Oral History

We had farm labor as a natural resource back then.

The collection in Wilson County Public Library’s Local History Room includes the transcript of a 1986 interview with Clifton Tomlinson, a farmer who had grown up in the Black Creek-Lucama area.

These pages include recollections of the some of the African-Americans who had been his family’s tenants and neighbors.

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  • Sidney and Milbry Ramseur

In the 1910 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: Sidney Johnson [sic], 56, and wife Millie, __, both laborers working out.

In the 1920 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: on Black Creek and Lucama Road, farmer Sidney R. Ramseur, 69, and wife Milly, 60.

In the 1930 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farm laborer Sidney Ramsoo, 73, and wife Millie, 70.

Sidney Ramseur died 30 October 1941 at Mercy Hospital, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 90 years old; was born in Wilson County; lived on Viola Street; and was the widower of Milbry Ramseur. Informant was J. Clifton Tomlinson, Black Creek.

  • John and Robert Clay

In the 1910 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer John Clay, 45; wife Elizabeth, 46; and children Maggie, 21, Charlie, 20, Joseph, 17, Pearle, 15, Levi, 13, Johnnie, 10, Esrayson, 8, Bettie, 7, and Earl, 2; plus nephew Sam, 15, and widowed mother Mariah, 84.

In the 1910 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer Robert Clay, 24; wife Mary, 23; son James, 7 months; and sister-in-law Hattie Artis, 12.

In the 1920 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer John H. Clay, 54, wife Elizabeth, 54, and children Lary, 24, Bettie, 16, and Early, 12; next door, farmer Robert Clay, 33, wife Mary, 32, and children James, 10, Ollie,  6, and Lottie, 3; and next door to them Joseph Clay, 28, wife Essa, 22, and children Ethel, 2, and Joseph, 9 months.

  • John Edward Artis

In the 1920 census of Stantonsburg township, Wilson County: on Stantonsburg & Wilson Road, John Ed Artis, 31, tenant farmer; wife Maggie, 32; and children Jessie, 9, Rosa, 7, Henry, 5, Claud, 2, Lyra, 2, and Ella, 6 months.

In the 1930 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: John E. Artis, 41, farmer, widower, and children Jesse, 19, Rosa, 18, Henry, 15, Claud, 13, Larry, 12, Mary, 10, Eddie, 8, Mamie, 6, Carry L., 4, and Maggie, 2.

  • Ruthie and Anderson Hunter

Anderson Hunter, 45, of Toisnot township, applied for a license to marry Lula Farmer, 23, of Toisnot township, on 7 May 1901.

In the 1910 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer Anderson Hunter, 50; wife Lula, 33; and children Chanie, 18, Sam, 16, Emma, 15, Robert, 11, Annie, 6, and Clyde, 2.

In the 1920 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer Anderson Hunter, 62; wife Lula, 39; and children Emma, 25, Robert, 21, Annie, 15, Clyde, 11, and Hazel, 4.

In the 1930 census of Town of Sharpsburg, Edgecombe County: cotton and tobacco farmer Anderson Hunter, 71; wife Lula, 47; and children Clyde, 22, Hazel, 14, and James C., 9.

I have not found record of Ruthie Hunter.

Joe Simms and Susie win a blue ribbon.

Wanda Simms Page shared this heartwarming story of her father’s days as a proud young farmer.

Joe Louis Simms was born and raised up in Wilson County, North Carolina, four miles east of Black Creek. He and his brother attended the all-black, two-room Minchew Elementary School and did work in the 4-H Club alongside Raymond Hall, Daniel Green, and other neighborhood kids. Joe had long loved animals, and in 1949 he took on a project—raising and training a competition calf. His goals, simple and ambitious: to have the absolute best-looking and prettiest calf and to win the blue ribbon.

