1930s

Mrs. Fitts’ class, part 1.

Taken circa 1931, this beautiful photograph of E. Courtney Fitts‘ class (likely first graders) at the Colored Graded School deserves a closer look. Mrs. Fitts stands in a fur-trimmed coat in front of the school’s double doors, just under the building’s street number — 705. The Colored Graded School was notoriously overcrowded, and all fifty children standing on the steps below her may well were in Mrs. Fitts’ class. 

I am only able to identify three of the children, but I honor them all in this five-part series.

Annie Marian Gay Hawkins Barnes (1925-1991).
Lucian Jacob Henderson Sr. (1926-2003).

 

Shelling corn.

In the summer of 1938, “Baker” photographed farming scenes across North Carolina for the state Department of Conservation and Development. In July, he captured in quick succession two images of a small group of white and African-American men and boys shelling corn on a farm “near Wilson.”

Close-ups of the two photographs: 

Shelling Corn near Wilson July 1938, Department of Conservation and Development, Travel Information Division Photographs 1937-1973, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh.

Odd jobs, no. 1.

The occupation and industry columns in federal population schedules sometimes yield unusual results, even in an era in which most African-Americans in Wilson worked as farm laborers, tobacco factory hands, or domestic workers.

In the 1930 census, 22 year-old Alfonso Ward gave his occupation as:

I have not been able to find any additional information on Ward’s career as a roadshow comedian, though he likely played chitlin’ circuit venues.

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In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 122 East Street, laborer John Ward, 28; wife Addie, 27; and children Alfonsa, 13, Edgar, 8, Oritta, 5, Thelma, 2 months, and Jos[illegible], 3. 

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 112 East Street, rented at $12/month, widow Addie Ward, 37, and children Alfonso, 22, Edgear, 17, Othena, 16, Jasper, 14, and Thelma, 10. 

In the 1930 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Ward Alfonso (c) hlpr r 112 East

In 1940, Alfonso Ward registered for the World War II draft in Kings County, New York. Per his draft card, he was born 1 May 1908 in Wilson, N.C.; lived at 3040 B 7th Street, [Brooklyn], Kings County; his contact was friend Flossie Barrington, 614 Ocean View Avenue; and he worked for Louis Super, 419 B[righton] B[each] Avenue, Kings County. Ward’s address was amended to 413 Bri[ghton] Beach Ave. on 15 February 1943. [Per his signature, Ward spelled his first name “Alfonza.”]

The murder of Willie Black.

When the registrar filed 48 year-old Willie Black‘s death certificate on 6 February 1933, she recorded his cause of death as “gun shot wounds inflicted by parties or party unknown to the Coroner Jurry.”

However, on 27 January 1933, the Wilson Daily Times reported Willie Black’s widow Sarah Black and her “paramour” Robert Collins had confessed to the crime. On 7 February 1933, the paper reported that a grand jury had returned an indictment against Sarah Black for first degree murder in the slaying of her husband. Collins was also charged.

Sarah Black went on trial in May. 

Elijah King testified that he heard two gunshots in the direction of the railroad. He went to the police station, then returned with officers to the Norfolk and Southern railroad, where they found a dead man lying about 150 yards from Rountree Bridge road. [Rountree Bridge road was most likely the continuation beyond city limits of what was then Stantonsburg Street and is now Black Creek Road. Rountree Bridge crossed Contentnea Creek three miles southeast of Wilson.]

Acting Coroner Ashe Hines testified that the body bore two gunshots wounds, one at close range behind the right ear and the other in the back. 

Willie Black’s son, also named Willie Black, testified next. He was Sarah Black’s stepson. His father and stepmother had been married about two years before, and they quarreled frequently. On the night of the murder, Black Jr. saw Sarah talking with a preacher who lived nearby. His father was not at home, and Black Jr. thought he was at work.

Willie Black Jr. got home about 7:30 PM and found a lamp burning in his parents’ bedroom. He went to James Stancil’s store and stayed until about 9:00 PM, then went home and went to bed. Sarah Black came home about 10:00 PM, and ten minutes later the police arrived. Willie Jr. asked, “Where’s Papa?,” and the police took him and his stepmother to view the body where it lay. Sarah Black cried a little. The police questioned them about a single gauge shotgun.

The night before the shooting, Willie and Sarah Black had argued about the pigtails he brought home for dinner. Sarah Black: “I do not like them.” Willie Black: “If you don’t like them, you can thrown them out.” Sarah Black: I don’t even know why I married you. Willie Black Jr. admitted he and his stepmother had argued, too, but denied ever pulling a knife on her or threatening her.

