Civil rights

Parker refuses to give up his seat on the bus.

Wilson Daily Times, 6 April 1943.

Meet James Parker, American hero.

In April 1943, Parker boarded a Wilson city bus on Saturday evening. He sat down in the white section and remained firmly ensconced when the driver asked him to move. The driver, James Batchelor, abandoned his route to drive the bus to the police station, where Parker was arrested and charged with violating North Carolina’s “passenger law,” which allowed for the designation of colored and white sections in commercial transport vehicles. Parker was adjudged guilty and given a thirty-day suspended sentence provided he remain “in good behavior.” Per the Daily Times, Parker was the first person to challenge Jim Crow laws in Wilson County in 25 years.  

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

U.N.C. archivists and Congressman Butterfield preserve history.

Three or four years ago, during a visit home, I got a call from Congressman G.K. Butterfield Jr. to come by his former office on East Nash Street. There, he opened doors to several rooms filled with neat, labeled stacks of documents and photographs and rows of boxes — his astonishing archives.

I was excited to learn yesterday that Congressman Butterfield has donated his trove of personal and professional papers to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s University Library. This material documents not only his long political and civil rights life, but the history of his family and of Wilson’s African-American community as well.

Throughout his life as civil rights activist, lawyer, judge and legislator, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield has always been interested in history. He’s also a self-described “novice archivist” who has accumulated — and carefully labeled — boxes of materials from each chapter of his life.

“I’ve always been history-minded,” Butterfield said. “I’ve accumulated boxes, and I’ve labeled each box.” The result is a wide-ranging collection of papers and photographs from his family in Wilson, North Carolina, and his own career.

Butterfield has donated the collection to the University Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They will become part of the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library.

“I’m 74 years old, approaching 75 years old, and I know it’s time for me to release this valuable trove of information to somebody who can appreciate it, who can preserve it and share it,” Butterfield said.

Butterfield has represented North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District for nearly two decades and is a past chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. He announced on Nov. 18 that he will retire from Congress at the end of the current term.

“We’re honored to welcome Congressman Butterfield’s materials to Wilson Library,” said Chaitra Powell, curator of the Southern Historical Collection. “Students, faculty and researchers will benefit greatly from his carefully kept memories of an encyclopedic life.”

Butterfield’s father, G.K. Butterfield Sr., emigrated from Bermuda in 1917, at age 17; later volunteered to serve the United States in World War I as a non-citizen; and then graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry in Nashville, Tennessee. He practiced dentistry in Wilson, North Carolina for 50 years; helped found many organizations including the Wilson branch of the NAACP, Men’s Civic Club, and the Old North State Dental Society; and was the first Black person elected to the Wilson City Council.

Butterfield’s mother, Addie Davis, was a native of Wilson County who met Butterfield Sr. while she attended high school, also at Shaw. She was a classroom teacher for 48 years.

Butterfield grew up watching his parents advocate for voting rights for African Americans. In high school and college, he helped lead civil rights protests.

After earning his undergraduate and law degrees at North Carolina Central University and serving in the U.S. Army, Butterfield returned to Wilson to open a law practice with his friend Milton F. “Toby” Fitch Jr. and later with James A. Wynn Jr. In the 1980s, Butterfield litigated voting rights cases as cooperating counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He was elected superior court judge in November 1988. In 2001, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley appointed Butterfield to the Supreme Court of North Carolina. Then, in 2004, he was elected to Congress to represent the first congressional district.

Butterfield began taking his own photographs and collecting memorabilia during congressional business, including diplomatic trips abroad. “I’m known in Congress as the photographer, particularly in the Congressional Black Caucus,” he said. “I’ve taken over 20,000 pictures. After all of these years, I just had a whole mountain of information.”

Butterfield’s years in Washington allowed him to witness the historic presidency of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president. His collection of memorabilia from Obama’s presidency is unique, Powell said.

“Butterfield had the idea to get President Obama’s autograph whenever they were together at important events, including State of the Union addresses, and funerals of important figures such as the Rev. Clementa Pinckney,” said Powell. “It may be too early to examine President Obama’s legacy, but G.K. Butterfield chose to document it, taking his own photographs and collecting materials. It’s fascinating to see this perspective on a historic presidency, all eight years of it.”

Butterfield’s materials add to the already-rich collections at Wilson Library, said Nicholas Graham, University archivist.

“The material that Rep. Butterfield is donating includes the history of Wilson, North Carolina, especially the evolution of Wilson’s Black community,” Graham said. “He has materials from his legal career where he worked on important voting rights cases in North Carolina.”

Butterfield’s materials will join other congressional papers collected at Wilson Library, Graham continued. “Documenting and preserving North Carolina and national politics is an area of focus for our collection. Congressman Butterfield’s materials lend a distinctive viewpoint, a distinctive perspective. I think that they’ll find a research community and students and faculty who are eager to dive into them from Day One.”

Butterfield said he is pleased to know that his collection will be well taken care of and will be made available to anyone who might benefit from it. His physical and digital assets will contribute to the African American Family Documentation Initiative at the Southern Historical Collection and will complement oral traditions in the community.

“History in the African American community is very rich, but it needs to be preserved,” he said. “Those of us who possess these nuggets of history will be silenced one day, and unless we pass it along, and in an appropriate medium, it will be forever lost. We won’t be able to preserve all of them, but we can certainly preserve as many as we can capture.”

The obituary of Robert D. Haskins, voting rights warrior.