“Same as plenty of others in the area, Joe’s family already kept cows, and when one gave birth to a dark red female calf, he knew she was the one. As was their practice, he named her Susie, and she quickly showed herself to be gentle and a good breed. He made sure she always had her fill of green grass and dry hay. He washed her coat to a shine with fresh water from a bucket and trained her to walk beside him on a rope so that she wouldn’t be scared. She, of course, stayed with the cows, but his eyes never strayed far from her.

“When the day of the competition came, Joe and Susie set off walking beside the three-mile dirt road leading to Minchew. They had no other transportation. Joe carried a stick to protect Susie from the mean dogs they’d meet, though he didn’t think she’d be scared—their family had mean dogs too and she was used to them. They stopped along the road every now and then, as they’d practiced, but the walk still didn’t take so long.

“When they got to the school, Joe realized that it was, in fact, a pretty big day. The yard was full of people and calves. Folks, including Joe’s mom, had canned lots of food and made other preparations. A bunch of things were going on. As was the case with the school, everyone at and in the competition was black. All black. White people didn’t really deal with them—not like that—and Joe knew he wouldn’t even have had a fair shot at the blue ribbon if they did. Eventually, they found and fell in line with the rest of the boys and calves.

“After a while, Carter Foster, Wilson County’s second Negro Agricultural Extension Agent, began the judging. Joe knew Foster from his visits to teach them at the school and because he sometimes worked with Joe’s dad on their farm. In 1945, Foster and Jane Boyd, the Negro Home Demonstration Agent, had been mentioned in the Wilson Daily Times for their “wonderful work among the Negroes in the area” and for “working quietly with little publicity and no brass bands.” Their salaries were reported as less than half that of J.O. Anthony and Lois Rainwater, their white counterparts.

“Foster judged each calf, and at the end of that day Joe and Susie had the blue ribbon, making him one of the first ones at the school to win a prize like that with an animal. Joe felt very, very good. Susie, if she was aware that something had happened, maybe felt good too. When it was time to make a picture, Foster pulled them away from the rest of the group. Just before the camera clicked, Joe threw his arm around Susie’s neck and gave a big smile. Eventually, they headed back down the road they came in on, ribbon in hand.

“Joe’s family made a milk cow out of Susie after she got grown and kept her for some years. Joe went on to do other projects in 4-H, including making things out of wood, tobacco-grading contests (his team won third prize at the state fair), and raising up other animals like turkeys, which he bought twenty of as chicks for very cheap from a hatchery (one was included for free) and later sold around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Minchew Elementary School closed in 1951, and Joe started attending the consolidated Speight High School near Stantonsburg. Through it all, he never forgot Susie.”

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Joe Louis Simms and his prize-winning calf Susie, 1949.

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Reddick Simms, 24, son of Jack and Treacy Simms, married Bettie Barden, 20, on 6 September 1890 at Woodson Rountree‘s in Black Creek township. Frank Simms, Jesse Rountree and Lee Moore were witnesses.

In the 1910 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: farmer Rederick Simms, 52; wife Elizabeth 40; and children Johnie, 16, Thestus L., 14, Ardena, 11, Amena, 8, Bettie E., 7, Joseph, 3, and Charlie, 1.

In the 1920 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: farmer Reddick Simms, 62; wife Bettie P., 50; and children Johnnie, 24, Festus, 22, Ardena, 20, Almena, 17, Lizzie, 15, Joseph, 12, Charlie, 10, and Freddie, 7.

Reddick Simms died 6 March 1923 in Black Creek township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was born in 1861 and was married to Bettie Simms.

On 15 March 1923, C.L. Darden applied for letters of administration for the estate of Reddick Simms. The value of the estate was estimated at $338, and heirs were widow Bettie Simms and children John, Festus, Ardena, Almina, Lizzie, Joseph, Charlie and Fred.

In the 1930 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer John Brockington, 47; wife Mary, 47; children James, 27, Ethel, 18, Eulah Mae, 17, Irene, 14, Mamie, 13, Zollie, 10, Pearle, 8, and Bertha, 5; plus grandson John Ed Cooper, 2. All were described as born in South Carolina except Bertha (North Carolina) and John Ed (Michigan).

