Biography

Dedication of historical markers.

At last, the official dedications of four historical markers installed in Wilson in 2020-21.

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“Colored Citizens” published a note to mark the end of the second year of the Wilson Normal and Industrial Institute. Wilson Daily Times, 1 June 1920.

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

This Memorial Day: who was Henry T. Ellis?

On 3 June 1919, the Daily Times published a list of Wilson County soldiers who died during World War I. The list is segregated. First in the Colored List is Henry Ellis, who was killed 6 October 1918 and in whose honor Wilson County’s African-American post of the American Legion was named.

Wilson Daily Times, 3 June 1919.

The Daily Times had commemorated Ellis’ death when it received word in December 1918:

“Private Henry Ellis Son of Mrs. Mary J. Howard, Route 1, Wilson, N.C. Died of wounds received in action while fighting for his country and oppressed humanity.” Wilson Daily Times, 4 December 1918.

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In the 1870 census of Chesterfield township, Nash County, N.C.: farmer Martin Lucus, 52; wife Eliza, 42; and children Irvin, 19, Neverson, 16, Sidney, 13, Eliza, 7, Westray, 6, Anne, 4, and Mary, 2.

In the 1880 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: farmer Nelson Eatmon, 66, wife Eliza Eatmon, 50, daughters Amanda Locus, 18, and Mary J. Locus, 14, “son-in-law” Asa Locus, 10, and “daughter-in-law” Lougene Locus, 4, Margaret Howard, 21, and Harriet Howard, 2. [Nelson Eatmon married Eliza Locust on 28 January 1880 in Wilson County. The Locuses’ relationship designations are obviously erroneous; they were Nelson Eatmon’s stepchildren.]

On 6 February 1887, Warren Ellis, 19, of Wilson County, married Mary Jane Locust, 19, of Wilson County, in Wilson County. Phillis Ellis was one of the witnesses.

In the 1900 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: farmer Mary J. Ellis, 34, widow, and children Willis, 12, Walter, 9, William, 8, Henry, 5, and Lou, 4.

In the 1910 census of Jackson township, Wilson County: farm laborer Mary Jane Ellis, 44, and children Henry, 16, Louise, 13, and Charles, 6; and brother Neverson Lucas, 56.

Henry Ellis registered for the World War I draft in Nash County, N.C, in 1917. Per his registration card, he was born 10 November 1895 in Wilson County; lived at Route 2, Bailey; was a tenant farmer for Elijah Griffin; and was single. He signed his card in a neat, well-practiced hand: “Henry T. Ellis.”

In the 1920 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: farmer Mary Howard, 52, widow; son Charlie Ellis, 17; and sister Luginer Colman, 45, widow.

Mary J. Howard died 20 June 1936 in Wilson township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was the widow of Manuel Howard; was 65 years old; and was born in Wilson County to Martin Locus and Louisa Brantley. Gray Ellis was informant.

Henry T. Ellis, then, was the son of Warren Ellis and Mary Jane Locus Ellis and stepson of Manuel Howard. He was descended (or connected) on his mother’s side from several free families of color with deep roots in the area of western Wilson County — Locuses, Brantleys, Eatmons, Howards — and on his father’s from Hilliard and Faribee Ellis, a formerly enslaved couple who established a prosperous farm in the New Hope area shortly after the Civil War.

I have seen no evidence that Ellis’ body was returned to Wilson County for burial. His parents, grandparents, and siblings are buried in Hilliard Ellis cemetery, but there is no marked grave for him there.

Billy Kaye comes home.

In 2018, North Carolina welcomed home a native son, renowned jazz drummer Billy Kaye. Born Willie King Seaberry in Wilson in 1932, Kaye performed with Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and other luminaries, but had never played in Wilson. Not long after his June performance at Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, Sandra Davidson interviewed Kaye for North Carolina Arts Council’s “50 for 50: Artists Celebrate North Carolina.”

Below, an excerpt from the interview.

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S.D.: Tell me what you remember about growing up in Wilson.

Kaye: I was born in ‘32 a couple blocks from the train station near the Cherry Hotel, one of the top hotels in Wilson. My grandparents’ home was 517 Church Street which was something like a two-block walk to the train station. It was a block off Nash Street. Most of the employment was done there. Nash Street had [a] drug store, dentist, doctor. There was a Ritz Theater on Nash Street. There were three churches in that area. That was basically it. I grew up running around the yard playing the Lone Ranger with a broomstick between my legs. I used to enjoy coming home in the summers when I was a youngster to play in the dirt, climb the trees, play under the house. That kind of stuff.

S.D.: … What is it like to for you to play your first hometown show?

