An article about severe flooding on the Roanoke River mentioned the drowning death of 13 year-old Willie Forsythe in Wilson County’s Black Creek.
Wilson Daily Times, 20 August 1940.
In the 1930 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: William Forsythe, 60; wife Marilda, 55; granddaughter Nancy Forsythe, 13; and grandson William Oliver, 2 months.
Willie Forsythe died 18 August 1940 in Cross Roads township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was 13 years old; was born in Wilson County (or perhaps Brooklyn, N.Y.) to James Oliver of Brooklyn and Viola Forsythe of Wilson County; and was buried in a family cemetery. Informant was William Forsythe.
“Accidental drowning — while swimming in Black Creek”
This large marble headstone, with its delicate crossed fern fronds, stands near the front edge of Odd Fellows Cemetery adjacent to plot of the Noah Tate family. It marks the family plot of the Alexander and Lucy Hill Dawson family.
Alexander, known as A.D., Dawson was born about 1860, likely in Lenoir County, N.C., and arrived in Wilson by the 1880s. He was active in county Republican Party politics and was a teacher before going into business as a restaurant and fish market owner. Lucy Annie Hill Dawson (1860-1917) was born in Edgecombe County and worked as a dressmaker. The couple married in Wilson in 1882.
The only identifiable individual headstones in the plot are those of Lucy Dawson and daughter Virginia S. Dawson (1890-1933).
N.C. Mutual Life Insurance affiliate Home Development Company was a major player in East Wilson real estate in the mid-twentieth, buying and selling distressed properties by the dozens. Below, a plat map the company recorded in 1944 for two lots on Viola Street between C.E. Artis at 308 North Pender and Sadie Joyner at 609 Viola.
The house at 607 Viola Street was demolished in the early 1980s. There has never been a house on the second lot.
Plat book 4, page 13.
In the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Church Alton (c; Hattie) lab h 607 Viola; Church Helen (c) maid Cherry Hotel H 607 Viola.
In the 1930 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Clark Saml (c; Cath) h 607 Viola; Clark Martha (c) dom h 607 Viola.
In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 607 Viola, at $16/month rent, Catherine Clark, 42, born in S.C., hospital cook; husband Sam, 52, born in Georgia; granddaughter Martha Clark, 15, born in S.C.; grandson Willie McGill, 6, born in N.C.; and two roomers, Talmage Smith, 21, and Roy Maze, 26, both orchestra musicians. [Orchestra musicians?]
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 607 Viola, at $6/month, Nora Farmer, 28, tobacco factory hanger, and lodgers Maggie Smith, 23, also a hanger, and Lester Parker, 28, highway laborer. Also, at $8/month, Charlie Williams, 42, service station attendant; wife Ellen, 38, laundress; son David, 23, tobacco factory laborer; and niece Eloise Tarboro, 18, servant.
In the 1941 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city director: Williams Chas (c; Ellen) porter G Duke Ricks h 607 Viola
I offer the photo above not for the East Nash Street parking lot ribbon-cutting, but for the rare view of three early 20th-century houses on Smith Street. Smith Street is not located in the East Wilson Historic District, nor was its single block included in the Wilson Central Business-Tobacco Warehouse District, though it lies just behind East Nash and Pettigrew Streets. Its mid-section once densely packed with working-class housing, Smith Street is now completely cleared.
A 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson shows that the first two houses are 517 and 519 Smith Street (formerly Zion Alley). The house at right, 521, does not appear and was built between 1922 and 1928.
(The parking lot was built on the site of houses and shops at 527, 529, 531, and 533 East Nash Street and 514 and 516 Smith Street.)
The 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory lists domestic Lula Hill at 517; domestic Jane Taylor at 519; and cook Minnie Smith at 521.
In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 517 Smith Street, renting for $10/month, widow Emma Bissette, 30, and lodgers Mattie Coleman, 22, and John Harington, 34. At 521 Smith, at $16/month, widow Minnie Smith, 37, cook, and lodgers Elnora Norflet, 24, laundress; Davie Shoulders, 26, painter; and Alfreter, 6, and William E. Norflet, 4.
Samuel H. Vick owned 517 and 519 Smith Street and lost them with dozens of other parcels of land in a forced sale in April 1935.
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 517 Smith Street, renting at $9/month, Ardelia Currie, 66, washing; son Garfield McMillan, 53, farm delivery for retail grocer; roomer AlbertMcPhail, 21, dishwasher at the Elite Cafe; granddaughter Ardelia McWorsins(?), 26, maid; and roomer Sara Gregory, 24, laborer. At 521 Smith, renting at $10/month, Luther Newsome, 50; wife Helen, 30; and children Mildred, 15, Beulah, 13, Luther, 1, and Donnell, 2 months.
In 1942, Elex [Alex] Currie registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 30 May 1898 in Robeson County, N.C.; lived at 517 Smith Street, Wilson; was an unemployed odd jobs laborer; and his nearest relative was Ardelia Currie, 517 Smith Street.
Ardelia Wearring died 13 July 1943 at Mercy Hospital, Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 29 years old; was born in Robeson County, N.C., to Garfield Mills and Alice McCary; was married to Sam Wearring; lived at 517 Smith Street; and was buried in Rountree cemetery.
Ardelia Currie died 23 August 1943 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 60 years old; was born in Robeson County, N.C., to Hardy Curwell and Laura Jane Smith; worked as a laundress; was widowed; and lived at 517 Smith Street. She was buried in Rest Haven Cemetery, and Alex Currie was informant.