Joseph Simms, 21, of Cross Roads, son of Reddick and Bettie Simms, married Ethel Brockington, 20, of Black Creek, daughter of John and Mary Brockington, on 26 March 1932 in Wilson. Mary Brockington, Joe Gibson and J.T. Daniel were witnesses.

In the 1940 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer Joseph Simms, 29; wife Ethel, 26; children Rosa L., 6, Helen and Ellen, 5, Joseph Jr., 3, and Billie J., 1; and uncle Jesse, 70.

Joe Louis Simms married Rose Elizabeth Arrington on 15 November 1958 in Wilson.

Bettie Barden Simms died 7 October 1962 in Black Creek township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was 80 years old; had been a farmer; was widowed. Joseph Simms, 705 Carroll Street, was informant.

Thanks to Carol Lee Ware for bringing this story to my attention and to Wanda S. Page for allowing me to share and for citing Black Wide-Awake in the original as a source of reference for Carter W. Foster and Jane Amos Boyd.

Porch talk.

I’m deeply grateful to Harry B. Harris for allowing me to share the first episode of “Porch Talk,” his series of interviews with the elders of East Wilson. Harris here is talking with Romaine Ellis Blackston, Samuel C. Lathan, and Sterling Corbett on the porch of the East Nash Street house in which 94 year-old Mrs. Blackston has lived all her life. Her recollection of the residents and businesses of East Nash Street is like a walk through the posts of Black Wide-Awake. Enjoy!

 

The stake of life.

While director of the University of North Carolina Press, W.T. Couch also worked as a part-time official of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, serving as assistant and associate director for North Carolina (1936-1937) and as director for the southern region (1938-1939). The Federal Writers’ Project Papers are housed at U.N.C.’s Southern Historical Collection and include Couch’s correspondence and life histories of about 1,200 individuals collected by F.W.P. members. At least two African-American residents of Wilson, Georgia Crockett Aiken and William Batts, were memorialized in this way. 

Folder 550 contains the transcript of the interview with William Batts, titled “The stake of life.” Batts, a tobacco packer, lived at 804 Stronach Avenue. [The 1940 city directory described Stronach Alley as “(formerly Young’s Line) — from a point east of North Av at Adams, north to Tilghman rd.”]

Batts had worked as a packer for ten seasons and enjoyed the work. He was six feet tall and muscular and had farmed on rented land before working in the warehouse.

Batts’ family were sharecroppers, working to keep half the crop they produced. As he reached adulthood and realized how little money his parents received for their toil, he determined to find different work. Batts had wanted an education, but his father did not believe in the value of schooling needed him to work. “He learned us how to treat white folks and let our education stop at dat.” In response to his father’s view that literacy was for white people, Batts said, “… if de nigger could do his own figuring de white folks ‘ud have to figure harder, too.” His first job was as a section hand for Norfolk & Southern Railroad, which he quit to drive a dray.

From there, Batts went to work at a wagon company. (Almost certainly Hackney Wagon.) After he was laid off, he got a job at a tobacco warehouse. The work was seasonal — August to November — and he had been paid $11.88 a week for the ten years he had worked there as a packer, unloading tobacco from farmer’s wagons and placing it in baskets in the warehouse. The odor of tobacco sickened him at first, but he could not quit because his wife was not working and the dollar-a-day he made doing farmwork during the summer did not go far.

Batts worked 7 o’clock A.M. to 6 P.M. five days a week and a half-day on Sunday. When the season ended, he hustled to find more work to supplement his wife’s work washing clothes, “cooking when company come to de white folks” and other occasional work. “when the spring opened up,” there was farm work — setting our tobacco plants, chopping cotton, barning tobacco, and picking cotton kept him “in a regular strut.” In winter, he dug ditches, sawed wood in a sawmill, and cleared land.

