Most “deed” books stacked in the search room of the Wilson County Register of Deeds Office contain just deeds, but others, like Volume 72, contain miscellaneous records of sales agreements, leases, contracts, chattel mortgages, and other transactions. These documents offer rare glimpses of the commercial and farming lives of Black Wilsonians.
On 2 February 1907, John Artis and A.P. Branch agreed that Branch would advance Artis forty (up to fifty) dollars in supplies in order for Artis to make a crop on in exchange for a lien on land in Black Creek township owned by and rented from Nathan Bass and on which Artis resided. In return, Artis agreed to cultivate and harvest twelve acres in cotton, nine in corn, and four in tobacco, and gave a lien not only on those crops, but on a seven year-old black mare mule named Rody; a buggy and harness; an iron axle cart; and all his farm implements. Deed Book 72, page 191.
On 25 February 1907, R.E. Hagan leased to Richard Renfrow, Charles S. Thomas, and Andrew Pierce for $8.00 per week “One Certain Outfit for Barber’s Shop,” consisting of five hydraulic barber’s chairs, twelve sitting chairs, one table, one bootblack stand, one barber’s pole, one mug case, five chairs, combination cabinet with mirrors, five towel jars, one complete wash stand, window curtains, and other furniture and furnishings in Renfrow, Thomas, and Pierce’s shop on Nash Street in a building owned by Hagan. Renfrow, Thomas, and Pierce further agreed to pay all taxes on the property and insure it against fire to the value of $700. After 215 weeks of payments, Renfrow, Thomas, and Pierce had the option to purchase the property for $912. Deed Book 72, page 195.
On 24 December 1906, Neverson Green agreed to purchase a #10 Computing Scale from The J.H. Parker Co. of Richmond, Virginia, for $57.50 payable in installments. Deed Book 72, page 205.
On 6 December 1907, to secure a debt of $3500, James White and George W. Suggs gave Samuel H. Vick a mortgage on 13 sets of single harnesses; three sets of double harnesses; five winter buggy robes; ten summer robes; one clipping machine; one roomer top desk; one iron safe; one saddle; one roan horse; four gray horses; two black horses; one bay horse named George; three bay mares; one brown horse; one sorrel horse; two double surries; one double carriage; four steel tire buggies; five rubber tire buggies; one drummers wagon; two runabout buggies; one single wagon; and one spring wagon. The loan was satisfied and discharged on 19 February 1908. Deed Book 72, page 249.
On 6 November 1907, H.G. Whitehead agreed to sell to Samuel H. Vick “an outlet through the lands of Silas Lucas and the said H.G. Whitehead” near Wilson’s corporate limits on both sides of the Norfolk & Southern Railroad at the extension of Warren Street, as well as another outlet at a place to be determined. Deed Book 72, page 249.
On 1 December 1907, to secure a debt of $712, James Hardy gave Samuel H. Vick a mortgage on one set of wagon harnesses; one wagon; one gray horse; one horse named George; one sorrel horse; one surrey horse; one surrey; one top buggy, Hackney make; three sets of harnesses; two buggy robes; one wagon pole; one set of double harnesses; and one buggy pole. Vick had sold this property to Hardy for use in a livery stable in the Town of Wilson. Deed Book 72, page 250.
Though this looks like a newspaper article, the code at the bottom of this piece indicates that it was essentially an advertisement touting a device invented by Tuskegee Institute-trained veterinarian Dr. Elijah L. Reid to control frightened horses. Reid was, perhaps, at the peak of his career around this time, having moved from his native Wayne County to Stantonsburg and then to Wilson around 1905.
Though strawberry picking is now regarded as a quaint pastime, suitable for Instagrammable photos of one’s toddlers, North Carolina’s strawberry fields were a labor battleground in the late 1930s.
We read here of three African-American Wilson women who were ruled in April 1938 to have committed fraud and misrepresentation for seeking unemployment benefits after refusing offers to pick strawberries.
