A January 31 News & Observer article tells the fuller background story. J.D. Holland of Wake County was out plowing a field near his house when he was robbed at gunpoint of his knife, a gold watch, and one dollar. “Mr. Holland was taken unawares by the negro and at the point of a pistol was first forced to give up his property and then take off all his clothes and plough several furroughs of land. The robbery was not at all welcomed by Mr. Holland, but the work of imitating Adam was very disagreeable to the Wake farmer.” This humiliation was equally disagreeable to Holland’s neighbors, who quickly formed an armed posse to hunt for a Black man “of yellow complexion, weighing about 160 pounds and wearing a slightly dark moustache.” They made one false capture before encountering Tip Barnes walking on railroad tracks near Millbrook and locking him in a store.
When the sheriff arrived, he found a “small crowd of citizens” gathered, who “merely wanted to see that the negro was placed behind bars.” Barnes, however, claimed a hundred armed people milled about all night, hollering “Lynch him!” Barnes further claimed that he could not be the culprit, as he had only arrived in Raleigh the previous morning, having skipped town when he and another man got in some trouble in Wilson. Though the reporter expressed doubt, as reported above, Barnes did in fact have an airtight alibi. He was in Wilson at the time of the robbery, being questioned by Wilson police about a completely different crime.
The news bureau took care to debunk two rumors, perhaps in the interests of lowering public temperature. First, it urged, the robber had not humiliated Holland by forcing him to strip naked and continue plowing. Nor was it true that Barnes “had narrowly escaped lynching” at the time of his arrest.
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.
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 707 Vance, Andrew Pierce, 55, nurse at home (usually barber); wife Lossie, 55, in hospital; daughters Alice, 35, and Hester, 27; sons Boise, 29, cafe [cook?], and Binford, 14; daughter Ruby, 19, “cook school;” and grandchildren Randolph, 9, and Montheal Foster, 7, and Mickey Pierce, 1.
Samuel Randolph Foster registered for the World War II draft in Durham, N.C., in 1945. Per his draft card, he was born 19 February 1927 in Wilson; lived at 403 Henry Street, Durham; was a student at Hillside High School; and his contact was Sam Foster, 403 Henry Street. He was 5’7″, weighed 141 pounds, with brown eyes, black hair and a birthmark in the bend of his right arm. [In fact, per his birth record, Foster was born in 1931 in Wilson to Samuel Foster and Hester Pierce, which would make his age consistent with that in the Times article. In other words, Foster was 14 years old when he was inducted into the Army at Fort Bragg in September 1945.]
At findagrave.com, a family member offers a sympathetic portrait of William Bunn and a glimpse at the rest of the life of 17 year-old Maggie Barnes Bunn, who survived her husband’s attack.
“MR. WILLIAM BUNN the first husband of Mrs. Maggie Barnes Bunn. Their union was blessed with two daughters – Dorothy Mae Bunn and Virginia Bunn. Mr. William Bunn was a loving husband and father and friend. Mr. William Bunn accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior at an early age, also Mr. William Bunn was reared in a Christan Home. However, Mr William Bunn became very controlling and jealous of his wife Mrs. Maggie Barnes Bunn, which lead him into Domestic Violence toward his wife Mrs. Maggie Baines Buun. Mr. William Bunn left home to go to work on the Farm and Mrs. Maggie Baines Bunn took her two daughters Dorothy and Virgina and went to her parents home, Mr General Barnes and Mrs. Clyde Barnes. When Mr. William Bunn arrived at home, he found out that his wife Mrs. Maggie Barnes Bunn and his daughters had left him. Mr. William went over to his wife’s parents home and shot his mother-in-law Mrs. Clyde Barnes, killing her and he shot and wounded her sister. Next Mr. William Bunn found his wife Mrs. Maggie Barnes Bunn and shot her, but the bullet glanced her on the nick and arm. Mr. William left his wife’s parents home, thinking that he had killed his wife Mrs. Maggie Barnes Bunn, Mr. William preceded to a tree that he had in-graved a heart shaped with William and Maggie Love Forever in the tree and blow his brains out. NOTE: Please do not be disrespectful of Mr. William Bunn’s behavior on this sad day, because Mr. William’s was crapped in his mind and heart by being in a jealous rage, which lead him out of his mind.”