“I reckon you’d say I ain’t got no regular job, but I work pretty regular, ‘specially all de months besides December and January.” His wife worked stemming tobacco for about $8 a week. Still, they had trouble saving money. “We had to buy some furniture and clothes and keep up our life insurance and our rent and lights.” The couple was fortunate that their water was included in their rent — “We can take a bath every day if we want it …”

Their son and daughter no longer lived with them. Batts missed them, especially for help when his wife felt poorly because of high blood pressure.

He was seldom seriously ill and felt bad for her and tried to help. She would probably have to quit working. “I reckon I can support us ’cause we don’t owe no debts.” They bought their furniture for cash, and paid groceries ($15/month) and rent ($10/month) in cash. They had life insurance and had set aside a “little,” but feared running into bad luck. Batts dreamed of buying a small farm and a mule. “I think dat is the de stake of life.” A farm could provide security, something he had not thought much of until the stock market crash of 1929.

Batts’ wife was a Christian when they married, but it took her five years to convert him. When she “made [him] see the point,” he joined a Disciples Church. It brought him great comfort.

Batts introduced the interviewer to his wife, who was in the kitchen peeling potatoes. The room contained newly painted furniture, a four-burner oil stove, a linoleum rug, and “snowy white” linens. Mrs. Batts explained that Batts had gotten the idea to paint the furniture green from an issue of Better Homes and Gardens. He had wanted to paint the walls after the owner of the house refused, but she counseled him to paint the things they could take with them if they had to leave the house.

Nursey Batts longed for her own house that she could “fix and mess over” and believed the Lord would provide. She came from a large family with hard-working parents who denied their own needs in their struggle to provide for their children. Only six of their 14 lived to adulthood.

Nursey Batts believed few white folks believed in ghosties or witches or conjuring, and black people were “outgrowing” it. She opined on the origins of conjure. She also had this opinion: “Most niggers feels like dey is imposed on just ’cause dey is niggers, but lemme tell you, a good honest nigger needn’t be skeered of living. De white folks has always been good to me and [William.]”

While waiting for an  iron to heat, Nursey Batts showed the interviewer her parlor, which was neatly furnished and decorated.

“A body never knows when a important person will drop in on him and everything will most likely be like de devil’s had a fit on it. I hate for company to catch me, as de saying is, with my breeches down.” Still, she downplayed the appearance of the room. She had crocheted the bedspread from tobacco twine in a pattern she got from a woman who lived out in the country. She was proud of the chifforobe her husband had bought her for Christmas.

Nursey Batts was hopeful that she and William Batts would get their farm and thought another term for Franklin Roosevelt would be helpful. “I wish dat we could vote for him, but [William] can’t read or write so he can’t vote. I can read a little, but I don’t know nothing ’bout de Constitution of the United States.”

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On 7 July 1915, Will Batts, 23, of Wilson, son of Morris and Nancy Batts of Taylor township, married Nurcy Hill, 22, of Wilson, daughter of Robert Hill, at Graham Woodard‘s in Wilson township. Missionary Baptist minister Jeremiah Scarboro performed the ceremony in the presence of Jason Farmer, Bessie Farmer, and Mena Littlejohn.

In 1917, Will Batts registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 15 December 1889 in Wilson County; lived on Vance Street; and was a butler for N.L. Finch.

In the 1920 Wilson, N.C., city directory: Batts Nursey (c) dom 601 Warren; Batts William (c) drayman h 601 Warren

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: a 804 Stronach Alley, Will Batts, 46, public school janitor; wife Nursey, 36, tobacco factory stemmer; and brother-in-law Freeman Hill, 29, tobacco factory office boy.

In 1942, Freeman Hill registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 25 November 1900 in Wilson; lived in 623 East Viola; his contact was Nursey Batts, 722 Stronach Avenue; and worked for Wilson Tobacco Company, South Railroad Street.

