Civic Life

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.

Screen Shot 2020-01-15 at 9.57.31 PM.png

Screen Shot 2020-01-15 at 9.56.15 PM.png

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.

202001162043512908

202001162044439896

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.

201912311555526419.png

Wilson Daily Times, 30 September 1937.

Book and Garden Club.

Screen Shot 2019-11-27 at 6.37.03 AM.png

This Raines & Cox photograph of the Book and Garden Club appears to have been taken in the mid-to-late 1960s. The setting is the home of Dr. Frank N. and Suzie J. Sullivan¬†on Faison Street. Though the photo itself falls outside the period of focus of Black Wide-Awake, it captures several women who came to prominence in Wilson’s African-American middle class in the first half of the 20th century.

Seated:

First row standing:

Second row standing:

Many thanks to John Teel for sharing this image from the Raines & Cox collection of photographs at the North Carolina State Archives. It is catalogued as PhC_196_CW_PHB_7611_Book&GardenClub.

A public library for black citizens.

Wilson County Public Library’s Local History Room holds a copy of “A History of Public Library Service to Blacks in Wilson, N.C.,” the master’s thesis Doretta Davis Anderson submitted to the University of North Carolina’s School of Library Science in 1976. Here are early excerpts :

“The honor of first suggesting a public library for the black citizens of Wilson, North Carolina belonged to a Mrs. Argie Evans Allen. Mrs. Allen suggested the idea of establishing a library for the black community as a project for her club, the Mary McLeod Bethune Civic Club. Accepting the idea, the club then authorized Mrs. Allen to carry our the project as she saw fit.

“The first actual recorded interest in the establishment of the library appeared in a letter, written by Mrs. Allen to Mrs. Mollie Huston Lee on June 7, 1943. Mrs. Lee, at that time was supervisor of North Carolina’s Negro Public Libraries.  …

“Subsequently, Dr. D.C. Yancey donated a room over his drugstore to the club for the establishment of a library. …

“… Volunteers were solicited to man the library. The first official ‘librarian’ was Evangeline Royal, a local high school student employed to operate the library after school.”

“The following persons were appointed to become members of the library’s first board of trustees: Mrs. W.M. Freeman (Chairman); E. Hilliard (Secretary); James Whitfield (Treasurer); E.F. Battle; William Hines; Dr. D.C. Yancey; and C.W. Foster.

“Considering its relative obscurity, the library was to circulate 108 volumes during its first year of operations and collect $539.40 in donations for operating expenses.

“The following year showed a marked improvement. Aside from acquiring a new librarian, the board of trustees was able to solicit appropriations from the local city and county officials for the financing of the library. … Under the direction of Miss Pauleze Coley (Bryant), the college graduate employed by the library, circulation for the year ending June 30, 1945 totaled 3,172 volumes. …”

Proposed floor plan of Wilson County Negro Library’s location on Pender Street.

  • Argie Evans Allen
  • D.C. Yancey — D’arcey C. Yancey.
  • Evangeline Royal — in the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 203 Pender Street, widow Ossie M. Royall, 33, an elevator girl at the courthouse; her mother Tossie Jenkins, 53, stemmer at a tobacco factory; daughters LaForest, 16, and Evauline Royall, 14; and a roomer named Ed Hart, 45, a laborer employed by the town of Wilson. Ossie and LaForest were born in Wilson; Evaline in Battleboro [Nash County]; and Tossie and Ed in Nash County.
  • W.M. Freeman — Willie Mae Hendley Freeman.
  • E. Hilliard
  • James Whitfield
  • E.F. Battle
  • William Hines
  • C.W. Foster — Carter W. Foster.
  • Pauleze Coley (Bryant) — Elizabeth Pauleze Coley Bryant.

115 Pender Street East today. The library was housed in the storefront at left until the early 1970s, when it moved to a location on Pender south of Nash Street. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

Congratulations, Mayor Stevens!

Black Wide-Awake is focused on historical people, places and events, but:

Screen Shot 2019-11-06 at 8.32.10 AM.png

The whole of my politically conscious life, Wilson has had two mayors. Ralph El Ramey from 1979-1992, and Bruce Rose from 1992 to date. Last night, Carlton Stevens Jr., 44, having campaigned under the slogan “One Wilson,” defeated Rose to be elected the city’s first African American mayor.

