1920s

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 west and 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 is this house 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 a 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 in.  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.

1105 West Nash Street.

Photograph by Lisa Y. Henderson, April 2018.

“Chocolate Dandies” comes to town — one night only!

Wilson Daily Times, 12 November 1925.

“This li’l old typewriter hasn’t been reading programs for more than forty years, so it is unable to single out from the more or less confused card of the races that dancin’ colored boy who makes ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ stand out in an uncommonly good road season of uncommonly good road shows. In that jungle of names and numbers, his name is lost. This is regretted, seriously, for the reason that, without regard to color or condition, this keyboard is glad to pound out the fact that he is the most brilliant dancer of his type ever seen on the stage – certainly on the Richmond stage, and, be it remembered, the road sees the good dancers and good actors long before they are “discovered” by reviewers who cover Broadway shows. That statement must be qualified, of course, so as to except imported stars and manufacturer stars – such for example, as Mr. Belasco has fabricated. And, moreover – but this has nothing to do with the case.

“‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is an all-colored show after the general style of ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘Runnin’ Wild,’ but, in so far as the road production is a guide, it is much more pretentious – to use the press agents’ favorite word – than its predecessors. It is slighter in its comedy than either of the others mentioned: but its costuming and setting are more elaborate and handsome than those of both the others put together. A long, gangling colored man named Lew Payton wrote the book and plays the comedy lead. He is so free from exaggeration in his work on the stage and has been so true to life in his comedy writing for the stage that it is quite easy for us down here to understand why this particular play and performance did not turn ‘em away in New York. At any rate, to those who fully realize how good this man is he is the acting star of his own show. That dancin’ colored boy walks away with the performance because his work is spectacular and brilliant and, in its own field just about unapproachable.

“It’s a fact, perfectly clean, amusing show, in which every member of the cast and chorus plays and dances as if for the love of it. The little orchestra carried by the company plays admirably. And the pianist-director, a woman, plays beautifully. One-man opinion is that ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is clinking good entertainment – provided the entertainment is not submerged by the pitiful tragedy of some of the performers, who are white – but colored.

“Why, several of them have well schooled voices, one of the women would make ‘White Cargo’ more realistic than ever it has been – but this is not moralization: it is supposed to be a report of a performance. Therefore, it is repeated that ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is clinking good entertainment – but what a piteous aching thing is this problem of ours!   — Douglas Gordon.”

——

The Wilson Theatre‘s manager reprinted a Richmond critic’s bizarrely incomprehensible review to promote — to an all-white audience — a one-night performance of The Chocolate Dandies, a lavish musical meant to capitalize on the success of Shuffle Along, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake‘s break-out Broadway production. Based on a book by Sissle and Lew Payton and with music by Blake, the stage show played 96 shows the 1200-seat New Colonial Theatre at 1887 Broadway at 62nd Street from 1 September through 22 November 1924. Josephine Baker — a few years away from her Paris debut — had a minor role, but it is not clear whether she took to the road with the traveling show. Douglas Gordon’s piece — which seems to be positive — aside, the critical reception was mixed.

Image courtesy of Maryland Historical Society.

Butler Jones, prompt and dependable.

Wilson Daily Times, 12 November 1925.

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In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: cook Susan Jones, 42; her children William E., 23, tobacco stemmer, Levi H., 22, barber, Charles T., 20, tobacco stemmer, Butler E., 19, tobacco stemmer, Mary J., 15, Nancy A., 11, Luther, 8, and Harvey L., 2, plus niece Arnetta Sexton, 8.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Levi Jones, 32, barber, with sister Nancy, 24, brothers Butler, 28, house carpenter, and Harvey, 12, and mother, Susan Jones, 50.

In the 1908 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Jones Butler carp h 536 Church

In the 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Jones Butler painter h Robinson nr Manchester

On 20 September 1914, Butler Jones, 34, son of Henry and Sue Jones, married Mirtie Brodie, 28, daughter of Henry and Louise [Kersey] Johnson, in Wilson. A.M.E. Zion minister H.E. Edwards performed the ceremony, and Ed Cox, Chas. T. Jones and Minnie McDaniel witnessed. [Myrtle Johnson‘s first marriage was to James A. Brodie on 25 November 1903 in Wilson. Her sister Gertrude Johnson married Butler Jones’ brother Charles T. Jones.]

In 1918, Butler Jones registered for the World War I draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 5 December 1879; resided at 808 East Nash; worked as a carpenter for Boyle Robertson Construction Company, Camp Hill, Newport News, Virginia; and was married to Mertie Jones.

