Letters

Family ties, no. 5: I wish it was so that I could come to you & family.

Wilson’s emergence as a leading tobacco market town drew hundreds of African-American migrants in the decades after the 1890s. Many left family behind in their home counties, perhaps never to be seen again. Others maintained ties the best way they could.

Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver and her husband Jesse A. Jacobs Jr. left Dudley, in southern Wayne County, North Carolina, around 1905. They came to Wilson presumably for better opportunities off the farm. Each remained firmly linked, however, to parents and children and siblings back in Wayne County as well as those who had joined the Great Migration north. This post is the fifth in a series of excerpts from documents and interviews with my grandmother Hattie Henderson Ricks (1910-2001), Jesse and Sarah’s adoptive daughter (and Sarah’s great-niece), revealing the ways her Wilson family stayed connected to their far-flung kin. (Or didn’t.)

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Sarah Silver died of a massive heart attack on a train platform on 8 January 1938 while on her way from Wilson to Greensboro, North Carolina. After receiving the news via a shocking and confusing telegram, my grandmother sent word of Sarah’s death to other relatives. One went to Sarah’s widowed sister-in-law Carrie L. Henderson Borrero, who replied via letter immediately:

Sunday Jan. 9. 38

My Dear Hattie

I received your telegram to-day. 1 P.M. it was certainly a shock to me you & family certainly have my deepest sympathy & also from my family.

I did not know your mother was sick you must write later and let me know about her illness.

It is so strange I have been dreaming of my husband Caswell so much for the past two weeks he always tells me that has something to tell me & that he feels so well so I guess this is what I was going to hear about your mother.

I wish it was so that I could come to you & family but times are so different now seems as if we cannot be prepared to meet emergencies any more but you must know that my heart & love is with you & family.

I am just writing to you a short note now will write you again. Let me hear from you when you get time to write

From

Your Aunt in law

Carrie L. Borrero

322 E. 100th St.  N. Y City

Letter in personal collection of Lisa Y. Henderson.

Family ties, no. 4: I pray for the whole family.

Wilson’s emergence as a leading tobacco market town drew hundreds of African-American migrants in the decades after the 1890s. Many left family behind in their home counties, perhaps never to be seen again. Others maintained ties the best way they could.

Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver and her husband Jesse A. Jacobs Jr. left Dudley, in southern Wayne County, North Carolina, around 1905. They came to Wilson presumably for better opportunities off the farm. Each remained firmly linked, however, to parents and children and siblings back in Wayne County as well as those who had joined the Great Migration north. This post is the fourth in a series of excerpts from interviews with my grandmother Hattie Henderson Ricks (1910-2001), Jesse and Sarah’s adoptive daughter (and Sarah’s great-niece), revealing the ways her Wilson family stayed connected to their far-flung kin. (Or didn’t.)

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A few months after my grandmother passed away in January 2001, my father, mother, sister, and I converged on her little rowhouse at 5549 Wyalusing Avenue, Philadelphia, to clean it out. In a drawer of a large steel desk in the basement, I found a packet of papers. In them, a letter I’d never known existed, from my great-great-grandmother Loudie Henderson‘s brother Caswell C. Henderson to their sister, Sarah H. Jacobs, who reared my grandmother. It is dated 16 August 1926 and was mailed to Sarah in Greensboro, N.C., where she was visiting their niece, Mamie Henderson Holt.

Though he does not say so directly, Caswell Henderson seems to have been responding to the news of the death of Sarah’s husband Jesse A. Jacobs about five weeks earlier. Sarah has asked him to come to North Carolina, for a visit or perhaps permanently, but he cannot, pleading health and finances. (Caswell worked as a messenger for the United States Custom House in lower Manhattan.) He is hopeful, though, that soon they will be together to “help one another.” He expresses the importance of his family by sending greetings to his great-nieces (my grandmother Hattie and her sister Mamie) and inquiring after niece Minnie Simmons Budd, who had migrated to Philadelphia from Mount Olive, North Carolina. Of course, while “prayers are wonderful when said in all sincerity from the heart,” the prayers of his friends could not keep Caswell C. Henderson forever, and he died 16 January 1927.

Lots in Dudley.

My grandmother, Hattie Henderson Ricks, inherited two lots in the southern Wayne County town of Dudley from Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver, her great-aunt and foster mother. [Because she had been informally adopted by Sarah and her husband Jesse A. Jacobs Jr., my grandmother used the surname Jacobs until adulthood, when she reverted to Henderson.]

