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.
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.”
Today marks the 103rd anniversary of the resignation of 11 African-American teachers in Wilson, North Carolina, in rebuke of their “high-handed” black principal and the white school superintendent who slapped one of them. In their wake, black parents pulled their children out of the public school en masse and established a private alternative in a building owned by a prominent black businessman. Financed with 25¢-a-week tuition payments and elaborate student musical performances, the Independent School operated for nearly ten years. The school boycott, sparked by African-American women standing at the very intersection of perceived powerless in the Jim Crow South, was an astonishing act of prolonged resistance that unified Wilson’s black toilers and strivers.
The school boycott is largely forgotten in Wilson, and its heroes go unsung. In their honor, today, and every April 9, I publish links to these Black Wide-Awake posts chronicling the walk-out and its aftermath. Please read and share and speak the names of Mary C. Euell and the revolutionary teachers of the Colored Graded School.
Page 13 of the nomination form contains this arresting statement: “Until recently the case of Benjamin Jones and Fanny Guatier, Plaintiffs v. Berlin Realty Company, a corporation, Defendant, has been an obscure footnote to history. But observers are now not just rediscovering the case itself, but also reminding us that the legal arguments against racial covenants used by Plaintiffs’ attorney Charles S. Darden in this case — and adopted by the Los Angeles Superior Court judge in ruling favorably for the Plaintiffs — preceded and foresaw what became the notable winning argument of later precedent-setting “Sugar Hill” case that took place in Los Angeles in 1945.” That case, involving actors Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers‘ fight against racially restrictive covenants, is credited with being the first to cite the 14th Amendment as justification for overturning such covenants. That recognition, however, more properly belongs to Jones and Gautier — and the arguing attorney, Wilson’s own Charles S. Darden — which has been overlooked because it did not rise to California’s Court of Appeals. Read more about Darden’s innovative arguments below.
Hughes wrote about his “little trip down South” on his regular column in the Chicago Defender. He praised the Wilson County Negro Library, its librarian, and the itinerary she devised for him. Hughes was especially charmed by the “tiny youngsters” of Saint Alphonsus, who performed his poem “Freedom’s Plow” in its entirety. (Take a peek at Freedom’s Plow if you don’t know it. Not only does it tackle weighty subjects, it is long. I add my applause for the Saint Alphonsus scholars!)
Chicago Defender, 26 February 1946.
The final stanza of “Freedom’s Plow,” which brings a word for our time:
A long time ago, An enslaved people heading toward freedom Made up a song: Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On! The plow plowed a new furrow Across the field of history. Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped. From that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow. That tree is for everybody, For all America, for all the world. May its branches spread and shelter grow Until all races and all peoples know its shade. KEEP YOUR HAND ON THE PLOW! HOLD ON!
If you know anyone who attended Saint Alphonsus in 1949 and remembers Langton Hughes’ visit, please let me know!
Karole Turner Campbell shared this photograph of her maternal grandparents, Wesley and Martha Taylor Jones, sitting on the stoop of their Stantonsburg Street house in Wilson. In 1954, when she was nine years old, Turner Campbell spent the summer with them. It was her first “sleep-away camp,” and her grandfather Wesley gave her a job. She was to help her grandmother Martha, then 64 years old, learn to read so she could register to vote for the first time in her life. This was the Jim Crow era, and North Carolina still imposed literacy tests and poll taxes to disenfranchise its Black citizens. Martha Taylor had achieved only a third grade education when she had to leave school and go to work. Writes Turner Campbell, “I CANNOT EXPLAIN HOW THAT EXPERIENCE TOUCHED, MOVED AND INSPIRED ME! Nine years old, and I helped teach my grandma to read and vote. This is one reason I became an educator. This is why I ALWAYS vote.”
I woke up this morning disappointed and apprehensive and angry. But, ever inspired by those whose shoulders I stand on, resolute.
Many thanks to Karole Turner Campbell and to the many political pioneers of Wilson County’s Jones family.
Me: How did she work that? How did Harriet get to be the first black woman to vote [in Statesville, North Carolina]?
Margaret Colvert Allen, my maternal grandmother: Well, because her husband [Thomas Alonzo Hart] was a lawyer.
Grandma: He was a, whatchacall – a real estate lawyer. And he taught her how to read and write and do everything after he married her. Or while he was marrying her. Or something. And when time came for women to vote, she was the first black – he carried her down to the polls, and she was the first black woman to vote. And then at that time, you know, they gave you a quiz.
Me: Right. Right. Right. For black people to vote. Yeah. ‘Cause did your parents – well, did your father [Lon W. Colvert] vote?
Lon Walker Colvert (1875-1930).
Grandma: Oh, yeah. Papa voted. He voted. And the people in my home, Lisa, fought in the streets. It was dange – I mean, we could not go outside the house on election night. The people — “Who’d you vote for?” “I’m a Democrat.” “I’m a Republican.” Pam-a-lam-a-lam! [Swings fists, and I break into laughter.] People acted like they were crazy! Papa didn’t allow us out the house. “You better be getting on home!” ‘Cause they were terrible.
Me: And now you got to drag people out to vote. And then you hear people going: “I’m not gon vote now. What’s the point? I blah-blah-blah.”
Grandma: Yeah. When I came here [Newport News, Virginia] you had to pay poll tax.
Grandma: It wasn’t a whole lot, but it was ridiculous.
[Harriet Hart was my great-great-grandmother. My grandmother cast her last ballot for Barack Obama in 2008 — at age 100.]
Interview of Margaret C. Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.
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.