Will Batts died 24 February 1947 in Wilson of congestive heart failure. Per his death certificate, he was born 12 December 1890 in Wilson County to Morris Batts and Nancy Bynum; was married to Nursey Batts; was the janitor at Charles L. Coon High; and lived at 722 Stronach Avenue.

Women are best.

While director of the University of North Carolina Press, W. T. Couch also worked as a part-time official of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, serving as assistant and associate director for North Carolina (1936-1937) and as director for the southern region (1938-1939). The Federal Writers’ Project Papers are housed at U.N.C.’s Southern Historical Collection and include Couch’s correspondence and life histories of about 1,200 individuals collected by F.W.P. members. At least two African-American residents of Wilson, Georgia Crockett Aiken and William Batts, were memorialized in this way. 

Folder 324 contains the transcript of the interview with Georgia Crockett Aiken, titled “Women are best.”

The first page is a key to the pseudonyms used in the transcript.

Georgia Aiken is mistakenly described as white. She lived at 120 Pender Street in Wilson. When her interview began, she was in her kitchen directing the work of two children who were cleaning the house. She was born in 1872 into a family of ten children, all of whom were dead except her. [The family had lived in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and Georgia’s brothers included Alexander and James Crockett.]

Georgia Aiken grew up near a school and, because both her parents were wage-earners, was able to attend through the ninth grade. She obtained a teaching certificate and started teaching in 1889 a one-room school “out in the country.” She made $25 a month for teaching seven grades and reminisced on the hardships — and reward — of serving the children of the community.

In 1908, Georgia Aiken arrived in Wilson. She started high school coursework [where? the Colored High School did not open until 1924] and received a big raise when she completed it. She taught for 48 years, all told.

She dated John Aiken for two years before they married. Aiken owned a prosperous livery stable, and the couple saved their money to build a house. When they bought the Pender Street lot, a widow lived with her children in a small house there. [A 1905 plat map shows John Aiken already owned a lot on Pender Street. Was it a different one?] John Aiken died before the house was completed [in 1914] and Georgia Aiken took over the business.

Though worried about finances, Georgia Aiken went ahead with plans to build. The livery business did well until “automobiles came in.” She sold the business at a loss and turned her attention to teaching and caring for her house.

The writer described Aiken’s kitchen in deep detail.

Her “cook stove … finished in blue porcelain” was probably much like this one, found in an on-line ad:

Aiken continued, speaking of training her helper, her standards for housekeeping and food preparation, and her preference for paying cash.

And then: “I might as well say that I voted in the last city elections and have voted ever since woman’s suffrage has come in, and I expect to as long as I can get to the polls. I would like to see some women run for some of the town offices. I think they’re just as capable as the men who set themselves up so high and mighty. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if women didn’t get more and more of the high positions in the near future. …”

And: churches and government are run by rings, and “if you don’t stand in well with these, you don’t stand a chance.”

“I believe the women do more in church work than men.”

Georgia Aiken took in boarders at her home on Pender Street and always tried to make her “guests feel at home.” “When times are good and business is stirring” — likely, she meant during tobacco market season — “I always have my house full.” In slow times, though, it was hard to meet expenses. Taxes were due and though she knew she would make the money to pay them in the fall, she hated to incur fees.

Aiken paid her helper in board and clothes only, though she wished she could pay wages. If she stayed long enough, Aiken would consider leaving her some interest in the property after her death, though her niece in New York might object. She lamented a long delay in repainting the exterior of the house, but had plans to do so.

The writer described the house’s rooms and furnishings, mentioning their wear and age. Aiken indicated her preference for “clean decent folks” as tenants. She had two baths in the house and hot water from the stove for both. She could not afford to install steam heat when the house was being built and rued the dustiness of coal.

“Helping anyone in need is being nice to anyone, and the one that helps me most during the few years that I’ve left in this life is the one I hope to remember with the most of what I leave when I’m called to the life to come.”

