Tobacco factory work was seasonal, and late fall meant the end of work for hundreds across Wilson County. The color line extended even to applying for unemployment benefits, and “colored claimants” who had worked at Imperial Tobacco were directed to report to Darden Funeral Home to continue their claims.
Late local historian Hugh B. Johnston Jr.’s file contain this note, apparently copied from volumes of city commissioners or boards of aldermen meetings that cannot now be located:
“Dec. 17, 1888 Oakview Cemetery. Gray Farmer, [illegible] Robinson, and Washington Sugg were appt. a Committee to look for a burial ground for the colored people.”
This is the earliest reference to a public African-American cemetery in Wilson and appears to presage the establishment of Oakdale (also called Oaklawn, Oakland, Oakwood, and Oakview) Cemetery in the area of present-day Cemetery Street south to the former Elvie Street School. Sugg (or Suggs) owned extensive property in the area, and the deed for his first land purchase refers to a preexisting “graveyard lot” near his property. This lot may have been developed into a city cemetery.
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.”
Under the supervision of John E. Dixon and W.E. Jones, 14 boys from Wilson — Eddie Sauls, Herbert Cox, James Richardson, Jimmy L. Barnes, Joseph Speight, James Baines Jr., Rudolph Lane, John McNeil, Leroy Evans, Nesby Hilton, Joseph McNeil, Timothy Autry, Fred Woodard, and James Taylor — attended a Boy Scout camp in Rocky Mount in 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.
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.)
Badin Aluminum Works placed this alluring ad in the Daily Times in 1918. Though working for Alcoa seemed to offer an appealing alternative to sharecropping, life in this company town had a dark side — literally, as the families of African-American workers lived segregated in Negro Town, and figuratively, as the extent and impact of industrial pollution continues to come to light.
“Badin has become a crucible for questions about the legacy of industrialization, racial capitalism, and environmental justice in the American South, and for how choices made and prejudices fomented a century ago reverberate into the present — with the added complication that Badin was a company town.” Read Emily Cataneo’s The Complicated Lgacy of Badin, North Carolina, http://www.undark.org, for more.
[I am searching for evidence that any Black Wilson County families answered this siren call.]