Today marks the 35th anniversary of the passing of Robert D. Haskins, the named plaintiff in a landmark 1982 civil rights lawsuit filed against Wilson County over its at-large system for electing county commissioner.
Wilson Daily Times, 31 October 1986.
Attorneys G.K. Butterfield Jr. (now a U.S. Congressman) and Milton “Toby” Fitch Jr. (now a North Carolina State Senator) with Robert D. Haskins. In the early 1980s, on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, photographer Jim Peppler documented Black Wilson County citizens’ efforts to secure representation on the county’s Board of County Commissioners. The series of photographs are housed at Alabama Department of Archives and History.
In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Robert Haskins, 37, insurance agent; wife Gertrude, 28; and children Mandy, 14; Elizabeth, 12; Estelle, 10; Robert, 7; Lossie, 5; Laurence, 4, and Thomas, 11.
In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Robert Haskins, 44, insurance agent; wife Gertrude, 39; and children Mandy, 22, private family cook; Elizabeth, 20; Estell, 18; Robert, 17; Lossie, 14; Larence, 12, and Tommie, 11.
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Robert Haskins, 55, drug company salesman; wife Gertrude, 48; and children Mandy, 36; Elizabeth, 33, cook; Estelle, 29, beauty shop cleaner; Robert D. Jr., 29, hotel kitchen worker; Lossie, 24, N.Y.A. stenographer; and Thomas, 20, barbershop shoeblack; plus granddaughter Delores Haskins, 15, and lodger Henry Whitehead, 21.
In 1940, Robert Douglas Haskins registered for the World War II draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 1 June 1913 in Wilson; lived at 1300 Atlantic Street, Wilson; his contact was father Robert Haskins; and he worked for Robert Haskins as a salesman.
Hat tip to LaMonique Hamilton for the link to these photos.
It’s not oversight. It’s deliberate. After 25 years, the city of Wilson has stopped mowing the front section of Odd Fellows Cemetery. The vague reason proffered: the Cemetery Commission only covers Rest Haven and Maplewood Cemeteries, and Odd Fellows is privately owned.
Let’s talk about the Cemetery Commission part for a minute.
For the purpose of this chapter, the word “cemetery” shall mean the Maplewood and Rest Haven Cemeteries and any other cemeteries owned and/or operated by the city.
(Code 1969, § 8-1) [emphasis added]
The Wilson Cemetery Commission was established per North Carolina General Statutes, specifically Chapter 160A — Cities and Towns, which states in pertinent part:
§ 160A-349.3. Property vested.
Upon the creation of such board the title to all property held by the town or city and used for cemetery purposes shall pass to and vest in said board, subject to the same limitations, conditions and restrictions as it was held by the town or city; provided, that the governing body of the town or city may at any time by resolution direct that title to such property shall pass to and vest in the town or city itself, and in such event it shall be the duty of the board and its officers to execute all necessary documents to effect such transfer and vesting. (Pub. Loc. 1923, c. 583, s. 3; 1979, 2nd Sess., c. 1247, s. 30.)
§ 160A-349.4. Control and management; superintendent and assistants; enumeration of powers.
The said board shall have the exclusive control and management of such cemetery; shall have the power to employ a superintendent and such assistants as may be needed, and may do any and all things pertaining to the control, maintenance, management and upkeep of the cemetery which the governing body of the town or city could have done, or which by law the governing body of the town or city shall hereafter be authorized to do. (Pub. Loc. 1923, c. 583, s. 4.)
The City of Wilson established Vick Cemetery in 1913. It was a cemetery owned and operated by the City. State statute requirements notwithstanding, the Cemetery Commission has never taken title to Vick Cemetery. To this day, the Commission neither controls, maintains, manages, nor keeps up Vick Cemetery. The Commission has failed its obligation even to publicly-owned Vick Cemetery. And to the point, the Commission is irrelevant to the City’s withdrawal of Public Works support from Odd Fellows.
(As a sidenote, the statute also states:
§ 160A-349.8. Commissioners to obtain maps, plats and deeds; list of lots sold and owners; surveys and plats to be made; additional lots, streets, walks and parkways; price of lots; regulation of sale of lots.
