Civic Life

VOTE.

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.

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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).

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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. 

https://www.nytimes.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000006810942

Three cheers for Grant Goings.

“Wilson City Manager Grant Goings explained to council members Thursday night how the city became involved in removing Josephus Daniels’ historical marker earlier that day.

“Goings said he ordered the marker removed after the Daniels family settled the issue for him earlier in the week. Daniels’ relatives removed his Raleigh statute, citing his indefensible positions on race. Goings said the Cox-Corbett Historical Association and the Wilson County Historical Association had disagreements about Daniels’ history. One wanted it removed; the other did not. No compromise could be reached, and the debate regarding the marker lingered until Thursday when Goings made the decision.

“’Wilson is fortunate to have two historical societies,’ Goings said in a Friday statement to The Wilson Times. ‘In this case, there was respectable disagreement between the two about the history of Josephus Daniels. The family’s statement cleared that confusion, and the right thing to do was remove the marker as soon as possible.’”

Goings’ unilateral decision was absolutely the right thing to do, but took some backbone in Wilson. I recognize and honor his resolute matter-of-factness in getting this job done.

For the complete Wilson Times article re Goings’ decision, see here.

Take it down.

From The News and Observer, today’s headline: “Daniels family removes statue of racist ancestor in Raleigh“:

“Frank Daniels Jr. of Raleigh, retired president and publisher of The News & Observer, said in a statement Tuesday that his grandfather’s bigoted beliefs overshadowed his other accomplishments, including, Daniels said, ‘creating one of the nation’s leading newspapers.’”

“’Josephus Daniels’s legacy of service to North Carolina and our country does not transcend his reprehensible stand on race and his active support of racist activities,’ Daniels said. ‘In the 75 years since his death, The N&O and our family have been a progressive voice for equality for all North Carolinians, and we recognize this statue undermines those efforts.’”

The article glancingly mentions Daniels’ ownership of the Wilson Advance. It was in this newspaper that he cut his teeth as an unabashed white supremacist, using the paper as a platform for his relentless drumbeat for the suppression of civil rights for African-Americans.
In two columns of the same issue, published 31 October 1884, Daniels published editorial comment ranging from the snide:

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… to the unvarnished:

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… to the grotesque:

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Wilson Advance, 31 October 1884.

The Wilson County Historical Association erected a marker for Josephus Daniels near the county courthouse. It makes no mention of his most efficacious role — spearhead of the disenfranchisement and general subjugation of North Carolina’s African-American citizenry. Despite repeated calls for its removal, notably led by the indefatigable Castonoble Hooks, the marker stands.

I amplify Mr. Hooks’ voice here: TAKE IT DOWN.

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Update, 18 June 2020: Today, the city of Wilson quietly removed the historical marker honoring Josephus Daniels today and returned it to the Wilson County Historical Association.

“Wilson removed Josephus Daniels marker: Family cited his ‘indefensible positions on race,” Wilson Daily Times, 18 June 2020.

Rev. Smith complains of a drainage ditch.

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Wilson Daily Times, 10 May 1910.

The 1908 Wilson, N.C., Sanborn fire insurance map shows Wilson’s electric light station on Railroad Street between Nash and Church Streets, across the Atlantic Coast Line Rail Road from the train station. (Today, this is approximately the location of the parking lot of Green Grocery, formerly known as M&W.)

The drainage ditch of which Rev. Owen L.W. Smith complained is not shown. Presumably, it drained away from the railroad and toward the African-American neighborhood southeast of Pettigrew Street.

A parade.

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Photographer Charles Raines stood mid-100 block of East Nash Street with his back to the Wilson County courthouse. The occasion of the parade is unknown, and the best guess for the date of the picture is circa 1940. At center-frame, an African-American girl leans from a window above Bissette’s Drug Store. The driver appears to driving a mule-drawn wagon. Does anyone recognize him?

Photograph courtesy of Mark Raines.

Poll tax list, Taylors township, 1902.

Of the 130 men who paid poll taxes in Taylors township, Wilson County, in 1902, I can identify forty-four as African-American. North Carolina’s 1900 constitutional amendment added literacy requirements to paying poll taxes as prerequisites to voter eligibility. Thus, most of the men here — all, in fact, but those descended from free men who had voted prior to 1867 — had been recently disenfranchised.

Page one of the 1902 poll tax list for Taylors township.

Poll Tax Lists (1902), Tax Records, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.

To hold this element in check.

In November 1896, the Wilson Advance published an editorial plainly warning that annexing the “negro settlement” east of the railroad would imperil white control. “Our town government at present is good” and “to include this portion of our suburbs would greatly reduce, if not entirely wipe out [the white] majority.”

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Wilson Advance, 12 November 1896.

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.

Book and Garden Club.

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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.