Segregation

Frederick Douglass resurrected.

“We have a righted a wrong”: Board votes to name elementary school for Frederick Douglass

By Drew C. Wilson, Wilson Daily Times, 19 February 2018.

The Wilson County Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to rename Elm City Elementary School after abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

All six board members supported the proposal. Board member Robin Flinn was absent from the meeting.

“I am just proud of them for understanding and knowing that it was time,” said Alice Freeman, a 1964 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School and a former president of the Frederick Douglass High School Alumni Association.

The effort to rename the school was led by alumni association members who have made multiple requests to adopt the Douglass name going back to the early 1970s.

“I am very happy and I am just so proud of our organization and the hard work that it took,” Freeman said. “I am just really proud of the school board because they realized the importance of it. They realized our contributions. They realized that after 40 years, almost 50 years, we have remained active. We’ve got good folks and we are going to move forward with this. We’re just excited.”

Bill Myers, a former teacher at Frederick Douglass High School, said after the decision that it was hard to put his feelings at the moment into words.

“I can’t even express it really. We have righted a wrong,” Myers said.

“The question should have been ‘Why change the name in the first place?’ So to do it now is just electrifying,” Myers said.

Elm City Elementary has been named after the community in which it is located since 1970, when integration began in Wilson County. The school was named Frederick Douglass High School from 1939 to 1969. During that time it was attended by members of the African-American population in Wilson County. In 1970, former Frederick Douglass students joined students at Elm City High School to form an integrated school.

Though Elm City Elementary has undergone multiple renovations since 1970, two major portions of the school, the auditorium and the gymnasium, were originally part of Frederick Douglass High School.

The original Douglass auditorium.

The Frederick Douglass High School Alumni Association has a long history of financial support of Elm City Elementary and Elm City Middle.

“I’m just tickled to death, particularly for all those kids that were here tonight and the association that has been doing so much to promote and keep the thing going,” Myers said. “They have been giving away money, scholarships, everything, every year and this is why I wanted to be here to do this, for them.”

Myers said he felt a major part of this effort to rename the school and regain the 30-year legacy of the high school.

“This was my first teaching job over here and I feel very much still a part of it,” Myers said. “I am happy for them. I am happy that this board could see through that and try to rectify something that happened that was definitely wrong.”

According to Lane Mills, superintendent of Wilson County Schools, costs associated with changing the name of Elm City Elementary School would be about $11,353.

The costs would include $4,317 for staff long-sleeve and short-sleeve T-shirts, $2,500 for a new school marquee, $800 for a new school sign, $704 to replace the rugs at the entrances, $450 for new checks, receipts, a deposit stamp, $450 for new PTO checks and deposit slips, $250 for school pencils, $200 for school stamps and $200 for ink pens, plus other miscellaneous items.

The original Douglass gymnasium.

Photographs by Lisa Y. Henderson, August 2019.

Hominy Swamp.

Hominy Swamp arises in western Wilson County, flows southeast of downtown and empties into Contentnea Creek near the Evansdale community. Prone to severe flooding, the creek has been channeled at several points along its length; from just above Tarboro Street south its plain is largely industrial. Hominy Swamp traditionally served as a boundary between certain black and white neighborhoods — Daniel Hill and Hominy Heights, and Happy Hill and Five Points, for example.

Per the Wilson Daily Times, in December 1924, the city contracted with a Raleigh contractor to build bridges spanning Hominy Swamp at Lodge Street, Goldsboro Street, Mercer Street, Tarboro Street and Park Avenue at a cost of $65,000.

I crossed over the Lodge Street bridge Saturday. It would seem to be $15,000 well-spent.

Here, Hominy Swamp Canal looking east from the Lodge Street bridge. North of the creek (to the left here) for most of the 20th century was a largely African-American neighborhood centered at Lodge and Banks Streets. South, Five Points, which was a white neighborhood until late in the 20th century.