The board of trustees shall obtain from the governing body all maps, plats, deeds and other evidences relating to the lands, lots and property of the cemetery; they shall also obtain from the governing body of the town or city, as nearly as possible, an accurate list of the lots theretofore sold, together with the names of the owners thereof. The said board of trustees shall from time to time cause surveys to be made, maps and plats prepared, laying out additional lots, streets, paths, walks and parkways; shall fix a price at which such lots shall be sold, which price may from time to time, in the discretion of the board, be changed; shall adopt rules and regulations as to the sale of said lots and deliver to the purchaser or purchasers deed or evidences of title thereto. (Pub. Loc. 1923, c. 583, s. 8.)
Per the City’s responses to my Public Records Act requests, the Cemetery Commission has NO records of Vick Cemetery [or its publicly-owned predecessor Oakdale.] No maps, no plats, no deeds, no lists of lots or owners. The Cemetery Commission does not even have records of the graves disinterred from Oakdale/Oaklawn Cemetery in 1941 and reburied in Rest Haven Cemetery, the current “Black” cemetery. Nor does the Commission have early records of Rest Haven, which the City established in the early 1930s to replace Vick.
But I digress.)
Again: the City of Wilson owns Vick Cemetery. It established the cemetery in 1913 as a resting place for African-Americans, who were forbidden to purchase lots in Maplewood Cemetery. The City collected fees from lot sales and grave openings for 45 years, but lifted not a hand to maintain the cemetery’s eight acres. In the 1950s, the City condemned Vick and closed it, shifting burials to another segregated public cemetery, Rest Haven. From the 1950s to the mid-1990s, Vick Cemetery, along with adjacent Odd Fellows and Rountree Cemeteries, devolved to woodland and dumping ground.
I repeat: the Cemetery Commission has never cared for Vick Cemetery. Rather, the City of Wilson, however, spent decades ignoring (and, alternately, abusing) its property. While the City was erecting a massive blond-brick Mission Style entrance and carefully manicuring the shady paths of Maplewood’s park-like landscape, the families of Vick’s dead were pleading for help navigating the muddy roads that led to that graveyard. In the 1980s and early ’90s, when citizens demanded that the City clear Vick of decades of trash, some councilmen blamed descendant families for letting the cemetery — the city’s own property — fall into disrepair. In the end, the City pulled up the Vick’s remaining headstones and, within the past 20 years, destroyed them.
Vick Cemetery today. More than 1500 graves lie under this field. Every Black Wilsonian whose family has been here more than 50 years has people under this grass.
A closer look at the memorial site, which is shrouded by overgrown hollies and dead cherry trees and is in itself a testament to City neglect.
Now to the “Odd Fellows is privately owned” piece. In 1900, African-Americans were barred from Maplewood, the lovely public cemetery their taxes supported. The “colored” city cemetery was crowded and flood-prone and ill-maintained. Seeking better options, Hannibal Lodge #1552, Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, established its own burial ground. The cemetery is the resting place of Samuel H. Vick and his family and two to three generations of the African-American men and women who built East Wilson and its institutions during the darkest days of Jim Crow.
Within 15 years, the City purchased eight acres adjacent to Odd Fellows to establish a new Black cemetery. However, both it and Odd Fellows Cemetery fell from use around 1950 and by the 1960s were trash heaps. The Odd Fellows Lodge went defunct in the 1980s, leaving its Cemetery with no real owner.
In January 2021, a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-religious group of volunteers came together to reclaim the vine-strangled rear of Odd Fellows Cemetery. Twice a month for the next four months, dozens donated time and muscle to restore honor and dignity to Odd Fellows’ forgotten dead. In the wake of Lane Street Project’s powerful display of collective purpose, the City abruptly halted its 25-year practice of mowing the strip of graveyard nearest the road.
THIS ISN’T ABOUT OWNERSHIP. IT’S ABOUT EQUITY.
Having disinvested in East Wilson for so long, having forsaken its institutions, having desecrated its public burial grounds, having watered the west side while leaving the east to wither on the vine, will the City continue to withhold even this minor gesture of acknowledgement of and respect for Black bodies?
