Newspapers

Below the railroad.

In the earliest known map of Wilson, drawn in 1872, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad marked the town’s eastern border. Beyond lay the plank road, a toll house, and a smattering of buildings, but the territory was essentially farmland. By 1882, town limits had pushed east to Pender Street, and a tiny commercial district had grown up at Nash and Pettigrew Streets, convenient to railroad workers, customers and passengers. Although African-Americans owned substantial plots of land along Pender, Stantonsburg and Manchester Streets and the Plank Road [East Nash], the area also contained large farms owned by well-to-do whites. However, with the arrival in the 1890s of tobacco stemmeries and a cotton gin near Railroad Street, working-class neighborhoods such as Little Richmond sprang up. Black businesses and churches solidified their claim to Pender Street end of Nash, and Samuel H. Vick and others began to lay the grid of East Wilson’s streets.

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Sanborn fire insurance map, 1885.

Newspapers offer glimpses of the early development of East Wilson. References to the area “below the railroad” — “across the tracks,” in more modern parlance — regularly appeared in the pages of Wilson’s several late nineteenth-century journals.

Burford & Hinnant operated a meat market below the railroad, most likely at Nash and Pettigrew. Their 1883 notice advertised their steaks to customers and solicited “fat cattle” from area growers.

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Wilson Advance, 30 November 1883.

Perry Taylor’s grocery/saloon/pool hall stood at one corner of Nash and Pettigrew Streets. The combination was a popular one. This ad appeared in January 1884, but the reference to Christmas suggests that it had first run earlier. Taylor had bought out grocer James Batts and could “whet your whistle” 24 hours a day.

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Wilson Advance, 18 January 1884.

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Wilson Advance, 4 April 1884.

Stilley & Wooten advertised tobacco products, including “Black Nancy fine-cut tobacco and “Sweet Violet” cigars. In the context of retailers, “below the railroad” in this period seems to have meant the vicinity of Nash and Pettigrew Streets.

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Wilson Advance, 5 December 1884.

The 1888 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson shows the addition of rail lines and businesses to support them. Note, just below the “small lumber yard” at right, an area marked “Negro tenements.” The brick commercial buildings fronting Nash between the railroad and Pettigrew Street were known as the Fulcher block after prominent merchant L.H. Fulcher.

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By the 1890s, newspapers — the Advance leading the way — were making hay with the contents of Wilson’s police blotter and criminal court dockets. Crimes alleged to have been committed by African-Americans received conspicuous, and, if at all possible, outlandish coverage.

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Wilson Advance, 21, April 1892.

In January 1893, a fire devastated the “colored Odd Fellows Hall” on Nash Street. White grocer Golden D. Walston, who rented storage on the hall’s first floor, was fortunate to have insurance to cover his loss. (The order rebuilt its lodge later that year, erecting a three-story building that towered over the block for nearly one hundred years.)

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Wilson Advance, 5 January 1893.

E.G. Rose operated another liquor store-cum-grocery store below the railroad.

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Wilson Advance, 11 May 1893.

Finch & Lamm was perhaps a general merchandise store.

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Wilson Advance, 2 August 1894.

The last decade of the 1800s saw the break-up of the farms and large lots that made up much of the east side’s property holdings. When Zillah Edmundson died in 1896, her estate sold her six-room house on five acres at Vance and Pender Streets to a seller who immediately flipped it. Before long, the former Edmundson property had been subdivided for house lots, and East Wilson’s familiar grid began to take shape.

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Wilson Advance, 8 August 1896.

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Wilson Daily Times, 23 October 1896.

Here was a complicated adaptive reuse: Briggs & Flemming converted the former Baptist church building on West Green Street to use as a tobacco prize house. Silas Lucas bought the building, removed the steeple, and planned to move it below the railroad to the former location of the Tate house (which was where?) for further repurposing as a tenement house. (Presumably for African-American tenants. Wilson’s black workforce was booming with the influx of former farmhands seeking factory jobs.)

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Wilson Advance,  21 January 1897.

Across Wilson, buildings overwhelmingly were constructed of wood, and fires were an ever-present danger.

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Wilson Daily Times, 23 April 1897.

This article covering the criminal docket verged into an opinion piece in 1897. By that time, “below the railroad” was understood to mean the town’s black residential area.

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Wilson Advance, 11 November 1897.

In 1898, Benjamin M. Owens moved a wooden building on East Nash Street to make way for “two nice brick stores.”

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Wilson Advance, 7 July 1898.

In 1899, Mack D. Felton advertised his fish market (outfitted with one of Wilson’s earliest telephones.)

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Wilson Daily Times, 5 May 1899.

