Houses

Ezekiel Smith house.

Per Kate Ohno, Wilson County’s Architectural Heritage (1981):

“This house is thought to have been built for Ezekiel Smith between 1845 and 1850. Smith was born in 1812, and the land upon which this house was built probably came from his first wife Ann (surname unknown). According top the 1860 census, Ezekiel was a farmer with $4,000 worth of real property and $15,430 worth of personal property (probably mostly slaves). Smith died in 1866 and according to the division of the land among his heirs, his daughter Penelope, wife of Benjamin W. Taylor, received the house property. The Taylors deed the property to John W. Smith, Ezekiel’s son, in 1869 and the property has remained in the Smith family to this day. The house is handsomely situated in a grove of mature trees on high ground above Contentnea Creek. The main section of the house is two stories high with a one-story rear shed. A shed-roof porch with Doric columns runs the length of the front facade. Typical of many of the Greek Revival houses in Wilson County there are two front doors flanked by nine-over-six windows. Single-shoulder exterior end chimneys are located in the gable ends. A small detached kitchen with an engaged porch has been moved up flush with the rear of the house and is joined by the side porch. On the interior the hall-and-parlor plan and original woodwork have been retained throughout. There are two corresponding smaller rooms in the one-story shed. An enclosed stair ascends from one of the front rooms. The original double vertical-panel Greek Revival style doors are still used on the interior. and simple mid-nineteenth-century mantels are still in place. The window and doors have nicely molded three-part surrounds.”

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In the 1860 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County, Ezekiel Smith, 53, and family are listed.

Per the 1860 slave schedule of Black Creek district, Wilson County, Ezekiel Smith reported owning 14 enslaved people — eight men and boys aged 1 to 33, and six women and girls aged 3 to 30.

113, 115 and 117 North East Street.

The one hundred-twentieth in a series of posts highlighting buildings in East Wilson Historic District, a national historic district located in Wilson, North Carolina. As originally approved, the district encompasses 858 contributing buildings and two contributing structures in a historically African-American section of Wilson. (A significant number have since been lost.) The district was developed between about 1890 to 1940 and includes notable examples of Queen Anne, Bungalow/American Craftsman, and Shotgun-style architecture. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

As described in the nomination form for the East Wilson Historic District, the houses at #113, #115, #117 are: “ca. 1908; 1 story; shotgun with board-and-batten veneer.” The board-and-batten has been replaced with clapboard.

The 1913 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson shows that there were originally six endway houses (with two different floor plans) on this stretch of North East Street. Street numbering changed about 1922, so the houses above were originally #114, #116 and #118.

In the 1928 Wilson, N.C., city directory: Ward Ussell (c; Nettie) lab h 113 N East; 115 N East Vacant; Cooper Jack C (c; Nora) lab  h 117 N East

In the 1930 Wilson, N.C., city directory: Bethea Mamie (c) smstrs h 113 N East; Hargrove Andrew (c; Ada) lab h 115 N East; Artis Amelia (c) factory hand  h 117 N East

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 113 North East, paying $6/month rent, Mamie Bathea, 40, laundress; Pattie Manual, 60, mother, laundress; George Kannan, 30, brother, taxi chauffuer; Pearl Manual, 20, nurse for private family; daughters Ruth S., 14, Sally S., 12, and Adel Manual, 10; cousins Louisa, 10, and Ralph Kannan, 8; and daughter Mamie Manual, 4.

In the 1941 Wilson, N.C., city directory: Bethea Mamie (c) smstrs h113 N East; Bowman Rufus (c; Daisy) tob wkr h115 N East; Hines Boyd (c; Betty) tob wkr h117 N East

In the 1947 Wilson, N.C., city directory: Bethea Annie (c) h 113 N East; Grimes Fagin (c; Addie) lab h 115 N East; Williams Rematha Mrs (c) h 117 N East

Photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, August 2019.