A summary:

Georgia Crockett Aikens died 17 August 1939 in Wilson, apparently just a few months after giving this interview. Per her death certificate, she was 67 years old, born in Wayne County to William Crockett and Rachel Powell, resided at 120 Pender Street in Wilson, and was married to John Aikens.

“Federal Writers’ Project Papers, 1936-1940, Collection No. 03709.” The Southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Johnny Thomas’ forefathers.

Some Black Families of Wilson County, North Carolina, a compilation of The Hugh B. Johnston Jr. Working Papers published in 1997 by Wilson County Genealogical Society, contains several typed worksheets that Johnston asked his subjects to complete (or filled in while interviewing them.)

Johnny Thomas‘ undated questionnaire is reproduced in the volume. It appears to have been completed by Thomas in his own handwriting. Hugh Johnston did not shy away from the public identification of the white fathers of African-American children, and Thomas was forthcoming.

In summary, Johnny Thomas wrote:

  • His father Alfred Thomas was born in 1863 in Wilson [County].
  • His mother Lula Ruffin Thomas was born in 1877 in Wilson [County].
  • He did not know for whom Alfred Thomas was named.
  • Was Alfred Thomas’ father Alfred Thomas or Hilliard Thomas? Hilliard Thomas [Most likely, Hilliard Thomas (1824-1884), son of Eason and Mary Eure Thomas and a maternal relative of Hugh Johnston.]
  • “What do you remember your father, Alfred Thomas, saying about his father or his father’s white family connections?” “I can rember my father having his farther picture, he was trully white.”
  • Was Lula Ruffin’s father “Little Jimmy” Woodard or “Coon” Farmer? Coon Farmer [William Thomas “Coon” Farmer (1858-1912), son of Isaac B. and Nancy Yelverton Farmer.]
  • “What do you remember your mother, Lula Ruffin Thomas, saying about her father or her father’s white family connections?” “She said that her farther also was white.”
  • “Your grandmother Adline Thomas was born in 1842 and died on March 20, 1926. Where did she die?” “On Tarboro Highway [now N.C. Highway 42].” Where buried? Rountree cemetery. “What do you remember about her appearance, personality, or unusual qualities?” “Well she was very fair long straight hair.”

——

In the 1870 census of Gardners township, Wilson County; farmer Jordan Thomas, 52, who reported owning $175 in real property and $100 in personal. Next door: Eliza Thomas, 52, Henriet, 35, Hariet, 30, Alfred, 9, Jordan, 7, John, 11, Charity, 10, and Henry, 6.

In the 1880 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Jordan Thomas, 68; daughters Henyeter, 42, and Harty [Adeline], 40; and grandchildren John, 21, Charity, 18, Henry, 15, Jordan, 17, and Alfread, 18.

On 2 January 1890, Alfred Thomas, 26, of Gardners township, son of Adaline Thomas, married Cornelia Whitehead, 31, daughter of Richard Hagans and Alley Hagans, in Wilson County in the presence of Jordan Thomas, Lawrence Hagans and James Kelley.

On 1 March 1899, Alfred Thomas, 39, of Wilson County, son of Adline Thomas, married Lou Ruffin, 21, of Wilson County, daughter of Liza Ruffin. Primitive Baptist minister James S. Woodard performed the ceremony in the presence of Peter Thomas, Charles Hagans and Joseph Hagans.

In the 1900 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Alford Thomas, 36; wife Lou, 18; and children Sallie, 12, Florra, 9, and Mary T., 6 months; and servant Cora White, 17.

In the 1910 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: on the Plank Road, farmer Alford Thomas, 42; wife Lula, 26; children Mary, 9, Martha, 8, Sudie, 6, Lula, 4, and Jordan, 3; and mother Adline Thomas, 57.

Wilson Daily Times, 18 March 1919. The runaways were likely Johnny Thomas’ sisters Sudie and Lula Thomas.