Kaye: It’s hard to explain. It’s the biggest thing that ever happened. Playing at home was something I wasn’t even about when I left here. I had no history. I was just a guy that moved up [North]. I played in Greensboro some years back. It was okay. It was North Carolina, but it wasn’t Wilson. Goldsboro—that was great, but it still wasn’t Wilson. Home is where I was born. So, this thing here, it’s hard to explain. I’m playing at home. I’m seeing things that I didn’t see and appreciating things. I see these trees, the most magnificent things. There’s nothing there but trees. Man, they are the greatest trees I’ve ever seen. It’s like home.

Billy Kaye performs at Whirligig Park. (Photo: Astrid Rieckien for the Washington Post.) 

For the full transcript of Kaye’s interview and to watch videos of his performance in Wilson’s Whirligig Park, see here.

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The park should be named in his honor.

In 1980, the Mary McLeod Bethune Women’s Civic Club petitioned Wilson Parks and Recreation Director Burt Gillette to name a new city park for Oliver Nestus Freeman. Their letter contains interesting details of Freeman’s life, including more about his amusement park and the focus of his real estate development.

The petition was successful.

Ben Mincey’s legacy.

I stumbled upon this history of the East Nash Volunteer Fire Department while searching for information about Frank W. Barnes. First, I’ll highlight the fascinating details of the career of Benjamin Mincey, the early twentieth-century chief of the Red Hot Hose Company. Then, though it happened well after the period of this blog’s focus, I’ll outline the history of inspiring story E.N.V.F.D., which carries on the 130+ year legacy of the Red Hots.

John Mincey, one of the leaders in the [Volunteer Fire Department], gets his firemanship naturally. A teacher at Speight High School, Mincey is the son of the late Ben Mincey, long a champion of the Negro fire organization in Wilson and North Carolina.

“The elder Mincey served several years as captain of the Negro fire company with the Wilson Fire Department.

“His company, considered one of the top Negro fire-fighting companies anywhere, was appropriately dubbed ‘The Red Hot Hose, Reel and Truck Co.’

“During statewide competition, Mincey’s company virtually walked off with first prize in every contest — including reel races, truck races and fire extinguishing.

“An employe of the city fire department for nearly one-half century, Mincey died in August of 1959.

“He was carried to the Rountree Church [actually, Odd Fellows] cemetery aboard a city fire department, and resting above his grave today is a fire hydrant, symbolic of his love for fire-fighting.

“Mincey started to work for the city fire department when there were no trucks and when the reels had to be pulled by the firemen.

“He had a fire alarm hooked up to his house and connected the main station. When it rang, he was off and pedaling his bicycle to the blaze.

“It has been said that Mincey was the fastest bicyclist in the city.

“During his service with the city, Mincey fought nearly every major major fire.

“Mincey was one of the leaders of N.C. Colored Volunteer Firemen’s Association, and worked in every department of the association.

“Before he died, he received an award for saving a family trapped in a home during a serious flood.”

Wilson Daily Times, 7 March 1965.

Now, in a nutshell, the story of E.N.V.F.D.:

In the 1950s, Clarence Hoskins, David Suggs, J.E. Williams, Henry Hagans, and L.H. Coley began meeting in a back room at Frank W. Barnes’ Sanitary Barber Shop to discuss the urgent need for firefighting services east of U.S. Highway 301. As interest grew, the group moved to Brown Chapel Missionary Baptist Church and then Rountree Missionary Baptist Church to accommodate larger gatherings.

The group sold barbecue and chicken dinners to raise money. The fire that destroyed Clarence Hoskins’ home in 1960 and other catastrophic losses spurred them in 1962 to establish a $25 per home assessment to build and equip a fire station.

In 1964, the group received a state charter as a volunteer fire department. They bought two second-hand trucks and sent them to Rocky Mount to be converted into fire engines. The next built their own building with donated labor. By then, they were $7000 in debt.

In 1965, Wilson County approved the department, added it to the county’s rural fire system, and began issuing $100 per month in funds. E.N.V.F.D. continued its weekend plate sales to retire its debt.

East Nash Volunteer Fire Department remains active, with a main facility on N.C. Highway 91 east of Wilson and a sub-station on U.S. 301.

Iredell County Chronicles, no. 8.

Statesville Daily Record, 17 December 1951.

In the 1870 census of Eagle Mills township, Iredell County: in the household of S. Blackburn, 62, white, cook Fannie Blackburn, 47, and her children (and possibly grandchild) Andy, 26, Armsted, 20, Tempy, 20, Wiley, 14, Alfred, 10, and John, 1.