In 1899, with the financial assistance of local merchants, the town assigned police patrol at all hours below the railroad. Later that year, as winter approached city council appointed a committee to find a space in the area for police to warm themselves during the night shift.

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Wilson News, 2 March 1899.

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Wilson News, 12 October 1899.

After the turn of the century, references to “below the railroad” became less common. However, in 1911, Charles H. Darden & Son employed the term in an ad for their bicycle repair shop. With more businesses now lining the streets across the tracks, a specific address was a useful bit of information.

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Wilson Daily Times, 17 March 1911.

Another shooting. The 1908 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory lists Benjamin H. Moore as the owner of a grocery on Nash Street near the city limits. Henry Stewart appears in the directory as a laborer living at 127 East Nash. Orlando Farmer was a porter at Wilson Grocery Company, no home address listed.

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Wilson Daily Times, 8 August 1911.

Another fish market. Gillikin’s is listed in neither the 1908 nor 1912 city directories.

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Wilson Daily Times, 22 December 1911.

Late in 1918, the city announced that it was moving the town lot from Pine Street to Barnes Street.

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Wilson Daily Times, 3 December 1918.

Is this collection of sheds the town lot? The 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map shows it across from Farmer’s Cotton Oil Company and adjacent to Wilson Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.

It’s hard to imagine that a twenty-five-dollar theft warranted bloodhounds from Raleigh, but ….

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Wilson Daily Times, 25 February 1919.

Charlie Hines’ listing in the 1920 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory. East Nash Street “extended” was the stretch beyond city limits, near Nestus Freeman’s home. In this period, the city’s southeastern edge crossed East Nash at Wainwright Avenue, at the approximate location of today’s Round House and Museum

This article announcing a celebration marking the opening of the black-owned Commercial Bank noted that tickets could be purchased at Shade’s Drugstore, below the railroad at 530 East Nash.

Wilson Daily Times, 1 April 1921.

Early in 1925, Samuel H. Vick appeared before Wilson’s board of aldermen to request funds for “the colored hospital” and streetlights from the railroad to the intersection of Nash and Pender Streets. (A “whiteway” is a brightly lighted street, especially in a city’s business or theatre district.) Vick pointed out the bad optics of one well-lit side and the other dark to train passengers. The mayor raised the usefulness of good lighting to police officers.

Wilson Daily Times, 10 February 1925.

Though decreasingly cited, the term remained in currency at mid-century. In 1952, after considerable public controversy and contention, Wilson’s board of commissioners approved appointment of a housing authority to determine the extent of the city’s need for federally funded public housing. As this snippet of an article attests, black citizens crowded the hearings, testifying to the intense post-war housing shortage “below the railroad.”

Wilson Daily Times, 6 December 1952.

O’Hara will harangue.

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Wilson Advance, 17 October 1884.

In a re-election bid, James Edward O’Hara defeated Wilson’s own Frederick A. Woodard for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. During his first term, O’Hara nominated Daniel C. Suggs to West Point and appointed Daniel Vick to a mail carrier position.

James E. O’Hara (1844-1905).

The first drowning at Contentnea Park.

I posted here about the accidental drowning of Samuel H. Vick Jr.‘s friend Eugene Fisher. The Daily Times noted that Fisher’s death was the second at Contentnea Park in a little over a week. Eddie Simms was first:

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Wilson Daily Times, 22 July 1924.

  • Eddie Simms — in the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Manchester Street, tobacco factory worker Frances Simms, 34, and children Milton, 22, Eddie, 18, Raymond, 10, Maggie, 8, Ava, 5, Richard, 2, and Bay, 3 months. Eddie B. Simms died 17 July 1924. Per his death certificate,he was born 3 August 1904 in Wilson to Ed Mitchell and Frances Simms; was single; lived at 610 Manchester Street; worked as a shoeshiner; and “drowned while in the act of swimming accidentally.” Informant was Millie Simms.

Details of a drowning.

The day after Eugene Fisher drowned while swimming in the lake at Contentnea Park, the Daily Times printed an article suggesting that “Sam Vick,” i.e. Samuel H. Vick Jr., bore some responsibility for the accident.

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Wilson Daily Times, 29 July 1924.

Vick immediately fired back. His grief, he stated sharply, had “been still more aggravated by the misstatement of facts concerning my part in the matter, for the facts were badly twisted and really just the opposite what really happened.” Georgia Aiken also contributed a corrective, milder in tone, but just as firm.

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Wilson Daily Times, 30 July 1924.