In the 1930 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: on “Stantion Burg Road,” Alford Thomas, 75; wife Lula, 50; children Lula, 26, Jordon, 22, Johnnie, 20, and Pattie, 16; and grandson James, 2.

On 26 July 1930, Johnnie Thomas, 21, of Wilson, son of Alf Thomas and Lula [no last name listed], married Thelma Ward, 20, daughter of Frank and Winnie Ward, in Wilson.

On 21 May 1931, Lula Thomas died in Wilson township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was 44 years old; was born in Wilson County to Coon Farmer and Eliza Ruffin; and was engaged in farming. Sudie Plant of Rocky Mount, N.C., was informant.

Alfred Thomas died 16 January 1933 in Wilson township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was 70 years old; was born in Wilson County to Adline Thomas and “father unknown”; was a farmer; and was married to Lula Thomas. Jordan Thomas was informant.

In the 1940 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer John Thomas, 30; wife Thelma, 30; children Walter H., 11, James, 8, Rosa Lee, 13, and Willie F., 5; grandmother Rosa Harris, 86; and lodger Zebedee Ford, 19.

Johnny Thomas died 22 March 1986 in Wilson.

From the reproduction of the program for Johnny Thomas’ funeral service printed in Johnston’s Some Black Families.

Your history is still around you.

Periodically, I’ll run across a quotation that speaks to Black Wide-Awake‘s purpose. Yesterday, I found it in the words of Dorothy Thompson Bolden, co-founder of the National Domestic Workers Union of America, in a 1995 interview for Georgia State University’s Voices of Labor Oral History Project:

“If you think about it, and you live here and think about it at home when you’re in the bed, that your history is still around you, it don’t go nowhere. People may try to get rid of it, but it never gets out of you, and people don’t realize that. If we go back now and study some of these peoples, and look at it and listen to them talk, we can tell you a great deal …”  

An afternoon with Mr. Lathan.

Samuel Caswell Lathan sat in the front row during my presentation at Wilson County Public Library last week, making me a little nervous. This extraordinary musician, who once played drums for James Brown, was especially interested in the topic — he grew up on the 500 block of East Nash Street in the 1930s and ’40s. I visited with Mr. Lathan the next afternoon, soaking up his memories of the people and businesses of the block, whom he credits for setting him on his path as a drummer. He urged me to continue my documentation of East Wilson and expressed appreciation for and satisfaction with my work thus far.

Mr. Lathan also shared with me some extraordinary photographs of pre-World War II East Nash Street. Here he is as a toddler, circa 1931.

This stunning image depicts Neal’s Barbershop, with three of its barbers, circa 1935. Mr. Lathan is the boy leaning against the window, and Walter Sanders is seated in the chair awaiting a cut. “Billy Jr.” stands to his left in the photo, and an unidentified boy to the right.

African-American photographer John H. Baker took this family portrait of an adolescent Sam Lathan with his mother Christine Barnes Collins, grandmother Jeanette Barnes Plummer, and aunt Irene Plummer Dew in the late 1930s.

And this Baker portrait depicts Mr. Lathan’s beloved late wife, Mary Magdelene Knight Lathan.

Sam Lathan has graciously agreed to meet with me again to further explore his recollection of Black Wilson. I thank him for his interest, his time, and his generosity.

Photos courtesy of Samuel C. Lathan, please do not reproduce without permission.

Master Shoe Shine Parlor.

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Color was a monthly entertainment news magazine targeted to an African-American audience. Wilson Daily Times, 6 April 1946.

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Wilson Daily Times, 8 March 1949.