“Mrs. Maggie Barnes Bunn Baines, was born on May 15, 1918 in Wilson, North Carolina to Mr. General Barnes and the late Mrs. Clyde Barnes. Maggie was educated at Calvin Level School in Wilson, North Carolina. After completing High School, Maggie met and married the late Mr. William Bunn. Their union was blessed with two daughters. Later Maggie met and married Mr. Jake Baines Sr. Their union was blessed with eleven children. Maggie was a loving devoted wife and mother, always cooked home made meals for her family and friends. Maggie loved to up-keep her home and Maggie was extremely talented at cooking sewing clothing for her children and coats. Maggie would make blankets, bed sheets and curtains for her house windows. Maggie would share her talents with her family, friends and the neighborhood. Maggie loved people and whenever help was needed, Maggie would respond with assistance to those who had a need. Maggie was a Christian Woman and reared her children in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Maggie always encourage her children to love the Lord Jesus Christ, to love one another, to love their family members, to love their neighbors and most of all to love their-selves. Maggie was a kind, caring and loving person, always made numerous of friends wherever she went and Maggie will be sincerely missed by all who loved and knew her. Maggie leaves to cherish her everlasting memories: her devoted husband – Mr. Jake Baines Sr.; six daughters – Mrs. Dorothy M. Dingle, Mrs. Virginia Williams, Mrs. Lillie M. King. Ms. Jackie Baines, Ms. Helen Baines and Ms. Paulette Baines; seven sons – Mr. Jake Baines Jr., Mr. John Davis Baines, Mr. James Arthur Baines, Mr. Willie Gray Baines, Mr. Charles Baines, Anthony Baines and Mr. Christopher Baines; her father – Mr. General Barnes and step-mother Mrs. Laffey Cox Barnes; five sisters – Mrs. Ruth Boykin, Mrs. Lucy Allen, Mrs. Irene Floyd, Mrs. Odessa Boykin and Mrs. Mildred Boykin; three brothers – Mr. Darthur Barnes, Mr. Wiley Barnes and Mr. John Dallas Barnes; five brothers-in-law – Mr. Howard Taft Boykin, Mr. Frank Allen, Mr. James Floyd, Mr. William J. Boykin and Mr. Lee Roy Boykin; one sister-in-law – Mrs. Rosa Barnes; numerous of great-children; aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, and a host of other relatives and friends. NOTE: Maggie was forty-three years old and Cancer was the cause of her death.”
General Barnes, 21, of Gardners township, son of Jarman and Mollie Barnes, married Clyde Barnes, 18, of Gardners township, daughter of Wiley and Lucy Barnes, on 2 December 1916 in Wilson in the presence of James Barnes of Elm City and Louis Barnes and Dempsey Mercer of Wilson.
In the 1920 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer General Barnes, 21; wife Clyde, 19; and children E. Ruth, 3, and E. Maggie, 1.
In the 1930 census of Crossroads township, Wilson County: farmer General Barnes, 31; wife Clyde, 29; and children Ruth, 13, Maggie, 11, Luther, 9, John D., 8, Arthur, 5, Wiley, 3, and Irene, 1.
William Thomas Bunn died 6 August 1935 in Crossroads township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was 23 years old; was married to Maggie Barnes Bunn; was a farmer; and was born in Lucama to James (crossed through) Bunn and Maggie Oniel (crossed through). James Bunn, 606 Warren Street, Wilson, was informant. Cause of death: “(Suicide) by shooting self in head with shot gun.”
Clyde Barnes died 6 August 1935 at Mercy or Moore-Herring Hospital [both are listed.] Per her death certificate, she was 33 years old; was married to General Barnes; was a farmer; was born in Wilson County to Wiley Oree and Lucy Barnes; and died of a gunshot wound to the neck.
The mid-1890s’ surge of white supremacy, best and most horrifically exemplified in the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, created an atmosphere in which crude and casual racism flourished even in “respectable” publications. The Wilson Mirror led a story about a robbery with this gratuitous doggerel.
Riley Faison — Riley Faison, 30, of Wilson County, son of Henry and Sophia Faison, married Frances Farmer, 26, of Wilson County, daughter of Tom and Polly Farmer, on 8 May 1902. A.M.E. Zion ordained elder N.L. Overton performed the ceremony at Frank Barnes’ plantation in Toisnot township in the presence of Mattie M. Overton, James Smith, and Polly Farmer.
“across the railroad near the Methodist church” — in the vicinity of Saint John A.M.E. Zion Church.
This story, as breathlessly reported by the Wilson Daily Times, hit all the marks for maximum titillation — a strange “big black” criminal, a shoot-out in Darktown, a triumphant police officer.
Wilson Daily Times, 17 December 1924.
In a nutshell (with facts, or purported ones, augmented by a Wilson Mirror article published the same day): Around midnight, Officers Buck Stallings and Jesse Hamilton were patrolling near the Atlantic Coast Line railroad station when they encountered Pearl Morris, who had just been badly beaten “in a boarding house on East Nash street … formerly known as the Carnation Hotel.” (Though I’ve never seen it called by this name, I am certain this is the Orange Hotel.) The policemen followed Morris to the boarding house; a 25 to 30-year old man standing in the doorway turned and ran inside when he saw them. (Per the Mirror, “The police were informed … of the stranger’s presence in town and also were acquainted with the fact that he was carrying a gun ….”) The officers confronted the man on the second floor balcony, and he allegedly shot Stallings in the hand. Stallings and Hamilton opened fire; the man unloaded, turned and leapt over the railing. When he hit the ground, he did not move. (Per the Mirror, a shot sent him “whirling around and crashed him up against the upper porch railing.”) “A colored physician happened to be in the crowd” — William Mitchner, who lived a few doors down? — and declared the man near death. He was loaded into somebody’s car and rushed to Mercy Hospital, but died en route. (Again, the Mirror casts a more dramatic scene: Stallings, despite his injuries, holding back the crowd with his gun until reinforcements arrived.)