A month later, the Daily Times reported a “mass strike” by potential pickers — more than 400 unemployed Black men and women who refused to accept job offers working in strawberry fields. When these workers filed for unemployment, they were charged with fraud and tried in mass hearings at which they faced fines and denial of benefits. “‘They seem to feel,’ said Herbert Petty, manager of the [employment] branch office [in Wilson], ‘that they would rather get $4 from us for not working than they would $10 a week by working for it.'” When asked what people would do without unemployment relief, Petty snapped: “‘They got along all right this time last year when they couldn’t get this insurance.”
The spring of 1939 saw the protest reemerge. Per the April 10 edition of the Daily Times, the Wilson employment office sent out a “hurry call” for strawberry pickers, who would be sent to fields near Warsaw and Wallace in Duplin County, 50 to 80 miles south of Wilson. The report noted that there was “nothing mandatory” about the first few calls for laborers, but later in the season the employment office might be “forced” to draft pickers from the ranks of applicants for unemployment. If this happened, and applicants refused to go, “official action would be taken against them.”
In response to Times columnist John G. Thomas’ dismissive takes on the motives and concerns of African-American laborers, Willis E. Prince submitted for publication this remarkable rebuke.
Wilson Daily Times, 13 April 1939.
Who was Willis Ephraim Prince? In 1939, he was a 53 year-old self-employed carpenter and bar owner who had spent a decade living in Philadelphia and New York City and whose financial independence allowed him to raise his voice in protest without fear of repercussion. Just as importantly, he was the son of Turner Prince.
In 1865, formerly enslaved men and women settled on the flats just across the Tar River from Tarboro; they called their community Freedom Hill. Pitt County-born freedman named Turner Prince (1842-1912) and his wife, Sarah Foreman Prince, soon arrived in the community. Prince, a carpenter, constructed houses and other buildings throughout Freedom Hill and involved himself in local Republican politics. In recognition of his leadership and literal community-building, Freedom Hill residents chose the name Princeville when the town was incorporated in 1885, the first town in North Carolina (and probably the United States) incorporated by African-Americans.
In the 1900 census of Tarboro township, Edgecombe County: carpenter Turner Prince, 58; wife Sarah, 54; children Laura, 18, Sarah J., 16, Willis E., 14, and Jonas A., 11; and granddaughter Lucy Lloyd, 9.
On 21 August 1907, William Prince married Gertrude Pittmon in Manhattan.
In the 1910 census of Manhattan, New York, New York: at 165 West 72nd, William P. Prince, 24, born in N.C., janitor at apartment house, and wife Gertrude P., 30, born in N.C., housekeeper at apartment house.
On 6 June 1912, shortly before he died, Turner Prince made out a will whose provisions included: “I give, devise and bequeath to Ephraim Prince my son & Susie Gray my grandchild the house in which we now live. Ephraim is to have full possession of said house during the minority of said Susie Gray and in return contribute to her support. If at any time he should discontinue to do so, then he shall forfeit ($50.00) Fifty Dollars to my estate, the amount forfeited to be used for the benefit of said Susie Gray. If Susie Gray should die before maturity then said property shall revert to Ephraim in full. Otherwise he is to pay Susie Gray $50.00 upon her becoming of age, and he come in full possession of said property.”
In 1918, Willis Ephraim Prince registered for the World War I draft in Manhattan County, New York. Per his registration card, he was born 22 January 1886; lived at 2470-7th Avenue, New York City; was an unemployed licensed engineer; and his nearest relative was wife Gertrude Prince.
On 22 November 1919, Willis E. Prince, 31, of Edgecombe County, son of Turner and Sarah Prince, married Marina White, 21, of Edgecombe County, daughter of Edgar and Marietta Wilkins, at the courthouse in Wilson.
In the 1920 census of Tarboro, Edgecombe County: on Tarboro Road, carpenter Willis Prince, 32; wife Marina, 21, teacher; and daughter Vivian, 8 months.
On 31 December 1920, Tarboro’s Daily Southerner reported the arrests of four men for stealing a safe from Willis Prince’s store in Tarboro.
On 21 November 1922, Willis Prince, 36, son of Turner and Sarah Prince, married Mary Gear, 36, daughter of Dan and Sarah Gear, in Wilson. A.M.E.Z. minister B.P. Coward performed the ceremony in the presence of Laura Peele, S.A. Coward, and Louise Cooper.
