1920s

Studio shots, no. 88: Jack Armstrong, supercentenarian.

Among the dozens of families who migrated up to Wilson County from North Carolina’s southern Sandhills area were those of Dock Roberson and Margaret Armstrong McDougal Blue. After her husband Levi Blue died in Wilson County in 1919, Maggie Blue married Dock Roberson. Briefly, Maggie’s parents John “Jack” and Annie Murphy Armstrong came to live with the Robersons. Likely during this time, Jack Armstrong traveled into Wilson to sit for a portrait in Picture-Taking George W. Barnes‘ studio. Jack’s descendants explained that his curled fingers were the result of an injury inflicted during slavery.

John “Jack” Armstrong (ca. 1820-1932), circa 1920.

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In the 1870 census of Flea Hill township, Cumberland County, North Carolina: farm laborer John Armstrong, 40; wife Anna, 38; and children Dublin, 14, Charles, 9, Penny, 8, Margrett, 7, Elizabeth, 5, Barbry, 4, William, 3, and David, 2; plus Amy Armstrong, 52.

In the 1880 census of Flea Hill township, Cumberland County, North Carolina: farmer John Armstrong, 54; wife Annie J., 43; and children Charley, 18, Margret, 16, Barbra A., 12, William J., 10, David, 8, Joe, 6, Daniel R., 4, and Rebecca, 3; plus A. Murphy, 60, mother-in-law.

In the 1900 census of Geddies Gin township, Cumberland County, North Carolina: farm laborer Jack Armstrong, 75; wife Annie, 68; daughter Janie, 15; and grandson George W. Murphy, 12.

In the 1920 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: tenant farmer Doc Robinson, 55; wife Maggie, 53; children Mary, 18, James C., 19, Virginia, 17, David, 14, Elijah, 12, and Jessie B., 3; Vangie, 32, Geneva, 17, and Addie McDoogle, 15; and Moses Robinson, 8, and lodgers Jack, 103, and Annie Armstrong, 101.

Annie Armstrong died 5 April 1920 in Taylor township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was 103 years old; was born in Johnston County to Annie Murphy and an unknown father; worked as a farmer for George Piage; and was married to Jack Armstrong. William Jas. Armstrong was informant.

Maggie Roberson died 5 April 1928 in Wilson township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was 55 years old; was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Jack and Annie Armstrong; was married to George Roberson; and farmed for Will Carr.

Jack Armstrong died 5 January 1932 in Mingo township, Sampson County, North Carolina. Per his death certificate, he was born 11 February 1815 to John Wood and an unknown mother; was widowed; and was a farmer.

Wilson Daily Times, 12 January 1932.

Photo courtesy of F. Cooper Jr., great-great-grandson of Jack Armstrong.

Centre Brick auction.

Per Keith Barnes’ The World’s Greatest Tobacco Market: A Pictorial History of Tobacco in Wilson, North Carolina, this photograph depicts a tobacco auction at Centre Brick Warehouse in the 1920s. Several African-American farmers or warehouse workers can be seen standing behind the tobacconists who owned and operated the warehouse.

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Wilson needs a lot of good colored homes now.

Suggs Heights appears to comprise part or all the D.C. Suggs properties platted in the early 1920s.

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“Ask any man who has property to rent what kind pays the most on the investment and he will tell you colored property.” [Likely because one could readily overcharge.] Wilson Daily Times, 11 December 1925.

Stantonsburg Heights may be the area platted as Vicksburg Manor.

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“This high class colored development will build up in good homes and gardens.” Wilson Daily Times, 8 May 1945.

[A note about “Heights.” Wilson sits it in North Carolina’s Upper Coastal Plain at 108 feet above sea level. The eastern half of the county, including the city of Wilson, is notably flat, and low-lying areas flood notoriously. Neither of the areas advertised above are “heights” in any common understanding of the term, and it’s questionable whether the latter area could reasonably be described as high or dry.]

House on Young’s Line destroyed.

Wilson Daily Times, 6 May 1924.

Young’s Line was north of Grabneck, outside city limits, off what was, by the 1920s, the 1200 block of West Gold Street.

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On 18 October 1886, Joseph Knight, 46, of Wilson County, married Chrisa Heath, 45, of Wilson County, in Wilson. Minister Solomon Arrington performed the ceremony in the presence of Mariah Dunston, Wm. Plummer and Cora Davis.