Sarah Jacobs, who moved to Wilson about 1905, supported her parents  in their final years, sending them food via train and building a small house in Dudley proper closer to neighbors and family. My grandfather recalled:

Mama had the lot where the house was, where Grandma Mag [Margaret Balkcum Henderson (1836-1915)] lived. Had that house built for her. The house they was staying in was up by the railroad, was just about to fall down. Somewhere down up there by where the Congregational Church is. And she built that house down there next to Babe Winn. I don’t think it was but one room. The porch, one room, and a little shed kitchen, a little, small, like a closet almost, and had the stove in it. Then had a stove in the room where she was, one of them round-bellied stoves where you take the top off and put wood in it. I remember that.

Just recently, we discovered documents related to the purchase of these lots. They were in this envelope from the Wayne County Register of Deeds, postmarked 11 August 1941 and addressed to my grandmother at 1109 Queen Street in Wilson. (She penciled in updated addresses as she moved in the 1940s and ’50s.) Sarah Jacobs Silver died in 1938, and I imagine my grandmother received this letter pursuant to the settlement of her estate.

There was this promissory note for the purchase for $20 of lots 15 and 16 of block number 2. It is signed “Sary Jackobs” by someone other than Sarah Jacobs.

And then another, dated 16 October 1911 at Dudley, that she did sign. (Her address was given as 106 Elba Street, Wilson, which was an early designation for 303 Elba.) A notation scribbled in pencil across it confirms that she timely paid off the purchase price.

The park should be named in his honor.

In 1980, the Mary McLeod Bethune Women’s Civic Club petitioned Wilson Parks and Recreation Director Burt Gillette to name a new city park for Oliver Nestus Freeman. Their letter contains interesting details of Freeman’s life, including more about his amusement park and the focus of his real estate development.

The petition was successful.

Letters to Santa.

Thomas A. and Mary Ida Bagley Jones‘ children did not leave anything to chance with Santa Claus at Christmas of 1924.

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Wilson Mirror, 10 December 1924.

Nor did their cousins, the children of John A. and Bettie Hinnant Jones:

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Wilson Daily Times, 17 December 1924.

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In the 1920 census of Oldfields township, Wilson County: farmer Thomas A. Jones, 51; wife Mary I., 45; children Milbry, 28, Andrew, 19, Leonia, 17, James H., 14, Ollie T., 9, Ida May, 7, Paul H., 5, and Jim Lawrence, 3; and granddaughter Bettie Lee, 4.

In the 1920 census of Oldfields township, Wilson County: farmer J.A. Jones, 42; wife Bettie, 28; and children Johnnie W., 16, Grover, 7, Susie, 5, Maomie [Naomi], 4, and Ruth, 1.

In the 1920 census of Elm City, Toisnot township, Wilson County: widowed farmer George Gaston, 69, and children [and grandchildren] Ada, 33, Nina, 31, August, 27, George J., 6, Lucile, 2, and Ernest, 9 months. (Also, in Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Garfield Perkins, 36; wife Laura, 36; children Ethel, 15, and G. William, 12; and boarder P. Ada Gaston, 34, a teacher.

(More about Jones Hill School to come.)

A few reasons why Negro ministers should support race enterprises.

The Word, in short: “buy Black.”

Cleveland Gazette, 6 July 1912.

  • A.N. Darden — Arthur N. Darden, son of Charles H. and Dinah Scarborough Darden, was only 23 years old when he penned this opinion letter published in the Cleveland Gazette, an African-American newspaper. His message of “race pride” to Black clergy is summarized in his final paragraph: ” … if the race sticks together in business life the day is nearer than we think when Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hand to God and our race become the chief corner stone that the builders rejected.”

Booker T. Washington speaks of Miss Williamson.

Booker T. Washington mentioned Mahala J. Williamson in this letter to Warren Logan, treasurer of Tuskegee Institute. Williamson, a Hampton Institute graduate, served in several positions at Tuskegee, including head of the laundry department, principal of the night school, and librarian.

Williamson, born in 1864, was the daughter of Patrick and Spicey Williamson. See here a letter Williamson wrote about her work at Tuskegee.

Excerpt from Harlan, Louis R., Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume 2: 1860-89 (1972).

It affords me great pleasure in penning you these lines.

A couple of years ago, I ran across this entry in a search of the digital Collections Catalog of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture:

I recently requested the letter, and when the good folks at the Virginia Museum returned from pandemic exile, I received a copy of the two-page note. I had hoped to find that Queen Bruce had lived in Wilson County, but now conclude that she did not. Rather, her home was Halifax County, Virginia, and she had been enslaved by the family of Anne Ruffin Sims’ husband. I post the letter here, though, to clarify for other researchers.

