In 1959, the North Carolina Federation of Negro Women’s Club convened its 50th anniversary gathering in Wilson. The host club was Wilson’s Mary McLeod Bethune Civic Club. Though the meeting postdates the period covered by this blog, the anniversary booklet offers several rare images of Wilson’s most prominent early 20th century Black women.
The local planning committee (left to right): Anna B. Johnson, chairwoman of publicity; Ethel L. Hines, chairwoman of housing; Bessie Satchell, courtesy; Marie Mitchner, financial secretary; Norma E. Duncan, chairwoman of the local planning committee; Lelia Yancey, secretary; Letitia Fisher; and Flossie C. Barnes, chairwoman of registration. Not pictured: Mabel Dixon, chairwoman of the hobby committee; Odelle Barnes, chairwoman of time and place; Louise Jenkins; and Johnnie Harris, hospitality.
Add Mary Church Terrell to the surprising list of nationally prominent African-Americans with speaking engagements in Wilson in the first half of the twentieth century.
Wilson Daily Times, 15 April 1925.
This notice of Terrell’s appearance is curious. “Half the proceeds for the benefit of the Kenan Street school”? The Kenan Street School, later known as Frederick A. Woodard School, was a white-only elementary school. Why would Terrell, an activist for civil rights and women’s causes (and, especially, their intersection), appear at such a benefit?
Wilson Daily Times, 15 April 1925.
A companion piece penned by J.D. Reid, principal of Wilson’s Colored Graded School, named a different beneficiary — the County Commencement of the Colored Schools, which were to be held at Banner Warehouse in downtown Wilson. “Prof. J.L. Cooke” — Jerry L. Cooke, who was not a professor at all, but a railway postal clerk — was in charge of the local entertainment, which included James Weldon Johnson’s poem “O Southland!” and a selection of Negro spirituals. The ever-popular Excelsior Band was also on the bill.
This excerpt from a news account of a commissioners’ meeting caught my eye. Barber Noah Tate‘s application for a pool room license was denied, and Alderman Lewis cried discrimination. What kind of discrimination was being decried by an elected official in Wilson in 1919?
Wilson Daily Times, 6 September 1919.
An article published nearly eighteen months before yields context. On 7 May 1918, the Times reported, “The city fathers last night refused to renew the license to the pool rooms and to the bowling alleys of the city, and the remarks regarding the places where cider is sold were also far from complimentary. … The meeting was opened by the reading of a resolution by … business men setting forth the fact that both white and colored frequent these places and thus remove from the busy marts of trade and industry labor that should be employed in producing something other than thriftless habits and viciousness.” Mayor Killette railed against the shiftless and bemoaned the legal victory that allowed a local man to sell cider made from his own apples. “The gist of the argument [against pool rooms] was that the colored pool room was full of men who should be at work producing something for their families and helping to make something rather than being consumers merely and drones upon the body politic. They were corrupting because it was almost impossible to prevent gambling in these places and in addition to shiftlessness it encouraged vice and vagrancy. A number of employers stated that their help could be found in the pool room below the railroad, and the bowling alley came in for equally critical remarks as a place to encourage loafing and bad habits.” The matter was put to vote, and no’s were unanimous. [The “colored pool room,” by the way, may have been Mack Bullock‘s establishment at 417 East Nash. See Sanborn map detail, below.]
In June 1919, Luther A. Barnes, the white proprietor of a pool hall at the New Briggs Hotel, and the subject of intense criticism during the May debate received his license over the objection of the mayor. Perhaps this turn of events sparked Commissioner Lewis’ objection to Tate’s rejection three months later?
Noah Tate finally got his pool room in 1921.
Wilson Daily Times, 8 July 1921.
“Over the railroad,” specifically, was 105-107 North Pettigrew Street.
The 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map shows that Tate Pool Room was located in a brick building just north of Nash Street on the railroad side of the street.
A modern aerial view at Google Maps shows that the rear of present-day 419 East Nash Street consists of two extensions. The first, with the striated roof below, sits in the footprint of Tate’s pool room and may even be the same building.
At street level, two bricked-up windows are visible, as well as the original roofline. The building appears to have been cinderblock though, which was not commonly used in Wilson in the era of Tate’s business.
Noah J. Tate did not long enjoy his victory; he died in 1926.
Helen Adele Barnes — Helen Barnes, Ruth Hart, Barbara Jones, Evangeline Reid and Marjorie Taylor were classmates and members of the brand new Girl Scout Troop 11. They were all about 12 years old in 1946.
Ruffin 4-H Club — the club affiliated with Ruffin School in Black Creek township.
Beatrice Rogers — perhaps, in the 1940 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer James Rogers, 35; wife Agnes, 30; and children James Joe, 12, Beatrice, 9, Leslie, 7, and Josephine, 6.