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In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Gay Street, plumbing shop laborer Cooper Bynum, 47; wife Annie, 33; and children Ruth, 12, house servant, Joe, 9, Curley, 8, Lucy, 5, Phebia, 3, and Floyd, 9 months.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 511 Narroway, widow Annie Bynum, 47, and children Ruth, 23, Joseph, 17, Curley C., 16, Feedy, 14, Lucy, 15, and Lizzie M., 7.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 208 East Street, rented for $20/month, widow Annie Bynum, 48, cook; children Joseph, 21, grocery store delivery boy, Curley, plumber, 20, Lucy, 19, cook, Feba, 18, cook, and Lizzie, 16; and granddaughter Annie, 4.

Lizzie Bynum died 16 April 1932 of pulmonary tuberculosis. Per her death certificate, she was born about 1909 to Cooper and Emma Woodard Bynum, both born in Edgecombe County; was a student; and the family resided at 208 North East Street. Curley Bynum was informant.

On 25 January 1933, Curley Bynum, 22, son of Cooper and Wen Ann Bynum, married Pearl Emanuel, 20, daughter of M.P. and Pattie Emanuel, in Wilson.

In 1942, Curley Bynum registered for the World War II draft. Per his registration card, he was 25 December 1902 in Wilson; resided at 109 North East Street; his contact was Febie Bynum, 109 North East; and he worked as a plumbers helper for Mr. Singletary, Gov. Camp, Holiridge [Holly Ridge], N.C.

Pearl Bynum died 21 November 1949 at Mercy Hospital, Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 5 May 1910 in South Carolina to Pertis and Pattie Emanuel; was married; lived at 102 North Pender; and worked as a domestic and clerk. Informant was Curly Bynum.

On 27 June 1955, Curley Bynum, 54, of 511 East Green Street, son of Cooper Bynum and Annie Woodard Bynum, married Martha Dawes, 48, of 508 Smith Street, daughter of Arthur Grooms and Minnie Skeeters Grooms, in Wilson.

Curly Bynum died 9 January 1965 in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Per his death certificate, he was born 25 December 1901 in Wilson County to Cooper Bynum and Annie Woodard; lived at 810 East Vance Street; and had worked as a laborer.

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In an interview in February 2019, Samuel C. Lathan, who grew up in the 500 block of East Nash Street, recalled that Curley Bynum’s shoeshine parlor had twenty “legs,” i.e. ten stands. In the 1930s, seven or eight boys worked for Bynum, charging 15 cents a shine. The boys turned over their earnings to Pearl Bynum, who issued them a ticket for each shine. On Saturday evening, they cashed out, taking home seven cents for each ticket.

Fred Artis brings local history to life.

Wilson Daily Times, 15 June 1992.

On 9 October 1912, Fred Artis, 23, married Mattie Lewis, 18, in Wilson. A.M.E. Zion minister B.P. Coward performed the ceremony in the presence of Alonzo Phillips, Samuel Mercer and Tobe Beland.

In the 1920 census of Fountain township, Pitt County: Fred Artis, 33; wife Mattie, 23; and children Christine, 5, and Fred, 4.

Mattie Artis died 2 December 1927 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 32 years old; was born in Edgecombe County to Frank Lewis and Clarrisa Joyner; married to Fred Artis; and resided at 1013 Stantonsburg Street.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 101 Reid Street, school janitor Fred Artist, 56, widower; children Christine, 16, Fred, 14, and Mildred, 11; and lodger Luddie Brown, 22, private cook.

Fred Artis [Sr.] died 12 May 1936 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 38 years old; was born in Wilson County to Edward Artis and Addie Artis; was married to Annie Artis; lived at 101 Reid Street. Fred Artis Jr. was informant.

In 1940, Fred Artis Jr. registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 17 March 1916 in Wilson; resided at 101 North Reid Street; his contact was mother Annie Artis; and he was unemployed.

Betty Ann Artis died 4 December 1960 in Wilson at her home at 501-A Hadley Street. Per her death certificate, she was born 9 September 1925 in Wilson County to Ben Guest and Fannie Harris; and was married to Fred Artis.

Nona Braswell Artis died 17 September 1996.

Fred Artis Jr. died 18 September 2000 in Wilson.