City of Wilson

Which colored cemetery?

Green Mercer died 17 January 1910 at the Wilson County Home, which housed indigent people. Mercer, who was married and whose regular address was on Church Street, had been in “general bad health” for several months. Though just 69, he was described as a “very old negro” for whom no family information was available. Undertaker John W. Quinn buried Mercer in the “Wilson N.C. Colored Cemetery.”

But which colored cemetery?

By 1910, there were four in Wilson — Odd Fellows, Rountree, Masonic and the “old” cemetery, sometimes called Oaklawn or Oakdale, which was established after Emancipation near Cemetery Street south of downtown. The Odd Fellows and Masonic cemeteries seem to have been restricted to burials of lodge members and their families, and Rountree was probably intended originally for Rountree Missionary Baptist church members. (The land now known as Vick cemetery was still an undeveloped tract owned by Samuel H. Vick in 1910.)

It’s likely that Green Mercer, and other African-Americans with no ties to a masonic order or Rountree who died in Wilson up to the early 1920s, were buried in the “old” cemetery. In 1940, the city moved — or said it moved — graves from this cemetery to the newly opened Rest Haven cemetery.

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On 24 August 1866, Green Mercer obtained a license to marry Margarett Wilkins in Edgecombe County.

In the 1870 census of Cokey township, Edgecombe County: farm laborer Green Mercer, 27; wife Margaret, 27; children Fanny, 3, Major Totten, 1, and Frederick Cotton, 54, Randal Parker, and Louisa Ruffin, 21.

In the 1880 census of Cocoa township, Edgecombe County: farmer Green Mercer, 42; wife Margarett, 37; and children Reden, 15, Fannie, 14, Tatin, 11, William, 8, and Joseph, 3.

In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County, Green Mercer, 50, widower, is listed as a servant in the household of Arthur Farmer, 73.

The deed for Rountree cemetery.

In early 1906, Rountree Missionary Baptist Church purchased part of the land that comprises part of Rountree cemetery. The deed is found in deed book 76, page 97, and is transcribed below. The deed describes a parcel only half the size of the current boundaries of Rountree’s lot. Was a later purchase consolidated?

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North Carolina, Wilson County  }

This Deed, made this 24th day of February, A.D. 1906, by F.W. Barnes and wife Hattie B. Barnes, parties of the first part, to Charles Bullock, Jesse Barnes and William Crudup, Trustees of the Rountree Missionary Baptist Church, parties of the second part, WITNESSETH:

That the said parties of the first part for and in consideration of the sum of One Hundred Dollars to them in hand paid, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledge, have bargained and sold, and do by these presents convey unto the said parties of the second part, that certain lot of land lying and being situate in Wilson township, county and state aforesaid, adjoining the lands of J.C. Farrior, F.W. Barnes and the present church lot, above mentioned, and more particularly described as follows: Beginning in the middle of the canal [Sandy Creek], the present church lot corner, thence south 72 ½ west 270 feet to a stake, cornering, thence south 24 west 565 feet to the canal, cornering, thence up said canal to the beginning, containing one acre, more or less.

TO HAVE AND TO HOLD said real estate with the privileges and appurtenances thereunto belonging unto to the said parties of the second part and their successors in office in fee simple.

And the said F.W. Barnes for himself, his heirs and personal representatives do covenant to and with the said parties of the second part, their heirs, successors assigns: That he will forswear warrant and defend the title to said real estate against the lawful claim or claims of all other persons whomsoever.

IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF, the said parties of the first part have hereunto set their hands and seals, the day and year first above written.   /s/ F.W. Barnes, M.B. Barnes

Witness: W.E. Warren

“Don’t know who she belonged too.”

Julia Washington of Wiggins Street, Wilson, died of gastritis on 29 June 1913.  Her son Aaron Washington provided the information used to complete her death certificate. At 62, Julia had been born about 1851. Aaron knew Julia’s father was Sam Barnes and her mother was named Patience. However, he did not know Patience’s maiden name because he did not “know who she belonged too.”

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In justice to them, they should be entitled to this consideration.

I’m joining a long line of appeals to city officials to do something about conditions in and around the Negro cemetery.

On 10 February 1925, a Wilson Daily Times‘ report on proceedings at a board of aldermen’s meeting, Samuel H. Vick “brought up the matter of the colored cemetery” and requested that an awning be placed (?) and that roads into and out of the cemetery be repaired. A Mr. Grantham, chairman of the cemetery commission said it was difficult to get the cemetery into a correct shape and “lay it out” as graves had been placed “everywhere and without regard to lines or streets.” Further, some of the cemetery’s land was “worthless for the purpose, as it was in a bottom” [i.e. water-logged and prone to flooding.] Grantham also mused about the “old cemetery” — the one near Cemetery Street — “which if the graves were removed would be worth considerable money.” (The graves were in fact moved to Rest Haven in 1940.) In the end, Grantham agreed to come up with a plan and report back.