Alma Wards — in the 1940 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer James D. Worthy, 71; wife Flora Jane, 65; son Essex, 23; daughter Dora Ward, 40, widow; granddaughter Alma Ruth Ward, 10; and granddaughter Celesta Harden, 22.
Vernell Pleasant — in the 1940 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: widower George Pleasant, 55, farmer; daughters Mittie, 27, and Nancy, 22; and granddaughter Vernell, 10.
Magdelene Parker — perhaps the Mary M. Parker below.
Beatrice Newton — in the 1940 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer John Newton, 42; wife Bessie, 32; and children Bennie, 16, James, 12, Beatrice, 10, Charles, 8, and Harvey Lee, 1.
Sallie Parker — in the 1940 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer Toney Parker, 45; wife Sallie, 44; and children Willie Lee, 21, Levi, 20, Eli, 18, Walter Lee, 16, Mary M., 13, Sallie M., 11, and Lillie M., 8.
Gerlean Farmer — in the 1940 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: widow Addie Farmer, 32, farm laborer; children Geraldine, 10, Marcellus, 7, Addie I., 6, Elijah, 4, and Charles, 3; and brother-in-law Earnest, 19.
I’m just gon step out the way and let the folk who were there today testify:
“A HUGE shoutout to everyone who came out today in the cold to support Lane Street Project!!!! We have accomplished so much in so little time! If you couldn’t come out today, please come out Monday 9-11 or 12-2!”
“In case you needed a dose of good news for the weekend, please check out the work Lane Street Project is doing. Today has been a continuum of restoring and rediscovering the rich history of African Americans in the city of Wilson, NC. So many stories are just WAITING to be told! If you are interested in what is happening, join the group today to stay up to date on clean ups, restoration projects, and more! Thanks to the dedicated Lisa Y. Henderson, we ALL have a chance to uncover true black excellence.”
Jane Cooke Hawthorne
“So this is a long story, but I’m standing in the takeout line at Parkers BBQ in Wilson, N.C., so I’ll have time to tell it. Today I participated in the Lane Street Project, which is a new effort to clean, reclaim and repair 3 black cemeteries in Wilson. The first was a city-owned cemetery that was neglected until the city decided that they would raze, yes raze!!!, all the tombstones there and erect one large monument. There are estimated to be approximately 2000 black bodies in this cemetery. No names have been identified and the tombstones were destroyed. Makes me sick to think about.
“We worked instead in the Odd Fellows Cemetery which was once owned by a fraternal organization that disbanded, and this cemetery also fell into neglect. The cemetery is covered in thick wisteria vines and briars but some daffodils and other typical cemetery plantings endure. The headstones are buried under leaves and often broken. We worked to carefully clear these stones of brambles and vines and cleaned them with a soft brush and water. We then flagged them and took photos.
“I was so impressed by the young people that I met who came out to work. Please go out there on Monday if you are from Wilson. They are working again on MLK Day. This effort is being spearheaded by Lisa Y. Henderson, who, among many other wonderful things, writes the blog Black Wide Awake. Her blog is a treasure trove of African American history. In addition, she has started the Facebook page, Lane Street Project, where you can find out all you need to know about this project.
“Why did I go today? 1) I love a great old cemetery, 2) I love being outside, 3) because my history is richer when I know ALL facets of the history of my hometown, and 4) and certainly not least, because black lives matter to me.
“There is much to be done. Help is needed.”
“I have read one should never put new wine in old skins because it may burst. Working today with people with energy and purpose has me now bursting at the seams. I am filled with new energy. Our ancestors are honored by our efforts. I am so impressed by what we can do when we put our minds to it. God blessed us with the right minds and bodies for the job. Thank you, men — our muscle proved true, but our queens held the day. Mind and muscle both you displayed. Your organization, coordination, and logistics skills on full display. You were today’s MVP. See you all Monday. I must also comment on the white sisters and brothers who came from out of town as well as those from Wilson, remarkable people one and all. It warms my heart what they did — reminds me of our shared humanity. May God bless you and keep you safe.”
“Out in these forgotten woods are the graves of hundreds of people, many of them lost in time. Today we went out to the woods to clear some vines and let some light in. If you want to help heal the visible fractures in our society, you have to try to find and understand the history of forgotten people. Anyone can help shine the light of truth into the darkest of situations. And if you want to help with the Lane Street Project, we will be out there again January 18th from 12-2pm.”
Day 2 of the clean-up is Monday, January 18, on the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday National Day of Service. Wilson County Democratic Party and the Democratic Women of Wilson County are joining Lane Street Project to co-host the event. Sessions are 9:00-11:00 AM and noon-2:00 PM and, again, masks and social distancing are required.
For more than 30 years after gaining the right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment, African-American men in Wilson County exercised the franchise widely, holding key positions in the local Republican Party and serving as poll holders in voting districts in nearly every township.
Wilson Advance, 6 October 1882.
Orren Best — born enslaved about 1849 in Greene County, N.C.
Noel Jones — born free about 1845 in Oldfields township, Wilson County [then Nash County.]
