“Underneath America lies an apartheid of the departed. Violence done to the living is usually done to their dead, who are dug up, mowed down, and built on. In the Jim Crow South, Black people paid taxes that went to building and erecting Confederate monuments. They buried their own dead with the help of mutual-aid societies, fraternal organizations, and insurance policies. Cemeteries work on something like a pyramid scheme: payments for new plots cover the cost of maintaining old ones. ‘Perpetual care’ is, everywhere, notional, but that notion relies on an accumulation of capital that decades of disenfranchisement and discrimination have made impossible in many Black communities, even as racial terror also drove millions of people from the South during the Great Migration, leaving their ancestors behind. It’s amazing that Geer survived. Durham’s other Black cemeteries were run right over. ‘Hickstown’s part of the freeway,’ Gonzalez-Garcia told me, counting them off. ‘Violet Park is a church parking lot.'”
I’m inspired — and encouraged — by Friends of Geer Cemetery and Friends of East End Cemetery and others doing this work for descendants. Please read.
“Whosoever live and believeth in me, though we be dead, yet, shall we live.”
The Republican Party’s 1920 convention in Chicago nominated Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge for president and vice-president. Samuel H. Vick, long active in Republican politics and well-known from the battles over his appointment as Wilson’s postmaster, formerly registered his protest against North Carolina’s exclusion of African-Americans from its deliberations.
Karole Turner Campbell shared this photograph of her maternal grandparents, Wesley and Martha Taylor Jones, sitting on the stoop of their Stantonsburg Street house in Wilson. In 1954, when she was nine years old, Turner Campbell spent the summer with them. It was her first “sleep-away camp,” and her grandfather Wesley gave her a job. She was to help her grandmother Martha, then 64 years old, learn to read so she could register to vote for the first time in her life. This was the Jim Crow era, and North Carolina still imposed literacy tests and poll taxes to disenfranchise its Black citizens. Martha Taylor had achieved only a third grade education when she had to leave school and go to work. Writes Turner Campbell, “I CANNOT EXPLAIN HOW THAT EXPERIENCE TOUCHED, MOVED AND INSPIRED ME! Nine years old, and I helped teach my grandma to read and vote. This is one reason I became an educator. This is why I ALWAYS vote.”
I woke up this morning disappointed and apprehensive and angry. But, ever inspired by those whose shoulders I stand on, resolute.
Many thanks to Karole Turner Campbell and to the many political pioneers of Wilson County’s Jones family.
For more than 30 years after gaining the right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment, African-American men in Wilson County exercised the franchise widely, holding key positions in the local Republican Party and serving as poll holders in voting districts in nearly every township.
Wilson Advance, 6 October 1882.
Orren Best — born enslaved about 1849 in Greene County, N.C.
Noel Jones — born free about 1845 in Oldfields township, Wilson County [then Nash County.]
Hilliard Ellis — born enslaved about 1827, probably in Taylor township, Wilson County [then Nash County.]
Alfred Woodard — born enslaved about 1830.
A. Bynum — perhaps Amos Bynum, born enslaved about 1840.
In the 1908 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Coppedge General (c) bricklyr h 133 E Nash; also Coppedge James G Rev (c) pastor Second Baptist Church h 113 Manchester
In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Nash Street, brickmason George Copage, 25, and wife Mary A., 23, restaurant cook.
James G. Coppedge died 16 July 1913 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born in 1861 in North Carolina to Washington Coppedge and an unknown mother; lived on Manchester Street; was married; and worked as a butler. G.W. Coppedge was informant.
On 26 September 1915, Geo. W. Coppedge, 30, of Wilson, son of J.G. Coppedge and Sarah D. [last name not given], married Mittie Bynum, 27, of Wilson, daughter of Berry Bynum, in Wilson. A.M.E. Zion minister J.S. Jackson performed the ceremony in the presence of Dudley Bynum, C.L. Coppedge and Allen Brown.
General Washington Coppedge registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County in 1918. Per his registration card, he was born 1 February 1885; lived at 200 Vick Street; worked as a bricklayer for John Barnes, Green Street; and his nearest relative was Mittie Coppedge.
In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 200 Vick Street, brickmason George Coppedge, 34; wife Mittie, 34; and children George Jr., 4, and Elenora, 2.