The 1947-48 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory lists factory worker Rosa Hicks at 517 Smith; Victoria Lane at 519; and Jack and Addie Vail at 521. Vail operated a grocery store at 315 Elba Street.
An auctioneer advertised 521 Smith Street for sale in the spring of 1948.
In September 1985, a man jogging along Lane Street discovered human bones lying in a ditch. What happened after is a dispiritingly familiar tale of denial and deflection.
Wilson Daily Times, 23 September 1985.
Wilson Daily Times, 24 September 1985.
In a nutshell:
The jogger had the bones examined by a friend who worked in the Edgecombe County Coroner’s Office, who estimated they were 50 to 60 years old. (The bones themselves were from a 50 to 60 year-old person? Or had been buried 50 to 60 years prior? And why didn’t the Wilson County coroner step in immediately?)
The jogger found the bones “on the left side of Lane Street Extension about ten feet from a grave that had been capped with concrete.” (“Left side” is relative, and maddeningly imprecise in a news story, but I interpret this as the opposite side of the road from the main cemeteries, i.e. the left side if one is facing MLK Parkway/Highway 264.)
A Cemetery Commission spokesperson identified four cemeteries on Lane Street. (There were, in fact, six — Masonic, Hamilton, Rest Haven, Vick, Odd Fellows, and Rountree.)
The city did not begin maintaining Lane Street until after 1972, when it annexed land east and south of Highways 301 and 264. “About five years ago [i.e. 1980], the city attempted to define the road and found, because of the numerous graves in the area, only a 40- to 45-foot right of way could be allowed, compared to the usual 60-foot right of way.”
The city “routinely” scraped the dirt road and cleared the ditches, but “wasn’t sure” when Lane Street had last been maintained. (Yes, you read that right. Past Rest Haven and around to its intersection with Highway 264, Lane Street was unpaved until the late 1980s. Maybe the 1990s. I’ll search for a precise date.)
Citing the unusual nature of the find, a county health department spokesperson said she would have to check to determine who was responsible for reburying the bones.
The next day, the Public Works Department weighed in to disclaim any responsibility. “We’re not doing anything right now. We’re not aware that we have disturbed any graves.” Further, its spokesman asserted his belief that bones had been recently deposited.
He allowed that some unusual things had taken place though. “There is a concrete slab over one grave on one side of the road that wasn’t there when we annexed the property in 1972. The marker says the person died in 1950, but the slab has been poured in the last five or six years.” (I saw that slab as a child riding my bicycle on Lane Street in the mid-1970s. It lay at the very edge of the ditch, with one long edge fully exposed, on the side of the road opposite the main cemeteries. Rountree Missionary Baptist Church owns parcels on both sides of the road, as noted here. Whenever the slab was laid — by a family attempting to ward off the encroaching roadway? — it is no longer there. See my visit to that side of the road here and here.)
A former county sanitarian reported that he’d received a call from a woman who believed her relatives might be buried under Lane Street. (This just gets worse and worse.) Public Works: “Asa was going to look into that for me. It could be that we need to find out who that could be and see if they want to do some digging out there to remove the remains.” (“Could be”? And who is “they”? The families whose relatives’ graves the city desecrated?)
The police removed the bones, but provided no one knowledgeable enough to make a comment.
And this is the last mention of these bones, or graves lost under Lane Street, that I have found to date. Were they ever reburied? Where? If they weren’t old, was there ever an investigation to determine to whom they belonged and how they came to rest in a Lane Street ditch?
Many thanks to Tracey Barnes for bringing the September 24th article to my attention and alerting me to this chapter of the Lane Street cemeteries’ history.
Thirty-one years ago this month, the City of Wilson acknowledged what a quick deed search could have told anyone — it owns Vick cemetery.
Wilson Daily Times, 13 February 1990.
The Cemetery Commission’s reaction, as reported here, was a long list of negatives focused on the expense of restoration and upkeep of Vick cemetery, with no comment recorded about duties owed (and neglected for decades) to the dead.
(N.B.: The Cemetery Commission is not involved in the present upkeep of Vick Cemetery or the narrow strip at the front of Odd Fellows Cemetery. They are mowed, sprayed, etc., by the Public Works Department.)
A January 31 News & Observer article tells the fuller background story. J.D. Holland of Wake County was out plowing a field near his house when he was robbed at gunpoint of his knife, a gold watch, and one dollar. “Mr. Holland was taken unawares by the negro and at the point of a pistol was first forced to give up his property and then take off all his clothes and plough several furroughs of land. The robbery was not at all welcomed by Mr. Holland, but the work of imitating Adam was very disagreeable to the Wake farmer.” This humiliation was equally disagreeable to Holland’s neighbors, who quickly formed an armed posse to hunt for a Black man “of yellow complexion, weighing about 160 pounds and wearing a slightly dark moustache.” They made one false capture before encountering Tip Barnes walking on railroad tracks near Millbrook and locking him in a store.
When the sheriff arrived, he found a “small crowd of citizens” gathered, who “merely wanted to see that the negro was placed behind bars.” Barnes, however, claimed a hundred armed people milled about all night, hollering “Lynch him!” Barnes further claimed that he could not be the culprit, as he had only arrived in Raleigh the previous morning, having skipped town when he and another man got in some trouble in Wilson. Though the reporter expressed doubt, as reported above, Barnes did in fact have an airtight alibi. He was in Wilson at the time of the robbery, being questioned by Wilson police about a completely different crime.
The news bureau took care to debunk two rumors, perhaps in the interests of lowering public temperature. First, it urged, the robber had not humiliated Holland by forcing him to strip naked and continue plowing. Nor was it true that Barnes “had narrowly escaped lynching” at the time of his arrest.