Below the railroad.

In the earliest known map of Wilson, drawn in 1872, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad marked the town’s eastern border. Beyond lay the plank road, a toll house, and a smattering of buildings, but the territory was essentially farmland. By 1882, town limits had pushed east to Pender Street, and a tiny commercial district had grown up at Nash and Pettigrew Streets, convenient to railroad workers, customers and passengers. Although African-Americans owned substantial plots of land along Pender, Stantonsburg and Manchester Streets and the Plank Road [East Nash], the area also contained large farms owned by well-to-do whites. However, with the arrival in the 1890s of tobacco stemmeries and a cotton gin near Railroad Street, working-class neighborhoods such as Little Richmond sprang up. Black businesses and churches solidified their claim to Pender Street end of Nash, and Samuel H. Vick and others began to lay the grid of East Wilson’s streets.

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Sanborn fire insurance map, 1885.

Newspapers offer glimpses of the early development of East Wilson. References to the area “below the railroad” — “across the tracks,” in more modern parlance — regularly appeared in the pages of Wilson’s several late nineteenth-century journals.

Burford & Hinnant operated a meat market below the railroad, most likely at Nash and Pettigrew. Their 1883 notice advertised their steaks to customers and solicited “fat cattle” from area growers.

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Wilson Advance, 30 November 1883.

Perry Taylor’s grocery/saloon/pool hall stood at one corner of Nash and Pettigrew Streets. The combination was a popular one. This ad appeared in January 1884, but the reference to Christmas suggests that it had first run earlier. Taylor had bought out grocer James Batts and could “whet your whistle” 24 hours a day.

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Wilson Advance, 18 January 1884.

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Wilson Advance, 4 April 1884.

Stilley & Wooten advertised tobacco products, including “Black Nancy fine-cut tobacco and “Sweet Violet” cigars. In the context of retailers, “below the railroad” in this period seems to have meant the vicinity of Nash and Pettigrew Streets.

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Wilson Advance, 5 December 1884.

The 1888 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson shows the addition of rail lines and businesses to support them. Note, just below the “small lumber yard” at right, an area marked “Negro tenements.” The brick commercial buildings fronting Nash between the railroad and Pettigrew Street were known as the Fulcher block after prominent merchant L.H. Fulcher.

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By the 1890s, newspapers — the Advance leading the way — were making hay with the contents of Wilson’s police blotter and criminal court dockets. Crimes alleged to have been committed by African-Americans received conspicuous, and, if at all possible, outlandish coverage.

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Wilson Advance, 21, April 1892.

In January 1893, a fire devastated the “colored Odd Fellows Hall” on Nash Street. White grocer Golden D. Walston, who rented storage on the hall’s first floor, was fortunate to have insurance to cover his loss. (The order rebuilt its lodge later that year, erecting a three-story building that towered over the block for nearly one hundred years.)

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Wilson Advance, 5 January 1893.

E.G. Rose operated another liquor store-cum-grocery store below the railroad.

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Wilson Advance, 11 May 1893.

Finch & Lamm was perhaps a general merchandise store.

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Wilson Advance, 2 August 1894.

The last decade of the 1800s saw the break-up of the farms and large lots that made up much of the east side’s property holdings. When Zillah Edmundson died in 1896, her estate sold her six-room house on five acres at Vance and Pender Streets to a seller who immediately flipped it. Before long, the former Edmundson property had been subdivided for house lots, and East Wilson’s familiar grid began to take shape.

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Wilson Advance, 8 August 1896.

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Wilson Daily Times, 23 October 1896.

Here was a complicated adaptive reuse: Briggs & Flemming converted the former Baptist church building on West Green Street to use as a tobacco prize house. Silas Lucas bought the building, removed the steeple, and planned to move it below the railroad to the former location of the Tate house (which was where?) for further repurposing as a tenement house. (Presumably for African-American tenants. Wilson’s black workforce was booming with the influx of former farmhands seeking factory jobs.)

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Wilson Advance,  21 January 1897.

Across Wilson, buildings overwhelmingly were constructed of wood, and fires were an ever-present danger.

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Wilson Daily Times, 23 April 1897.

This article covering the criminal docket verged into an opinion piece in 1897. By that time, “below the railroad” was understood to mean the town’s black residential area.

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Wilson Advance, 11 November 1897.

In 1898, Benjamin M. Owens moved a wooden building on East Nash Street to make way for “two nice brick stores.”

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Wilson Advance, 7 July 1898.

In 1899, Mack D. Felton advertised his fish market (outfitted with one of Wilson’s earliest telephones.)

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Wilson Daily Times, 5 May 1899.

In 1899, with the financial assistance of local merchants, the town assigned police patrol at all hours below the railroad. Later that year, as winter approached city council appointed a committee to find a space in the area for police to warm themselves during the night shift.

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Wilson News, 2 March 1899.

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Wilson News, 12 October 1899.

After the turn of the century, references to “below the railroad” became less common. However, in 1911, Charles H. Darden & Son employed the term in an ad for their bicycle repair shop. With more businesses now lining the streets across the tracks, a specific address was a useful bit of information.

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Wilson Daily Times, 17 March 1911.

Another shooting. The 1908 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory lists Benjamin H. Moore as the owner of a grocery on Nash Street near the city limits. Henry Stewart appears in the directory as a laborer living at 127 East Nash. Orlando Farmer was a porter at Wilson Grocery Company, no home address listed.

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Wilson Daily Times, 8 August 1911.

Another fish market. Gillikin’s is listed in neither the 1908 nor 1912 city directories.

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Wilson Daily Times, 22 December 1911.

Late in 1918, the city announced that it was moving the town lot from Pine Street to Barnes Street.

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Wilson Daily Times, 3 December 1918.

Is this collection of sheds the town lot? The 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map shows it across from Farmer’s Cotton Oil Company and adjacent to Wilson Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.

It’s hard to imagine that a twenty-five-dollar theft warranted bloodhounds from Raleigh, but ….

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Wilson Daily Times, 25 February 1919.

Charlie Hines’ listing in the 1920 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory. East Nash Street “extended” was the stretch beyond city limits, near Nestus Freeman’s home. In this period, the city’s southeastern edge crossed East Nash at Wainwright Avenue, at the approximate location of today’s Round House and Museum

This article announcing a celebration marking the opening of the black-owned Commercial Bank noted that tickets could be purchased at Shade’s Drugstore, below the railroad at 530 East Nash.

Wilson Daily Times, 1 April 1921.

Early in 1925, Samuel H. Vick appeared before Wilson’s board of aldermen to request funds for “the colored hospital” and streetlights from the railroad to the intersection of Nash and Pender Streets. (A “whiteway” is a brightly lighted street, especially in a city’s business or theatre district.) Vick pointed out the bad optics of one well-lit side and the other dark to train passengers. The mayor raised the usefulness of good lighting to police officers.

Wilson Daily Times, 10 February 1925.

Though decreasingly cited, the term remained in currency at mid-century. In 1952, after considerable public controversy and contention, Wilson’s board of commissioners approved appointment of a housing authority to determine the extent of the city’s need for federally funded public housing. As this snippet of an article attests, black citizens crowded the hearings, testifying to the intense post-war housing shortage “below the railroad.”

Wilson Daily Times, 6 December 1952.

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