In the 1920 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Jones Butler painter h 808 E Nash

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 808 East Nash, Butler Jones, 39, painter; wife Myrtle, 36; and children Gertrude, 12, Louise, 6, Joseph, 5, Ruth M., 3, and Willard, 3 months.

In the 1925 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Jones Butler pnter h 1011 E Nash

In the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Jones Butler (Myrtie) pnter h 1011 E Nash

In the 1930 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Jones Butler (c; Myrtie) pnter h 1011 E Nash

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1011 East Nash, owned and valued at $2500, Buller Jones, 49, building painter; wife Myrtle, 46; and children Gertrude, 23, cook, Louise, 16, Joseph, 15, Myrtle, 11, William, 9, and John, 8.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1011 East Nash, Butler Jones, 59, painter; wife Myrtie, 51; sons Joseph, 25, Willard, 20, and John, 19, all painters; and William Tabron, 26, janitor at Carolina Theatre, wife Myrtie Tabron, 21, and daughter Patsy, 3 months.

In the early 1940s, Butler and Myrtle Jones’ sons registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. All listed their address as 1011 East Nash Street; the contact as mother, Myrtle Jones, of the same address; and their employer as father, Butler Jones: in 1940, Joseph Jones, born 27 April 1914, and Willard Jones, born 3 April 1919, and in 1942, John Henry Jones, born 15 December 1921. In 1943, Butler’s brother Harvey Jones, born 23 December 1898, also registered. He resided at 1011 East Nash, but was unemployed.

Butler Jones died 24 December 1961 at his home at 405 North Reid Street. Per his death certificate, he was 83 years old; his parents were Henry Jones and Sue (maiden name unknown); he was a self-employed painter; he was a widower; and he was buried in the Masonic cemetery. John H. Jones of 405 North Reid was informant.

The Klan comes to Wilson.

“Crossing the railroad tracks, the Klansmen went down Green into the colored section of the city. Quite a few colored people were crowded on the sidewalks. For the most part, they remained silent and regarded the parade with passive interest. The booted men went as far as Pender Street, then turned up to Nash, and came down Nash through the central part of the business district.”

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Wilson Mirror, 14 November 1924.

The Klan’s second-to-last march in Wilson, in June 1988, ended in a hail of rocks and ignominy. Jeered and vilified as they stomped toward the courthouse, their intended display of force and intimidation ended in a pell-mell scurry away from a decidedly nonpassive crowd of angry African-Americans throwing hands. The Christian Knights returned  September 4 to finish their march, but their show of defiance was undercut by the phalanx of law enforcement officers mustered to usher them along the parade route. Drawn both by curiosity and the police chief’s earnest, but borderline unconstitutional, warnings about searching spectators, I witnessed a cautious procession of perhaps two dozen chanting Klansmen, sweating in rainbow-bright satin robes. Under the watchful eye of a rooftop sniper, they shouted half-heartedly from the courthouse steps before beating a retreat back down Tarboro Street.

Here’s the Daily Times‘ brief coverage:

And here are photos I took that day:

 

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Wilson Mirror, 7 November 1924.

The demise of Grabneck.

These stories appeared in early and late editions of the Wilson Daily Times on 8 January 1924 and paint an unsurprising picture of the erasure of Wilson’s African-American Grabneck community.

One paragraph unabashedly spells it out, emphasis added: “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.” Obstacle cleared; a “fashionable residence section” emerges.

The lots sold like gangbusters. Atlantic Coast Realty Company handled the auction, which pulled in $21.935. “The property, which was formerly owned by Mr. R.G. Briggs, and others, was divided into 26 lots, all of which faced on Nash Street. This property was purchased by Mrs. Cora M. Dupree, Mrs. Sarah E. Griffin and Messrs. Troy T. Barnes, J.C. Eagles and H.P. Yelverton.”

[Sidenote: Wilson Best held out for almost two more years. Pressure from “the people of Wilson” to remove obstacles to the gentrification of West Nash Street must have reached fearsome intensity by time he sold to Harry Abbitt in October 1925.]

Wilsonian Ward appointed Chief Surgeon at Tuskegee.

Wilson Daily Times, 28 January 1924.

More than 40 years after he left, the link between Dr. Joseph H. Ward and Wilson was well-enough known that the Daily Times printed an article about his appointment as Chief Surgeon at Tuskegee’s veterans hospital.