Mittie Coppedge died 13 December 1933 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 2 December 1887 in Wilson to Berry Bynum and Lottie Willoughby; was married to G.W. Coppedge; lived at 200 North Vick; and was a housewife.
On 18 November 1936, George Coppedge Jr., 21, of Nash County, son of George and Mittie Coppedge, married Eloise Allen, 19, of Nash County, daughter of James and Rachel Allen, in Nashville, Nash County, North Carolina.
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 200 South Vick, George Coppedge, 55, bricklayer; wife Ruth, 40, schoolteacher at county school; [his] son George Jr., 23; daughter-in-law Elouise, 20; and grandchildren Julia, 4, Deloris, 2, and Carrol, 1.
In 1940, George W. Coppedge Jr. registered for the World War II draft. Per his registration card, he was born 14 November 1915 in Lynchburg, Virginia; lived at 1823 H Street, N.E., Washington, D.C.; his nearest relative was father George W. Coppedge Sr., 200 South Vick, Wilson; and he worked for “Fed. Wk. Ag.”
Ruth Hooker Coppedge died 26 May 1945 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 41 years old; resided at 200 South Vick Street, Wilson; was married to George Coppedge; was born in Wilson to Frank Richard Hooker of Greene County and Eleanor Farmer of Wilson County; and was a school teacher.
On 10 July 1963, the Wilson Daily Times reported that George W. Coppedge was awarded a plaque in recognition of fifty years of service to Wilson as a firefighter. Wilson Fire Chief Tyrus Bissette and George K. Butterfield Sr. “praised Coppedge’s work and participation in religious organizations, politics and fraternal groups.”
George W. Coppedge died 15 May 1973 in Washington, D.C. His obituary noted that he ran for public office twice.
Black Wide-Awake‘s temporal cut-off is generally 1949, but 2020 calls for flexibility. If you are of voting age, but are not registered to vote, I don’t know what will stir you. Here’s a story for you though.
This receipt acknowledged the seven dollars my grandmother paid dentist George K. Butterfield for services on 17 September 1955. I’m not sure why she saved it, but perhaps the times felt historic. Just a few months before this office visit, Dr. Butterfield had thwarted the city’s voter suppression shenanigans to win a second term on Wilson’s Board of Aldermen. In 1957, to make sure this didn’t happen again, Wilson dynamited its ward system.
Dr. Butterfield’s son George K., Jr. is, of course, the United States Congressman for the 1st District of North Carolina, which includes Wilson County. “That is the thing that has precipitated my whole interest in law and politics,” Butterfield Jr. told the Wilson Daily Times in a 3 February 2003 article, “I’ve learned how government can work for you and against you. And in this case, it worked against a significant portion of the community.”
The bullet-point version:
In 1928, Dr. Butterfield was one of 46 Black registered voters in Wilson.
In the 1930s and ’40s, several organizations formed to support political and educational advancement of African-Americans, including voter registration.
By the early 1950s, about 500 Black voters were registered, almost all of whom lived in the city’s Third Ward, a long narrow precinct that crossed Wilson east to west.
In early 1953, Dr. Butterfield announced his candidacy for a seat on Wilson’s Board of Aldermen, the precursor to today’s city council. He drew immediate widespread support from unionized tobacco leafhouse workers (many of whom were women), churches, and the small African-American professional class.
A few days before the election, incumbent Herbert Harriss challenged the eligibility of 185 voters. Of 150 voters struck from the rolls as a result, all but three were Black.
On election night, Dr. Butterfield and Harriss each received 382 votes, but Butterfield objected that the registrar had violated regulations requiring votes be counted where ballot boxes were opened. City Attorney W.A. Lucas conceded the count was irregular, but declared the point moot, as there were tie-breaker provisions. Over Dr. Butterfield’s expostulations, the City Clerk placed the two candidates’ names in a hat, blindfolded a three year-old girl, and asked her to draw a name.
Dr. Butterfield won!
