Oral History

The Spell family portrait.

Photographs of formerly enslaved people are relatively rare, and I am grateful to Roy S. Spell Jr. for sharing one that his family has cherished for well over a century. His grandfather Johnnie Spell, born about 1903, is at bottom left, leaning against his grandmother Chaney Spell, who was born into slavery about 1845. Other Spell family members surround them.

We met Chaney Spell here in the interview she gave a Works Project Administration worker in the late 1930s. (Annie Finch Artis can be heard giving voice to Chaney Spell’s words in an exhibit first staged at Wilson’s Imagination Station and now permanently housed at Freeman Round House Museum.) 

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In the 1900 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: widowed farmer Chaney Spells, 55, sons James S., 19, Gray, 17, Walter, 16, and Charley, 13, grandchildren Unity, 14, Fannie, 10, Irvin, 7, and Chaney Farmer, 2, and boarder Harriet Killibrew, 45.

In the 1910 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: widow Chanie Spell, 65, farmer; son Walter, 21; and grandchildren Yearnie, 20, Chanie, 13, Thomas, 5, and Louise, 3.

Reunions.

A quick chart I drew up.

Among the most rewarding aspects of researching for Black Wide-Awake are discovering, uncovering, and recovering lost family connections, both my own and others’. I was particularly excited to piece together the Taylor family puzzle, which linked three of my childhood friends. Wilson County is small enough that it’s not surprising that many of us share distant common ancestry, but just who those long-lost cousins are can be surprising indeed.

Wilson’s first African-American policemen.

Wilson Daily Times, 24 July 1950.

In 1950, Wilson hired its first two Black policemen, Rudolph Best and Lee Jackson Williams, to patrol east of the railroad tracks.

  • Lee Jackson “Hank” Williams

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 319 Hackney Street, a duplex rented at $12/month per unit, Frank Harris, 35, lumber mill laborer; wife Mamie, 33; son Frank Jr., 2; and nephew McKinley Barnes, 21, farm laborer, and niece-in-law Hagar, 16; and Sam Williams, 28, barber; wife Emma, 28; children Addie M., 9, James, 7, Billie, 3, and Sam Jr., 1; and roomer Earnest Corbitt, 32, oil mill laborer.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 511 East Green Street, rented for $12/hour, Sam Williams, 42, barber; wife Emma, 38; and children Addie, 19, James, 17, Billie, 13, Samuel Jr., 11, and Dazzarine, 9.

In 1944, Lee Jackson Williams registered for the World War II draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 5 May 1926 in Wilson County; lived at 511 East Green Street; his nearest relative was Emma Williams; and he was “unemployed — going to school.”

In the 1950 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 505 East Green, barber Sam Williams, 50; wife Emma, 48; children Addie M., 28, James, 26, and Lee Williams, 23; and daughter Dazzarine Nicholson, 19, cashier, and her daughter Edrina, 1.

On 27 September 1954, Lee Jackson Williams, 28, of Wilson, son of Sam and Emma Crawford Williams, married Margaret Evangeline Speight, 25, of Wilson, daughter of Theodore and Marie Thomas Speight, at 510 East Green Street, Wilson. Presbyterian minister O.J. Hawkins performed the ceremony in the presence of Beatrice Neal, Emma Williams, and Sarah Bryant.

Lee Jackson Williams died 24 October 1997 in Wilson.

  • Rudolph Best

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 406 East Walnut, ice plant laborer Aaron Best, 31; wife Estell, 31; and children William A., 9, Audry L., 6, Rudolph V., 5, Vera M., 3, and Royce D., 1.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 406 Walnut, rented for $12/month, Aaron Best, 39; wife Estelle, 39; and children Rudolph, 14, Royce, 10, Harper and Gerald, 8, Eddie, 7, and Nannie Jean, 5.

In 1943, Rudolph Best registered for the World War II draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 17 September 1925 in Wilson; his contact was Aaron Best; he lived at 1009 East Nash Street, Wilson; and he worked part-time at Briggs Hotel.

In the 1950 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1009 East Nash Street, Isaac Williams, 26, plaster helper; wife Delores D., 25, shaking tobacco at tobacco factory; and Larry L., 1; (upstairs) Rudolph Best, 24, plaster helper, and brothers Audrey L., 27, auto mechanic at repair shop, and Eddie E., 17; and (upstairs) Odessa B. Reid, 39, and mother Ietta R.M. Reid, 81, widow.

On 29 December 1954, Rudolph Best, 29, of Wilson, son of Aaron Best and Estelle Burden Best, married Ophelia Atkinson, 30, of Wilson, daughter of Mark Atkinson and Ada Battle Atkinson in Wilson.