The man’s body was taken to police headquarters. A search of his clothing yielded a name, Thomas Leak, and an address in Durham, N.C. He had been shot four times by two guns, with one shot passing through his heart and killing him. Meanwhile, Officer Stallings basked in adulation at the station house, cracking jokes and recounting his adventure. (The Mirror: “His escape from death was little short of miraculous.”)
Without explaining the discrepancy with the information found in his clothes, the Times named the strange man as Willie Leach. The Mirror added that he had come from Columbia, S.C., or Durham, and his suitcase contained “a strange assortment of articles, razors, four or five fountain pens, carton of cigarettes, screw driver, vanity box and numerous other things.”
Within hours of the shooting, a coroner’s jury held an inquest and found the homicide of Willie Leach justified.
In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Green Street, painter David Morris, 34; wife Lillian, 30; and children Pearl E., 12, Charles, 9, Lillian, 7, and David E., 7 months. [The Morrises appear to have lived on the first block of Green east of the railroad in a block that was otherwise occupied by white families.)
In the 1916 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Morris Pearl (c) dom h 114 N Pettigrew
In the 1925 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Morris Pearl (c) cook h 215 Stantonsburg
Pearl Morris died 16 October 1936 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 28 years old; was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to David Morris of Henderson, N.C., and Lillian Hinson of Boston; and lived at 723 East Nash Street. Mable Phillips, Smith Street, was informant.
An anonymous letter arrived at the sheriff’s office on 13 January 1922. Miles Pearson had killed his wife, it said, and fled the scene, leaving her lying the yard. The sheriff and several deputies rushed to the scene to find Annie Pearson‘s body, shot through the heart and mutilated by hungry animals.
“Pistol shot wound through the heart. Murdered by husband”
The Daily Times reported on 14 January that the Pearsons were sharecroppers who had been on this farm, owned by Lithuanian Jewish brothers-in-law Morris Barker and Morris Popkin, just weeks. Their animals were found tied up and famished.
… and then Miles Pearson was found in the woods, shot in the back.
Wilson Daily Times, 16 January 1922.
A Black man named Jim McCullen and two white men, prowling about the farm, found Pearson’s body stretched out behind a log with a shotgun nearby. Suddenly, it seems, everyone recalled a man and woman who’d been living with the Pearsons and were nowhere to be found. A week earlier, some said, they had briefly borrowed a horse and buggy from George Barnes, but had not been seen since.
“Pistol shot wound Murdered by unknown parties No Doctor in Attendance”
In February 1938, glorified gossip columnist John G. Thomas penned a column about the guilt-soaked confession of William Mercer, who had killed Wade Farmer in the summer of 1921, then fled the state. Mercer had joined a church in his adopted home of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and his conscience preyed on him as he stood in the choir stand.
Wilson Daily Times, 25 February 1938.
The details are difficult to pin down. When the Daily Times article broke the story of William Mercer, alias Green, on 21 February 1938, it quoted B.E. Howard, the sheriff at the time of the murder, who admitted he could barely recall the details of the incident — had the victim had been shot or stabbed? — though he thought it occurred after a “negro dance or frolic.” On the other hand, the 27 February Raleigh News and Observer reported that an argument had broken out at a church gathering, and Farmer “got in the road” of a bullet fired from Mercer’s gun.
Wade Farmer’s death certificate does not shed much light:
Per the document, Wade Farmer of Macclesfield died in Gardners township near Wilbanks in May 1922. He was 22 years old, married to Minnie Farmer, and farmed for Essex Webb, who could provide no information about his parents. The medical certification section is so faded as to be almost unreadable, except for “198,” which was the code for “homicide by cutting or piercing instrument.” The place and date of burial and undertaker fields are similarly washed out, and the registrar did not sign it until 3 January 1923.
On 5 March 1938, the Daily Times reported that Mercer had pled guilty to Farmer’s murder, and a judge had sentenced the 42 year-old to one and-a-half to three years, saying he had been merciful because Mercer had given himself up voluntarily.
But had he really?
Wilson Times, 7 September 1934.
Just four years before Mercer’s “confession,” around the time he claimed he had gotten religion, the Times reported that he had been indicted for Wade Farmer’s May 1922 murder and was to be extradited from New Jersey. Mercer had been arrested in Bridgeton, New Jersey, forty miles south of Philadelphia.
Why, then, the framing of Mercer’s come-to-Jesus moment as the astonishing re-appearance after 17 years of a man who’d gone underground for a crime barely remembered?
Well, in part, because the man arrested in New Jersey in 1934 and hauled back to Wilson was not William Mercer. Rather, he was Ben Faison, originally of Faison, North Carolina. Though an informant positively identified the man as Mercer, several others who “looked him over” said he was not. On 21 September, the Daily Times informed its readers that Wilson police nonetheless would hold Faison until they were satisfied of his identity.
So, while law enforcement had never forgotten Farmer’s murder, Mercer’s apprehension was entirely the result of his own doing. He had made an apparently upstanding life for himself in Pennsylvania and had completely cut ties with Wilson in order to do so. When his mother Fannie Mercer visited him at the Wilson County jail, it was the first time she had seen her son in 17 years.