Mary Euell and Dr. Du Bois.

To my astonished delight, historian David Cecelski cited to my recent post on Mary C. Euell and the school boycott — and shouted out Black Wide-Awake — today.  In a piece dedicated to Glenda Gilmore on the occasion of her retirement, Cecelski describes a letter from Euell to W.E.B. Du Bois he found among Du Bois’ papers, collected at and digitized by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Researching the letter’s context led him to Black Wide-Awake,  and he penned a warm and gracious thanks for my research.

Euell wrote the letter from her home at 135 Pender Street on 22 April 1918, not two weeks after leading  her colleagues in a walkout. She made reference to Du Bois’ letter of the 18th and promised to send “full details of [her] trouble here in Wilson,” including newspaper clippings and photographs. Though no follow-up correspondence from Euell is found in the collection, there is a newspaper clipping sent April 12 by Dr. A.M. Rivera, a dentist and N.A.A.C.P. leader from Greensboro, North Carolina. (Coincidentally, Dr. Rivera’s office was in the Suggs Building.)

Greensboro Daily News, 12 April 1918.

(The collection also contains a brief letter from Mrs. O.N. Freeman [Willie Hendley Freeman] referring to an enclosed a 7 August 1920 Wilson Daily Times article and noting “this might interest you or be of some value to some one as I know your sentiments by reading the Crisis.” I have not been able to locate the article in online databases and do not know whether it related to the on-going boycott.)

“The colored people say they will not stand for it”: the 100th anniversary of the Wilson school boycott.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the resignation of 11 African-American teachers in Wilson, North Carolina, in rebuke of their “high-handed” black principal and the white school superintendent who slapped one of them. In their wake, black parents pulled their children out of the public school en masse and established a private alternative in a building owned by a prominent black businessman.  Financed with 25¢-a-week tuition payments and elaborate student musical performances, the Independent School operated for nearly ten years. The school boycott, sparked by African-American women standing at the very intersection of perceived powerless in the Jim Crow South, was an astonishing act of prolonged resistance that unified Wilson’s black toilers and strivers.

The school boycott is largely forgotten in Wilson, and its heroes go unsung. In their honor, today, and every April 9 henceforth, I publish links to these Black Wide-Awake posts chronicling the walk-out and its aftermath. Please read and share and speak the names of Mary C. Euell and the revolutionary teachers of the Colored Graded School.






Where was Toad Town?

Where was Toad Town? Was it an African-American community?

This brief article suggests that it lay somewhere between Wilson and southern Nash County.

Wilson Times, 3 October 1911.

In the 1910 census of Wilson township, Wilson County, a handful of families were reported living along Toad Town Path, which was in the vicinity of County Line Road and Finch Mill Road, perhaps west and north of Grabneck.

I have found a couple of cryptic references to Toad Town in pseudonymously penned opinion-editorial pieces published in Wilson newspapers. A piece in the 12 April 1893 Wilson Mirror warns that the “Toad Town syndicate is in danger of collapse” from the expense of improvements and the failure of the electric company to extend lights to the area. Was Toad Town, then, a speculative real estate development? And if so, was it intended to displace an older community? “Toad Town” is not a name to attract well-heeled investors. In the 3 February 1911 issue of the Wilson Times, a writer queries whether a man could “distinguish the difference between the milky way and a Toad Town hog path.” If Toad Town had been a planned garden suburb, it certainly failed.

Slapped a colored girl.

Slapping black women was epidemic in Wilson in the first few decades of the 20th century. Here, W.D. Ruffin was ordered into court for slapping a “colored girl,” known only by her surname Reid, who allegedly pushed ahead of him in a line at the post office. Clerk W.O. Flowers complained that “the older colored people are more respectful and will wait their turn but that a number of negro boys and girls make themselves obnoxious by endeavoring to shove their way ahead of some one else.” He claimed he was waiting in line when Reid pushed in. He told her he was in front; she argued that she had a right to be there. Ruffin: “Be quiet.” Reid stood her ground, and Ruffin “brushed her cheek with his hand.”

Wilson Times, 9 July 1919.


The (heroic) teachers of Principal Reid’s school.

This astounding photograph depicts the teachers on staff at the Colored Graded School around 1918, when school superintendent Charles L. Coon slapped Mary C. Euell after principal J.D. Reid complained that she was insubordinate. Euell, who pressed charges against Coon and led a boycott of the public school, is seated second from left.

Information about the teachers is elusive. Only one, S. Roberta Battle, was a native of Wilson. Georgia native Georgia Burke spent about a decade in Wilson, and Virginia native Mary Jennings at least four years. The remaining women are not found in local census records or directories.

  • G.M. Burks — Georgia Mae Burke. Georgia Burke boarded with Roberta Battle’s family during her time in Wilson. In 1921, she and Mary Euell were nearly involved in a second slapping incident in Wilson. In 1928, she moved to New York City to commence an acting career.
  • L.B. Wayland
  • M.L. Garrett
  • S.R. Battle — Sallie Roberta Battle Johnson.
  • S.D. Wiseman
  • M.A. Davis
  • M.C. Euell
  • M.M. Jennings — Mary M. Jennings. Virginia-born Mary Jennings, 28, private school teacher boarded with the family of Hardy Tate at 208 Pender at the time of the 1920 census. In the 1920 Hill’s Wilson, N.C. city directory, she was described as the principal of Wilson Normal School, which was probably the independent school founded by black parents and businessmen in the wake of the boycott. In the 1922 city directory, she is listed as a teacher at the Wilson Normal School and resided at 307 [formerly 208] Pender.
  • J.B. Pride

Photograph courtesy of Congressman G.K. Butterfield Jr., D-NC, a Wilson native. Thank you!

An important move; or what to do about shiftless negroes.