Three years later, Hominy Swamp jumped its banks, climbing high enough to nearly overtop the walls of the bridge. Homes at Lodge and Mercer Streets flooded, requiring the rescue of a disabled 80 year-old African American woman.

Wilson Daily Times, 18 September 1928.

Sankofa: remembering Marie Everett.

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For hundreds of years, the Akan of Ghana and Ivory Coast have used symbols, called adinkra, as visual representations of concepts and aphorisms. Sankofa is often illustrated as a bird looking over its back. Sankofa means, literally, “go back and get it.” Black Wide Awake exists to do just that.

I had never heard of Marie Everett until I read Charles W. McKinney’s excellent Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina. I’m not sure how it is possible that her struggle was so quickly forgotten in Wilson. However, it is never too late to reclaim one’s history. To go back and get it.  So, here is the story of the fight for justice for Everett — a small victory that sent a big message to Wilson’s black community and likely a shudder of premonition through its white one:

On 6 October 1945, 15 year-old Marie Everett took in a movie at the Carolina Theatre in downtown Wilson. (The Carolina admitted black patrons to its balcony.) As Everett stood with friend Julia Armstrong at the concession stand, a cashier yelled at her to get in line. Everett responded that she was not in line and, on the way back to her seat, stuck out her tongue. According to a witness, the cashier grabbed Everett, slapped her and began to choke her. Everett fought back. Somebody called the police, and Everett was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The next day in court, Everett’s charge was upgraded to simple assault. Though this misdemeanor carried a maximum thirty-day sentence and fifty-dollar fine, finding her guilty, the judge upped Everett’s time to three months in county jail. As Wilson’s black elite fretted and dragged their feet, the town’s tiny NAACP chapter swung into action, securing a white lawyer from nearby Tarboro and notifying the national office. In the meantime, Everett was remanded to jail to await a hearing on her appeal. There she sat for four months (though her original sentence had expired) until a court date. Wilson County appointed two attorneys to the prosecution, and one opened with a statement to the jury that the case would “show the niggers that the war is over.” Everett was convicted anew, and Judge C.W. Harris, astonishingly, increased her sentence from three to six months, to be served — even more astonishingly — at the women’s prison in Raleigh. (In other words, hard time.) Everett was a minor, though, and the prison refused to admit her. Branch secretary Argie Evans Allen of the Wilson NAACP jumped in again to send word to Thurgood Marshall, head of the organization’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Marshall engaged M. Hugh Thompson, a black lawyer in Durham, who alerted state officials to the shenanigans playing out in Wilson. After intervention by the State Commissioner of Paroles and Governor R. Gregg Cherry, Everett walked out of jail on March 18. She had missed nearly five months of her freshman year of high school.

The Wilson Daily Times, as was its wont, gave Everett’s story short-shrift. However, the Norfolk Journal & Guide, an African-American newspaper serving Tidewater Virginia, stood in the gap. (Contrary to the article’s speculation, there was already a NAACP branch on the ground in Wilson, and it should have been credited with taking bold action to free Everett.)

Norfolk Journal & Guide, 23 March 1946.

Sankofa bird, brass goldweight, 19th century, British Museum.org. For more about the Carolina Theatre, including blueprints showing its separate entrance and ticket booth for African-Americans, see here.

Below the railroad.

In the earliest known map of Wilson, drawn in 1872, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad marked the town’s eastern border. Beyond lay the plank road, a toll house, and a smattering of buildings, but the territory was essentially farmland. By 1882, town limits had pushed east to Pender Street, and a tiny commercial district had grown up at Nash and Pettigrew Streets, convenient to railroad workers, customers and passengers. Although African-Americans owned substantial plots of land along Pender, Stantonsburg and Manchester Streets and the Plank Road [East Nash], the area also contained large farms owned by well-to-do whites. However, with the arrival in the 1890s of tobacco stemmeries and a cotton gin near Railroad Street, working-class neighborhoods such as Little Richmond sprang up. Black businesses and churches solidified their claim to Pender Street end of Nash, and Samuel H. Vick and others began to lay the grid of East Wilson’s streets.

