Wilson Arts and The Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House and African American Museum invite muralists located in North Carolina to create a location-specific mural celebrating Wilson as a destination on the African American Music Trail of Eastern North Carolina.
Louis Sanford Thomas III passed last week. His hand-lettered signs were instantly recognizable across Wilson. In an era of computer-generated signs, Thomas’ work in this time-honored form brought a particular pleasure. May he rest in peace.
At age 69, Louis Thomas was born well after the era covered by Black Wide-Awake. His roots were deep in East Wilson, though, as he was the great-grandson of press operator Charlie Thomas and grandson and son of carpenters Louis Thomas Sr. and Louis Thomas Jr., all of whom lived on East Green Street and the first two of whom were buried in Odd Fellows Cemetery. Too, though expressed in clean, modern fonts, his craft was old-school and rooted in the era of East Wilson’s great artistic tradesmen.
In 2014, Thomas sat for interviews as part of Barton College’s Crossing the Tracks: An Oral History of East and West Wilson series, in which he spoke at length of his family’s history, the accomplishments of East Wilson’s tradesmen and professionals, and the community’s emphasis on education and religion.
Nearly all grave markers from the last 40 years or so are machine-cut, their lettering precise and even and utterly predictable. In Wilson County’s African-American cemeteries, however, even a casual perusal of older markers reveals artisanal work, almost always anonymous. Though there are many hand-cut styles, one repeatedly snags the eye with its distinctive font — squared letters with flared serifs and, especially, 9’s with long, pointed tails. These carvings are the work of marble cutterClarence Benjamin Best, who chiseled stars, crosses, flowers, lambs, and Masonic emblems, as well as grammatically idiosyncratic epitaphs, into slabs of stone for more than 50 years. I have found his work in rural Wilson County cemeteries and as far afield as Wayne, Edgecombe, and Greene Counties, butRest Haven Cemeteryis the ground zero of his oeuvre.
Best got his start as a marble cutter at Wilson Marble Mantle & Tile Company on North Railroad Street. By the early 1920s, he was designing and cutting headstones for African-American clients as a side gig. Operating from a backyard workshop, Best worked at every price point, often repurposing scrap stone or headstone seconds to create custom monuments that collectively testify to his skill and endless creativity. He opened his own business in 1946, advertising FINE CEMETERY MEMORIALS, and worked another 30 years.
As a tribute to this unsung vernacular artist, I’ve set out to photograph every monument I can attribute to Clarence B. Best and will feature his stand-out pieces in a dedicated Instagram account. Stay tuned.
Behold the Lamb of God. Clarence B. Best’s work is well-represented in Saint Delight Cemetery, near Walstonburg, Greene County, North Carolina.
Acclaimed African-American painted John W. Hardrick painted this life-size portrait of Wilson native Dr. Joseph H. Ward circa 1932. The painting was stolen from the Ward family’s Indianapolis, Indiana, home in the mid-1950s, and his descendants seek its return.
I’ve written here of Mateo Ruiz Gonzalez, the Colombia-born, Brooklyn-based photographer who found inspiration in Black Wide-Awake during his month-long artist’s residency with Eyes on Main Street. Not long ago, Mateo sent me a copy of a slender volume of photography that emerged from his time in Wilson:
“Chilluns’ Croon investigates themes of the past such as absence, remembrance, spirituality, and mortality of formerly enslaved people of Wilson County, North Carolina. An intimate portrait of an African American community, Chilluns’ Croon hums songs of hope, equality, and change for new generations.”
See here for a recent review of Ruiz Gonzalez’ work.
Reproductions of images copyrighted by Mateo Ruiz Gonzalez.
Every week or so, a large manila envelope arrives in the mail, postmarked Wilson, N.C. Inside, a sheaf of xeroxed newspaper clippings from late 19th and early 20th century editions of the Wilson Daily Times. Bobby Boykin is the benefactor, and I thank him mightily, especially when gems like this appear:
Wilson Daily Times, 25 January 1921.
Just a few months past the earth-shattering release of “Crazy Blues,” the first blues recording by a Black artist for a Black audience, Mamie Smith and Jazz Hounds would have been a hot ticket anywhere, much less Wilson. The band played three shows in a single day at the Globe Theatre, Samuel H. Vick‘s vaudeville hall/movie theatre on the second floor of the Odd Fellows Lodge on East Nash Street. Darcy Yancey and Isaac Shade were selling tickets at their respective drugstores.
(If I could time-travel, I’d want not only to see Smith perform at the Globe, but see who saw her perform at the Globe.)
Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds, including Willie “The Lion” Smith on piano, 1920. Donaldson Collection/Getty Images.
“From 1932 to 1964, Mrs. Bethel was employed in the Wilson city schools system where she furthered the use of her musical talents. For many years, she was the musical assistant for the Darden School Choir.
“In addition she has taught private classes in piano and organizing for a number of students in the Wilson community, while at the same time serving as organist for the St. Mark’s Mission. Mrs. Bethel’s contribution to music at St. Mark’s Mission will be recognized during the concert by the St. Augustine’s choir, which is said to be a tribute to all the makers of music to the greater glory of God.”