Hilliard Ellis — born enslaved about 1827, probably in Taylor township, Wilson County [then Nash County.]
Alfred Woodard — born enslaved about 1830.
A. Bynum — perhaps Amos Bynum, born enslaved about 1840.
Black Wide-Awake‘s temporal cut-off is generally 1949, but 2020 calls for flexibility. If you are of voting age, but are not registered to vote, I don’t know what will stir you. Here’s a story for you though.
This receipt acknowledged the seven dollars my grandmother paid dentist George K. Butterfield for services on 17 September 1955. I’m not sure why she saved it, but perhaps the times felt historic. Just a few months before this office visit, Dr. Butterfield had thwarted the city’s voter suppression shenanigans to win a second term on Wilson’s Board of Aldermen. In 1957, to make sure this didn’t happen again, Wilson dynamited its ward system.
Dr. Butterfield’s son George K., Jr. is, of course, the United States Congressman for the 1st District of North Carolina, which includes Wilson County. “That is the thing that has precipitated my whole interest in law and politics,” Butterfield Jr. told the Wilson Daily Times in a 3 February 2003 article, “I’ve learned how government can work for you and against you. And in this case, it worked against a significant portion of the community.”
The bullet-point version:
In 1928, Dr. Butterfield was one of 46 Black registered voters in Wilson.
In the 1930s and ’40s, several organizations formed to support political and educational advancement of African-Americans, including voter registration.
By the early 1950s, about 500 Black voters were registered, almost all of whom lived in the city’s Third Ward, a long narrow precinct that crossed Wilson east to west.
In early 1953, Dr. Butterfield announced his candidacy for a seat on Wilson’s Board of Aldermen, the precursor to today’s city council. He drew immediate widespread support from unionized tobacco leafhouse workers (many of whom were women), churches, and the small African-American professional class.
A few days before the election, incumbent Herbert Harriss challenged the eligibility of 185 voters. Of 150 voters struck from the rolls as a result, all but three were Black.
On election night, Dr. Butterfield and Harriss each received 382 votes, but Butterfield objected that the registrar had violated regulations requiring votes be counted where ballot boxes were opened. City Attorney W.A. Lucas conceded the count was irregular, but declared the point moot, as there were tie-breaker provisions. Over Dr. Butterfield’s expostulations, the City Clerk placed the two candidates’ names in a hat, blindfolded a three year-old girl, and asked her to draw a name.
Dr. Butterfield won!
Two years later, the City of Wilson rolled up its sleeves to get in front of Dr. Butterfield’s re-election. First, it threw out all the registration books, ostensibly to clear the rolls of dead or otherwise ineligible voters. It gave citizens one month to re-register by notifying their ward registrar at his house on a weekday, a difficult feat for factory workers and domestics working on the other side of town from their homes. Next, the city expanded Ward 3 on its western end to pull in hundreds more white voters. And the Wilson Daily Times did its part to highlight the peril by publishing running tallies of new registrations by race.
Wilson Daily Times, 8 April 1955.
Wilson Daily Times, 25 April 1955.
On election day, 93% of all eligible Black voters voted — let me say that again, NINETY-THREE PERCENT OF ALL ELIGIBLE BLACK VOTERS VOTED — and Dr. Butterfield won again! (Won’t He do it?)
In 1957, faced with another Butterfield campaign, the City went for the nuclear option and chucked the whole ward system for “new and fair” city-wide, at-large seats. Further, to thwart bloc voting, voters would not be able to vote for just one candidate. Rather, they had to select six or their ballots would be invalidated. Jim Crow protocols prevented Dr. Butterfield from campaigning directly to white voters, and he was unable to counter when his white opponents sneered at his ties to “special interest groups” like the NAACP and cast him as a candidate solely interested in advancing Black issues. (One, oh, the hypocrisy! Two, doesn’t this all sound familiar?)
Unsurprisingly, Dr. Butterfield placed eighth of 16 candidates and was the sole incumbent to lose his seat.
The story didn’t end there, of course. Butterfield’s final defeat coincided with the emergence of new grassroots civil rights organizing efforts to attack segregation and racism in every corner of Wilson life. I’m shining a timely light on Dr. Butterfield’s pioneering political career to remind you that there is nothing new under the sun; that voter suppression is the weapon of choice whenever you show your strength; and that, though you may not win every battle, you can do no less than the Black men and women of Wilson who defied their government and risked it all to vote over and over and over.
“Victors in May 3 City Elections Are Given Oaths of Office Today,” Wilson Daily Times, 6 June 1955.
The deadline for registration in Georgia is October 5.
The deadline for registration in North Carolina is October 9.
For the full, fascinating source of my summary of Dr. Butterfield’s elections, please read Charles W. McKinney Jr., Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina (2010).
P.S. Right on time — today, the first in the New York Times’ video series, Stressed Election, focuses on voter suppression in Georgia, where I now live.