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Wilson Daily Times, 10 February 1925.

Twelve years later, the roads were still a problem. On 24 September 1937, the Daily Times printed this enlightened, but unattributed, op-ed piece under the headline “City Should Pave the Road to the Negro Cemetery.” A paved road was not merely a convenience to family members paying respects. The previous winter, “when after the successive rains, the ground was so soft that it was impossible to conduct funerals in the cemetery, the negro undertakers were compelled to hold out their bodies until the spring, when the road was in a condition to move over it with vehicles and conduct the interments.” This was city property, the writer pointed out, and money from the sale of burial plots went into the city treasury, and “the colored people are taxpayers,” and justice should be done accordingly.

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Wilson Daily Times, 24 September 1937.

Camillus L. Darden followed up a week later with a letter to the newspaper described a disastrous, but apt, attempt to expose an alderman to conditions on the roads leading to the graveyard. The “main road” seems to be what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway (and was East Nash Street/N.C. Highway 264 in my childhood.) My best guess is that this road was paved in the 1940s or early ’50s, but Lane Street, onto which one makes a right turn from the main road to reach Rountree, Odd Fellows and Vick cemeteries, was dirt and gravel into the 1980s.

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Wilson Daily Times, 30 September 1937.

Toward identifying Rountree, Vick and Odd Fellows’ dead, no. 1.

In 2015, culminating a years-long project headed by Joan L. Howell, the Wilson County Genealogical Society published Wilson County Cemeteries, Vol. V: The Two City-Owned African-American Cemeteries, containing alphabetical listings of 11,472 burials in Rest Haven cemetery and 650 burials in Rountree-Vick cemetery.

Howell’s book is an invaluable resource for Wilson County researchers and — as far as we know — the sole list of burials in Rountree-Vick. Nonetheless, it’s worthwhile to assess this compilation in the light of recent discoveries concerning these cemeteries.

Confronted with the empty expanse of the Rountree-Vick memorial ground, Howell undertook an exhaustive search of death certificates filed in the Wilson County registrar’s office, abstracting all that gave “Rountree cemetery,” “Vick cemetery,” or “paupers cemetery” as the place of burial. An examination of the resulting list makes clear that these burials were in Rountree, Vick and Odd Fellows cemeteries, which are contiguous, but separately owned, graveyards. And the list is incomplete.

Vick and Odd Fellows cemeteries were in use by the late 1800s, and Rountree by 1900. However, the overwhelming majority of burials listed in this volume date from the 1940s. (Rest Haven was the city’s primary black cemetery thereafter.) There are a smattering of burials from the late 1930s, the 1950s and even the 1960s. Because North Carolina did not require death certificates until 1914, and death certificates did not list burial locations with specificity until around World War II, the first forty or so years of burials in these cemeteries are difficult to chronicle.

So, how many people are buried in Vick, Rountree and Odd Fellows? A 1995 Wilson Daily Times article estimated 1300.  However, as at least 600 were laid to rest here in the 1940s alone, this is surely a vast understatement. We may never arrive at a definitive number, but we can augment Howell’s list. I will start with a list of people whose burial in Rountree, Vick or Odd Fellows is memorialized by an existing headstone and continue with a list of people whose burial place is noted in a published obituary. Do you know of a family member buried in one these cemeteries? If so, please let me know. If I find that they are not listed in Howell’s book, they will be added to a third list. Thanks for your help.

Interested in purchasing a copy of Howell’s volume?  You can order one at http://www.wcgs.org.

Cemetery update, no. 2: ownership.

You just have to know where to look.

After I figured out some basic navigation tricks, Wilson County’s fine GIS maps yielded quick answers to the questions of ownership of Vick, Odd Fellows and Rountree cemeteries. (One would think this information would be readily available to the city employees and officials from whom I requested it, but let’s keep moving forward.)

Here is the 7.84 acre Vick cemetery, deeded by Samuel H. Vick to the City of Wilson in 1913. (The deed is recorded at Deed Book 96, page 85, which is not available via the Register of Deeds’ website. I’ll get a copy when I next go home.) It is classified, appropriately, as a cemetery.

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Adjacent to the northeast is a 2.16 acre parcel owned by Odd Fellows Society since 1900. (There is no deed book reference listed.) It is classified — inappropriately, in my view — as a vacant lot belonging to a club or lodge.

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And here, sandwiched between the Odd Fellows Cemetery and Sandy Creek, is a two-acre parcel owned by Rountree Missionary Baptist Church since 1906. (Rountree’s deed is in Deed Book 76, page 97. The present-day church is the irregularly shaped building on the large lot at the northen corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and Lane Street.) This, too, incredibly, is described as a vacant lot belonging to a church.