A rare opportunity to rent.

In 1881, Rufus Wright Edmundson ran an ad in the Wilson Advance for the lease of a house on a seven-acre lot on the east corner of Vance and Pender Streets. Wilson’s segregated residential patterns had not yet set, and Edmundson was able to extol the virtues of the parcel to white potential renters. East Wilson’s rapid development is hinted at in the notice — “all nearly new as premises were in original forest seven years ago.” Soon, Vance Street would become the southern edge of white settlement in East Wilson, and Edmundson’s property would be developed for the town’s newly emerging African-American middle class.

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Wilson Advance, 16 December 1881.

Shotgun houses restored.

Back during the summer, I enjoyed a long chat with Monica T. Davis about her master’s thesis, which examines the significance of shotgun houses (traditionally known locally as “endway houses) in the East Wilson community. What a pleasure to read this 6 December 2019 Wilson Times article about her efforts to restore these houses to usefulness.

Shotgun houses set for restoration.

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By Brie Handgraaf, bhandgraaf@wilsontimes.com

“Tiny houses have gained popularity in recent years, but two Wilson natives are working to restore several shotgun houses, which made the efficient use of a small floorplan cool more than a century ago.

“’When the East Wilson Historic District was nominated in 1988, there were 301 shotgun houses in Wilson and now there are only 88 left,’ said Monica T. Davis. ‘They were built when the tobacco industry was flourishing because shotgun houses could be built compactly with so many on a lot, which was good for the working-class people of the time.’

“Davis, a 2005 graduate of Fike High School, is a graduate student in interior architecture and historic preservation at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She recently teamed up with Antonio M. Jenkins, owner of Tee O’s Luxury Renovations, to purchase five properties and two undeveloped lots on Ash Street and Narrow Way.

“The duo started working on plans to bring back the shotgun floorplans and restore some of the homes’ original features. However, when they talked to city officials about separating two of the parcels, they learned two of the houses on Narrow Way had outstanding permits for demolition.

“Davis and Jenkins got to work, presenting staff with a scope of work and getting a grace period to make progress and save the homes from demolition. Since then, work has begun on the first of the houses at 132 Ash St., which was built in 1910 and has one bedroom.

“’The lawn was very unkept [sic] and you couldn’t event see the shotgun house because of the overgrowth, so we cut that down,’ Davis said. ‘We had some lead-based issues on the front of the house, so that was taken care of. The addition on the back of the home has been started and we have gutted the inside to restore features like the original tongue-and-groove flooring and a beadboard ceiling. All that was covered up by previous owners, so we’re working on revitalizing that.’

“Jenkins, who graduated from Beddingfield in 2006, said he expects each house to take a few months to complete. Davis was awarded the Atlantic World Research Network Graduate Student Research Grant that will help with the effort and 10 students in a preservation class from UNC-G will pitch in this May.

“’They are going to restore some original windows,’ Davis said. ‘They’ll clean some brick pillars and put in some old salvaged wood doors. We’ll also have a demonstration for them on how to install plaster.’

“The owner of Rinascita Designs said she’s worked with a restoration specialist who is confident the restoration work will qualify for tax credits.

“’The renovations will cost between $25,000 and $30,000,’ Jenkins said. ‘The first one appraised at $51,000 and after the repairs, I would say it’ll be valued around $150,000.’

“The plan is to rent the houses for the first five years to comply with the tax credits, but ultimately Davis said she wants to sell them.”

“’We created a nonprofit organization called Rebirthing Our Cultural Kington [sic] Foundation with the goal to teach African Americans in this district and throughout Wilson about homeownership,’ she said. ‘Many of these have been rental properties for over 40 years, but we want to encourage people to be financially literate and work toward owning a home.’

“Davis also hopes her work helps educate people on the history of east Wilson and spurs others to invest in the area.

“’If the people who are living in that neighborhood see we’re from here and have hope, maybe it’ll help change their mindset and improve the historic district,’” she said.”