Officer Lloyd Lucas testified that he had questioned Sarah Black, and she told him that she was a burial society meeting and then a prayer meeting during the time WIllie Black was supposed to have been killed. Lucas denied trying to intimidate Sarah Black or “wring a confession out of her,” but allowed he might have said “damn.”

Robert Collins, who was alleged to be Sarah Black’s lover, was charged with the actual killing and was to be tried after Black’s trial.

Wilson Daily Times, 24 May 1933.

Which happened immediately. The next day’s edition announced that Collins turned state’s evidence and testified to this sorry chain of events:

Robert Collins lived in Happy Hill and had known Sarah Black three to four years. About a week before the murder, at Sarah Black’s sister’s house, Sarah had told him she was tired of Willie Black and wanted him out of the way. She would furnish him with Willie Black’s own gun and would pay him with money and clothing. (Williams Lumber employees testified that they saw Sarah come to talk to Collins at work.) On the night of the shooting, Sarah hid Willie’s shotgun in a ditch. She and Collins followed Willie as he walked down the railroad, and Collins shot him in the back. Black kept walking. Sarah Black asked if Collins was going to shoot him again, and Collins said he could not. She then took the gun and shot her husband down. Collins and Sarah Black went to the Black home, then separated. When confronted by the police, Collins confessed and took all the blame for himself.

The jury deliberated about two-and-a-half hours before delivering its decision. Guilty. As to both. Collins was immediately sentenced to 29 years and Sarah Black to the electric chair. 

[But stay tuned.]

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In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Stantonsburg Street, day laborer Chas. Hines, 38, and wife Isabella, 38; step-daughter Mary Jane Bryant, 18; cook Jane Black, 35, widow, and her children William, 14, Clara, 4, Lucy, 1, plus day laborer Ed Black, 21, all boarders; and day laborer William York, 75, boarder.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Wiggins Street, widow Jane Black, 45, house servant, and children Willie, 24, Caria, 14, Lucy, 11, Samuel, 7, and Gertrude, 3. 

In 1918, Will Black registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was born in February 1883; lived on Goldsboro Street, Wilson; was a laborer for Imperial Tobacco Company; and his contact was wife Matilda Black.

On 27 August 1928, Matilda Black died in Castalia township, Nash County. Per her death certificate, she was about 36 years old; married to Will Black; lived in Wilson; was born in Nash County to Richard Taylor and Dianah Hill; and was buried in a family cemetery. Will Black was informant.

Will Black, 40, of Wilson, son of Fred and Jane Black, married Sarah Kittrell, 25, of Wilson, daughter of Ed and Rosa Kittrell, on 11 August 1930 in Wilson. Disciples minister Fred Williams performed the ceremony in Wilson in the presence of Mae H. Young, Jas. H. Knight and Clara Ward.

Circus day in Wilson.


Wilson Daily Times, 29 September 1934.

The Daily Times printed these photographs without captions. What was the occasion of the parade?

Per an article on a previous page, Hagenback-Wallace — one of the largest circuses “in the land” — was scheduled to perform two shows in Wilson that day. “Great hulking elephants and prancing ponies, stately white ring horses and gaily striped zebras, towering giraffes and snobbish, little llamas, dappled draft horse teams of eight and ten, and double files of supercilious camels — these were the units of the colorful procession … that thrilled hundreds of Wilson circus fans this morning as the three long trains of the big show unloaded on the Norfolk and Southern sidings at Tarboro street and moved to the lot at the Old Ball Park.”

A closer look at the bottom image reveals that parade routes were among the few public spaces in which integration was acceptable in the 1930s.

The Old Harper Place.

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In 1918, Atlantic Coast Realty Company prepared this plat cutting new streets and subdividing the “Old Harper Place” into more than 70 lots. The proposal was ambitious, but did not get off the ground immediately. In fact, it never really came together at all.

The streets are readily recognizable today. They are not, however, lined with houses.

Neither Best, Bennett, Oliver nor Lipscomb Streets appear in the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory, which was the first to include a street-by-street residential listing. Harper Street is there, however, and the directory lists five blocks. The 700 block had fifteen households, but the others were sparser, indicating larger parcels or empty lots. All the households except three are marked “colored.” W.J. Walston appears to have occupied the entire 400 block and possibly the 500 block. On the other side of the street, J.T. Strickland was the sole household listed in the 600 block.

1928 city directory.

However, the 1930 city directory notes that Harper Street was now Lipscomb Road. Unusual for the time, the street had become more integrated. White households replaced black at 238 and 300 Lipscomb. John A. Owens now lived at 400, but the 600 block on both sides of the street contained additional white households.