And where was Contentnea Park? References in contemporaneous news articles reveal that (1) it was not an African-American-only park — the Kiwanis met there regularly — but rather seems to have had a section reserved for black patrons, “the negro park”; (2) it was privately owned and operated; (3) it was located above the dam on Contentnea Creek; and (4) entrance was gained via a road marked by two stone pillars. A dam spans Contentnea Creek just above U.S. Highway 301 to form what is now known as Wiggins Mill Reservoir, still a popular recreational area. With a hat tip to Janelle Booth Clevinger, here is my best guest at the park’s location:

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  • Eugene Fisher — Connecticut-born Eugene Leonard Fisher was newly arrived to Wilson at the time of his tragic death. His father Edwin W. Fisher was a manager with North Carolina Mutual and moved his wife and remaining children to Wilson between 1926, when Edwin is listed in the 1926 Durham, N.C., city directory, and 1928, when he appears in the Wilson directory. They settled into 624 East Nash Street, the house built for Dr. Frank S. Hargrave next door to Samuel Vick’s family home at 622. The Fishers appear in Wilson in the 1930 census, and Daisy Virginia Fisher (Eugene’s stepmother) died there on 25 April 1935. Per her death certificate, she and her husband were living at 539 East Nash at the time. Eugene Fisher’s younger brother Milton W. Fisher remained in Wilson into the 1940s, and his older brother Edwin D. Fisher lived there the remainder of his life.

Eugene Fisher’s death certificate reveals that he was an insurance agent for North Carolina Mutual. Fisher was living at an unspecified address on Nash Street. His father Edwin, then a Durham resident, was informant.

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Eugene L. Fisher served in the United States Naval Reserve Force during World War I as a mess attendant. The Messman Branch of the Navy, which was restricted to non-white sailors, was responsible for feeding and serving officers. Fisher was assigned to U.S.S. Black Hawk, a destroyer depot ship. After his death, his brother Edwin D. Fisher of 600 East Green Street applied for a military headstone to be shipped to the “Negro Cemetery (Fayetteville Street)” in Durham. [Edwin Fisher, himself a veteran of World War I, signed as “Liaison Officer, [illegible] A.V. of World War, Sumter S.C. chap. #2.” (What does this signify?)]

Aerial images courtesy of Google Maps.

UPDATE, 9 April 2019:

The “stone” pillars I identified above are actually brick. Until a better guess arrives though, I will stick with hypothesis that they mark the entrance to Contentnea Park. Many thanks to Janelle Booth Clevinger for this photo. — LYH

UPDATE, 11 April 2019: Per additional intel, the pillars shown above were erected in the 1960s. Thus, the location of Contentnea Park remains a mystery.

Liquor and secret panels.

During our conversation in February, Samuel C. Lathan also told me about “Moon” Jones, who held an infamous annual gambling event called the Skin Ball. Luther “Moon” Jones had a spoon in many pots, including bootlegging:

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Wilson Daily Times, 12 August 1939.

  • Luther “Moon” Jones — possibly, in the 1928 and 1930 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Jones Luther J (c; Lula) rest 543 E Nash h 712 Hadley. In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: renting for $16/month, Lula Herring, 25, seamstress, and boarder Luther Jones, 38, cafe manager. Luther Jones registered for the World War II draft in 1942. Per his registration card, he was born 15 August 1899 in Wilson; resided at 540 East Nash, Wilson; his contact was “(Nellie Jones) Mrs. Myrtie Jones,” 1101 East Nash; and he was an unemployed painter.
  • Biltmore Hotel — at 541 East Nash, previously known as the Hotel Union and Whitley Hotel.

U.S. WWII Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947, [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com.

“So you’ll know when it’s your time to go.”

John G. Thomas’ “Wilsonia” column appeared in the Daily Times regularly during the 1930s and ’40s. A raconteur of human-interest stories, Thomas — typically, for the times — was drawn to tales of picaresque negroes living in Wilson’s colored section. In his 8 January 1937 column, Thomas introduced his readers to the sad and curious tale, derived via hearsay, of the “conjuration” of Duncan Hargrove. Just 11 months later, on 11 February 1938, Thomas revisited the story, adding considerable detail to the plight Hargrove, now called “Jake,” and augmenting his  armchair anthropologist’s analysis of rootwork, a deep-rooted African-American spiritual practice. (“You probably won’t believe that in this day and age a simple thing like a hole bored in an oak tree could kill a person by itself. Now would you? But 1938 isn’t such a far cry after all, when it comes to superstition among the negroes of the south. It was several years back when I became interested in such things over here.”)

In a nutshell: Hargrove, who lived on Carolina Street, had a “leaky heart” (valve regurgitation.) After an argument, a friend cursed Hargrove by boring a hole into a tree and pronouncing that Hargrove would live only until the tree’s bark had grown over the hole. After watching the hole with fearful obsessiveness, Hargrove traveled to Georgia and Florida searching for a conjurer to lift the “hand” placed on him. He failed and, as the old folks used to say, after “going down slow,” he died.