Rudolph Best died 19 August 1974 in Durham, North Carolina. Per his death certificate, he was born 17 September 1925 to Aaron Best and Estelle Burton; was married to Ophelia Atkinson; lived at 1009 East Nash Street, Wilson; and had worked as a “policeman (22 years) Wilson Police Dept. Retired.)

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Wilson Daily Times, 15 March 1982.

Efird’s, there on Nash Street.

This ad in a 1934 Wilson Chamber of Commerce brochure depicts a building readily recognizable today in Wilson in its place across Nash Street from Imagination Station. Efird’s was a longtime downtown department store, and my grandmother Hattie Henderson Ricks spoke of shopping there as a child:

” … then, too, I had a pair of shoes, laced up, way up here, and the children said they was a grown person’s shoes. And Mama made me wear them. But they all teased me ‘bout them shoes, and I told Mama they hurt my feet. And she said, ‘Well, why didn’t you say something ‘bout ‘em? We could have got a larger pair when I bought ‘em.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know what size I wear.’  I said, ‘You let me try them on, but they didn’t hurt my feet then. But when I kept ‘em on a while, they started stinging,’ and they was too narrow or too short, one. I don’t know which it was now. But anyhow, Mama was gon make me wear ‘em, ’cause you wanted some new shoes, and I bought you some, whether you want to or not.’ I said, ‘I didn’t pick ‘em out, you picked ‘em out. They was on the table, and you had me try ‘em on.’

“The grown-up person shoes.” 

“The store was Efird’s, Efird’s, or whatever it is, there on Nash Street. They had a store, one of them where they had a little section for shoes in the back part, and they had a little seat there where you go to try on shoes. It was a white store, and they’d make you put on stockings – they had socks down there for you to put on, to put the shoes on. And you couldn’t put your ‘dirty’ feet in ‘em, and you see some people, look like everybody else done took the shoe off their feet. You can’t get the shoe on if you don’t have the sock on. That’s the way they’d sell it. Like that.

“For clothes, most of the time, they go by the age and the heighth, and they put it up to you, and they measure it like that and those kind of things. You didn’t try it on.”

Adapted from interviews of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, 1994-1998, all rights reserved; detail of photo of Hattie H. Ricks and Mamie Henderson Jacobs in possession of Lisa Y. Henderson.

Memories of William Hines.

I wrote here of the memoir of long-time Darden High School principal Edward M. Barnes. At the time, I believed the pink booklet to be a one-off tribute published by Darden High School Alumni Association. However, on a recent visit to Sallie B. Howard School, I was introduced to an entire library of these works spanning multiple literary genres — written, edited, and published in the 1980s and ’90s by Mrs. Howard for use in the Youth Enrichment Program.

I was particularly interested in this booklet, and Dr. JoAnne Woodard generously offered me a copy. William Hines seems scarcely remembered now, but was for nearly three-quarters of the twentieth century arguably Wilson’s most civically engaged African-American citizen.

The booklet is organized in a series of Mrs. Howard’s recollections. William Hines was her family’s landlord, and her earliest memories involve the house at 1011 Washington Street.

“… [W]hen we moved into his tenant house in 1935 or ’36, it was the first house we had ever lived in with electricity and an ‘inside’ toilet! We felt extremely fortunate as many of Wilson’s tenant houses did not have such accommodations.”

“How well I remember this neat little four-room house …. It sat so near the sidewalk there was hardly room to frow flowers in the front. In fact, the front porch steps were practically on the sidewalk itself! This, however, was not unusual as many houses were similarly situated during that time. I suppose the rationale of the builders was to leave room in the back so that the residents could plant gardens if they so desired. And in those lean days — nearly everyone desired!”  

“Mr. Hines owned many houses all over Wilson. He also owned his own barber shop where he employed as many as 12 barbers. The house we lived in sat right across the street from others who also owned their own homes. I remember my mother being highly impressed by the green striped awnings of some of these homeowner neighbors. Each summer they would lower these pretty awnings in order to shade their front porches. …”

“I also remember Mr. Hines as one of the donors of cash awards to students who excelled in various subjects at Darden High. Money was hard to come by in those days, and I for one worked hard to capture one of these cash prizes.”

“About 1942, I was a patient at Mercy Hospital on E. Green St. It was said that Mr. Hines was one of the persons who secured the funds from the Duke Endowment for the operations of this hospital. He was the Administrator at the time I was a patient. Practically every morning he would come into the war and say a little something to the patients.”