On 6 October 1880, Alfred Blackburn married Lucy Blackburn in Iredell County. T.A. Nicholson performed the ceremony. In the 1900 census of Deep Creek township, Yadkin County, N.C.: farmer Alfred Blackburn, 40; wife Lucy, 40; and children Rubin, 18, Mary K., 17, Obie A., 15, mail carrier, Amand B., 13, Henry H., 12, Magie I., 8, and Walter R., 6.

This 1898 document, signed on its reverse by A. Blackburn, was recently offered for sale at auction. The pre-printed form from the U.S. Post Office Department is notification of a failure to complete a route. On the back, Blackburn’s handwritten note to his brother Wiley Blackburn about a deduction to Wiley’s salary related to the shortened route. worthpoint.com.

In the 1910 census of Deep Creek township, Yadkin County: farmer Alfred Blackburn, 52; wife Lucy A., 54; and children Reuben C., 28, Mary, 26, Oby, 24, Amanda, 22, Majie, 18, Walter ,16, and Hugh, 9.

On 19 January 1919, Oby Alexander Blackburn died in Hamptonville, Deep Creek township, Yadkin County. Per his death certificate, he was born 5 July 1884 in Hamptonville to Alfred Blackburn and Lucy Carson, both of Iredell County; was single; was farming for himself; and was buried in Carson Town.

In the 1920 census of Deep Creek township, Yadkin County: farmer Teen Blackburn, 63; wife Lucy, 62; and children Mary, 34, Maggie, 28, and Henry, 17.

On 1 August 1926, Hugh C. Blackburn died in Hamptonville, Deep Creek township, Yadkin County. Per his death certificate, he was born 6 March 1901 in Hamptonville to Alfred and Lucy Blackburn; was single; was a farmer; and was buried in Pleasant Hill cemetery.

Lucy Ann Blackburn died 10 August 1929 in Deep Creek, Yadkin County. Per her death certificate, she was 74 years old; was married to Alfred Blackburn; was born in Iredell County to Milton Blackburn and Edie Carson; and was buried in Pleasant Hill cemetery. H.H. Blackburn was informant.

In the 1930 census of Hamptonville, Deep Creek township, Yadkin County: farmer Alfred Blackburn, 84; daughters Mary, 45, and Madgie, 35; and boarder Luther Revals, 18.

In the 1940 census of Deep Creek township, Yadkin County: farmer Alfred Blackburn, 90, widower; daughters Mary, 48, and Madge, 42; and granddaughter Anne Love, 16.

Madge Blackburn died 11 August 1969 in Mocksville, Davie County, N.C. Per her death certificate, she was born 14 July 1898 to Alfred and Lucy Blackburn; was never married [in fact, she married John Lindsay in Yadkin County on 14 January 1922]; and lived in Hamptonville, Yadkin County.

Henry Harold Blackburn died 3 March 1970 in Statesville, Iredell County. Per his death certificate, he was born 10 May 1888 to Alfred “Teen” Blackburn and Lucy Blackburn; was married to Daisy Carson; lived in Hamptonville, Iredell County; and was a school teacher.

Reuben Cowles Blackburn Sr. died 9 November 1970 in North Wilkesboro, Wilkes County, N.C. Per his death certificate, he was born 13 September 1881 to Alfred and Lucy Blackburn; was a widower; and was a retired rural mail carrier.

Mary Candis Blackburn died 10 August 1984 in Mocksville, Davie County. Per her death certificate, she was born 28 February 1883 to Alfred Blackburn and Lucy Carson; lived in Hamptonville, Yadkin County; was never married; and had been a school teacher.

Amanda Bell Carson died 4 May 1985 in Yadkinville, Yadkin County. Per her death certificate, she was born 22 July 1886 to Alfred and Lucy Carson Blackburn and was a widow.

Alfred “Teen” Blackburn, 25 January 1949, unattributed photo, Iredell County Public Library Flickr

Iredell County Chronicles, no. 6.

“Reach in your pocket. There … find a dime & look at the face of it.” You will find the likeness of United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Who was the artist who fashioned the likeness the graces our national currency? Mooresville native, Dr. Selma H. Burke, a native of Mooresville, Iredell County, an American woman descended from slaves.

The daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal Zion minister, Burke was born 31 December 31 1900. Around 1907, playing in the mud in a creek near School Street, Burke realized that she had a fascination with and talent for sculpting. Her mother, knowing she needed more “practical” training, persuaded her to further her education at the school now known as Winston-Salem State University. Burke made her way to Harlem, New York City, as a nurse, but by the mid-1930s was the recipient of the grants that allowed her to study sculpting in the U.S. and Europe. In 1944 she won a competition, securing commissioned to sculpt a plaque portrait of Franklin Roosevelt. It was unveiled in 1945 and adapted for use on the dime, though credited to engraver John Sinnock.

