Houses

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.

——

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.

The 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.”

——

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.

Parcel No. 5 for sale.

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Wilson Daily Times, 4 March 1933.

The assets of the failed Planters Bank went up for sale in 1933, including a house and two lots Samuel H. Vick had owned at the intersection of Manchester and Douglas Streets. The house, in fair condition, was described as one-story, with five rooms and a composition roof.

[I am not sure where this was. Douglas Street (renamed from Spring in the late 1920s) runs on the other side of the railroad from and in no place intersects Manchester.]

A return to 624 East Green Street.

More than two years ago, I wrote here of the house at 624 East Green Street, built for Dr. Frank S. Hargrave. The house has been heavily and disfiguringly modified both inside — it’s been cut up into at least three apartments — and out, and is now unoccupied and sealed up. I recently trespassed just long enough to get a glimpse through the one unboarded window, which revealed a glimpse of the house’s former good looks.

This paneled stairwell originally led from the western edge of a large front room to the second floor. Now, there is an exterior door underneath the first flight (not visible from this angle) and, just out of the frame, a solid wall that separates the parts of the house entered through the front door from those entered through side doors.

Below, a straight-on view of Dr. Hargrave’s house. The original porch was enclosed at left and center, and the vertical siding on the second floor facade suggests alteration there as well.

Below, via Google Map, an aerial view of 624 East Green. The part of the house outlined in red is surely an add-on, as is likely the wing in yellow. The roof appears to be in remarkably good shape, given the condition of the rest of the house. The roof over the “porte cochere” (notwithstanding the National Historic Register description, it is really more of a portico) appears to be tin, which may be original. (Next door, the Vicks sprang for a slate roof.)

505 South Pender Street.

The one-hundred-eighteenth 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.

The nomination form for the East Wilson Historic District does not list 505 South Pender. However, this description of 501, which does not actually exist, seems to describe the house above instead: “ca. 1922; 1 story; shotgun with shed-roofed porch, gable returns.”

In the 1928 Wilson, N.C., city directory: Leak Clara (c) dom h 505 Stantonsburg

In the 1930 Wilson, N.C., city directory: McNeil Mary (c) dom h 505 Stantonsburg

The 1941 Wilson, N.C., city directory: Barnes Pearl (c; 2) lndrs h505 Stantonsburg

In the 1947 Wilson, N.C., city directory: Barnes Pearl N (c; wid Zach) lndry wrkr Caro Lndry & Clnrs h 505 Stantonsburg

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The stretch of Pender Street above Suggs Street today, per Google Map. 505 is the silver-roofed shotgun at the corner Pender and Hines.

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Here, the 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson, N.C. Below Nash Street, Pender Street was then called Stantonsburg Street. When Hines Street was extended east in the 1960s, it largely followed the former path of Wiggins Street. It appears that 501 and 503 were cleared out to make way for the much wider Hines.

Hominy Swamp.

Hominy Swamp arises in western Wilson County, flows southeast of downtown and empties into Contentnea Creek near the Evansdale community. Prone to severe flooding, the creek has been channeled at several points along its length; from just above Tarboro Street south its plain is largely industrial. Hominy Swamp traditionally served as a boundary between certain black and white neighborhoods — Daniel Hill and Hominy Heights, and Happy Hill and Five Points, for example.

Per the Wilson Daily Times, in December 1924, the city contracted with a Raleigh contractor to build bridges spanning Hominy Swamp at Lodge Street, Goldsboro Street, Mercer Street, Tarboro Street and Park Avenue at a cost of $65,000.

I crossed over the Lodge Street bridge Saturday. It would seem to be $15,000 well-spent.

Here, Hominy Swamp Canal looking east from the Lodge Street bridge. North of the creek (to the left here) for most of the 20th century was a largely African-American neighborhood centered at Lodge and Banks Streets. South, Five Points, which was a white neighborhood until late in the 20th century.

Three years later, Hominy Swamp jumped its banks, climbing high enough to nearly overtop the walls of the bridge. Homes at Lodge and Mercer Streets flooded, requiring the rescue of a disabled 80 year-old African American woman.

Wilson Daily Times, 18 September 1928.