The support of East Wilson’s residents, many of whom feel forgotten amidst efforts to rebrand and revitalize other parts of town, was critical to his victory. The work begins.

A great question affecting their welfare.

On 1 September 1887, John H. Williamson of the North Carolina Industrial Association wrote Samuel H. Vick seeking his assistance. Vick was head of the Wilson County chapter of the association, and this letter is found at the Freeman Round House and Museum:

My Dear Sir:

I shall be present in your city and address the people Sept. 8, 1887, on the Fair and progress of the race.

Will you please aid in securing a place for speaking and see that a large audience is obtained as I desire to talk to them on what I consider a great question effecting their welfare. I have sent hand bills.

Yours most truly,

Jno. H. Williamson, Sect.

Round 2: the search for Rountree’s lost gravestones.

Round 2 in the quest to locate the gravestones removed from Rountree Cemetery in 1995 included letters sent on October 2 and 3 to the City Manager, the City Clerk, the City Engineer, and PLT Construction, the company who cleared the property.

I received a response via email today from the City Clerk. It was disappointing. (Though I appreciate her prompt attention.) She attached copies of all “the information the City has in its records for Roundtree [sic] Cemetery,” which consists of passages in a handful of city council minutes between 1990 and 1995. The City, apparently, has not retained a copy of the survey or other record of grave locations at Rountree. Nor, it seems, was there any official discussion of the storage and/or disposal of the surviving gravestones in 1995 or any time since.

The most interesting (if not enlightening) discussions about the cemetery occurred in the minutes of 2 June and 25 July 1994.

On 2 June, in pertinent part:

“The mayor [Bruce Rose] called on the audience for anyone wishing to address Council, and recognized former mayor Ralph El Ramey, 904 West Lee Street. … Mr. El Ramey said $200,000 for the restoration of the Vick cemetery, and he was certainly in favor of getting it in first class shape, seemed to be an exorbitant amount of money; and he would like to make an offer that the City give him $100,000 and he would get it cleaned up.”

“Councilmember [Gwendolyn] Burton stated that Earl Bradbury was on the Cemetery Commission at the time when Council and he argued back and forth about the ownership of the Vick cemetery; and it was concurred at that time the City did in fact own the cemetery. She reminded Mr. El Ramey that he and she were serving on Council when the bids came in at $276,000 for the restoration of that cemetery; and that, at Council’s direction, staff sprayed herbicides to reduce potential restoration costs.”

“Mr. El Ramey asked whether convicted people with community service time could be used to clean up the cemetery.”

“Deputy City Manager [Charles W.] Pittman said $200,000 was an estimate based on a more recent proposal; that $168,000 was the low bid about three and one-half years ago; that it was a lot more involved than just going in and clearing eight acres of grass and covering it with grass; that the graves should be properly marked; that certain rights goes along with cemeteries; the City must ensure those rights are protected; and that bids received must be brought back to Council for action.”

“Councilmember [C. Jerry] Williams said some of the cost for the restoration of the Vick cemetery involved work without the use of heavy equipment which might disturb the graves, and making sure headstones and markings are placed/replaced in their correct locations. He noted the actual cutting of trees and mowing of grass is only part of the entire process, and it was hard to find people who are interested in taking the project.”

“Councilmember [Avant P.] Coleman questioned when the Vick Cemetery was acquired by the City. The City Manager indicated it was in the early 1900s. Councilmember Coleman should be committed to fulfilling its obligations to all cemeteries; Council should consider what it would have cost if it had been maintained since its acquisition; that a lot of money was saved by forgetting the City owned it; and the City should be concerned about it and proud of all its cemeteries.”

On 25 July:

Vick Cemetery Restoration. Councilmember [Steven A.] Stancil said he would like to restore the cemetery, but that Council allow staff to look at it and only use $50,000 this year by using the unemployed for manual labor the first year.”

