Institutions

Good Samaritans and Daughters of Samaria.

The first quarter of the twentieth century may have been the hey-day of fraternal and benevolent societies in Wilson’s African-American community. The 1908 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory listed the Grand United Order of Good Samaritans and Daughters of Samaria, which rented meeting space at Mount Hebron Masonic Lodge every Tuesday evening.

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  • L.A. Moore — Lee A. Moore.
  • Ella Overstreet — in the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on “N.&S.” [Norfolk & Southern Railroad], gardner Amos Whitley, 57, widower, and daughter Ester, 16, servant; daughter Blanch Hagins, 20, tobacco factory laborer, and her children Nettie B., 2, Pearl, 1, and Gladis, 0. Also [apparently in the other half of a duplex], Thomas Overstreet, 43, railroad laborer, and wife Ella, 29, laundress.
  • Samuel Gay
  • William Washington — in the 1908 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Washington Wm (c) lab h 307 Moore

A committee to look for a burial ground.

Late local historian Hugh B. Johnston Jr.’s file contain this note, apparently copied from volumes of city commissioners or boards of aldermen meetings that cannot now be located:

“Dec. 17, 1888 Oakview Cemetery. Gray Farmer, [illegible] Robinson, and Washington Sugg were appt. a Committee to look for a burial ground for the colored people.”

This is the earliest reference to a public African-American cemetery in Wilson and appears to presage the establishment of Oakdale (also called Oaklawn, Oakland, Oakwood, and Oakview) Cemetery in the area of present-day Cemetery Street south to the former Elvie Street School. Sugg (or Suggs) owned extensive property in the area, and the deed for his first land purchase refers to a preexisting “graveyard lot” near his property. This lot may have been developed into a city cemetery.

Oakdale Cemetery, which was active until about 1920, was the predecessor of Vick Cemetery.

Thanks to J. Robert Boykin for bringing this to my attention.

Knights of Gideon meet every Thursday night.

Knights of Gideon Mutual Society were just one of many fraternal organizations and benevolent societies operating in East Wilson in the early twentieth century. Information about K. of G. is scarce, but Mount Maria [Moriah?] Lodge No. 7 was included in the 1908 edition of the Wilson city directory.

Hill’s Wilson, N.C, city directory (1908).

Lodge No. 7 met at the Mount Hebron Masonic hall at the corner of Pender and Smith Streets.

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Lane Street Project: this morning at Odd Fellows.

Season 3 is loading. Please look out for schedule announcements; we need you.

I noticed the Vick Cemetery signs were missing. I found them in a trash pile. I hummed a little Keni Burke and set them up upright.

A city contractor kept the front section of Odd Fellows cleared for 25 years. They stopped when Lane Street Project began highlighting the condition of Vick and its adjacent cemeteries, but the city claims it knows nothing about that. 

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… Keep on believing
All the dreams inside of you
And don’t stop achieving, yeah
Let some love shine on through
And don’t fight the feeling
Just keep on dealing
Everybody, keep on moving
‘Cause I know we can get it over, so, baby

(Give it all you got)
Let’s keep rising to the top
(Give it all you got)
And we won’t let nobody stop us
(Give it all you got) …

Photos by Lisa Y. Henderson, November 2022; “Risin’ to the Top,” Keni Burke (N.L. Wright, K. Burke, A. Felder), 1982.

Lane Street Project: the perils of speaking truth to power and, also, a victory.

Lane Street Project Senior Force leader Castonoble Hooks recently resigned his appointed position with the Wilson Cemetery Commission, having been subjected to unwarranted disrespect by City Council.

Here’s the Wilson Times article that catalyzed his action — with my comments and questions in red. They of course reflect my opinions alone.

City Council discusses cemetery commission.

By Nicholas Schnittker, Wilson Times, 8 October 2022.

City-owned cemeteries, and the Wilson Cemetery Commission that runs the Rest Haven and Maplewood cemeteries, dominated the Wilson City Council’s open-session discussion during Thursday’s breakfast meeting.

Dell Joyner, a commission member and owner of Joyner’s Funeral Home & Crematory, said the commission is currently at a stalemate regarding price increases due to internal arguments. [Persons who work in the funeral industry hold mandated seats on the Cemetery Commission. As they stand to benefit directly from the Commission’s actions, this feels to me like a conflict of interest.]

“It’s been a struggle to try and get some of this through and some of the board members,” Joyner said. “I don’t think they have some of the business background that would help them in making decisions of raising our prices a little bit to financially continue putting into the cemeteries because I don’t want the cemeteries to be taken over by the city and I don’t want it to burden the city. There is enough revenue there to maintain the cemetery.” [This remark, like most that follow, could use some unpacking. What does “there is enough revenue there to maintain the cemetery” mean? If there’s enough, why the price increase that Joyner badly wants, but the Commission won’t agree to? Also, here’s a bit of information would be helpful to know — Rest Haven Cemetery brings in the lion’s share of cemetery income and thus subsidizes Maplewood Cemetery.]

