Institutions

Peaceful Valley Lodge 272, Knights of Pythias.

Recently, Brooke Bissette Farmer of Wilson’s fantastic Imagination Station reached out to me with a remarkable set of photos. A man (whom, it turns out, I’ve known since our childhoods) came into the museum to ask about an artifact he found while clearing out a house on Viola Street in the 1990s.

Though rusty and missing its top plate, the instrument is clearly identifiable as the seal embosser for Peaceful Valley Lodge 272, Wilson’s African-American Knights of Pythias lodge.

Peaceful Valley, like most of North Carolina’s Knights of Pythias lodges, is defunct. Lodge 272’s founding date is not clear, but it definitely was established well after Wilson’s Black Masons and Odd Fellows.

Pleasant Valley Lodge 272 was active into the 1980s. Frank W. BarnesHoward English and Emanuel Spells were among its last leaders.

Wilson Daily Times, 18 July 1974.

Lane Street Project: radar project begins.

Radar project begins at Vick Cemetery

By Drew C. Wilson, Wilson Times, 22 June 2022.

It took only a few minutes Monday afternoon for ground-penetrating radar operators to detect graves at Vick Cemetery.

The two-man crew from Greensboro-based New South Associates will work at the African American cemetery for two weeks in an effort to pinpoint every burial site.

The 7.84-acre, city-owned graveyard off Bishop L.N. Forbes Street was cleared of all its trees and grave markers in the mid-1990s after an extended period of neglect, but the effort to clean up the cemetery resulted in the destruction of a considerable amount of history for the African American community in Wilson.

“We just finished our first grid of ground-penetrating radar, and immediately we were seeing radar reflections that are indicative of graves,” said assistant geophysics specialist Jordan Cole. “It is hard to tell exactly how many, but it looks fairly densely packed from what I have seen already. We did a grid that was 14 meters by 16 meters, and in each profile, we are seeing evidence for six to 10 graves.”

Wilson historian Lisa Y. Henderson, a former resident of Wilson who now lives in Atlanta, called the city’s use of ground-penetrating radar “a huge step” in many ways.

“First, it is the first affirmative action by the city in several decades to claim its ownership of Vick Cemetery,” Henderson said. “The things that were done at Vick in the past, which were well intended but had pretty devastating consequences, can’t be corrected, but it is vital for us to have a sense of how many people are buried there.”

Right now, people who drive past Vick Cemetery just see a big, empty field.

“If we aren’t able to even tell people how many people are buried there and where they are buried, it is difficult for Vick to regain its place in people’s consciousness as a sacred place,” Henderson said.

In the mid-1990s, she said, a visual survey located about 1,500 graves.

“But given the period of time that Vick was active, which was roughly 1913 when the city acquired it until the 1950s, that’s 40 years, and there would have been at least 100 burials a year, probably more for much of that period,” Henderson said.

She said records are difficult to decipher because Vick Cemetery and the adjacent Rountree and Odd Fellows cemeteries were collectively called Rountree.

“So it kind of obscures where the actual burials were, but the aerial imagery that we are lucky enough to have from the ‘30s and ‘40s shows that it was an active cemetery, a full cemetery, a place that was an important institution in our community,” Henderson said.

HOW IT WORKS

Cole and archaeologist Chris Triplett of Farmville set up a grid system across the property and began a systematic scan of the whole area.

“GPR works by telling the difference between dense soil and less dense soil,” Cole explained. “Wherever there is a contrast between the density of the soil, the GPR will pick that up. So we will see regular disturbance, but we should also be able to see graves as long as the cut from the grade is still preserved from the disturbance that is higher up.”

The system is able to see close to 3 to 4 meters (9.8 to 13.1 feet) deep.

“It’s the same concept as regular radar that you might use to watch and track air traffic,” Cole said. “It focuses its energy and looks straight down at the ground. It will send out an electromagnetic pulse into the ground. The pulse will hit something, and then the pulse will return back to the antennae and the machine records the time that it takes to leave the machine, hit something, which in this case is a change in density of soil, and return. By telling how quickly that travel time is — it is called travel time — we will know how far away it is from the antennae, which translates into how deep it is below the soil.”

GPR works by collecting a series of parallel lines of data.

“We space them at half a meter between each line,” Cole said. “When we are collecting data in the field, we can only see that individual line that we are collecting at that time in the field. Then when we go and process it with the computer, we can line up every profile side by side and use a computer to interpolate that data and produce a bird’s eye view of the reflections in the ground, and that will show us the graves in the ground and how big they are.

“Once the crew takes the data back to the office to start processing it, they will be able to produce a map that shows wherever there is ground disturbance across the whole area, and we can map the size of those disturbances and mark which ones are graves. Hopefully we can produce a pretty accurate map of where every grave is across the whole zone.”

The city is paying $29,159 for the company to conduct the work.

WHO IS BURIED THERE?

“The way a community treats its dead says something about that community,” Henderson said.

“I think it’s past time that Wilson demonstrates is commitment to all of its citizens, past and present, and honors the lives of the folks that are buried in Vick, probably most of whom were working-class people, tobacco factory workers, agricultural laborers and domestic workers,” she said. “They are the people who built east Wilson. They are the people who worked in the homes and the businesses downtown and in west Wilson and eased the lives of what might have been called the city’s leading citizens, so in that way they played a role too in the development of what we now know as Wilson.”

Henderson said she is excited about the project.

“I am looking so forward to seeing the report that results from it,” she said. “I have seen some reports for ground-penetrating radar, but on a much smaller scale. So it will really be exciting to see what evidence is left.”

Henderson has provided the company with documents to compare to its findings.