In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farm laborer Joseph Knight, 55, and wife Treece, 50.

In the 1910 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: on Nash Road, farm laborer Joseph Knight, 59, and wife Lucrecia, 57.

Joseph Knight died 27 September 1918 in Wilson township. Per his death certificate, he was 63 years old; born in Edgecombe County to unknown parents; was married to Crecy Knight; and was a farmer. He was buried at K. Watson’s place in Wilson County. C.F. Knight was informant.

In the 1920 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., City Directory: Knight Cressey dom W Nash nr Young av

In the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., City Directory: Knight Theresa (c) lndrs h 610 Young’s line

Trecy Knight died 27 August 1928 at her home in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was about 70 years old; a widow; lived on Young’s line; and was born in Wilson County to unknown parents.

So I just stopped school.

This chart is simultaneously heart-breaking and awe-inspiring.

Three thousand African-American children in Wilson County were enrolled in eight grades during the 1923-1924 school year. They ranged from six to twenty years of age. The 1689 first graders ranged from six to seventeen years old, and nearly two-thirds were classified as “over age.” There were three nineteen year-old second graders, and a full fifth of all third graders were thirteen years old. One was twenty. Only 17 of 269 fourth graders were age-appropriate. The eighth grade class — the highest grade offered to black children — tallied a single pupil.

Why? Pick a reason. Or several, as years passed. “Mama is sick.” “I am sick.” “I need to mind the baby.” “I don’t have school clothes.” “I can’t see the board, and my daddy can’t get me no glasses.” “It’s too far to walk.” “I missed too much time last year.” “I got to work.” “I’m too old.”

My grandmother‘s schooling was repeatedly interrupted. Two life-threatening bouts with pneumonia. Temporary moves to new towns as her guardian great-aunt sought work with better pay than Wilson offered black women. A great-uncle with dementia who’d begun to wander from home and needed to be watched. She left school for good when she was about 13, just before the school year captured in this chart.

“The first day I went down to Graded School, that day it rained. I come back – there was a hole in my shoe, and I slopped in all the water and got my feet wet. That’s what Mama said, anyhow, and I taken with a fever. And I was sick that whole rest of the year. I mean, wasn’t strong enough to go down to Graded School – she wouldn’t let me go down there. So I stayed home, and Mama put all them old rags … that old flannel cloth, and she’d put it in red onions and hog lard.”

“[F]irst of the year I went to school, and [then I got sick and] I didn’t go back no more to the Graded School. They opened the Wilson Training School on Vance Street, with that old long stairway up that old building down there, well, I went over there. Then when Mama … went to Greensboro, then I went to Greensboro to Ashe Street School. Then we moved from over Ashe Street over to Washington Street, over there, then I went to Washington Street School. So then I went over there. And so we come on back [to Wilson], and then they wanted to put me back in the same grade I was in before I left, and I cried. I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to go back to that school anymore. So I just stopped school.”

Imagine teenagers crammed into desks alongside seven year-olds, sounding out words in blue-back spellers, carefully practicing the shapes of letters, and ticking off numbers on their fingers. The perseverance of these children and their families, the determination to get an education, is palpable.

Imagine also the children who fell from the ranks each year, who were bright and eager and wanted just as badly to learn, but whose obstacles won the day. In 1924, only one black child who had started the race finished the course.

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For statistics from 1913-1914, see here.

Wilson City colored schools educated 1225 children in eleven grades in 1923-1924. Almost 28% were normal age for their grades, a slight improvement over the county schools. The oldest child attending city schools was a 20 year-old eighth grader.

Chart from Coon, Charles L., The Public Schools of Wilson County North Carolina: Ten Years 1913-1914 to 1923-1924, published by Board of Education of Wilson County;   interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.

Pennsylvania prisoners.

  • Bud Wright

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Bud Wright was convicted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, of “assault and battery to kill” in February 1921 and sentenced to five to seven years. Per his prison record, he was born in Wilson on 26 February 1892; worked as a laborer; was illiterate, having dropped out of third grade at age 12; left home at age 12; occasionally drank to excess; was married with no children; had 26 cents in cash, one pocketbook, and four keys; and his wife Rosie Wright lived at 732 Siegel Street, Philadelphia.

  • William Hall

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William Hall was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced 25 June 1924 in Philadelphia to six to twelve years. Per his prison record, he was born 4 September 1894 in Wilson; had a patch of white hair (a birthmark) above his left eyebrow; worked as a bell boy; left home at age 14; was Baptist; was unmarried; had two shirts and two sleeve buttons; and his sister Ella Wilcher lived at 2424 Oxford Street, Philadelphia.