Page 13 of the nomination form contains this arresting statement: “Until recently the case of Benjamin Jones and Fanny Guatier, Plaintiffs v. Berlin Realty Company, a corporation, Defendant, has been an obscure footnote to history. But observers are now not just rediscovering the case itself, but also reminding us that the legal arguments against racial covenants used by Plaintiffs’ attorney Charles S. Darden in this case — and adopted by the Los Angeles Superior Court judge in ruling favorably for the Plaintiffs — preceded and foresaw what became the notable winning argument of later precedent-setting “Sugar Hill” case that took place in Los Angeles in 1945.” That case, involving actors Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers‘ fight against racially restrictive covenants, is credited with being the first to cite the 14th Amendment as justification for overturning such covenants. That recognition, however, more properly belongs to Jones and Gautier — and the arguing attorney, Wilson’s own Charles S. Darden — which has been overlooked because it did not rise to California’s Court of Appeals. Read more about Darden’s innovative arguments below.
Last week, Wayne County Public Library presented Part II of “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History,” Wayne County’s contribution to She Changed the World: North Carolina Woman Breaking Barriers, an initiative by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to celebrate the achievements of North Carolina women and explore the diversity of their experiences and impact on our history. Part II focuses on Goldsboro native Ruth Whitehead Whaley, the first African-American woman admitted to the North Carolina bar.
My thanks to Local History librarians Marty Tschetter and Paul Saylors for inviting me to contribute remarks on the influence Ms. Whaley has had on my mission in Black Wide-Awake and the importance of stories like hers.
This case reached the North Carolina Supreme Court on appeal from Wilson County Superior Court.
In summary, the lower court convicted Sylvester Goffney of housebreaking. He appealed; the Supreme Court reversed the decision and dismissed the case.
Goffney appealed on three grounds, the first two of which were deemed without merit. The third: “It is contended by the learned counsel for defendant in a well-prepared brief that, upon the state’s evidence, no crime has been committed, and with this position we fully agree.”
George Barnes and Joe Barnes were partners in Barnes Brothers, a business that Goffney was alleged to have broken into. One of the Barneses testified: “I know the defendant, have known him for four years. He has been in my employ for several years, during which time I found him honest. He assisted me in my store and business a portion of the time. In consequence of statements made to me by Richard Farmer, a negro boy in my employ, I instructed Richard to induce [Goffney] to break in my store. On the night of July 7th Policeman Wynne, myself, and others watched the store, and about 12 o’clock we saw the defendant, Sylvester Goffney, and Richard Farmer go to the store, and saw defendant, Goffney, remove tacks holding a window pane, and remove the window, and enter the store. Richard Farmer immediately afterwards also entered the store through the same window. Policeman Wynne, myself, and others, who were watching the store, after firing pistols, entered the store, and arrested the defendant, Goffney, and required said Farmer to accompany us.” The only other witness corroborated Barnes.
The court’s determination: In the case at bar it appears that Barnes, the owner of the building entered, directed his servant Richard Farmer to induce the defendant to break in his (Barnes’) store; that the servant obeyed his orders, and that he and defendant entered the store together, and that Barnes was present watching them, and arrested defendant after he entered.
If it were possible to hold the defendant guilty of a felony under such circumstances, then Barnes could be likewise convicted of feloniously breaking and entering his own store, for he was present, aiding and abetting the entry of the defendant and induced him to enter. That would of course be a legal absurdity.
“Upon the facts in evidence, no crime was committed because the entry was with the consent and at the instance of the owner of the property. His honor should have directed a verdict of not guilty. Reversed, and proceeding dismissed.”
Here’s how the Wilson Daily Times reported the trial:
Sylvester Goffney had recently left their employ to go work for veterinarian Elijah L. Reid. The Barneses’ had regarded him as a trustworthy employee.
One of the Barnes brothers slept on a cot in the store. Goffney stopped by to visit, fell asleep and spent the night in the store.
The next day, Richard Farmer, an employee described as a “little boy” or “little negro,” cautioned Barnes that Goffney had solicited his help to rob the store — and cut Barnes’ head off.
The next time Goffney visited, Barnes refused to let him in. He later heard someone try the door, fired a shot, and all went quiet.
Barnes then directed Farmer to conspire with Goffney to break into the store. Barnes and a policeman hid while Farmer and Goffney entered through a window, then arrested both.
On the stand, Farmer testified that Goffney also planned to rob the restaurant of Richard Gaither, “a cripple and blind negro” and “fix” his wife.
Two months later, the Times reported a verdict:
Wilson Daily Times, 8 September 1911.