” … my high school days were filled with priceless memories: the parties, the basketball games held in heatless warehouses (I don’t remember feeling cold!); the football games played in the snow and slush in back of Darden High (I don’t remember feeling cold!); the Junior-Senior proms held on the 3rd floor of the old Vick casino (walk up!); the many concerts and dramas given by our school etc. …”

“Mr. Hines was one of the founders of the Men’s Civic Club. And it was this distinguished group of men who finally succeeded in getting a recreational facility for our community. Today, this facility is known as the Reid Street Center. Now the Black Community had a brand new place in which to house their various activities. How well I remember the Big Bands that played in our new facility. …”

William and Ethel Cornwell Hines in photo reproduced from booklet.

The life of William S. Hagans.

Back in February, I sat down (virtually) with Tyler Mink, Historic Interpreter at Wayne County, North Carolina’s Governor Charles B. Aycock Birthplace State Historic Site, to talk about William S. Hagans, an Aycock contemporary. William S. Hagans was not a Wilson County native, but his mother Apsilla Ward Hagans was, and he grew up on a farm on Aycock Swamp just below the Wayne-Wilson county line. I have published here a series of transcripts of testimony about a land dispute that directly involved Hagans and pulled in as witnesses several men with Wilson County links.

William S. Hagans, his brother Henry E. Hagans, and their father Napoleon Hagans were contemporaries of Daniel Vick, William H. Vick, and Samuel H. Vick and other African-American Wilsonians in late nineteenth-century Republican politics, and I share this video to illuminate the world in which they all lived.

The death of Blount Baker, supercentenarian.

Wilson Daily Times, 7 March 1941.

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In the late 1930s, Blount Baker sat for an interview with a W.P.A. worker in which he spoke of his life in slavery. Baker was one of the last people in Wilson County who had been enslaved.

In the 1940 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer Lee Woodard, 31; wife Mamie, 32; children Ella M., 10, David L., 7, James T., 5, Doris, 3, and Robert N., 1 month; mother Ella, 68, widow; Ester Barnes, 40, widow; uncle Blunt Baker, 109, widower; and nephew James R. Farmer, 21.

Blunt Baker died 3 March 1941 at Mercy Hospital, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 107 years old; was born in Wilson County to Anyka Baker; was a widower; was a retired farmer; resided near Lucama; and was buried in Eatmon cemetery, Wilson County. Informant was Dock Eatmon, Sims.

Home sweet homeland.

I’m very conscious that the Wilson that I regard as home is not really a place that exists any more. It’s an idea. It’s maybe even an idealization. And I have to be careful not to romanticize what Wilson is, or even what Wilson was. My name is Lisa Y. Henderson. As much as Wilson is home for me, I’ve wondered if I could live here now. But I feel really incredibly fortunate to have grown up when and where I did. My closest community had a little core of first-generation, middle-class, college-educated African-Americans. My parents’ generation. And they came together in this town in the early 1960’s, in an era when there was obviously a lot of promise for change for Black people. But that promise mostly was being realized on a remote level, on a national level, and I grew up in a very, very segregated Wilson. I was too young to understand segregation. I was shielded from it, and I certainly never thought of myself in any as inferior to white people. We were conscious of white people, but they weren’t really part of our world. That didn’t change much even when I attended integrated schools. These past six or seven years, I’ve been coming home to give a couple of talks in February. Black History Month. And as a result of those talks, people have sought me out to learn more. I appreciate that. That’s part of of what I’m trying to do — to make people conscious of, or to think about the role of Black people in Wilson’s history. I feel like I have this incredible responsibility in this town — to sort of help it be a better place for everybody who lives here. To expand the idea of to whom history belongs. I think people, especially young people, feel disconnected from the idea of history. They don’t see how it matters. But when you can look around you, and see now only what’s here, but what was here, it makes it easier to think about what could be here. Now that you know what people have done, it’s easier to imagine what you can do. 

The passage above was condensed from a much longer interview in which I talked to photojournalist Keith Dannemiller about the idea of “home.” I am honored to be included in his exhibition, Homesweet, Homeland, now on display at Wilson’s Barton College. Dannemiller, who has lived in Mexico for more than 30 years, first came to Wilson for Eyes on Main Street‘s artist residency. Says Dannemiller, “Comprised of 50 color prints and 16 tintype portraits with accompanying interviews, Homesweet, Homeland is a personal journey of rediscovery of America and its essential diversity, in a region burdened by the baggage of tradition, the vestiges of slavery, and the concentration of power in the hands of a few, but with the hope and potential to forge a new, more inclusive community out of the manifold Souths of today.”

The penny milk program.

Wilson Daily Times, 26 February 1943.

My father, Rederick C. Henderson, who attended Vick Elementary School from 1940 to 1944, recalled the half-pint milk program: “… they’d give you a little thing of milk [that] cost a penny. You shake it up. Shake it up. It’d be in a bottle. And then that much butter would come to the top. That’s what we used to get.” 

Interview with R.C. Henderson by Lisa Y. Henderson, 2001, all rights reserved. Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.