“Councilmember Coleman stated Council should not limit the staff to $50,000; that it would have cost the City a lot more money if the City had acknowledged the fact that it owned the cemetery and had maintained it all these years; and that it was a disgrace to not have restored it sooner.”

“Deputy City Manager Pittman stressed the importance of the work that needed to be done; that a responsible person or persons be employed to locate and properly mark the graves; that staff had no intentions of spending any more money than necessary to properly restore the cemetery; that it would be difficult to find someone willing to volunteer to do the work; and that, because of the scope of the work involved, it was necessary to request and receive bids before the City could give Council a cost figure. He said the $200,000 appropriated in the budget was an estimated based on bids received several years ago, which was in the vicinity of $190,000 to $200,000.”

And finally, on 3 November 1994, City Council awarded the job to PLT Construction:

“Councilmember [Robert L.] Thaxton moved that the bid be awarded to PLT Construction Company, low bidder meeting specifications, for the total project cost of $139,750. He stated that a lot of people do not know what is going on with the Vick Cemetery; that this is an old cemetery which was deeded to the city many years ago; and that plans are underway to improve this cemetery so that it can be maintained in the future. Motion was seconded by Councilmember Burton.”

“The City Manager said $200,000 was budgeted for this project; that he was pleased to see bids come in under the budgeted amount; that the next low bid was $48,750 higher than PLT’s; and that city staff is satisfied the contractor will do what is required to bring the Vick Cemetery up to par.”

“Councilmember [James M.] Johnson said that he had a problem with relatives letting their families’ graves being left in as shoddy a condition as they are now; that he was in favor of getting the Vick Cemetery improved, but, morally, he was going to vote against it, as a message to those family members who had loved ones buried there.”

“Councilmember Burton stated several family members did come before City Council and begged and pleaded for 15 years or more that the city restore and maintain the cemetery; that a man tried to maintain it by himself but could not continue to do so; and that the city was asked repeatedly to do something about its condition.”

“The mayor called for a vote on the motion to award the bid to PLT Construction Company for the restoration of the S.H. Vick Cemetery. Councilmembers Burton, [Willie J.] Pitt, Thaxton and Williams voted aye. Councilmembers Johnson and Stancil voted nay. The motion carried by a vote of four to two.”

And that, pretty much, was it.

I await, with low expectations, responses from the City Manager and City Engineer. In the meantime, it’s on to phase 3, in which I contact elected city officials in office during and since the 1990s concerning their recollections of the storage and/or disposal of the cemetery’s headstones.

Roadwork.

Henry Stott was overseer of “the new road” running from “the old conty line road to the Tarborough road near Alsey Boykins.” Stott had summoned men to fulfill two days of road building and maintenance duty on May 21 and 22, 1857. However, Wiley Deans and Jack, an enslaved man belonging to Deans, failed to show either day, and Stott complained to justice of the peace Josee Peele. Peele issued a warrant ordering Deans to appear before him or another justice of the peace to pay a four-dollar fine (a dollar a day for each man for two days’ work) if convicted.

A note on the back of the warrant indicates that justice of the peace L.S. Boykin found against Stott, and “The plantiff craves an appeal to the next county court to be held in the town of Wilson on the forth Monday of October next.”

Road Records-1857, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives.

Registrars and judges of election.

In August and September 1896, the Chairman of the Republican State Executive Committee submitted lists of  Registrars and Judges of Election for elections to be held in November 1896.

Wilson County was divided into 14 precincts — four in Wilson, two in Toisnot township, and one each in Taylors, Old Fields, Springhill, Cross Roads, Black Creek, Stantonsburg, Saratoga and Gardners townships. Braswell R. Winstead was appointed Judge of Election for Wilson Precinct No. 1 and Toisnot Precinct No. 1 and Elijah L. Reid was appointed Judge of Election for Stantonsburg Precinct. William H. Vick was appointed Registrar for Wilson No. 2; Alexander D. Dawson for Wilson No. 3; and Jeremiah Scarboro for Wilson No. 4. Jessie Howard was appointed Taylors registrar and Gray Newsome, Cross Roads.

Election Records 1896, Officials’ Bonds and Records, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.