In the 1925 and 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directories, Willis and Mary Prince are listed at addresses on Suggs Street.
Mary Prince died 14 November 1928 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 45 years old; was born in Wilson County to Daniel and Sarah Gier; was married to Willis Prince; and was buried in Rountree Cemetery. Alice Woodard was informant.
In the 1930 census of Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania: at Chestnut Hill Hospital, Willis E. Prince, 49, boarder, porter at public hospital; born in North Carolina.
Willis Ephraim Prince died 2 October 1950 at Mercy Hospital. Per his death certificate, he was born 17 January 1889 in Edgecombe County to Turner Prince and Sarah [maiden name not listed]; was married to Allie Mae Prince; lived at 205 Stantonsburg Street, Wilson; and worked as a merchant at his own business.
Published in 1990, Linda Flowers’ Throwed Away: Failures of Progress in Eastern North Carolina is not, strictly, on topic for Black Wide-Awake, but is very much BWA- adjacent. Using memory and experience as a framework, Flowers examines the demise of eastern North Carolina tenant farming and the failures of the limited industrialization that took its place. I do not know economics or sociology well enough to assess the merits of Flowers’ thesis, but the book’s glimpses of this disappeared life, rendered quietly, but devastatingly, offer me invaluable insight into the world of so many of the families I chronicle here.
“The ritual of hiring hands was the same as it had always been. A tenant would pull up in the dirt yard of a black family that had worked for him before, or that he had heard was all right help, and blow the horn, and after a while Eloise or Jessie or Dot — always it would be the mama or a grown girl — would come onto the porch or, if the mama, up to the truck door, and the man, after a bit of pointless jocularity a white person always carried on with a Negro, would get down to business.
“‘You gonna hep me on Tuesdays this year, ain’t you?’ The question would have sounded like the answer was perfectly plain. The woman would look off across the yard, her head and body sideways to the truck, hands on her hips, and, when she was ready, offer a reply.
The seventh in a series excerpting testimony from the transcript of the trial in J.F. Coley v. Tom Artis, Wayne County Superior Court, November 1908. The dispute centered on 30 acres of land. Thomas “Tom Pig” Artis began renting the property in 1881 from William J. Exum, a wealthy white farmer. In 1892, Exum’s widow Mary sold the land to Napoleon Hagans. Hagans died in 1896, and the land passed to his sons Henry and William S. Hagans. In 1899, Henry sold his interest to his brother William, who sold the 30 acres in 1908 to J. Frank Coley, a young white farmer. Tom Artis laid claim to the property, arguing that Napoleon Hagans had sold it to him. Coley filed suit and, after hearing the testimony of more than a dozen witnesses, the court decided in his favor. (Paragraph breaks and some punctuation have been inserted for better readability.)
Defendant introduces JESSE ARTIS who being duly sworn, testified:
I had a conversation with Tom Artis and [Napoleon] Hagans about this land. I was working there for Hagans (Plaintiff objects) as carpenter. Tom Artis was working with me. The old man Hagans was talking to Tom about the claim which Mrs. Exum had on his land, and was telling him that he had some money at that time, and was would take it up if he wanted to, and give him a home for his lifetime. He left us, and Tom talked to me. I told him he did not know whether he would have a home all his life or not. I advised Tom to let Hagans take up the papers, and Tom did so. Hagans told me next day that if Tom should pay him 800 lb. of cotton he should stay there his life time. When he paid him his money back, the place was his. I don’t know that Tom and I are any kin. Just by marriage. We are not a member of the same Church.
When I was a carpenter ‘Pole told me all about this on his place. He took me into his confidence. I don’t know whether he told me all. He told me a good deal.
Jesse Artis was a brother of Adam T. Artis, Jonah Williams, and Tom Artis’ wife Loumiza Artis Artis.