[Update: More on the renovation of East Wilson shotgun houses from WTVD, ABC 11, a Raleigh television station.]

Alex Williamson cemetery, revisited.

I wrote here about visiting the Alex and Gracy Shaw Williamson cemetery. This cemetery lies in a partially cleared patch of woods adjacent to the Hardy H. Williamson cemetery, and I wondered about the relationship between the two families. I asked Gregory D. Cosby when I met with him recently and was astounded by his answer. Though the earliest marked grave in the Alex Williamson cemetery dates to 1885, the graveyard is much older. It was originally, in fact, the burying ground for African-Americans enslaved by Hardy H. Williamson’s family. The wooden markers that identified the oldest graves have been lost, but some rough fieldstone markers remain. Though I know the locations of many graves of formerly enslaved Wilson County residents, most are buried in church graveyards or graveyards established on family land, and this is the only so-called “slave cemetery” that I have located in the county.

The John B. Williamson house, which is built around a house originally built for Hardy Williamson.

Gregory Cosby also told me that the house across the road from the cemeteries, which I had used as a landmark to find them, was originally the Hardy Williamson house. (Hardy Williamson was Hardy H. Williamson’s father.) In History of Wilson County, North Carolina (1985), I found this entry for John Bartley Williamson Family that I’ve been overlooking for decades: “The original portion of the John Bartley Williamson homeplace, located on Highway 42, west of Wilson, in Spring Hill township near Buckhorn, is believed to have been built by his grandfather, Hardy Williamson. … Most of the Williamsons are buried in the Williamson cemetery, which is located across the highway from the John B. Williamson someplace, or in the Buckhorn church cemetery. Almost adjacent to the Williamson cemetery is a Williamson slave cemetery.

Photo of house by Lisa Y. Henderson, October 2019; aerial photo courtesy of Google Maps.

Wiley Simms house.

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Wilson Daily Times, 22 March 1975.

Per Kate Ohno, Wilson County’s Architectural Heritage (1981): “Local tradition maintains that this house was built circa 1840 for James or Benjamin Simms, who were twins. The Simms brothers were born in 1787. Wiley Simms is said to have occupied the house after his marriage to Sarah E. Wilkins in 1862. Wiley Simms died in 1876 and the Simms family still owns the property. The house was built in the Greek Revival style and is similar to the Edwin Barnes House. The main section of the house is two stories high with a one-story shed extension at the rear and a one-story kitchen wing. Large, single-shoulder stepped chimneys are on the exterior ends. The attached porch is elegantly designed and is supported by tapered, reeded columns with a Greek key design below the capital. The two front windows and two front doors have typical reeded surrounds with square corner blocks. On the interior a hall-and-parlor plan is followed with a long narrow rear shed room giving access to an enclosed stair. The original woodwork has remained intact as have the unique floromorphic plaster medallions and cornices. Panelled wainscot is found in the two front rooms.”

For more on the 1922 tornado that struck the Evansdale community, see here.

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In the 1850 census of Edgecombe County: Willie Simms, 29, farmer. He reported $5178 real property. [“Willie” was the usual spelling of “Wiley” in 19th century eastern North Carolina.]

In the 1850 slave schedule of Edgecombe County, Willie Simms is reported with 11 slaves, four women aged 23 to 60 and seven boys and men aged 1 to 45.

In the 1860 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: Willie Simms, 38, farmer. Simms, a bachelor, reported $25,070 in real property and $39,140 in personal property.

In the 1860 slave schedule of Saratoga township, Wilson County, Willie Simms is reported with 30 slaves, 13 girls and women aged 3 to 50, and 17 men and boys, aged 1 to 52.

The 1870 census of Wilson County lists many African-Americans with the surname Simms in Wilson County, especially in the southeast section. These include Rose Simms, 37, with her children Milly, 10, Susan, 7, and Lucy Simms, 8 months (plus Mary Hall, 23), listed next-door to Willie Simms.