“We appreciate the opportunity to assist the city in mapping the landscape of the Vick Cemetery so that all who lie there can be recognized and remembered,” she said.

Castonoble Hooks, a member of the Wilson Cemetery Commission, said he is delighted that the project has started.

“It is not too late for them to begin to rectify the wrongs that they have done,” Hooks said. “Omitting these people for so very long, I hope that this is a sea change as far as the direction that the city has in public cemeteries and its treatment toward Blacks.”

For more photos and to support local media, please visit this article at Wilson Times online.

Lane Street Project: Maplewood vs. Vick, 1940.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Aerial photographs shot in 1940 show the stark difference in the design and upkeep of segregated Maplewood and Vick Cemeteries.

We see Maplewood, founded in 1876 (and since expanded northwest across Hill Street), laid out in an orderly grid. The circle of trees, since removed, at the center of the first eight sections marks the location of the city’s Confederate monument, which was unveiled in 1902. The gateway arch is southwest of the monument, at Woodard Street.

And here we see Vick Cemetery — plus Odd Fellows and Rountree — on a dirt road outside city limits and surrounded by piney woods and corn fields. Vick, founded in 1913, is at left and takes up about two-thirds of what looks like a single graveyard, but is in fact three. There is no internal grid, no clearly marked access paths, no uniform spacing of graves or family plots. Certainly no Spanish Revival gateways or monuments to heroic ancestors. Though the city had established Rest Haven Cemetery in 1933, Vick remained active until the early 1960s, and hundreds of people were buried there in the 1940s alone. As poorly as it compares to Maplewood, Vick Cemetery never looked this good again.

Lane Street Project: how long?

The headline outraged me: “City budgets cemetery arch fix.” May I remind you — the city of Wilson established Vick Cemetery as an all-Black public cemetery in 1913, neglected it for most of the twentieth century, and finally stripped of its headstones in the 1990s. The city has no records of its burials, either by name or number. Four months ago, despite protests from some council members about the thirty thousand dollar cost, Wilson City Council agreed to fund ground-penetrating radar for Vick. To date, this project has not budged, as city officials continue to cavil about the city’s responsibility to its own cemetery.

And yet. Despite the Cemetery Commission’s recommendation to the contrary, the city now admits it has already budgeted for the $125,000 repair of the 100 year-old archway at the entrance of Maplewood Cemetery. As the Daily Times reported it: “Funding to replace the arch was included in the 2020-21 budget in a maintenance account, not as a specific project designated specifically for the arch,” said Rebecca Agner, the city of Wilson’s communications and marketing director. “While this method is acceptable from a budget perspective, it led to some miscommunication between departments about the project. As you can imagine with the number of facilities the city operates, there is a long list of maintenance projects each year, so the total maintenance budget was managed for the year without the cemetery arch being completed.”

What in the lack of transparency is this????

I am rarely in Wilson when Council meets, but yesterday I was, so: 

And I go busting down to City Hall ready to sign up for public comment. But this:

And thus, Wilson City Council was spared a piece of my mind about its prioritization of the repair of a decorative structure at Maplewood — a cemetery whose operations, by the way, for years have depended heavily on income derived from historically Black Rest Haven Cemetery, because for better or worse Black folk in Wilson bury, rather than cremate, their dead at a rate much higher than white people and overwhelmingly choose a public cemetery as the place for those burials — over the repair of the breaches of trust created by decades of damage and disrespect to actual graves at Vick.

For your consideration:

“Picture on right shows to entrance to Maplewood with Confederate memorial in background.” Wilson Daily Times, 14 August 1959. This is the arch that the city is spending $125,000 (in 2020 dollars, which might be double that now given inflation and supply chain woes) to fix. The background is still there, too.

The precious arch at Maplewood bears this inscription: 

In this garden of shrubs, flowers and grass lie the quiet ashes of our departed loved ones, in dreamless, protected peaceful sleep. 

Never mind that Vick Cemetery never had a grand gateway and was never a garden. (Nor Rest Haven, for that matter.) What devastates is that the sleep of East Wilson’s departed loved ones is neither peaceful nor protected.

How long will the City of Wilson continue to deprioritize and disrespect our dead?

Recommended reading, no. 7.

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. 

A sample:

“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.

Williamson School P.T.A., 1942.

This remarkable photograph was taken in 1942 at a Williamson High School Parent-Teacher Association meeting. Williamson had opened the year before as the third Black high school in Wilson County.

As identified by Oazie Mitchell and friends, seated on the front row: Isaac Renfrow, Arabella Greenfield Renfrow, Paul H. Jones, Calvin Jones (squatting), Gertrude Creech Jones, Joe Kent, Cleo Newsome, Otis Newsome, Pauline Kent, Cleveland Mitchell, Addie Lee Kent, Bud Atkinson, Ida Mae Finch, unidentified, Mattie Shelley, Leona Jones, and unidentified. Second row: Annie Mitchell, Carlester Mitchell, Addie Creech, Luther Creech, Irene Jones, Jim L. Jones, Lillie Powell, Luther Wilder, Doretha Finch, Doris Finch, Roy Shelley, Ada Carter Locus, Carl Locus, Ida Carter Brockington, and Annie Barham.

Photo shared by Tondra Talley, whose grandparents Paul and Gertrude Jones and many other relatives are depicted. Thank you! 

Tributes to Dr. L.V. Grady.

Wilson Daily Times, 22 February 1936.

After faltering in the 1920s, Wilson’s Black hospital reorganized and reopened as non-profit Mercy Hospital in 1930. Carolina General Hospital’s Dr. Leland V. Grady was instrumental in guiding Mercy’s administrators through the hospital’s earliest years, and William Hines and Camillus L. Darden penned tributes to him at his death.