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And to my shock, there’s also this. The rhombus across Lane Street, shown below, is part of the Rountree cemetery’s acreage. It is not my imagination that I saw graves on this side of the road when exploring as a child.

Here’s an aerial view, also from Wilson County GIS/Mapping Office. The big empty square is Vick cemetery (known popularly, and confusingly, as Rountree cemetery), which contains the remains of thousands of African Americans who died between the late 1800s and about 1965. I have no idea how many people are buried in the Odd Fellows cemetery next door, which was the burial ground of choice for much of Wilson’s black elite in the early 1900s. The city maintains the strip of this cemetery that fronts Lane Street. You can’t see it here, but a deep ditch marks the boundary between Odd Fellows and Rountree cemeteries. The eastern border of Rountree is Sandy Creek, a small, sluggish tributary of Hominy Swamp.

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Next step: contact Rountree Missionary Baptist Church (which will be a straightforward endeavor) and the Odd Fellows Society (which will not.) And remind the city that I’m still waiting for a response to my public records request.

Green Street lot for sale at auction.

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Wilson Daily Times, 4 January 1922.

  • Jonah Reid and wife — Wayne County native Jonah Reid was a son of Jonah Williams below. Jonah married his first cousin Magnolia Artis, daughter of Thomas and Louisa Artis Artis, on 30 August 1892 in Wayne County, North Carolina.
  • J.D. Reid — principal and banker.
  • Jonah Williams — Jonah Williams established several Primitive Baptist churches in Wayne, Wilson and Edgecombe Counties.
  • B.R. Winstead — Educator Braswell R. Winstead was a close associate of Samuel H. Vick, serving for a while as assistant postmaster. He lived at 415 East Green at the time of his death in 1926.

Dressmakers.

Twelve of the fifteen dressmakers listed in the 1922 Wilson city directory were African-American women.

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Hill’s Wilson, N.C., City Directory (1922).

  • Lucy Alston — in the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Walnut Street, hospital janitor Zick Artis, 26, and wife Belle, 30; and, renting from them, tobacco factory worker Lucy Alston, 33, and children Luvenia, 9, Eluse, 7, and Lucille, 6.
  • Mabel E. Anderson — in the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 202 Vick Street, painter William Brown, 29; wife Eva, 28, dressmaker; brother-in-law Walter Anderson, 23, plasterer; sister-in-law Mable, 21, dressmaker; and sister-in-law Alma Purcell, 20, all born in South Carolina.
  • Sarah L. Bowser — in the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Best [Burt] Bowser, 48, pool room conductor; wife Sarah, 40, seamstress; sons Russell, 19, Astor B., 13, and Thomas F., 11; sister-in-law Rosa Rountree, 21, public school teacher; brother-in-law James Rountree, 14, milliner store servant; and mother Lucinda Bowser, 60, widow.
  • Eva L. Brown — in the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 202 Vick Street, painter William Brown, 29; wife Eva, 28, dressmaker; brother-in-law Walter Anderson, 23, plasterer; sister-in-law Mable, 21, dressmaker; and sister-in-law Alma Purcell, 20, all born in South Carolina.
  • Stattie Cannon — in the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Charles Cannon, 35, barber in a “white shop”; wife Statie, 34; and children Charles, 11, Ruth, 9, and Statie Benton, 13.
  • Lethia Clark — in the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: widow Sarah Clark, 40, school teacher, and daughters Catherine, 22, Letha, 19, and Bettie, 17; granddaughter Ruth Jenkins, 8; and servant  Mary James, 26.
  • Sattena Gaston — in the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 120 Manchester Street, seamstress Sattena Gaston, 41, and sons Johnnie, 16, and Lorenzo, 13.
  • Jane Hooks
  • Letitia Lovitt — in the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 415 Stantonsburg Street, Almus Lovett, 42, shop blacksmith, and wife Letitia, 43, seamstress. Both were Georgia natives.
  • Eva Mitchell — in the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 549 Nash Street, widow Annie Mitchell, 71,  children Sallie, 46, Eddie, 44, Albert, 42, Eva, 36, and Floyd, 34, niece Severana, 18, and nephew Lester, 16.
  • Ruby I. Purcell — on 27 September 1922, John A. Shade, 22, son of I.A. and Estella Shade, married Ruby Percell, 20, daughter of H.H. and Ida M. Percell, in Wilson. W.H. Phillips applied for the license, and Presbyterian minister A.H. George performed the ceremony in the presence of Phillips, Henry N. Cherry and Will Farmer.
  • Ada Winstead — in the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Braswell Winstead, 60, wife Ada E., and daughter Ethel L., 13, at 300 Pender Street.