Elias Barnes plantation.

As photographed here, Elias Barnes’ “big house” survived long enough to be catalogued in Kate Ohno’s Wilson County’s Architectural Heritage (1981):

“Elias Barnes was the son of Jesse Barnes and Edith Jordan. He was born in 1809 in the section of Edgecombe County which later became Wilson County. In 1830 he married Mahala Emma Sharpe. Barnes was the brother of General Joshua Barnes, who is often cited as the founder of Wilson County. William Barnes of Stantonsburg Township, another prominent planter, was also his brother. (See the William Barnes House, Stantonsburg Township). Elias Barnes, like his brothers, was a farmer of substance, and he served as a trustee of Hopewell Academy when it was incorporated in 1841 by the state legislature. Elias and Mahala Barnes’ family was a large and prominent one. Their son, Jesse Sharpe Barnes, was a lawyer who became a local hero during the Civil War. The Wilson United Confederate Veterans Camp was named in his honor. Another son, Joshua Barnes, became a distinguished local doctor. Elias Barnes died in 1856 when he was struck by lightning while squirrel hunting. His widow Mahala continued to occupy the property until her death circa 1876. In 1860 Mahala was listed in the census as a farmer with the staggering sums of $13,700 worth of real property and $10,500 worth of personal property [including enslaved people.] After Mahala’s death her son, William S. Barnes, sold her property to Henry Harriss. Like the General Joshua Barnes House and the William Barnes house, this house was probably built between 1845 and 1860. The Elias Barnes House is very similar stylistically to his two brothers’ houses. It is a large, square, Greek Revival style structure with a shallow hipped roof, interior chimneys and a three-bay facade. The wide trabeated door was probably once surmounted by a door or window with sidelights. On the interior, like the William Barnes, Ward-Applewhite-Thompson, and Edmundson-Lane-Thompson houses, a central-hall plan is followed. A broad stair ascends from the front of the building, and there are two main rooms off each side of the hall. The interior finish is also similar to the Ward-Applewhite-Thompson and Edmundson-Lane-Thompson houses in the robust turned newel posts, handsome Greek Revival door surrounds and simple mantels.”

For more about the enslaved men and women who worked Elias Barnes’ home and fields, see here.

The stake of life.

While director of the University of North Carolina Press, W.T. Couch also worked as a part-time official of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, serving as assistant and associate director for North Carolina (1936-1937) and as director for the southern region (1938-1939). The Federal Writers’ Project Papers are housed at U.N.C.’s Southern Historical Collection and include Couch’s correspondence and life histories of about 1,200 individuals collected by F.W.P. members. At least two African-American residents of Wilson, Georgia Crockett Aiken and William Batts, were memorialized in this way. 

Folder 550 contains the transcript of the interview with William Batts, titled “The stake of life.” Batts, a tobacco packer, lived at 804 Stronach Avenue. [The 1940 city directory described Stronach Alley as “(formerly Young’s Line) — from a point east of North Av at Adams, north to Tilghman rd.”]

Batts had worked as a packer for ten seasons and enjoyed the work. He was six feet tall and muscular and had farmed on rented land before working in the warehouse.

Batts’ family were sharecroppers, working to keep half the crop they produced. As he reached adulthood and realized how little money his parents received for their toil, he determined to find different work. Batts had wanted an education, but his father did not believe in the value of schooling needed him to work. “He learned us how to treat white folks and let our education stop at dat.” In response to his father’s view that literacy was for white people, Batts said, “… if de nigger could do his own figuring de white folks ‘ud have to figure harder, too.” His first job was as a section hand for Norfolk & Southern Railroad, which he quit to drive a dray.