Hall’s record included a card recording his Bertillon measurements, an early system of criminal identification.

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  • James Foreman

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James Former, alias James Henry Forman, was convicted of larceny and sentenced 11 October 1919 in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, to one to three years. Per his prison record, he was born 8 May 1895 in Wilson; occasionally drank too much; worked as a bell boy; left school at age 12 and left home at age 18; was married with no children; had one money belt; and his mother Anna Forman lived at 205 Spruce Street, Wilson.

  • Samuel Ennis

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Samuel Ennis was convicted of assault and battery and aggravated assault and battery and sentenced 2 October 1928 in Philadelphia to two to four years. Per his prison record, he was born 10 March 1890 in Wilson; worked as a laborer; completed the fourth grade; left home at age 15; was Baptist; was unmarried; had 15 cents, one carfare carrier and one key on a ring; and his sister Gertrude Brodie lived at 802 Green Street, Wilson.

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Gertrude Ennis, 18, of Wilson, daughter of Tom and Mariah Ennis, married George Broddie, 21, son of Thornton and Lizzie Brodie, on 15 February 1903 in Wilson. Missionary Baptist minister Fred M. Davis performed the ceremony at Ed McCullers‘ residence in the presence of Ellen Brodie, Ione Holden and Eddie McCullers.

Pennsylvania, Prison, Reformatory, and Workhouse Records, 1829-1971, http://www.ancestry.com.

The demise of Grabneck, pt. 2.

The sentiment prevailing in 1924, as expressed in the Wilson Daily Times, bears repeating:

“The history of this Grab Neck property is interesting. Four years ago there were in this locality a number of small houses, that stood in the way of the progress of the city, and Mr. Roscoe Briggs put up the money in order to remove this obstacle.”

The 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson’s West Nash Street corridor makes this obstacle plain:

At the end of the 19th century and through World War II, Wilson’s tobacco barons and other wealthy businessmen and professionals lined blocks of Nash west of downtown with fine homes in a variety of architectural styles. By 1920, several blocks away, just beyond city limits, developers laid out West End Park in a tidy grid of new streets, including West End, Kincaid and Clyde Avenues. Between these neighborhoods, like a foot wedged in a door, was a large uncharted expanse whose few tiny clapboard houses clustered in the 1100 block of Nash. Who owned this land?

By and large, one family — the children and grandchildren of Daniel and Jane Best.

The Bests and their small houses were standing in the way of Wilson’s westward progress, and Briggs bought them out. On 27 March 1920, he did business with four sets of Bests:

  • from Clinton and Minnie Best [who preferred the spelling “Bess”] for $4250, Briggs bought three lots in Grabneck adjoining other Bests, Leah Holloway, U.H. Cozart, Tobe Barnes and Henry Barnes. (Deed book 125, page 62)
  • from Orren and Hancy Best, for $5000, Briggs bought “all of the land owned by Orren Best in Grabneck,” two lots on Nash Road adjoining Jeff Holloway and Frank and Noah Best (Deed book 125, page 64)
  • from Frank and Mamie Best, in exchange for a house to be built in Griffin Hill by John H. Griffin, Briggs purchased one lot.  (Deed book 125, page 65)
  • from Noah Best, for $8250, Briggs bought four lots. (Deed book 125, page 65)

These sales set the stage for the auction described in the Times article, but there were still some holdouts. The red arrow on the Sanborn map indicates this one-story dwelling at 1105 Nash:

It was the home of Wilson and Ada Best. In October 1925, they finally relented, accepting $4000 from H.W. and Margaret Abbitt for their 66 by 200-foot lot on Nash Street.

The Abbitts quickly tore down the Bests’ little frame house, and in 1926 erected an impressive Colonial Revival residence. The 1930 Sanborn fire insurance map shows how quickly developers moved into the area vacated by the Bests.  On the northeast side of West Nash Street, a sinuous extension of Vance Street was cut through, and houses sprang up along West Cone and West Gold.

On the southeast side, all of the Bests’ houses were razed to make room for the muscular brick showplaces of white Wilson’s elite.

Grabneck was gone.

The Abbitt house, 1105 West Nash Street.

Photograph by Lisa Y. Henderson, April 2018.