Wilson’s emergence as a leading tobacco market town drew hundreds of African-American migrants in the decades after the 1890s. Many left family behind in their home counties, perhaps never to be seen again. Others maintained ties the best way they could.
Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver and her husband Jesse A. Jacobs Jr. left Dudley, in southern Wayne County, North Carolina, around 1905. They came to Wilson presumably for better opportunities off the farm. Each remained firmly linked, however, to parents and children and siblings back in Wayne County as well as those who had joined the Great Migration north. This post is the third in a series of excerpts and adaptations of interviews with my grandmother Hattie Henderson Ricks (1910-2001), Jesse and Sarah’s adoptive daughter (and Sarah’s great-niece), revealing the ways her Wilson family stayed connected to their far-flung kin. (Or didn’t.)
Mamie Henderson Holt (1907-2000), taken not long after she married.
My grandmother arrived in Wilson as a baby in early 1911, shortly after her mother died. Her three-year-old sister Mamie remained in Dudley with their great-grandparents, Lewis and Margaret Balkcum Henderson, until their deaths. Mamie finally came to Wilson when she was about eight years old, but her adjustment was difficult. The sisters were delighted to be united, but Jesse Jacobs did not like Mamie and treated her badly.
My grandmother told the tale of her sister’s escape from Wilson often, and I recorded it several times. Here, a composite, using her own words, that sets out the story in all its heartbreaking emotional complexity.
In late 1922, Sarah H. Jacobs separated from Jesse Jacobs, taking Hattie and Mamie to Greensboro, N.C., where they moved in with Sarah’s aunt, Julia “Mollie” Henderson Hall Holt. Sarah’s health was poor, and she may also have been seeking better care and support. Jesse soon arrived, however, begging Sarah to return to Wilson. [He did not rely on his persuasive skills alone. To read about Jesse’s rootwork reinforcement, see here.]
“[Papa] come up to Greensboro and talked to Mama, and so she promised him she’d come back, [but] Mamie wouldn’t come home. She said Papa told her, said, ‘If your mammy ever leave here and take you with her, don’t you never come back here. Don’t never set foot in this door.’ He told Mamie that. But he told me, if I wanted to stay with him, I could stay, and if he didn’t have but one biscuit, he’d divide it and give me one half, and he’d have the other half.
“But I know Mama was sick, so she come up to Greensboro, and he asked her ‘bout coming back. And she told him she would come back, but she got sick. Mama didn’t work all the time, she wasn’t able to work, and so staying with A’nt Molly and them always looking at her and talking — wasn’t half-talking to her, and so she knew she had to get out from there, she wont paying no rent. [So] we moved in this house, and we hadn’t been in there but ‘bout a week, and Mamie wouldn’t come [to this house.] She stayed over there with A’nt Molly and Sadie [Hall Whitfield Farrar, Molly’s daughter.] And so that’s where I come on back to get Mamie and tell her about [going back to Wilson], and so Mamie said she wont going back.
“So [when I was] over there to Sadie’s house, I said to ‘em, I said, ‘What, y’all having a party tonight?’ And didn’t know Mamie was getting married that night. Mamie didn’t even tell me. And so they said, ‘Yeah, yeah. Yeah, we gon play some cards.’ And they wanted to get rid of me. Because they hadn’t told us nothing ‘bout it. And so the house was all clean, Sadie’s house was all cleaned up, and tables sitting all around the room. Well, they played cards all the time, so I didn’t think nothing ‘bout it, [but] they had to wait ‘til I left so Mamie and Bazel [Holt] could get married. And didn’t tell me a word about it. And they were getting married that night. Sadie went with Mamie to the courthouse to get the license and everything, and so Mamie didn’t want to come back to Wilson ‘cause Papa wasn’t good to her. He was always snapping at her or something, and he’d throw things and hit her or …. And so she said she marry a dog before she’d come back to Wilson. So Bazel, I don’t know how they got into it, but Bazel was staying with Sadie and A’nt Molly. We all was staying down A’nt Molly’s house ‘cause Molly married Bazel’s uncle [Walter Holt.] So Mamie married Bazel. To keep from coming back. But Mamie was 15 when she got married. She told Bazel she wont coming back home.
“And so [the next] day, Mama didn’t feel like going to the restaurant where she had over there, and so I sat there looking out the window, and I said to Mama, ‘Mamie’s coming up, and she’s got a suitcase! I wonder where she’s going.’ So she came on in, and she told Mama that she had got married last night and was coming to get her clothes. And Mama told her she ought not to let her have them. ‘You didn’t tell me nothing ‘bout it. If you was gon get married, and you’d a told me, [you could have] got married and had a little social or something.’ And Mama was mad with her because she got married. Mama had told her that, ‘If you don’t go back, I’ll put the law on you and make you go back ‘cause you underage.’ And that’s how come Mamie didn’t let her know nothing ‘bout nothing. So Mamie just got her clothes. Some of ‘em. And crammed ‘em in a suitcase and went back over …. And, now, she … had just met [Bazel], and he told her, ‘Well, we’ll get married if you want to stay here. We’ll get married.’ And so he married her. That night. But I didn’t know they was getting married that night, and so I fussed her out and: ‘How come you didn’t let me know where I could have stayed to the wedding? I wanted to see you get married.’ ‘Well, it wont no wedding – we was just getting married! Getting that old piece of paper. [‘Cause] I’m not going back to Wilson, so – you know Uncle Jesse don’t like me nohow. And I don’t want to go back to Wilson.’ So that’s how come Mamie got married.”
“That old piece of paper.” Mamie told the registrar she was 19 years old (she was 15) and that her adoptive parents were dead (they were not.) A Baptist minister married the couple on Valentine’s Day 1923 at the home of Henry Farrar, the husband of Mamie’s cousin Sadie Hall Farrar. Sadie’s mother Julia “Mollie” Henderson Holt was a witness to the ceremony.
Hattie Henderson returned to Wilson with Sarah H. Jacobs, but she and her sister Mamie remained exceptionally close throughout their long lives. Mamie and Bazel had six children together and were together until his death in 1954. Trips to Greensboro to visit my great-aunt and cousins were a staple of my childhood and a testament to the sisters’ bond.
Hattie Henderson and daughter Hattie Margaret Henderson with Mamie Henderson Holt, center, late 1940s, probably during a visit to Greensboro.
Interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson adapted and edited for clarity. Copyright 1994, 1996. All rights reserved. Photos in collection of Lisa Y. Henderson.