Internal arguments were far from the only issue involving the panel. Councilman Michael Bell asked whether any rules or guidelines apply to cemetery commissioners making public statements or social media posts that he said aren’t rooted in facts. [“Aren’t rooted in facts”? First, council has shown itself to be only distantly familiar with facts as they pertain to Wilson’s historic African-American cemeteries. Second, whom is Bell calling a liar, why monitoring citizens’ Facebook posts, and where does the First Amendment intersect with all this?]

Johnson said the council has fallen short on some of its appointments because the cemetery commission is unlike any other board in the city and requires some special talents. [There’s an editing problem here, as this is the first reference to “Johnson.” For clarity, this is James Johnson, who has been on council since way back in the 1990s and ’00s when the city cleared Vick Cemetery and destroyed its headstones. Now, what are these talents? How long have they been required?]

“We say that anybody can serve on any committee they want to,” Johnson said. “While that’s true if we put them on there, but at the same time, we have hurt the committee with some of our past appointments, and that falls on us recommending them to you and you voting for them. So the only thing that can be done is to pull those commission members back and remove them.” [Here’s an alternative to censuring committee members that you cannot control — get out of your feelings and listen to their concerns.]

Johnson added that he didn’t know the process for removal and City Attorney Jim Cauley would have to weigh in.

“This is the first committee in my 30 years that I can remember board members coming out against somebody that they want to partner with and talking trash nonstop,” Johnson said. “I don’t remember us appointing people on any committee where they came out against us — and we are the appointing body — because we have been pretty fair on everything. You have the leeway to do what you want to and you’re the one on the committee responsible for upkeep of that committee, so you’re bashing us for neglecting your responsibilities. That’s basically what I’ve been hearing, and that’s what I’ve been reading on Facebook.” [So is this what got two council members and a commission member wound up? That other commission members have taken issue with “business as usual” at the Cemetery Commission and have challenged the status quo? Apparently, Johnson’s “required talents” include acquiescence, tractability, and a willingness to keep your tongue in your head. Castonoble Hooks, the unnamed subject of these jabs, certainly demonstrated over his eight months of commission service that he does not do well at any of these.]

Johnson said he thought the council was on a good path after righting a perceived wrong in the 2000s. [Again, this is Johnson, who was there. What “perceived wrong” has been righted? Do we know how many dead lie in Vick Cemetery? Do we know their names? Do we know where their grave markers were tossed? Council’s agreement to fund ground-penetrating radar at Vick started them on a good path, but alone rights no wrongs. And is not the end of this journey.]

“To have a couple of rough board members or a rogue board member, however many there are, in a committee that we pick blaming us for their failure to follow through with their responsibilities is just odd,” he said. “I think we need to be done with it and the folks that want to come to us and complain about the cemeteries, we send them to the cemetery commission.” [“The folks that want to come to us and complain about the cemeteries” — that’s me. That’s Lane Street Project. (“Rough” and “rogue” though?) Neither James Johnson nor anyone else on council get to tell us who we can or can’t complain to. Nor can these elected officials decide that they’re “done with it.”]

Wilson Cemetery Commission meetings are open to the public and are held at 4:45 p.m. on the second Monday of every month at Maplewood Cemetery, 400 College St. Mayor Carlton Stevens said anyone with a question about the cemeteries can call 252-243-3386.

Councilman Derrick Creech raised concerns about staffing and equality for Rest Haven, specifically that he’s received calls about people not being able to find workers to guide them to specific locations in the cemetery.

Over the last few years, Joyner said, the commission has invested extra money into Rest Haven to open a new section and started to allow upright single monuments there, but he added that commissioners can’t build roads for the new sections at the current price per gravesite. [“Invested extra money …  to open a new section ….” Demand at Rest Haven exceeds that at Maplewood. The only way to meet it — and continue generating income for both cemeteries — is to open new sections. This isn’t “extra money.” More to the point, Council can find a quarter of a million dollars to fix a decorative arch at Maplewood, but can’t build roads at Rest Haven?]

“There’s been a lot more money spent over there,” Joyner said of Rest Haven. “Maplewood is kind of good. We need stuff there, but a whole lot more focus has been on Rest Haven because it is busier.” [As focus should be.]

Joyner estimated 75% of the commission’s money is going to Rest Haven for the improvements and to open individual gravesites. He said Rest Haven sells a lot more burial plots than Maplewood. [Talk about burying the lede….]