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the passing of Robert D. Haskins, the named plaintiff in a landmark 1982 civil rights lawsuit filed against Wilson County over its at-large system for electing county commissioner.

Wilson Daily Times, 31 October 1986.

Attorneys G.K. Butterfield Jr. (now a U.S. Congressman) and Milton “Toby” Fitch Jr. (now a North Carolina State Senator) with Robert D. Haskins. In the early 1980s, on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, photographer Jim Peppler documented Black Wilson County citizens’ efforts to secure representation on the county’s Board of County Commissioners. The series of photographs are housed at Alabama Department of Archives and History


In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Robert Haskins, 37, insurance agent; wife Gertrude, 28; and children Mandy, 14; Elizabeth, 12; Estelle, 10; Robert, 7; Lossie, 5; Laurence, 4, and Thomas, 11.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Robert Haskins, 44, insurance agent; wife Gertrude, 39; and children Mandy, 22, private family cook; Elizabeth, 20; Estell, 18; Robert, 17; Lossie, 14; Larence, 12, and Tommie, 11.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Robert Haskins, 55, drug company salesman; wife Gertrude, 48; and children Mandy, 36; Elizabeth, 33, cook; Estelle, 29, beauty shop cleaner; Robert D. Jr., 29, hotel kitchen worker; Lossie, 24, N.Y.A. stenographer; and Thomas, 20, barbershop shoeblack; plus granddaughter Delores Haskins, 15, and lodger Henry Whitehead, 21.

In 1940, Robert Douglas Haskins registered for the World War II draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 1 June 1913 in Wilson; lived at 1300 Atlantic Street, Wilson; his contact was father Robert Haskins; and he worked for Robert Haskins as a salesman.

Hat tip to LaMonique Hamilton for the link to these photos.

A great day in Charlotte Court House.

This event didn’t happen in Wilson County, but it has everything to do with the mission of Black Wide-Awake, and I want to share it.

The freshly unveiled marker.

The program:

My remarks:
“First, I’d like to recognize my family, Joseph R. Holmes’ family, here today — including three of his brother Jasper’s great-granddaughters. Some here may remember their uncle, Dr. J. Maxwell Allen, who practiced dentistry in Charlotte Court House. His sister, my great-aunt Julia, first told me of Joseph Holmes when I was an inquisitive teenager digging for my roots. She did not know the details — only that her grandfather’s brother Joseph, born enslaved, had been killed because of his political activity. That was enough, though, to set this journey in motion.
“On behalf of the Holmes-Allen family, I extend thanks to all who made this day possible. So many in Charlotte County gave in so many ways — time, money, influence, prayer (look at God!) — and we are profoundly grateful for your embrace and support of this project.
“We are also grateful to Kathy Liston. When I reached out to Kathy nearly ten years ago, seeking help to find the truth of Joseph Holmes’ life, I did not even dream of this day. I first visited Charlotte Court House in 2012 at Kathy’s invitation. She took me to Joseph Holmes’ homestead; to Roxabel, the plantation on which he may have been enslaved; to the school at Keysville whose establishment he championed; and finally to this courthouse, to the very steps on which he bled and died. The historical marker we reveal today stands as a testament to Kathy’s persistence and insistence, her values and vision, her energy and expertise, and we cannot thank her enough.
“The beautiful story of Joseph R. Holmes’ life, and the terrible story of his death, were all but forgotten in Charlotte County — suppressed by some, repressed by others. This is an all too common phenomenon of American history. Though Africans arrived in this very state in 1619, the contributions of African Americans to the building of this country — both literally and metaphorically — are seldom recalled, much less memorialized. Black communities dealt with their trauma by hiding it away, refusing to speak of their loss and pain. It is never too late, however, to reclaim our heroes.
“For hundreds of years, the Akan people of Ghana have used symbols, called adinkra, as visual representations of concepts and proverbs. The word Sankofa, often depicted as a bird looking toward its tail, means ‘go back and get it.’ The broader concept of Sankofa urges us to know our pasts as we move forward.
Today, we have gone back for Joseph R. Holmes. In the shadow of Confederate monuments, we shine a light on his works; we affirm his life; we reclaim his legacy. As long as we speak his name, he lives forever. Will you say it with me?
“Joseph R. Holmes. Joseph R. Holmes. Joseph R. Holmes.
“Your family remembers. Your community remembers. We honor your life and sacrifice.
“Thank you.”
For press coverage, please see articles in the Washington Post, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Cardinal News.

Filling in the gaps.

Last week in Wilson.

My thanks to Wilson County Historical Association, Wilson County Tourism Development Authority, Drew C. Wilson of Wilson Times (where you can read the accompanying article), Reginald Speight of Congressman G.K. Butterfield Jr.‘s office, and local elected officials and members of the public who took time to show interest and support.

Educating Southern Negroes.

Wilmington Messenger,  4 March 1905.

A Wilmington newspaper reprinted this Richmond News Leader piece highlighting North Carolina Superintendent J.Y. Johnson’s views on the necessity of funding education for Black children. “If this is not even done, the negro will leave the South and go where his children may have the opportunity to attend the schools.”

“… In illustration of his point, he cites the experience of a district in Wilson county, N.C.. There the county board of education failed to provide a school-house for the negroes. Before the end of the year the white farmers offered to give a site and explained that at least a third of their best negro tenants and laborers had moved out of the district to put themselves near school-houses, leaving the farms unprovided.”