Pierce was about 21 years old at the time and clearly had a voice that he was willing to use. In these letters, he first called on the Times to act on its commitment to justice for the laboring class by sharing information about the New Deal’s impact on low area wages.
Next, he called the employers of domestic servants to task for the abysmally low wages paid to these men and women (who were overwhelmingly African-American.) “Now how in the name of sound economics can these low salaries raise the standard of living in this town?,” Pierce asked.
As far as I am able to tell, Charles Montgomery Epps never lived in Wilson, but he had a whole lot to say about Black Wilson’s education affairs. A former school principal in Tarboro and Greenville, North Carolina, Epps was the first outsider on the scene in the wake of school superintendent Charles L. Coon’s slap of African-American teacher Mary C. Euell. Black Wilsonians promptly sent him packing.
Here, Epps lambastes Fletcher F. Pierce, a “young man of Wilson,” for criticizing the Executive Secretary of the North Carolina Negro Teachers Association in a letter published in the Greensboro Daily News. I have not been able to find Pierce’s letter. Epps’ admonishment is par for his course, though — lots of cautions to African-Americans not to stir up anything or risk disturbing “the beautiful relations existing between both races.”
Join us September 8 at Wilson County Public Library’s Main Branch for my talk about Dr. George K. Butterfield Sr.’s historic election to Wilson’s Board of Alderman in the 1950s. The lecture is part of a series of events leading up to National Voter Registration Day on 20 September 2022.
George H. White: Searching for Freedom airs on PBS NC June 16, 2022, at 9:30 PM. Samuel H. Vick was a political ally and close friend of White, and Vick’s legacy can only be understood in the context of White’s impact on late 19th century North Carolina politics. “Explore the enduring legacy of one of the most significant African American leaders of the Reconstruction Era. Born in 1852 in Eastern North Carolina to a family of turpentine farmers, White rose through the ranks of state politics to serve in the 55th US Congress from 1887 to 1901 as its sole Black voice.”
In April 1943, Parker boarded a Wilson city bus on Saturday evening. He sat down in the white section and remained firmly ensconced when the driver asked him to move. The driver, James Batchelor, abandoned his route to drive the bus to the police station, where Parker was arrested and charged with violating North Carolina’s “passenger law,” which allowed for the designation of colored and white sections in commercial transport vehicles. Parker was adjudged guilty and given a thirty-day suspended sentence provided he remain “in good behavior.” Per the Daily Times, Parker was the first person to challenge Jim Crow laws in Wilson County in 25 years.
Though strawberry picking is now regarded as a quaint pastime, suitable for Instagrammable photos of one’s toddlers, North Carolina’s strawberry fields were a labor battleground in the late 1930s.
We read here of three African-American Wilson women who were ruled in April 1938 to have committed fraud and misrepresentation for seeking unemployment benefits after refusing offers to pick strawberries.
A month later, the Daily Times reported a “mass strike” by potential pickers — more than 400 unemployed Black men and women who refused to accept job offers working in strawberry fields. When these workers filed for unemployment, they were charged with fraud and tried in mass hearings at which they faced fines and denial of benefits. “‘They seem to feel,’ said Herbert Petty, manager of the [employment] branch office [in Wilson], ‘that they would rather get $4 from us for not working than they would $10 a week by working for it.'” When asked what people would do without unemployment relief, Petty snapped: “‘They got along all right this time last year when they couldn’t get this insurance.”
The spring of 1939 saw the protest reemerge. Per the April 10 edition of the Daily Times, the Wilson employment office sent out a “hurry call” for strawberry pickers, who would be sent to fields near Warsaw and Wallace in Duplin County, 50 to 80 miles south of Wilson. The report noted that there was “nothing mandatory” about the first few calls for laborers, but later in the season the employment office might be “forced” to draft pickers from the ranks of applicants for unemployment. If this happened, and applicants refused to go, “official action would be taken against them.”
In response to Times columnist John G. Thomas’ dismissive takes on the motives and concerns of African-American laborers, Willis E. Prince submitted for publication this remarkable rebuke.