“That’s the reality, then the African American community have a perception that nothing is being done,” Bell said. “It’s a perception that is not a reality, and I think until somebody is able to tabulate sequentially ‘This is what has been done, this is what we are doing,’ then we’re going to have this evolving conversation about cemeteries.” [May I see a sequential tabulation for Vick Cemetery, please?]

Stevens said he knows what Rest Haven looked like 20 years ago and what it looks like today, saying it looks much better.

“So all I can do is be a voice to say, first of all, I am not going to allow a cemetery to divide this city,” Stevens said. “We have gone through so much in the last three years and every atrocity we went through, it seemed like we band together. Regardless of what our political affiliation and what we thought, we banded together and we pushed through it. I am not going to allow a cemetery to separate us based off one’s perceived perception, and it’s not going to have. I know for a fact that this board is about equity, is about equality, and they want the right thing to be done. Period.” [“Divide this city”? A dispute over whether grave-opening fees should be increased threatens to divide the city? Or is it that an outspoken advocate for equity and transparency is seen as more divisive than those who would shut their eyes to a century of neglect of certain public cemeteries? ]

The council also discussed Vick Cemetery and the possibility of the city deeding it over to the cemetery commission. Creech asked about the commission’s plans for Vick if it receives oversight responsibilities.

Johnson responded, saying that wasn’t a question to be raised right now. [Why not?]

“That’s the question of us once we deed it over,” he said. “If we’re going to give somebody a property, we have to give them the ability to take care of it.”

The cemetery commission was established under a 1923 state law that allows such bodies to operate independently of local government. General Statute 160A-349.4 notes that such boards “shall have the exclusive control and management” of the burial grounds they oversee and can employ superintendents and assistants.

As a separate entity from the city of Wilson, the commission can own property. Despite its autonomy, the panel is one of Wilson’s 18 appointed boards and commissions. If the City Council ever chose to dissolve the cemetery commission, all its assets would automatically revert to the city.

Johnson added that estimating maintenance costs is a task for the staff, and the City Council can make decisions about budget allocations after reviewing those estimates.

If the city conveys the Vick Cemetery to the commission, Cauley recommended the council update the city code regarding cemeteries to include Vick.

No vote was taken regarding Vick, but Cauley said he would bring something before the council at a future meeting.

——

That future meeting occurred ten days later at the October 18 Council session, where, surprisingly Council turned over Vick Cemetery to the Commission. We claim this victory and will carefully monitor its ongoing care:

City deeds Vick to Wilson Cemetery Commission.

By Nicholas Schnittker, Wilson Times, 24 October 2022.

The Wilson City Council unanimously voted to transfer ownership of Vick Cemetery to the Wilson Cemetery Commission as part of its consent agenda at Thursday’s meeting.

The council also approved a city code revision to include Vick Cemetery by name.

Castonoble Hooks, a cemetery commission member and staunch advocate for Vick, thanked the council during the meeting’s public comment portion.

“I want to start off first of all by thanking you — thanking you for finally acknowledging that Vick Cemetery is a Wilson public cemetery,” Hooks said. “When I first approached you guys last year, I was told that I was mistaken, but I wasn’t called a liar.”

Hooks abruptly resigned from the commission during his three minutes of speaking time, referencing City Council members’ comments during the October breakfast meeting about possibly removing an unnamed cemetery commissioner.

“In the recent newspaper article from your breakfast, I was called a liar,” Hooks said. “It was said that I misled the public. I am the cemetery commissioner who is not named, but the last one to be appointed.”

Hooks said he was subjected to accusations and innuendo. He also alerted the council to an April audit of the cemtery commission that he said showed mismanagement.

“You said you wanted to get your lawyer to find a way to remove me from the cemetery commission. I remove myself,” Hooks said. “I will remove myself because I don’t think you are genuinely concerned with public input. I have several documents, your own documents, that can show that the cemetery commission is in trouble. They’ve asked y’all to take over. They had a million dollars, they meet one hour, one time a month. They can’t oversee this. This is not a new problem. I am not the first person to bring this up. It has been brought up for decades.”

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My thanks to Castonoble Hooks, who holds down Lane Street Project in so many fundamental ways, and whose commitment to the restoration of our ancestors to memory and respect is beautiful and depthless.

Photo by Chris Facey; all rights reserved.

Lane Street Project: with the naked eye.

It’s my first visit to Wilson since George E. Freeney Jr. sent me the astonishing aerial photos of drought-browned Vick Cemetery giving up its secrets. I was curious — how visible were the graves at ground-level?

The answer: not very, but knowing where to look helps. Here — rest in peace — two graves lying a few dozen yards east of the central monument.

I’m on tenterhooks awaiting the results of the GPR study, and hope it will be available in time for Lane Street Project’s third season.

Photos by Lisa Y. Henderson, August 2022.

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?