1930 city directory.

By time the 1941 city directory issued, Harper Street was back, but in a new place. This Harper Street is the one shown in the plat map. Or at least the two blocks of it between Best Street and Herring Avenue. This street was entirely inhabited by white families.

1941 city directory.

The description of Lipscomb Road in the 1941 directory is perplexing. On a modern map, it seems to correspond in part to modern Gold Street, which runs from Herring just past the end of Railroad Street to Reid Street. The inexplicable part is “intersecting 700 Herring av.” 700 Herring Avenue is at the corner of Herring and modern Ward Boulevard. In order to intersect with Herring, Lipscomb/Gold would have to turn back 135 degrees.

Is this 1941 Lipscomb Road? Gold Street is highlighted in solid yellow. The dotted yellow line shows the possible course of Lipscomb as described in the 1941 directory. The blue arrows show modern Lipscomb Road. (Ward Boulevard did not exist in 1941.)

In any case, this area continued to show unusual integration for mid-twentieth century Wilson. Though the majority of households were African-American, several were occupied by white families.

In 1959, per “Survivors Deeded Lucas Property,” Wilson Daily Times, 18 March 1959, George Lucas’ two daughters inherited 71 of the lots shown on the plat on Best, Benton and Harper streets. Eventually, they sold much of the land to the city for a housing project.

Plat Book 1, page 58, Register of Deeds Office, Wilson; aerial view per Bing.com.

Another look at the location of Oakdale, the “colored cemetery.”

As noted here, I have long been intrigued by the disappearance (in space and memory) of Wilson’s first African-American cemetery, sometimes called Oaklawn or Oakland or Oakdale. The precise location of the first city-owned black cemetery is a mystery, though most people believe (and as I conjectured here) it was above Cemetery Street where Whitfield Homes are now situated.

No official records related to the cemetery survive, and no plat map delineates its complete boundaries. However, I’ve found one reference to the “colored cemetery” on a 1923 plat map of “The D.C. Sugg Property Located on Stantonsburg Road and Lincoln Avenue.”  Using a 1937 aerial photograph of the area (the graves in the cemetery were disinterred in the early 1940s), plus the plat, I’ve come up with a revised location estimate.

Here’s the plat map, with modern street names noted and the area marked “Colored Cemetery” emphasized:

1-215 copy

Plat Book 1, page 215 (annotated), Register of Deeds Office, Wilson.

Wilson disinterred the (known) graves at Oakdale in 1941. Accordingly, I searched the 1937 aerial photograph of this area, below. The street at left is Railroad Street. Manchester Street is at far right, and parallel to it was then Stantonsburg Street. (North of Cemetery, it is now Pender Street. The lower section is now Black Creek Road.)The red-dashed lines mark current streets, including Pender, New, Nora, and Blount. The blue-dashed line is Nora St. as it appears on the 1923 plat map above. The green marks the borders of the colored cemetery above. (I have added a northern border though none is shown on the plat map.)

If my mark-up is correct, the cemetery (or, at least, its southern extension) was south of Cemetery Street near the site now occupied by Daniels Learning Center (the former Elvie Street School.)

I ran the mark-up by Will Corbett, GIS Coordinator, Wilson County Technology Services Department, for an opinion on my conjecture. He agreed and returned this graphic:

Bingo. The blue-shaded area is the “colored cemetery” overlaid on a current map of the neighborhood. This image reveals that the cemetery covered what is now a row of houses fronting on New Street, as well nearly the entirety of the lawn and semi-circular driveway in front of Daniels/Elvie school.

Was this cemetery marked on Sanborn fire insurance maps? It is not on the 1922 map, the last one for which I have access.

The maps corresponding to the sections marked 25 and 29 show houses along Railroad, Suggs and Stantonsburg Streets, and a few along the north side of East Contentnea (now Cemetery) Street. However, south of East Contentnea, the space is blank but for subsection numbers 225 and 256, and no corresponding maps were made. Though it is not marked, Oakdale cemetery was located in this space.

With the information above, I revisited a plat map the city filed in 1942. I initially had difficulty interpreting “The Town of Wilson Property on Cemetery Street,” but I now see it is oriented south to north. Turn it upside down, and the outline of the old colored cemetery clearly emerges. As I suspected, the city had owned the section between present-day New and Cemetery Streets as well as the inverted L below New, and it is likely that there were also burials in this space.

Plat book 3, page 150, Register of Deeds Office, Wilson.