Wilson Daily Times, 21 March 1919.

A gathering of men at the Colored Odd Fellows Hall. The topic at hand? How to “make the negro more efficient and helpful, more energetic, more responsible and in any every way a better citizen.” The means? A temporary organization headed by Camillus L. Darden and Dr. William H. Phillips. R. McCants Andrews, Howard ’15, newly graduated from Harvard Law School and soon to be counsel for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, was the principal speaker, holding the audience spellbound as he “discussed the shiftless ones, those who desire to get off on Saturday it matters not how badly he is needed, or how it will break up the oorganization, he talked about those who roam around with no settled abiding place, and of the crap shooter and general loafer and vagrant.” The Negro is a great imitator, he intimated, and “if the white man could get him to imitate work he would go to that and stick to it.” And the South was the place for him to do it.

The white businessmen in the audience chimed in. F.M. Miller, superintendent of Farmer’s Cotton Oil Company. There were “great possibilities in the development of the Negro,” he opined, “if they were handled in the right way an taught to understand the responsibilities of life.” He then supplied “some personal reminiscences to prove this.” Publisher John D. Gold answered the call for a remark. He confessed that he had long wondered if there a way “to make the shiftless colored man who shot craps and loafed ” much of the week “a better man and citizen.” The organization, he thought, would be useful in reaching these unreliable folk when they were young. After all, “he believed in his colored folks.”

“Dr. Sam Vick” stepped forward. If he was struggling to contain a reaction to the guests’ words, his own comments offer no hint. Instead — according to the Times reporter, at least — he echoed the general sentiments. “The colored man should be taught the value of a dollar, how it came and what it would bring” and should be “systematically trained” to eliminate his troubles. Episcopal priest Rev. Robert Perry, Dr. Frank S. Hargrave, Dr. William Mitchner and others offered their own hear-hears.

The last will and testament of James H. Holden.

State of North Carolina, County of Wilson.

I, James H. Holden, of the City of Wilson and State of North Carolina, do make my last will and testament as follows:

First – I give and bequeath unto my wife Isabella Holden, my home house and lot on Bank Street where I live and which was paid for me and her.

Second – I give and bequeath unto my wife Isabella Holden all monies coming to my estate from lodges to which I belong and all insurance companies in which I am insured to be used at her own discretion after she has given me such a burial as maybe satisfaction to her.

Third – I give and bequeath to my wife Isabella Holden my share of the lot in Smithfield which was left to me and my two brothers Jesse Holden and Edward Holden. This lot was owned by my father and left to the three of us. My part will be one third interest and the amount of $20 which I have paid for taxes over and above my part of the taxes on the lot since my father’s death. The taxes should have been paid by all three of us and if this had been done my part would have been one third of the taxes, but this was not done and I have paid out for taxes on the lot $20 paid over to my wife Isabella Holden and after she is paid the amount and when the time comes to divide the property I want my one third interest paid over to my wife.

In Witness Whereof, I, James H. Holden, have to this my last will and testament hereto set my hand and seal, this the sixteenth day of May, A.D. one thousand nine Hundred and eighteen.   /s/ James H. Holden

Signed, sealed published and declared by the said James H. Holden as and for his last will and testament, in the presence of us, who, in his presence and at his request, and in the presence of each other, I have hereto set our hands as witnesses, the day and year last above written. /s/ A.L.E. Weeks, Annie E. Weeks


In the 1880 census of Smithfield, Johnston County, North Carolina: laborer Anderson Holden, 27; wife Rachel, 22; daughter Ether, 6, and Sarah, 3.

James H. Holden, 35, of Wilson, son of Rachel Holden, married Isabell Deans, 25, on 25 January 1900 in Wilson. Baptist minister Fred M. Davis performed the ceremony in the presence of J.T. Deans, Cora Beckwith and Goodsey Holden.

In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: brick mason James Holden, 24; wife Isabelle, 35; and children Ether, 1; and brother Jesse, 7.

Ed Holden, 27, married Gussie McClammie, 20, on 10 December 1903 in Wilson. Missionary Baptist minister Fred M. Davis performed the ceremony in the presence of M.C. Bynum, Eliza Mayo and J.H. Palmer.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 391 Jones Street, Ed Holden, 30, brickmason; wife Gussy, 26; and children Carrie L., 6, and Andrew J., 12.

James Holden died 8 August 1918 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 21 July 1874 in Johnston County to Anderson Holden and Rachel Whitfield, both from Wake County; resided at 428 Bank Street, Wilson; and was married. Belle Holden was informant.

Isabella Holden quickly remarried. On 17 June 1919, she wed Zeke Artis, 35, in a ceremony performed by Baptist minister Spurgeon Davis in Wilson. F.S. Hargrave, A.V. Bowser, and Mrs. M.A. Spell witnessed.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 703 Lodge Street, bricklayer Edd Holden, 36; wife Gussie, 30; and children Carrie, 15, Anderson, 11, David, 8, Roy Lee, 6, Russell, 3, and Thermon, 1.

Jesse Holden, 33, married Beatrice Gay, 32, on 14 February 1925 in Wilson. Eddie Holden applied for the license, and A.M.E.Z. minister J.E. Kennedy performed the ceremony in the presence of A.L. Winstead, Will Farmer(?) and Clarence Mc[illegible].

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 607 East Green, bricklayer Jessie Holden, 35; wife Beatrice, 38; and stepdaughter Jeroline Wood, 20.

Jesse Holden died 26 February 1965 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born July 1893 in Johnston County to Anderson Holden and Rachel Whitfield; resided at 623 East Green; was a retired brickmason; and was a World War I veteran. Beatrice Gay Holden was informant.

Image of original will available at North Carolina Wills and Estates, 1665-1998 [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com.