The fourth in a series excerpting testimony from the transcript of the trial in J.F. Coley v. Tom Artis, Wayne County Superior Court, November 1908. The dispute centered on 30 acres of land. Thomas “Tom Pig” Artis began renting the property in 1881 from William J. Exum, a wealthy white farmer. In 1892, Exum’s widow Mary sold the land to Napoleon Hagans. Hagans died in 1896, and the land passed to his sons Henry and William S. Hagans. In 1899, Henry sold his interest to his brother William, who sold the 30 acres in 1908 to J. Frank Coley, a young white farmer. Tom Artis laid claim to the property, arguing that Napoleon Hagans had sold it to him. Coley filed suit and, after hearing the testimony of more than a dozen witnesses, the court decided in his favor. (Paragraph breaks and some punctuation have been inserted for better readability.)
Plaintiff introduces John Rountree who being duly sworn, testifies as follows:
I know Tom Artis. I heard him say that the cotton was for rents. I heard that for the last 14 years. I collected the rent for W.S. Hagans for several years. I heard Tom allude to it as rents. I heard last September after the land was sold, that it was interest. I never heard anything but rents to that time. I had a conversation with Tom, and carried a message to Hagans for Tom. This last Fall Tom came over to the gin house where I was ginning, and said to me that he understood that Hagans was going to sell the 30 acres piece of land, and said to me to tell Hagans if he pleased not to sell till he gave him notice, because he wanted to buy it. I delivered that message to Hagans. Hagans said alright he would sell it to him as soon as anybody, but he didn’t want to sell one piece at the time. We didn’t talk about the sale to Coley.
I have lived at W.S. Hagans’ for about 18 years. I farm at Hagans’. I rent land. I pay him 1/3. I collected Tom’s rent along in the Fall. Hagans has asked me to go to Tom and ask him to send his rents. Uncle Tom sometime would bring the rent and Hagans wasn’t there, and he would give it to me to keep for Hagans. Tom called it rent when Pole Hagans was living. (Plaintiff objects.) I wasn’t there when he sent it to W.J. Exum. While Mr. Exum was living, I didn’t see Tom taking his cotton there. I didn’t tell Hagans that I would swear the old man always called it rent. I had no right to, I didn’t tell the lawyers I would swear to that. I stated the fact that he always called it rent. I told Tom that Hagans had sent me for the rent two or three times. I knew it was rent. I told Hagans that I had his rent from Tom. I told Coley that the old man called it rent last summer. They had me subpoenad before then. I told him Tom always called it rent. I told Mr. Coley’s lawyers that last summer. I never told Hagans, he knew it.
This would have been a wearyingly familiar vista to John Rountree, Tom Artis, William Hagans, and the other farmers involved in this litigation.
John Rountree, born about 1859, was the son of Fannie Rountree and lived in Nahunta township, Wayne County, all his life. However, by 1880 his widowed sister Rhoda Daniel Harris and her sons Benjamin, Edwin [Edward], and Carroll Harris had moved ten miles or so into Wilson, where she found employment as a cook for the family of Willie [Wiley] and Eliza Rountree Daniel. Eliza Daniel was a daughter of Lewis and Elizabeth Daniel Rountree, and John Rountree and Rhoda Daniel Harris may have been linked to her family during slavery. John Rountree’s great-nephew, brickmason Benjamin A. Harris, son of Edward Harris, is featured here and here and here.
The third in a series excerpting testimony from the transcript of the trial in J.F. Coley v. Tom Artis, Wayne County Superior Court, November 1908. The dispute centered on 30 acres of land. Thomas “Tom Pig” Artis began renting the property in 1881 from William J. Exum, a wealthy white farmer. In 1892, Exum’s widow Mary sold the land to Napoleon Hagans. Hagans died in 1896, and the land passed to his sons Henry and William S. Hagans. In 1899, Henry sold his interest to his brother William, who sold the 30 acres in 1908 to J. Frank Coley, a young white farmer. Tom Artis laid claim to the property, arguing that Napoleon Hagans had sold it to him. Coley filed suit and, after hearing the testimony of more than a dozen witnesses, the court decided in his favor. (Paragraph breaks and some punctuation have been inserted for better readability.)
Plaintiff introduces Jonah Reid who being duly sworn, testifies as follows:
I have heard Tom Artis say that he was going soon to pay his rent with cotton to [William S.] Hagans. I don’t know how often I have heard him speak of that, I have heard him say something about it several times when rent was due. I didn’t hear him say what lands. Some times he was cultivating the three pieces, sometimes the 30 acre piece. I am his son-in-law. I never lived with him. Live back of his house. Never heard him call it anything but rent cotton, not interest cotton. (Defendant objects.)