From there, Batts went to work at a wagon company. (Almost certainly Hackney Wagon.) After he was laid off, he got a job at a tobacco warehouse. The work was seasonal — August to November — and he had been paid $11.88 a week for the ten years he had worked there as a packer, unloading tobacco from farmer’s wagons and placing it in baskets in the warehouse. The odor of tobacco sickened him at first, but he could not quit because his wife was not working and the dollar-a-day he made doing farmwork during the summer did not go far.

Batts worked 7 o’clock A.M. to 6 P.M. five days a week and a half-day on Sunday. When the season ended, he hustled to find more work to supplement his wife’s work washing clothes, “cooking when company come to de white folks” and other occasional work. “when the spring opened up,” there was farm work — setting our tobacco plants, chopping cotton, barning tobacco, and picking cotton kept him “in a regular strut.” In winter, he dug ditches, sawed wood in a sawmill, and cleared land.

“I reckon you’d say I ain’t got no regular job, but I work pretty regular, ‘specially all de months besides December and January.” His wife worked stemming tobacco for about $8 a week. Still, they had trouble saving money. “We had to buy some furniture and clothes and keep up our life insurance and our rent and lights.” The couple was fortunate that their water was included in their rent — “We can take a bath every day if we want it …”

Their son and daughter no longer lived with them. Batts missed them, especially for help when his wife felt poorly because of high blood pressure.

He was seldom seriously ill and felt bad for her and tried to help. She would probably have to quit working. “I reckon I can support us ’cause we don’t owe no debts.” They bought their furniture for cash, and paid groceries ($15/month) and rent ($10/month) in cash. They had life insurance and had set aside a “little,” but feared running into bad luck. Batts dreamed of buying a small farm and a mule. “I think dat is the de stake of life.” A farm could provide security, something he had not thought much of until the stock market crash of 1929.

Batts’ wife was a Christian when they married, but it took her five years to convert him. When she “made [him] see the point,” he joined a Disciples Church. It brought him great comfort.

Batts introduced the interviewer to his wife, who was in the kitchen peeling potatoes. The room contained newly painted furniture, a four-burner oil stove, a linoleum rug, and “snowy white” linens. Mrs. Batts explained that Batts had gotten the idea to paint the furniture green from an issue of Better Homes and Gardens. He had wanted to paint the walls after the owner of the house refused, but she counseled him to paint the things they could take with them if they had to leave the house.

Nursey Batts longed for her own house that she could “fix and mess over” and believed the Lord would provide. She came from a large family with hard-working parents who denied their own needs in their struggle to provide for their children. Only six of their 14 lived to adulthood.

Nursey Batts believed few white folks believed in ghosties or witches or conjuring, and black people were “outgrowing” it. She opined on the origins of conjure. She also had this opinion: “Most niggers feels like dey is imposed on just ’cause dey is niggers, but lemme tell you, a good honest nigger needn’t be skeered of living. De white folks has always been good to me and [William.]”

While waiting for an  iron to heat, Nursey Batts showed the interviewer her parlor, which was neatly furnished and decorated.

“A body never knows when a important person will drop in on him and everything will most likely be like de devil’s had a fit on it. I hate for company to catch me, as de saying is, with my breeches down.” Still, she downplayed the appearance of the room. She had crocheted the bedspread from tobacco twine in a pattern she got from a woman who lived out in the country. She was proud of the chifforobe her husband had bought her for Christmas.

Nursey Batts was hopeful that she and William Batts would get their farm and thought another term for Franklin Roosevelt would be helpful. “I wish dat we could vote for him, but [William] can’t read or write so he can’t vote. I can read a little, but I don’t know nothing ’bout de Constitution of the United States.”

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On 7 July 1915, Will Batts, 23, of Wilson, son of Morris and Nancy Batts of Taylor township, married Nurcy Hill, 22, of Wilson, daughter of Robert Hill, at Graham Woodard‘s in Wilson township. Missionary Baptist minister Jeremiah Scarboro performed the ceremony in the presence of Jason Farmer, Bessie Farmer, and Mena Littlejohn.