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Sanborn fire insurance map, 1885.

Newspapers offer glimpses of the early development of East Wilson. References to the area “below the railroad” — “across the tracks,” in more modern parlance — regularly appeared in the pages of Wilson’s several late nineteenth-century journals.

Burford & Hinnant operated a meat market below the railroad, most likely at Nash and Pettigrew. Their 1883 notice advertised their steaks to customers and solicited “fat cattle” from area growers.

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Wilson Advance, 30 November 1883.

Perry Taylor’s grocery/saloon/pool hall stood at one corner of Nash and Pettigrew Streets. The combination was a popular one. This ad appeared in January 1884, but the reference to Christmas suggests that it had first run earlier. Taylor had bought out grocer James Batts and could “whet your whistle” 24 hours a day.

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Wilson Advance, 18 January 1884.

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Wilson Advance, 4 April 1884.

Stilley & Wooten advertised tobacco products, including “Black Nancy fine-cut tobacco and “Sweet Violet” cigars. In the context of retailers, “below the railroad” in this period seems to have meant the vicinity of Nash and Pettigrew Streets.

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Wilson Advance, 5 December 1884.

The 1888 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson shows the addition of rail lines and businesses to support them. Note, just below the “small lumber yard” at right, an area marked “Negro tenements.” The brick commercial buildings fronting Nash between the railroad and Pettigrew Street were known as the Fulcher block after prominent merchant L.H. Fulcher.

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By the 1890s, newspapers — the Advance leading the way — were making hay with the contents of Wilson’s police blotter and criminal court dockets. Crimes alleged to have been committed by African-Americans received conspicuous, and, if at all possible, outlandish coverage.

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Wilson Advance, 21, April 1892.

In January 1893, a fire devastated the “colored Odd Fellows Hall” on Nash Street. White grocer Golden D. Walston, who rented storage on the hall’s first floor, was fortunate to have insurance to cover his loss. (The order rebuilt its lodge later that year, erecting a three-story building that towered over the block for nearly one hundred years.)

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Wilson Advance, 5 January 1893.

E.G. Rose operated another liquor store-cum-grocery store below the railroad.

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Wilson Advance, 11 May 1893.

Finch & Lamm was perhaps a general merchandise store.

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Wilson Advance, 2 August 1894.

The last decade of the 1800s saw the break-up of the farms and large lots that made up much of the east side’s property holdings. When Zillah Edmundson died in 1896, her estate sold her six-room house on five acres at Vance and Pender Streets to a seller who immediately flipped it. Before long, the former Edmundson property had been subdivided for house lots, and East Wilson’s familiar grid began to take shape.

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Wilson Advance, 8 August 1896.

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Wilson Daily Times, 23 October 1896.

Here was a complicated adaptive reuse: Briggs & Flemming converted the former Baptist church building on West Green Street to use as a tobacco prize house. Silas Lucas bought the building, removed the steeple, and planned to move it below the railroad to the former location of the Tate house (which was where?) for further repurposing as a tenement house. (Presumably for African-American tenants. Wilson’s black workforce was booming with the influx of former farmhands seeking factory jobs.)

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Wilson Advance,  21 January 1897.

Across Wilson, buildings overwhelmingly were constructed of wood, and fires were an ever-present danger.

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Wilson Daily Times, 23 April 1897.

This article covering the criminal docket verged into an opinion piece in 1897. By that time, “below the railroad” was understood to mean the town’s black residential area.

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Wilson Advance, 11 November 1897.

In 1898, Benjamin M. Owens moved a wooden building on East Nash Street to make way for “two nice brick stores.”

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Wilson Advance, 7 July 1898.

In 1899, Mack D. Felton advertised his fish market (outfitted with one of Wilson’s earliest telephones.)

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Wilson Daily Times, 5 May 1899.

In 1899, with the financial assistance of local merchants, the town assigned police patrol at all hours below the railroad. Later that year, as winter approached city council appointed a committee to find a space in the area for police to warm themselves during the night shift.