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Wilson Daily Times, 9 February 1937.

Now the remix, EP version, with Duncan as “Jake,” the friend as a rootworker in his own right, and the maple as an oak:

Wilson Daily Times, 11 January 1938.

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  • Duncan Hargrove — in the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Vance Street, D. John Hargrove, 28, fireman at machine shop; wife Vina, 25, laundress; children D[illegible], 8, Willie, 6, Jacob, 4, and John Ben, 4; mother Adline, 50, widowed laundress; brother Esaias, 30, machine shop fireman; and niece Melia A. Hargrove, 15, cook.
  • Toussaint L’Ouverture
  • Dr. Devil and Dr. Buzzard — For another story of rootwork in Wilson County, this one also involving Dr. Buzzard and a hole bored in a tree, see here.
  • Note Hardy — Note Hardy died 12 April 1977 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 4 September 1900 to Charlie Durham and Annie Hardy in Wayne County; was never married; was handicapped; and resided in Goldsboro, Wayne County.
  • Harvey Green
  • John Moore
  • John the Conqueror
  • Adam & Eve
  • mojo — see also here and (another of Thomas’ columns) here.
  • John McGill

The twin Gastons.

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Wilson Advance, 21 April 1892.

The Gaston twins were John A. Gaston and George A. Gaston. George established perhaps the leading barber shop in Elm City, seven miles north of Wilson. Though John was sometimes referred to as “Twin Gaston,” this ad, with Gastons plural, suggests that the brothers were in business together in Wilson at least briefly.

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In the 1870 census of Kinston, Lenoir County, North Carolina: brickmason George Gaston, 53, wife Matilda, 30, and 13 year-old sons George and John, both farm laborers.

In the 1880 census of Wilson, Wilson County: brickmason George Gaston, 60, wife Matilda, 44, and son John, 23, a farm laborer. John’s twin George Gaston, 23, barber, is listed by himself in the 1880 census of Town of Toisnot, Wilson County.

The obituary of Pernelpa “Neppie” Battle Maryland — centenarian?

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News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 26 August 1919.

It seems unlikely that Pernelpa (or Penelope) Battle Maryland was actually 106, or even 100, at the time of her death. Earliest records show that she was born about 1840. (Further, her father Primas Battle, per census records, was born about 1812 — just a year before her alleged birth year.) A resident of Rocky Mount most of her life, Neppie Maryland was living with son John Maryland Jr.‘s family near Elm City in Wilson County at the time of her death.

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In the 1870 census of Rocky Mount, Nash County: John Maryland, 47; wife Penelope, 30; and children Sidney, 13, Henry, 12, Maron, 10, Noah, 8, Haywood 6, Scoffield 4, and Walter, 1.

In the 1880 census of Rocky Mount, Edgecombe County: farmer John Maryland, 58, born in Maryland; wife Melvel, 40; and children Haywood, 17, who was deaf; Schofield, 16; Walter, 10; Mary, 9; John, 7; Hattie, 6; Primas, 4; and Jonas, 2.

In the 1900 census of Rocky Mount, Nash County: day laborer John Marland, 77, born in Maryland; wife Pernelope, 67; and Jonas, 19, Claud, 12, and Jesse Marland, 7.

Walter Maryland died 20 August 1917 in Sharpsburg, Edgecombe County. Per his death certificate, he was born 5 May 1868 in Edgecombe County to John Maryland and Pernelphia Battle; was married; and was a tenant farmer.

Pernelpa Maryland died 20 August 1919 in Toisnot township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was born in 1813 in Edgecombe County to Prymas Battle and Mary Battle, both of Edgecombe County. Informant was George Wright of Sharpsburg, N.C. She was buried in Nash County.

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Haywood Maryland died 8 April 1923 in Rocky Mount, Nash County. Per his death certificate, he was 71 years old; was born in Edgecombe County to John Maryland of Maryland and Panella Battle of Edgecombe County; was a carpentry laborer; was married to Tarnettia Maryland; and lived at 800 South Church Street, Rocky Mount.

Sida [Sidney] Jones died 27 June 1936 at Douglass Farm in Township No. 11, Edgecombe County. Per her death certificate, she was 80 years old; was born in Edgecombe County to Albert Grant and Neppie Maryland and was a widow. Turner Battle of Rocky Mount was informant.

Primus Maryland died 13 May 1959 in Norfolk, Virginia. Per his death certificate, he was born 23 May 1885 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to John Maryland and Penelope Maryland; was retired from Norfolk & Western Railroad; and was never married.