In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: teamster William Gwaltney [Goffney], 56; wife Courtney, 50; step-son John Bunn, 25, blaksmith; and nephew Sylvester Gwaltney, 6.
In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Stantonsburg Street, widow Courtney Goffney, 50; Ada Battle, 30(?), graded school teacher; and lodger Sylvester Goffney, 16, factory laborer.
In the 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Goffney Sylvester lab h 409 Stantonsburg Road
In 1914, Sylvester Goffney was designated beneficiary of the estate of his aunt, Courtney Goffney.
In 1918, Sylvester Goffney registered for the World War I draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 10 August 1894 in WIlson; resided at 147 Suggs Street, Wilson; and was unemployed. [Goffney signed his card with a firm, strong signature, evidence of a good education and opportunity to practice.]
In the 1920 census of Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan: auto factory laborer Sylvester Goffney, 25, was a lodger in the household of Ida L. Taylor, 42, on Saint Antoine Street.
In the 1930 census of Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan: at 2135 Riopelle Street, Sylvester Goffney, 35, roomer, porter in barbershop.
In January 1937, Sylvester Goffney applied for a Social Security number. Per his application, he was born 10 August 1894 in WIlson, North Carolina, to Christopher Goffney and Kate McCowan.
In the 1940 census of River Rouge, Wayne County, Michigan: renting at 450 Holford Street, Sylvester Goffney, 45, porter at veterans hospital, and wife Mattie, 41, confectionery clerk.
In 1942, Sylvester Oliver Goffney registered for the World War II draft in Wayne County, Michigan. Per his registration card, he was born 10 August 1894 in Wilson, N.C.; lived at 450 Holford Street, River Rouge, Michigan; his contact was Mrs. P. Henry, 475 Holford; and he was unemployed.
In the 1947 Wyandotte, Michigan, city directory: Goffney Sylvester (Mattie) conf 518 Elliott h 516 [Elliott]
Sylvester Goffney died 22 March 1948 in River Rouge, Wayne County, Michigan. Per his death certificate, he was born 10 August 1894 in Wilson, N.C., and was married.
During our conversation in February, Samuel C. Latham told me that Peter Lupe was the only black person “allowed” to sell beer on the 500 block of East Nash. This piece, floating somewhere between news and society column, supports Mr. Lathan’s observation.
John G. Thomas’ first bit of “triviata” — Attorney George Tomlinson appeared at an alderman meeting on behalf of Willie Prince to complain that the police were showing favoritism toward Lupe while harassing Prince and others and that Prince’s on-premise wine license had been revoked, but Lupe remained free to pour. City tax collector Richard R. Smiley step up to resolve part of Prince’s complaint by revoking Lupe’s license on the spot.
The second item — One Saturday night, exactly five minutes after a “negro woman” was booked on a liquor charge, Lupe bonded her out.
The third — The police arrested James Patrick on a vagrancy charge and found his pockets full of “good luck negro charms.” (Again, “jo-mo.” Was this actually a local variant on “mojo”?) Patrick explained that, in exchange for rent, he had promised to get his landlady’s boyfriend to come back. [Sidenote: Vagrancy laws essentially criminalized joblessness and were wielded to harass poor people, especially those of color. After a number of constitutional challenges, in the 1960s most vagrancy laws were replaced by statutes prohibiting more specific behavior, such as public intoxication or disorderly conduct.]
State of North Carolina, Wilson County } Court of Pleas & Quarter Sessions October Term 1859
The Jurors for the State aforesaid upon their oath present that Gray Powel a free negro late of the county of Wilson on the 1st day of June AD 1859 at & in the said county unlawfully did migrate into the State of North Carolina contrary to the provisions of the act of the general assembly in such cases made & provided & that the said Gray Powel afterwards to wit up to this time doth yet remain in said State & in the county aforesaid contrary to the form of the Statute in each case made & provided & against the peace & dignity of the State /s/ B.B. Barnes Solicitor
In the 1850 census of Stephen Powell, 47, wife Synthia, 36, and children Gray, 9, Queen Anne, 8, Dolly, 7, Crockett, 3, and Noab, 1. [If this is the same Gray Powell, it suggests that he left his birth state prior to 1859, then returned, an act considered an “unlawful migration.”]
Slave Records, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives.