Oral History

Family ties, no. 1: a shoebox full of food.

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 in the Great Migration north. This post is the first in a series of excerpts from interviews with Hattie Henderson Ricks, their adoptive daughter (and Sarah’s great-niece), revealing the ways her Wilson family stayed connected to their far-flung kin. (Or didn’t.)

Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver, born in 1872, was the eighth of nine children. By time she moved to Wilson, only her brothers James Lucian Henderson, born 1859, and Caswell C. Henderson, born 1865, were living. (Hattie was her sister Loudie Henderson’s grandchild.) Caswell had migrated to New York City by about 1890, but Lucian remained in Dudley to farm. He and his wife, Susan McCollum Henderson, had only one child, who died in early adulthood without a spouse or children.

Susie Henderson had long been sickly and, by the late 1920s, Lucian Henderson’s health had begun to fail. Jesse Jacobs’ nephew, John Wesley Carter, lived nearby. He had developed a close relation with the Hendersons, but could not be expected to assume complete responsibility for their care.

The family turned to the Atlantic Coast Line Rail Road for a solution:

“Mama Sarah [would] fix dinner and send it down to Dudley on the train. The man that run the whatchacallit — engine?  Up there, where stokes the fire or whatever is on the train. He would take it.  But she would tell what day she was gon send it. And so somebody’d be up there to the train station to get it.  And the train, ‘cause a lot of time the train didn’t stop in Dudley. But anyway, the man, the conductor, he would pull the thing, whatever, for the train to stop long enough for him to drop off this package.  … Somebody she’d have be out there when the train come through, and then the porter on the train — Mama knew him —  and so then Johnnie and them or somebody be out there to take the package. It’d be a shoebox full of food, already cooked and ready to eat. So that’s the way they helped Uncle Lucian and A’nt Susie, like that. Until they died, and so that was the end of trying to feed them and take care of them.”

Look closely at this snippet of a 1936 map of the Atlantic Coast Line’s routes. Wilson is just above the center point. Lucian and Susie Henderson’s care packages traveled south through Goldsboro to the whistle stop at Dudley’s platform, nine miles below and just above Mount Olive.

Adapted from interviews of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, 1996 and 1998. All rights reserved. 

Usher in Juneteenth with Black Wide-Awake and Zella Palmer!

I find myself with an unexpected day off, so what better way to kick off the real holiday than chopping it up with Zella Palmer about family, Black history, and Wide-Awake Wilson?

Zella is chair and director of Dillard University’s Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture and renowned for her innovative work to preserve African-American food culture. Find out what she and I have in common — besides everything Black — this afternoon at 3:00 PM Eastern in our Instagram Live conversation @maisonzella!

Billy Kaye comes home.

In 2018, North Carolina welcomed home a native son, renowned jazz drummer Billy Kaye. Born Willie King Seaberry in Wilson in 1932, Kaye performed with Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and other luminaries, but had never played in Wilson. Not long after his June performance at Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, Sandra Davidson interviewed Kaye for North Carolina Arts Council’s “50 for 50: Artists Celebrate North Carolina.”

Below, an excerpt from the interview.

——

S.D.: Tell me what you remember about growing up in Wilson.

Kaye: I was born in ‘32 a couple blocks from the train station near the Cherry Hotel, one of the top hotels in Wilson. My grandparents’ home was 517 Church Street which was something like a two-block walk to the train station. It was a block off Nash Street. Most of the employment was done there. Nash Street had [a] drug store, dentist, doctor. There was a Ritz Theater on Nash Street. There were three churches in that area. That was basically it. I grew up running around the yard playing the Lone Ranger with a broomstick between my legs. I used to enjoy coming home in the summers when I was a youngster to play in the dirt, climb the trees, play under the house. That kind of stuff.

S.D.: … What is it like to for you to play your first hometown show?

Kaye: It’s hard to explain. It’s the biggest thing that ever happened. Playing at home was something I wasn’t even about when I left here. I had no history. I was just a guy that moved up [North]. I played in Greensboro some years back. It was okay. It was North Carolina, but it wasn’t Wilson. Goldsboro—that was great, but it still wasn’t Wilson. Home is where I was born. So, this thing here, it’s hard to explain. I’m playing at home. I’m seeing things that I didn’t see and appreciating things. I see these trees, the most magnificent things. There’s nothing there but trees. Man, they are the greatest trees I’ve ever seen. It’s like home.

Billy Kaye performs at Whirligig Park. (Photo: Astrid Rieckien for the Washington Post.) 

For the full transcript of Kaye’s interview and to watch videos of his performance in Wilson’s Whirligig Park, see here.

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Like jumping on a holy trampoline.

A number of readers commented on my recent post about Bethlehem Primitive Baptist Association, particularly sharing memories of Rev. Wiley Barnes and Corner Line Primitive Baptist Church, one of three Wilson County churches in the association. Rev. Hubert Tyson identified the location of another, Travelers Rest Primitive Baptist Church, which stood next door to Saint Luke Freewill Baptist Church at the eastern end of Church Street in Stantonsburg.

Rev. Tyson’s grandmother Lillie Thompson Fox Bass was a devoted Primitive Baptist and, even after migrating to Delaware, returned to Stantonsburg every year to attend the annual Association gathering. Says Rev. Tyson, who accompanied her visits to Travelers Rest and Corner Line:

“Ma Lillie was faithful. I always went inside with her. Boy, did I have questions. At first I thought they were singing in a diverse dialect, so she gave one of her old hymn books so that I could sing along. At least five preachers preached each service. No piano, but they didn’t need it. Their tribal rhythm was in the house. Everyone drank out of the same water dipper. Everyone hugged as well as kissed in the mouth (while they still had snuff in their mouth.) While singing, they partnered off with in-sync hand-shaking to the rhythm, rocking the weak shacking of the floor’s foundation. It was similar to jumping on a holy trampoline. I enjoyed taking her there.”

——

On 26 January 1919, Walter Fox, 21, of Greene County, son of Henry and Hattie Fox, married Lillie Thompson, 18, of Greene County, daughter of Will and Kitsey Thompson, in Lindell township, Greene County.

In the 1920 census of Bull Head township, Greene County, N.C.: Walter Fox, 22,  wife Lillie, 20, and Mabell, 3 months.

In the 1930 census of Eureka township, Wayne County, N.C.: Walter Fox, 35; wife Lillie, 34; and children Rosa M., 11, Walter L., 9, Willie, 7, Jessie L., 5, Minnie, 2, and Walter Jr., 6 months.

In the 1940 census of Stantonsburg, Stantonsburg township, Wilson County: on Main Street, widow Lillie Fox, 40, domestic, and children Rosa Lee, 20, cook, Walter Henry, 18, Willie, 17, Minnie, 15, domestic, Jesse Lee, 13, and Alexander, 9; plus lodger Willie Bynum, 16.

Lillie Thompson Fox Bass died 25 June 1988 in Lincoln, Delaware.

Thank you, Rev. Hubert Tyson, for sharing these memories!

622 East Green Street, revisited.

Courtesy of the Freeman Round House and Museum, a clear photo of the Samuel and Annie Vick house at 622 East Green Street in its spindled and turned-post prime. The Vicks and two of their children are shown left of the porch steps.

The house has been considerably altered in the 110 or so years since this photo was taken. The entire wooden porch structure, including gazebo, is gone, and the wide siding has been covered in ashlar. The street was then unpaved, but it appears that curbing was being laid. The low ashlar wall at the sidewalk still stands, though it has been patched and modified. Recalled Hattie Henderson Ricks, who grew up just around the corner on Elba Street and was a playmate of Doris Vick Walker

“We used to come back on the wagon from out there at Five Points, and the old mule ran away from me and Mama [Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver]. It went over the fence. Me and Mama was on the wagon. It had one of those spring seats up there, we was sitting up there, and a paper flew up before the mule, it was a little gray mule, and it was half-blind in one eye. It didn’t have a name. And we went right over the top of Sam Vick’s fence. 

” … We swept up out there to Five Points, and we come back and we come down Green Street. That’s when the trees, a row of trees was from Pender Street all the way up to Vick Street, and there were trees, a row of trees right in there, and you come on one side and the other side, and we was on the side coming home and a piece of paper or something blew up and scared the mule. And, honey, he took right off over there in Sam Vick’s yard. And that stone … thing up there, well, the wheels got up there, the wagon when she turned?  The wheels were over in the yard on the flowers, and Mama had her foot up on the dashboard, holding him back. Just pulling back. She said, “Well, you got over there, now get up and get back!” And she backed up, and sho ‘nough … but it scarred his legs all in the back where was on that place trying to get back. But I jumped off, I jumped off the wagon. Was standing there looking at ‘em. And we home. I said, we’re right there, home.”

Oral interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.

The 103rd anniversary of the school boycott.

Today marks the 103rd anniversary of the resignation of 11 African-American teachers in Wilson, North Carolina, in rebuke of their “high-handed” black principal and the white school superintendent who slapped one of them. In their wake, black parents pulled their children out of the public school en masse and established a private alternative in a building owned by a prominent black businessman.  Financed with 25¢-a-week tuition payments and elaborate student musical performances, the Independent School operated for nearly ten years. The school boycott, sparked by African-American women standing at the very intersection of perceived powerless in the Jim Crow South, was an astonishing act of prolonged resistance that unified Wilson’s black toilers and strivers.

The teachers.

The school boycott is largely forgotten in Wilson, and its heroes go unsung. In their honor, today, and every April 9, I publish links to these Black Wide-Awake posts chronicling the walk-out and its aftermath. Please read and share and speak the names of Mary C. Euell and the revolutionary teachers of the Colored Graded School.

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Getting milk from the Vicks.

Excerpt from my interview with my grandmother, Hattie Henderson Ricks, about where her family bought food during her childhood on Elba Street:

“But when I was a little girl, the only place you could get milk was from the Vicks. It was a quarter.  That was the only place we had to get the milk, if you got any. Unless you used canned milk. She had a back porch. Closed-in back porch. Screened in. Anyway, glass in it all around, there on the back porch, and tables out there. One of them things you churn, what I mean, a great, old big urn out there where the milk get too old, and then she’d have buttermilk. And she had a ‘frigerator sitting out there, where she’d taken the shelves out, look like where she’d made a big thing to put it in there. But she would get fresh milk everyday. The cows was somewhere out there, I don’t know where, I didn’t see ‘em in the yard. They wont nowhere up there. But somebody was working for them would go out and get the milk and bring it in these cans where you have, where got the churn in the top of it. And she would put them out there on the porch. Miz Annie seemed to be pretty clean, and the house was clean. Didn’t nobody get sick. Yeah, and they had the two daughters, and I don’t know how many boys it was. Robert was the youngest boy, and I went to school with him, and Doris and I was in the same class in school. And — I didn’t know whether she was a sister to the man, or whether she was sister to the lady, I never did find out which way — but that house, they built that two-story house right next to the Vicks, and they didn’t stay in it, they went to Washington or somewhere. And they rented the house out. And I think somebody else bought it.”

My grandmother, right, and her sister Mamie Henderson Holt, around the time their family was buying milk from the Vicks.

All rights reserved.

“Just don’t have a whole lot of dealings”: The Talk in 1940’s Wilson.

Excerpt from my interview with my father, Rederick C. Henderson, who was born in Wilson in 1934:

My father with Darden classmates Helen Williams, Lillie Dixon and Eloise Parker in 1948-49.

——

What do you remember about race relations?  Or what were you told about dealing with white people?

Well. See, we never had a lot, the only white people that I saw had little stores in the black community. And you know, they said, you can’t, just don’t have a whole lot of dealings with white folks. And racism … things I saw about racism. I was, I remember I was maybe 12, 13, and I went downtown walking over to the stadium somewhere. I was walking over to one of my friend’s house stayed on Mercer Street, and they had these prisoners of war. Germans. And they had this “P.W.” on the back of their thing, and they were cleaning up ‘round the factory. And they had some MPs or something with them. And they were sitting down on a bench outside resting. One of them little regular benches. A wood bench that they used to advertise or something. And so I stopped – they had gone in – and I stopped, and I was sitting down, and a man came out, and he spit on my leg.

German or an American?

Naw, this was a white American. He said, “You can’t sit on that bench.” I don’t know if he called me a boy or whatever, but had that tobacco spit on me.  And he –

But the Germans were sitting on the bench.  Prisoners of war in this country.

Right. And I couldn’t sit on the bench.

Then I remember they had an incident at the theater where something had happened, and this girl [Marie Everett] slapped a white girl. And they took her and put her in jail. Took her and put her in prison. She went off and stayed. She must have stayed ‘bout a year. And Mama and all them said, “Don’t y’all go downtown.” So far as I got to go was to the [Ritz] theater and then come back home.  

And all over there behind Vick School [Academy, Crowell and Mayo Streets] was all white back in there. And they used to throw stuff at us on the [playground] — we’d be throwing rocks back and forth, back and forth. But the police didn’t ever come over there. Now the police would be downtown on Saturday afternoon ‘cause see in Wilson, like Friday and Saturday was when we’d go to the movie. And I’d go to the movies on Saturday and stay all day long. Stay in there ‘til it’d be almost dark. That’s how you’d know it was time to go home.  Come down there, walk down there, say, “Can I look outside and see…?” Lady’d just: “Yeah.” Walk down there; look out there; see. If it’s still light, you’d come back up and watch the movie again. Sit upstairs in the movie. And so they had all the white police. They would walk from uptown, I guess, down to Pender Street. And on the sidewalk. And black folk had to get out the way. I mean, they’d walk right up, push you right out in the street. Or whatever. And just walk right on down to the end and turn around and come back and all.

All rights reserved.

Memories of Hattie Daniels’ Golden Rule kindergarten.

Dr. Judy Wellington Rashid shares this excerpt, adapted for Black Wide-Awake, from her My Neighborhood Legacy Series: A Salute to the Educational Leadership of Rev. Hattie Louvenia Owens Daniels, Founder and Director of the Golden Rule Kindergarten 1944-1972 Wilson, NC.” Though it recalls a period after BWA’s focus, it offers a close look at the warm, rich experience that would have been familiar to children who attended Golden Rule earlier.

Dr. Rashid’s parents, Levi and Cora Greene Wellington, lived on Manchester Street from 1946 to 1978. Between 1957 and 1966, she and two of her siblings attended Rev. Hattie Daniels‘ Golden Rule Kindergarten at 908 Wainwright Street, just a block from their home. 

Each morning, a family member dropped the children off at the front door of the house. As they entered the living room, Rev. Daniels and her daughter Deborah Ruth Daniels, greeted each child by name with a warm and welcoming “Good morning!” Once all the children had arrived, they stood together and responded in song — “Good morning to you!, Good morning to you!, We’re all in our places, with bright shiny faces, and how do you do? How do you do?” The Danielses asked each child how they were doing and if they had eaten breakfast. If they had not eaten at home, they were fed at no charge. The children then lined up as a group and marched out the back door to the school, a long building located to the left rear of the backyard. The remaining yard was the playground. Everything they learned was recited in song and rhyme — the alphabet, numbers, sight words, etc.  Rev. Daniels rang a big hand bell to begin their daily recitations of the lessons they learned, to get their attention,  or to signal a change in activity.

Throughout the school day, children formed a neat line for everything, including forays into the public. They marched everywhere, always staying in a neat line and looking straight ahead. Golden Rule’s children took field trips to sing on a local radio program, to the county fair, and the Wilson Christmas parade. Each year, they walked from the school to downtown Wilson to sing Christmas carols on the county courthouse steps.  Rev. Daniels led the line of students while her daughter walked behind. Rev. Daniels’ students were known to have manners.

Judy Wellington Rashid graduated from Wilson’s R.L. Fike High School in 1970, completed college, and became a teacher. During her first few years teaching, she began to reflect on the invaluable academic lessons, respect for education, and order and discipline she received at the Golden Rule kindergarten. Shortly becoming a principal in 1977, she visited Rev. Daniels in her home. The old school building was still standing but not usable. Dr. Rashid went to thank Rev. Daniels for the great foundation that she had provided her in kindergarten. She also wanted to know if Rev. Daniels still had a book that she had used to teach her students, and indeed she did.

Rev. Hattie Daniels with a copy of Lillian Moore’s A Child’s First Picture Dictionary, first published in 1948.

On a 2004 visit to Wilson, Dr. Rashid noticed Deborah Daniels and another woman sitting on the porch of 908 Wainwright. Daniels recognized her, and they shared laughter over seeing each other again after so many years. Lillian Francis Lucas introduced herself and said she moved from Wiggins Street to the house next door to 908 Wainwright “when the highway came through.” She said she had come over to clean house and “wait on” Rev. Daniels. She remembered that “there were 60 students at the school at one time or the other,” aged three to five years.  She also remembered that the school day would start around 5 or 6 A.M. and last until 5 or 6 P.M. 

Rev. Daniels’ Wainwright Street home at left, a rental property she owned at middle, and the church she pastored at right.

Deborah Daniels’ chimed in: “my mother housed, clothed, fed, and took care of me from Elvie School, Catholic School, Sallie Barbour School, to Darden High School”.  Dr. Rashid closes: “May God forever bless the educational legacy of Rev. Hattie Daniels and her daughter Deborah Ruth Daniels.”

Golden Rule kindergarten in 1964. The Wilson Daily Times printed the photo, submitted by James Boyette, in its 9 July 2002 edition.

Photos courtesy of Judy Wellington Rashid.

Wood stoves.

Castonoble Hooks shared this memory of winters in Wilson. Though he was born just after the close of the period covered in Black Wide-Awake, his recollection would have rung true for generations before him.

“I remember the wood stove this time of year. Wilson streets were covered with clouds of smoke — each house contributed its own stream of exhaust! Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s Wilson, you “learned” the wood stove. The first chore I remember as a child was to carry out cold ashes, the residue of burned wood. I was maybe five years old. Later that year, I could clean the stove of hot or cold ashes. The next year I was cutting wood, stacking wood, starting a fire in morning and banking the stove at night! At the age of ten, I was working for woodmen, Mr. Turner Jenkins and Mr. Columbus Ham, who rode around our hood delivering wood and coal. Almost every house had at least one stove! Wood heat is so warming and completely satisfying. Many a cold day was, the wood stove stood tall!”

  • Turner Jenkins — 

In the 1920 census of Lower Town Creek township, Edgecombe County: farm laborer Gray Jenkins, 46; wife Mary Jane, 35; children Joseph, 17, William, 15, Lucinda, 12, Mada, 11, Mark, 9, Turner, 7, Rosa, 5, Rachel, 4, and (adopted) Lester, 7; servant Frank Braswell, 18.

In the 1930 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farmer Turner Williamson, 30; wife Mary, 21; children Mary B., 5, Sarah P., 4, and Paul, 2; sister-in-law Lucinda Jenkins, 23, and brother-in-law Turner Jenkins, 17, farm laborer.

Turner Jenkins, 21, of Gardners township, son of Gray and Mary Jane Jenkins, married Lossie Applewhite, 21, of Gardners township, daughter of Tom and Diana Applewhite, on 15 November 1933 in Wilson. Gray Jenkins, Stantonsburg; Lonnie Applewhite, Wilson, and B.E. Howard, Wilson, were witnesses.

Turner Jenkins registered for the World War II draft in 1940 in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 17 April 1912 in Edgecombe County; lived at 911 Carolina Street, Wilson; his contact was wife Lossie Applewhite Jenkins; and he worked for Independent Ice Company.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Turner Jenkins, 29; wife Lossie, 29; daughter Annie M., 12; sister [in-law] Minnie Applewhite, 19; and [her?] son Roy William Applewhite, 11 months. 

Turner Jenkins died 11 January 1967 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 17 April 1912 in Edgecombe County to Gray Jenkins and Mary Jane Bridgers; was married to Lossie Jenkins; lived at 128 Narroway Street; and worked as a laborer.

  • Columbus Ham

Caleb Columbus Hamm Jr. registered for the World War II draft in Wilson County in 1942. Per his registration card, he was born 16 August 1920 in Greene County; lived at 913 East Nash Street, Wilson; his contact was Annie Hodges, 110 Ashe Street, Wilson; and he worked for Stephenson Lumber Company.

Thank you for sharing, Castonoble Hooks!