I told Hagans that I heard the old man say he was going to pay his rent, that was along in September, I think this past September. The only reason I told him was he asked me. He came by where I was working on the road. He asked me how long I had been in the family. I told him 16 years. He asked if I had ever heard anything but rent. I told him no. That’s why I told him. That’s all he asked me. Tom worked the three pieces, then afterwards the 30 acre piece. That’s all I remember Hagans said. I didn’t know there had been a suit about the land. Hadn’t had the suit yet. I said I didn’t like to say anything about my father-in-law. Hagans didn’t tell me that he Artis was claiming that he was paying interest. I just answered what he asked me. I told him I had never heard any thing but “Rents.”
The second in an occasional series excerpting testimony from the transcript of the trial in J.F. Coley v. Tom Artis, Wayne County Superior Court, November 1908. The dispute centered on 30 acres of land. Thomas “Tom Pig” Artis began renting the property in 1881 from William J. Exum, a wealthy white farmer. In 1892, Exum’s widow Mary sold the land to Napoleon Hagans. Hagans died in 1896, and the land passed to his sons Henry and William S. Hagans. In 1899, Henry sold his interest to his brother William, who sold the 30 acres in 1908 to J. Frank Coley, a young white farmer. Tom Artis laid claim to the property, arguing that Napoleon Hagans had sold it to him. Coley filed suit and, after hearing the testimony of more than a dozen witnesses, the court decided in his favor. (Paragraph breaks and some punctuation have been inserted for better readability.)
Plaintiff introduces H.S. REID who being duly sworn testifies as follows:
I know the Defendant Tom Artis. I had a conversation with him in reference to payment of cotton to [William S.] Hagans. This last fall I was on the road with Hagans and met Tom Artis carrying a bale of cotton. Heard conversation between Artis and Hagans. When we met in the road Tom said, “You are leaving home, and I have started to your house with a bale of lint cotton.” Hagans told Tom to carry it on as quick as he could, for he needed it about as bad as he ever saw anyone. He said that in a joking way. Hagans started off, and he said, “Hold on, Captain!” He told him that he understood that he was going to sell the land down there. Hagans said yes, that it was for sale. Tom said, “I would be glad if you would wait a few days, Captain, I think I can raise the money for that place,” didn’t say what place just then. Hagans said he had rather sell it altogether. Tom said if he would give him a few days until he could see his boys, he thought he could raise the money for it all. Hagans said alright, it was all for sale. That was about the end of the conversation and we parted. Later then that one day, at Eureka, Artis asked me if I knew when Hagans would be out at his place. I told him about the day Hagans told me he would be out there. Artis said I wish I would deliver a message to Hagans for him, “ask him not to sell that place to Mr. Wright Cook.” Said if he did, he would be out of house and home. He said he would rather Hagans sell it to Coley, for he thought he could get along better with Mr. Coley. I delivered the message to Hagans when he came out home. I think this is about the substance. That last conversation was a short while before the sale I think. Am not real sure when it was.
I told this conversation about Tom wanting Hagans to wait before he sold the land. I told several people, I don’t remember all. I am not able to tell. I think Hagans and I talked about Tom wanting to buy the land. I am not positive. I heard Hagans say that the old man wanted to buy the land from him, as I remember. I think I told the lawyer about the first conversation.
I don’t know that on the occasion I met Tom Artis, that he forbid Hagans selling his land. It wasn’t mentioned that day. I have never admitted to Tom that he forbid Hagans selling that land.
Henry Sampson Reid was a brother of veterinarian Elijah Reid and principal J.D. Reid. Both his wives were from Wilson County, and he eventually settled in Springhill township.
Note Reid’s naming practices. Wright Cook and J.F. Coley were granted the honorific “Mister.” William Hagans, a Black man whom Reid regarded as having similar or greater status than he, was called by his surname only. Thomas Artis, of lower social status, mostly merited only “Tom.”