Burke, wearing a smock, seated next to her portrait bust of Booker T. Washington, 1930s. 

Burke’s portrait and an original bust she sculpted can be found in the Mooresville Public Library.

Burke’s plaque portrait of F.D. Roosevelt.

Text adapted from “Dr. Selma Burke,” themooresvillemuseum.org; and “Selma Hortense Burke,” NCpedia.org; photo by Pinchos Horn, Federal Art Project, Photographic Division collection, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; image of F.D.R. plaque courtesy of ncdcr.gov.

Rev. Edward C. Simms, Presiding Elder.

This brief bio of Rev. Edward C. Simms is found in souvenir volume issued for an A.M.E. Zion General Conference. I do not have the access to the full volume, its title, or its date of publication.

REV. EDWARD CUTHBERT SIMMS, P.E., Tampa, Fla.

Rev. Simms hails from Wilson, North Carolina, and of the year 1862; he graduated from the Wilson Academy in 1883; was converted there in 1875; joining the Farmer A.M.E. Zion Church at the same time. He became a preacher in 1896 at Norfolk, Va., and joined the Virginia Conference. Later on, he was ordained deacon at Hickory, N.C., in 1897, and ordained elder at Franklin, Va., in 1899.

His pastoral labors were exerted at Mosley Street A.M. E. Zion Church, Norfolk, Newport News, Va., and Mount Sinai Church, Tampa, Fla. He built the Centreville Chapel in Norfolk County, and Zion Chapel at Bear Quarter, Va. Rev Simms is a prominent member of the South Florida Conference, and a preacher who draws and holds an audience. As a pastor his success reaches the best average. This will be his first official appearance in the General Conference. He makes a highly acceptable administrator and his constituency love, honor and revere him. 

Biographical Souvenir Volume of General Conference A.M.E. Zion Church

Norfolk Virginian, 9 May 1897.

In its coverage on the Philadelphia Conference of the A.M.E. Zion Church, the 30 May 1908 edition of the Washington Bee noted that “Rev. E.C. Simms, a delegate from Florida, died suddenly from heart disease; a sum of one hundred dollars was raised by Conference for his funeral, and a Florida delegate was sent to accompany the remains home.”

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In the 1870 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Esther Simms, 45, and Ned Simms, 19, both farmworkers.

On 8 May 1879, Ned Simms, 25, married Nicy Best, 26, in Wilson. Benjamin S. Brunson performed the ceremony at the A.M.E. Zion Church in the presence of Hayes Best, Jas. Harriss, and S.A. Smith.

In the 1880 census of Wilson, Wilson County: school teacher Edward C. Simms, 33; wife Nicy, 26; and Edward, 7 months.

In the 1900 census of Norfolk, Virginia: at 62 Moseley, teacher Edward C. Simms, 44; wife Nicy, 43, nurse; and children Edward, 20, porter, Theodocia, 18, teacher, Sacona, 16, errand boy, Adonis, 14, Cicero, 12, Henny, 10, and Hattie, 6. All were born in North Carolina, except the youngest two, who were born in Virginia.

In the 1906 Tampa, Florida, city directory: Simms Edward C (m) pastor A M E Zion Church, h 952 Harrison 

In the 1908 Tampa, Florida, city directory: Simms Edward C Rev (m) pastor A M E Zion Church, h 952 Harrison

E.C. Simms died 14 May 1908 of diabetes at 313 North 38th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Per his death certificate, he was 55 years old and was born in Virginia to E.C. Simms of North Carolina and an unnamed mother born in Virginia. Informant was J.B. Harris [who apparently knew little about Simms.] He was buried in Norfolk, Virginia.

In the 1910 census of Tanner Creek, Norfolk County, Virginia: at 4 Byrd Street, widow Nicey Simms, 50, and children Adonis, 22, candy maker in factory, Henrietta, 18, and Hattie, 15.

Nicy Simms died 6 January 1922 in Norfolk, Virginia. Per her death certificate, she was 60 years old; was a widow; lived at 914 Dunbar; and was born in Wilson, N.C., to Daniel Bass [Best] and Jane [last name unknown]. Theadesia Simms of Norfolk was informant.

Adonis Simms died 9 July 1930 in Norfolk, Virginia. Per his death certificate, he was born in 1887 in North Carolina to Edward Simms; worked as a laborer; and was married to Vessie Simms.