In 1917, Will Batts registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 15 December 1889 in Wilson County; lived on Vance Street; and was a butler for N.L. Finch.

In the 1920 Wilson, N.C., city directory: Batts Nursey (c) dom 601 Warren; Batts William (c) drayman h 601 Warren

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: a 804 Stronach Alley, Will Batts, 46, public school janitor; wife Nursey, 36, tobacco factory stemmer; and brother-in-law Freeman Hill, 29, tobacco factory office boy.

In 1942, Freeman Hill registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 25 November 1900 in Wilson; lived in 623 East Viola; his contact was Nursey Batts, 722 Stronach Avenue; and worked for Wilson Tobacco Company, South Railroad Street.

Will Batts died 24 February 1947 in Wilson of congestive heart failure. Per his death certificate, he was born 12 December 1890 in Wilson County to Morris Batts and Nancy Bynum; was married to Nursey Batts; was the janitor at Charles L. Coon High; and lived at 722 Stronach Avenue.

310 North Reid Street.

The one hundred-nineteenth in a series of posts highlighting buildings in East Wilson Historic District, a national historic district located in Wilson, North Carolina. As originally approved, the district encompasses 858 contributing buildings and two contributing structures in a historically African-American section of Wilson. (A significant number have since been lost.) The district was developed between about 1890 to 1940 and includes notable examples of Queen Anne, Bungalow/American Craftsman, and Shotgun-style architecture. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

As described in the nomination form for the East Wilson Historic District, this house is: “ca. 1930; 1 story; Thomas Foster house; bungalow with hip roof and engaged porch; Foster was janitor at Wilson post office.”

In the 1925, 1928 and 1930 Wilson city directories, Thomas and Olivia Foster are listed at 310 North Reid.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: owned and valued at $3000, Tom Foster, 45, post office janitor, and wife Oliva, 43.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: owned and valued at $3000, John T. Foster, 60, post office janitor; wife Olivia, 59; and her brother Claude Artist, 53, odd jobs.

In 1940, Du Bissette Best registered for the World War II draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 26 January 1922 in Wilson; lived at 308 North Reid; his contact was Tom Foster, 310 North Reid; and he worked for W.G. Taylor, Taylor’s Barber Shop, 106 South Tarboro.

Tom Foster died 17 October 1956 at Mercy Hospital. Per his death certificate, he was born 3 April 1883 in Wayne County to John Thomas Foster and Louise Thompson; was married to Olivia Foster; worked as an elevator laborer; and resided at 310 North Reid.

Olivia Foster died 15 November 1956 at her home at 310 North Reid. Per her death certificate, she was born 4 October 1886 in Wayne County to Jesse Artis and Lucinda Hobbs; was a widow. Informant was Ada Rowe, 1006 Atlantic Street, Wilson.

Tom and Olivia Foster had mortgaged their home early in 1955 and, the spring after their deaths, the loan went into default. Trustee Wade A. Gardner posted this notice of sale in the local newspaper. Among the details: the Fosters had purchased the lot, part of the Rountree Tract, from Levi H. and Hannah Peacock in 1916.

Wilson Daily Times, 9 May 1957.

Around the same time, Tom Foster’s executor advertised a sale of the contents of the house, which offers an interesting glimpse at the typical furnishings of a working-class household in mid-century East Wilson.

Wilson Daily Times, 8 June 1957.

Claude Artis died 16 January 1960 at his home at 310 North Reid Street. Per his death certificate, he was born 3 January 1890 in Wayne County to Jesse Artis and Lucinda Hobbs; was never married; and worked as a laborer. Ada Rowe, 310 North Reid, was informant. (Claude Artis was Olivia Artis Foster’s brother. Did he buy the house, or did he pay rent to whomever purchased it?)

Photograph by Lisa Y. Henderson, July 2019.