William S. Hagans’ primary residence was on Oak Street in Goldsboro. Thus, Artis asked Reid when Hagans would be “out at his place,” he meant Hagans’ farm between Eureka and Fremont.
William S. Hagans at his Goldsboro home, circa 1900.
Photo courtesy of the late William E. Hagans; digital copy in possession of Lisa Y. Henderson.
Though Coley v. Artis arose just over the county line in Wayne County’s Nahunta township, many of the men and women caught up in its scope had close links to Wilson County. The transcript of the trial proceeding is fascinating not only for its glimpses into their lives, but for the portrait it paints of a rural farming community that would have been immediately recognizable by anyone living just north of the line in Wilson County.
Detail, 1904 topographic map of Wilson Quadrangle, which includes northern Wayne County.
At the heart of Wayne County Superior Court proceedings stemming from the suit in J.F. Coley v. Tom Artis (1908) was a dispute over 30 acres of land. Thomas “Tom Pig” Artis began renting the property in 1881 from William J. Exum, a wealthy white farmer. In 1892, Exum’s widow Mary sold the land to Napoleon Hagans. In 1896, after Napoleon’s death, the land passed to his sons Henry and William S. Hagans and, in 1899, Henry sold his interest to his brother. In 1908, William S. Hagans sold the 30 acres to J. Frank Coley, a young white farmer. Tom Artis laid claim to the property, arguing that Napoleon Hagans had sold it to him. Tom claimed that the 800 pounds of cotton he yearly tendered to Napoleon Hagans (and later, his son William) was interest on a mortgage, but William Hagans and other witnesses maintained that the payment was rent. J.F. Coley filed suit and, after hearing the testimony of more than a dozen witnesses, the court decided in his favor.
The trial transcript is replete with testimony revealing the social and familial relationships among witnesses. Tom Artis testified that he rented the “Adam Artis place.” William Hagans testified that his father was in feeble health in 1896 when he called him and Henry together “under the cart shelter” to tell them he would not live long and did not know to whom the land would fall. William testified that Pole asked them to let “Pig” stay on as long as he paid rent, and they promised to do so. Tom Franks testified that “Pole was a first-rate business man.” Jonah Williams, Adam Artis’ brother, testified that he borrowed money from Napoleon to open a brickyard in the spring of 1893 and had preached his funeral. He also noted that “Tom married my sister [Loumiza Williams Artis]. He is not a member of my church. I turned him out. He is a Primitive Baptist. I preached Napoleon Hagans’ funeral.” Jesse Artis, another of Adam Artis’ brothers, testified that he had worked on Hagans’ property as a carpenter for 18 years and noted, “I don’t know that Tom and I are any kin, just by marriage.” John Rountree testified that he was a tenant renting from Hagans on thirds. Simon Exum testified: “I am no kin to Tom [Artis] as far as I know, except by Adam. His first wife was my wife [Delilah Artis Exum]’s sister.” H.S. Reid testified that he was Tom Artis’ son-in-law.
Thomas Artis was a son of a free woman of color, Celia Artis, and her enslaved husband, Simon Pig. Though nearly all free colored Artises were descended from a common ancestor in southside Virginia, by the late 1800s clear understanding of their remote kinship links had faded. There were dozens of Artis families in Wayne County during the antebellum period, and the relationships between them are unknown. Celia Artis was a close neighbor of Adam Artis, but the families apparently did not regard themselves as kin. Still, they were inextricably intertwined. The Artises were also closely linked to other free families of color, including the Haganses and Reids, who had been neighbors in the Eureka area for generations. Celia Artisand Rhoda Reid — grandmother of Elijah L. Reid, J.D. Reid, and other Wilson residents — were the wealthiest free women of color in Wayne County. Adam Artis married Napoleon Hagans’ half-sister Frances Seaberry, whose father hailed from another free family of color. Another of Rhoda Reid’s grandsons, Henry S. Reid, married Tom Artis’ daughter. Henry’s first cousin Henry Reid married Adam Artis’ daughter Georgianna Artis. Adam Artis’ son William Marshall Artis and grandson Leslie Artis married Tom Artis’ nieces, Etta and Minnie Diggs. And on and on.