Here’s a transcript:

Newark N.J. 5th 23rd 188[illegible] Letter from old family nurse to Mrs Sims

Mrs. A.R. Sims

Dear Miss Annie it affords me much pleasure in penning you these few lines to inform you of my health I am well hoping to find you all well I heard from you through Ellen Hicks and was glad to head that you was well and had not forgotten me for I often think of you and wish I could see you although I am surrounded by all the comforts of life but I must say I have never realize there is any place like home Miss Anna please give my love to Old master and mistress Miss Birdy and the rest Theoderick from me with his best wishes to the Colonel and master Jno. Sims Please except my best love for your self Mas William the baby kiss the baby for me my love to Master Jno. Sims tell him I expect to come home next year and I want to cook a nice dinner for him and his wife my love to miss Eliza and her family Excuse my short note and please write to me and let me hear from you soon I remain your Humble & Obedient Servant

Queen Bruce, 152 Howard St., Newark, N.J.

Wilkins says give his love to Master Willie and Master Johnny if you please

Anne Cameron Ruffin was born in 1861 to Dr. John Kirkland Ruffin and Susan Tayloe Ruffin. By 1870, her family was living in Wilson, where her father opened a medical practice. Anne Ruffin married William Bailey Sims in Wilson in 1883. Their oldest child, William Howson Sims, born 1886, may have been the baby to whom Queen Bruce sent kisses. William B. Sims’ father was also named William Howson Sims and owned a large, old plantation and called Black Walnut and more than one hundred enslaved people in rural Halifax County, Virginia. He is likely the “old master” Bruce referred to in her letter. John Sims was the brother of William B. and son of William H. Sims; Eliza Broadnax Sims Timberlake was sister and daughter. 

In the 1870 census of Roanoke township, Halifax County, Virginia: Wilkins Sims, 43; wife Queen, 38; and children Jannah, 13, Odrick, 8, and Morriss, 13.  During the following decade, the family changed its surname from Sims to Bruce. Joanna Bruce, 18, daughter of J.W. and Queen Bruce, died 15 June 1877 in Halifax County, Virginia. Theoderick Bruce, 22, son of Joe and Queen Bruce, married Lucinda Coleman, 19, on 29 December 1881, in Halifax County, Virginia. One year-old Theoderick Bruce died 10 July 1886 in Newark, New Jersey. Morris A. Bruce married Catherine Jackson in Newark, N.J., on 1 October 1893. In the 1895 Holbrook’s Newark, N.J., city directory: Bruce Morris Albert (c) driver, h 373 Halsey; Bruce Theo K (c) letter carrier, h 215 Court; and Bruce Wilkins (c) h 55 Broome. In the 1903 Holbrook’s Newark, N.J., city directory: Bruce Queen, wid Joseph, h 131 Broome. Records for Newark’s Woodland Cemetery show the burial of Queen Bruce, colored, age 72, who died on 9 February 1908.

Newark, N.J., Woodland Cemetery Records, 1895-1980, online database, http://www.familysearch.org.

We are very anxious to add on to schools.

The North Carolina State Archives holds records of the former Department of Public Instruction’s Division of Negro Education, including correspondence between the Rosenwald Fund and county school superintendents.

In March 1926, Rosenwald Fund Supervisor W.F. Credle wrote Wilson County School Superintendent Charles L. Coon to update Coon on his visit to Elm City and to tout several sources of funding “for the colored children of North Carolina.” “We are very anxious to add on schools in towns the size of Elm City where buildings large enough for the accommodation of a high school can be provided.” 

Though initially cool to the idea of external control of funds, Coon responded quickly, inviting Credle to meet with the Board of Education to discuss “the whole problem of colored school buildings for Wilson county.”

On April 26, Credle sent Coon a report on the schools he had inspected during his visit and urged him to consider employing a Jeanes teacher, who “could assist the people in raising as much money by private contributions for school buildings and equipment as the county would have to spend for her salary.” (The Jeanes Foundation funded educational and vocational training in rural African-American communities, primarily via teacher placement.)

On May 31, Credle wrote again, “happy to advise” that checks for Stantonsburg ($900), Evansdale ($700) and Saratoga Schools ($900) were attached, and Yelverton and New Vester were coming. 

Correspondence: Rosenwald Fund, Box 2, Folder C, 1925-1926, African American Education, digital.ncdcr.gov.

Confusion and trouble.

Here we examined the messy machinations of the administration of Weeks Parker’s estate, which entered probate in Edgecombe County in 1844. One of his legatees was daughter Margaret H. Battle, wife of Rev. Amos J. Battle and a Wilson resident by the mid-1850s.

Hugh B. Johnston transcribed this May 1861 letter to Rev. Battle from James Davis of Wilson, the court-appointed trustees of Margaret Battle’s share of estate. (The original letter does not appear to have preserved among the Battle papers.) The letter is difficult to decipher out of context but to seems to suggest that Davis felt significant pressure to bring in quick money by selling slaves rather than hiring them out and was protesting the interference in his management of Mrs. Battle’s affairs. Recall that Weeks Parker had purposefully drafted the terms of his will to hold in trust slaves Lucindy, Stephen, Turner, Lewis, George, Marina, Tony, Matilda, Caroline, William, Holly, Big Hardy, Ben, Cena, Moses, Syphax, Little Hardy, Jim, Lucy and Little Jim “for the sole and separate use and benefit of daughter Margaret H. Battle wife of Amos J. Battle during her natural life free from the management and control of her present or any future husband.”