Wilson Daily Times, 13 April 1939.
Who was Willis Ephraim Prince? In 1939, he was a 53 year-old self-employed carpenter and bar owner who had spent a decade living in Philadelphia and New York City and whose financial independence allowed him to raise his voice in protest without fear of repercussion. Just as importantly, he was the son of Turner Prince.
In 1865, formerly enslaved men and women settled on the flats just across the Tar River from Tarboro; they called their community Freedom Hill. Pitt County-born freedman named Turner Prince (1842-1912) and his wife, Sarah Foreman Prince, soon arrived in the community. Prince, a carpenter, constructed houses and other buildings throughout Freedom Hill and involved himself in local Republican politics. In recognition of his leadership and literal community-building, Freedom Hill residents chose the name Princeville when the town was incorporated in 1885, the first town in North Carolina (and probably the United States) incorporated by African-Americans.
In the 1900 census of Tarboro township, Edgecombe County: carpenter Turner Prince, 58; wife Sarah, 54; children Laura, 18, Sarah J., 16, Willis E., 14, and Jonas A., 11; and granddaughter Lucy Lloyd, 9.
On 21 August 1907, William Prince married Gertrude Pittmon in Manhattan.
In the 1910 census of Manhattan, New York, New York: at 165 West 72nd, William P. Prince, 24, born in N.C., janitor at apartment house, and wife Gertrude P., 30, born in N.C., housekeeper at apartment house.
On 6 June 1912, shortly before he died, Turner Prince made out a will whose provisions included: “I give, devise and bequeath to Ephraim Prince my son & Susie Gray my grandchild the house in which we now live. Ephraim is to have full possession of said house during the minority of said Susie Gray and in return contribute to her support. If at any time he should discontinue to do so, then he shall forfeit ($50.00) Fifty Dollars to my estate, the amount forfeited to be used for the benefit of said Susie Gray. If Susie Gray should die before maturity then said property shall revert to Ephraim in full. Otherwise he is to pay Susie Gray $50.00 upon her becoming of age, and he come in full possession of said property.”
In 1918, Willis Ephraim Prince registered for the World War I draft in Manhattan County, New York. Per his registration card, he was born 22 January 1886; lived at 2470-7th Avenue, New York City; was an unemployed licensed engineer; and his nearest relative was wife Gertrude Prince.
On 22 November 1919, Willis E. Prince, 31, of Edgecombe County, son of Turner and Sarah Prince, married Marina White, 21, of Edgecombe County, daughter of Edgar and Marietta Wilkins, at the courthouse in Wilson.
In the 1920 census of Tarboro, Edgecombe County: on Tarboro Road, carpenter Willis Prince, 32; wife Marina, 21, teacher; and daughter Vivian, 8 months.
On 31 December 1920, Tarboro’s Daily Southerner reported the arrests of four men for stealing a safe from Willis Prince’s store in Tarboro.
On 21 November 1922, Willis Prince, 36, son of Turner and Sarah Prince, married Mary Gear, 36, daughter of Dan and Sarah Gear, in Wilson. A.M.E.Z. minister B.P. Coward performed the ceremony in the presence of Laura Peele, S.A. Coward, and Louise Cooper.
In the 1925 and 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directories, Willis and Mary Prince are listed at addresses on Suggs Street.
Mary Prince died 14 November 1928 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 45 years old; was born in Wilson County to Daniel and Sarah Gier; was married to Willis Prince; and was buried in Rountree Cemetery. Alice Woodard was informant.
In the 1930 census of Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania: at Chestnut Hill Hospital, Willis E. Prince, 49, boarder, porter at public hospital; born in North Carolina.
Willis Ephraim Prince died 2 October 1950 at Mercy Hospital. Per his death certificate, he was born 17 January 1889 in Edgecombe County to Turner Prince and Sarah [maiden name not listed]; was married to Allie Mae Prince; lived at 205 Stantonsburg Street, Wilson; and worked as a merchant at his own business.
“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.”