos by Lisa Y. Henderson.