Mr. Battle

My Dear Sir, I have striven in vain in the management as Trustee of Mrs. Battle’s affairs to act in such a way as would conduce to the interest of all concerned and at the same time to avoid giving occasion to those dissensions & wranglings in the family which I know are so harassing to you all. I have not in any arrangement which I have attempted to make been actuated by an motive of self interest of for my own security — but having been fully satisfied by the last years management of the farm & negroes that there could not upon any just ground be expected an adequate support for the family for the ensuing year from the farm, I advised the hireing out of the negroes & I was of the opinion & still am that it would have been best to have hired out every single man — According to an understanding had some 2 or 3 months ago I gave to Dr. Bullock the choice and the refusal of all the hands to be hired out; in pursuance of this arrangement I went to see Mrs. Battle & knew of her which of the negroes she had determined to keep & told her at the time that Dr. B. was to have such of the rest as he wanted, & this arrangement I shall most certainly adhere to as long I have any say-so in the matter, because I have made the promise to Dr. B. & I see no just reason why I should violate it.

In regard to the sale of the Women and Children and the appropriation of the proceeds of the sale to any other purpose than the buying of such other property as the Court may be satisfied is of equivalent value, I am satisfied upon an examination the will can not be done. I am however perfectly willing to appropriate every dollar of the hire of the negroes to the purchase of provisions & I will take the notes and advance the money (Provided the sureties to that notes agree to this arrangement) & I can not see why they should not in view of the condition in which you find yourself as to provisions.

If Mrs. Battle wishes the girl at Dr Harrel’s Exchanged, I will try and effect the Exchange as soon as I can conveniently do so, but I can not and will not do that with regard to this property which I am not authorized to do by the will. If I could have the absolute and undisturbed control of the negroes, I have not the shadow of a doubt I could realize from them a handsome support for your family, but as long as their whims and caprices are to consulted & there is no settled plan as to their management, there will inevitably be confusion and trouble.

I am writing plainly, not out of any feeling of vexation or resentment, but simply because you have written thus to me, and because the circumstances of the case demand plain and prompt action. I am now as I ever have been very willing to render through motives of friendship such service to your family as I may be able, & it is only by the exercise of the strictest economy that in the present arrangement of your force that you can get through this year, & instead of hireing either for the farm or for other purposes, it most certainly is the true policy to get clear of every one that can possibly be dispensed with.

I was from home from Tuesday last to Saturday evening or you would have heard from me sooner. You must be content as I and as many others have to, tho, to trust the future somewhat. I have not got corn enough on hand to last 2 months & but few have a year’s supply of corn or meat & if the Sureties to that note will as I have no doubt they will if the matter is properly represented to them consent to the appropriation of the negro hire to the purchase of provisions, it will place some 1200$ at your disposal & as soon as the notes are placed in my hands you can buy corn or meat & draw on me for the full amount of the notes & I will pay the orders.

This amt will surely relieve you till the next term of our Sup’r Court, when we can obtain (if necessary) in a legal manner such a decree as will enable us to get along for the bal. of the year, but as I have already said, I will not without proper authority violate the plain letter of that will — and I can but think that your threat to sell those negroes is made without due consideration. It is but too evident that there is a feeling of restlessness in regard to those negroes, a continual disposition to sell or exchange, which must result if persisted in to the detriment of the estate, & while I am always willing to do that which will promote the comfort or interest of Mrs. Battle or her family, I must see a good reason why a sale or exchange should be made before I proceed to make it. You need not send the Woman & children to me, but if you wish to dispose of her for the year, please come & let me know what kind of a negro she is, what incumbrance to her &c I will Endeavor to get her off your hands.

P.S. I have just seen Dr B. he gives up Hardy & keeps Stephen, Hilliard, & Turner — says further that he is willing to the appropriation of the negro hire Except his own to be applied as above proposed & I have no doubt will willingly agree to his own hire going in the same way if I solicit it, which I will if Mrs. Battle signifies her assent to the arrangement. It may be proper for me here to say in order to give Mrs. Battle time to select another that I shall be compelled upon the first opportunity (which will be at the June Court) to resign my Trusteeship because I see probability of my being able to so manage her affairs as to secure her best interest & retain the good will of others concerned

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Turner, Hilliard, Hardy, and Stephen were among the group of enslaved people Margaret P. Battle inherited from her father.

Letter transcribed in The Past Speaks from Old Letters, “a copy of the working papers found in the files of Hugh B. Johnston, Jr., acquired in the course of his lifelong avocation as a professional genealogist and local historian,”republished by Wilson County Genealogical Society, March 2003.