Two years later, the City of Wilson rolled up its sleeves to get in front of Dr. Butterfield’s re-election. First, it threw out all the registration books, ostensibly to clear the rolls of dead or otherwise ineligible voters. It gave citizens one month to re-register by notifying their ward registrar at his house on a weekday, a difficult feat for factory workers and domestics working on the other side of town from their homes. Next, the city expanded Ward 3 on its western end to pull in hundreds more white voters. And the Wilson Daily Times did its part to highlight the peril by publishing running tallies of new registrations by race.
Wilson Daily Times, 8 April 1955.
Wilson Daily Times, 25 April 1955.
On election day, 93% of all eligible Black voters voted — let me say that again, NINETY-THREE PERCENT OF ALL ELIGIBLE BLACK VOTERS VOTED — and Dr. Butterfield won again! (Won’t He do it?)
In 1957, faced with another Butterfield campaign, the City went for the nuclear option and chucked the whole ward system for “new and fair” city-wide, at-large seats. Further, to thwart bloc voting, voters would not be able to vote for just one candidate. Rather, they had to select six or their ballots would be invalidated. Jim Crow protocols prevented Dr. Butterfield from campaigning directly to white voters, and he was unable to counter when his white opponents sneered at his ties to “special interest groups” like the NAACP and cast him as a candidate solely interested in advancing Black issues. (One, oh, the hypocrisy! Two, doesn’t this all sound familiar?)
Unsurprisingly, Dr. Butterfield placed eighth of 16 candidates and was the sole incumbent to lose his seat.
The story didn’t end there, of course. Butterfield’s final defeat coincided with the emergence of new grassroots civil rights organizing efforts to attack segregation and racism in every corner of Wilson life. I’m shining a timely light on Dr. Butterfield’s pioneering political career to remind you that there is nothing new under the sun; that voter suppression is the weapon of choice whenever you show your strength; and that, though you may not win every battle, you can do no less than the Black men and women of Wilson who defied their government and risked it all to vote over and over and over.
“Victors in May 3 City Elections Are Given Oaths of Office Today,” Wilson Daily Times, 6 June 1955.
The deadline for registration in Georgia is October 5.
The deadline for registration in North Carolina is October 9.
For the full, fascinating source of my summary of Dr. Butterfield’s elections, please read Charles W. McKinney Jr., Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina (2010).
P.S. Right on time — today, the first in the New York Times’ video series, Stressed Election, focuses on voter suppression in Georgia, where I now live.
Yesterday, the New York Times published a feature on the revival of sorts of a Civil War-era political movement, the Wide Awakes, who mobilized against slavery and in support of Abraham Lincoln. Both artist-activists and re-enactors have been moved to create political and social change in the spirit of the Wide Awakes, who engaged in raucous, but peaceful, marches in the streets of Northern cities.
“Frank Daniels Jr. of Raleigh, retired president and publisher of The News & Observer, said in a statement Tuesday that his grandfather’s bigoted beliefs overshadowed his other accomplishments, including, Daniels said, ‘creating one of the nation’s leading newspapers.’”
“’Josephus Daniels’s legacy of service to North Carolina and our country does not transcend his reprehensible stand on race and his active support of racist activities,’ Daniels said. ‘In the 75 years since his death, The N&O and our family have been a progressive voice for equality for all North Carolinians, and we recognize this statue undermines those efforts.’”
The article glancingly mentions Daniels’ ownership of the Wilson Advance. It was in this newspaper that he cut his teeth as an unabashed white supremacist, using the paper as a platform for his relentless drumbeat for the suppression of civil rights for African-Americans.
In two columns of the same issue, published 31 October 1884, Daniels published editorial comment ranging from the snide:
… to the unvarnished:
… to the grotesque:
Wilson Advance, 31 October 1884.
The Wilson County Historical Association erected a marker for Josephus Daniels near the county courthouse. It makes no mention of his most efficacious role — spearhead of the disenfranchisement and general subjugation of North Carolina’s African-American citizenry. Despite repeated calls for its removal, notably led by the indefatigable Castonoble Hooks, the marker stands.
I amplify Mr. Hooks’ voice here: TAKE IT DOWN.
Update, 18 June 2020: Today, the city of Wilson quietly removed the historical marker honoring Josephus Daniels today and returned it to the Wilson County Historical Association.
“Wilson removed Josephus Daniels marker: Family cited his ‘indefensible positions on race,” Wilson Daily Times, 18 June 2020.