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Wilson News, 2 March 1899.

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Wilson News, 12 October 1899.

After the turn of the century, references to “below the railroad” became less common. However, in 1911, Charles H. Darden & Son employed the term in an ad for their bicycle repair shop. With more businesses now lining the streets across the tracks, a specific address was a useful bit of information.

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Wilson Daily Times, 17 March 1911.

Another shooting. The 1908 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory lists Benjamin H. Moore as the owner of a grocery on Nash Street near the city limits. Henry Stewart appears in the directory as a laborer living at 127 East Nash. Orlando Farmer was a porter at Wilson Grocery Company, no home address listed.

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Wilson Daily Times, 8 August 1911.

Another fish market. Gillikin’s is listed in neither the 1908 nor 1912 city directories.

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Wilson Daily Times, 22 December 1911.

Late in 1918, the city announced that it was moving the town lot from Pine Street to Barnes Street.

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Wilson Daily Times, 3 December 1918.

Is this collection of sheds the town lot? The 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map shows it across from Farmer’s Cotton Oil Company and adjacent to Wilson Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.

It’s hard to imagine that a twenty-five-dollar theft warranted bloodhounds from Raleigh, but ….

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Wilson Daily Times, 25 February 1919.

Charlie Hines’ listing in the 1920 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory. East Nash Street “extended” was the stretch beyond city limits, near Nestus Freeman’s home. In this period, the city’s southeastern edge crossed East Nash at Wainwright Avenue, at the approximate location of today’s Round House and Museum

This article announcing a celebration marking the opening of the black-owned Commercial Bank noted that tickets could be purchased at Shade’s Drugstore, below the railroad at 530 East Nash.

Wilson Daily Times, 1 April 1921.

Early in 1925, Samuel H. Vick appeared before Wilson’s board of aldermen to request funds for “the colored hospital” and streetlights from the railroad to the intersection of Nash and Pender Streets. (A “whiteway” is a brightly lighted street, especially in a city’s business or theatre district.) Vick pointed out the bad optics of one well-lit side and the other dark to train passengers. The mayor raised the usefulness of good lighting to police officers.

Wilson Daily Times, 10 February 1925.

Though decreasingly cited, the term remained in currency at mid-century. In 1952, after considerable public controversy and contention, Wilson’s board of commissioners approved appointment of a housing authority to determine the extent of the city’s need for federally funded public housing. As this snippet of an article attests, black citizens crowded the hearings, testifying to the intense post-war housing shortage “below the railroad.”

Wilson Daily Times, 6 December 1952.

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.

Wiley Ricks is still barbering.

Wilson Daily Times, 13 October 1980.

Wiley Ricks and young customer.

——

In the 1900 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: Millie Ricks, 40, widow, with sons William, 12, and Wiley, 1.

In the 1910 census

On 27 July 1918, Wiley Ricks, 21, of Toisnot, married Fannie Fort, 21, of Toisnot, in Elm City. Presbyterian minister A.E. Sephas performed the ceremony in the presence of John Gaston, Samuel T. Ford and T.H. Nicholson.

Fannie Ford Ricks died 9 March 1924 in Elm City, Toisnot township. Per her death certificate, she was born 11 January 1899 in Wilson County to Sam Ford of Halifax County and Mattie Williams of Wilson County and was married to Wiley Ricks.

In the 1930 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: Wiley Ricks, 30, barber; wife Carrie, 29; and children Miriam, 2, and Maggie, 9 months.

In the 1940 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: on Branch Street, barber Wiley Ricks, 41; wife Cary P., 39; and children Miriam, 12, Maggie R., 10, Lois, 8, and Malinda, 1.

Wylie Ricks died 28 March 1985 in Hollister, Halifax County, North Carolina. Per his death certificate, he was born 4 December 1898 in Wilson County to Wiley Sharpe and Millie Sharpe; was a barber; resided in Elm City; and was married to Carrie Parker Ricks.

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A 1947 photo taken outside Wiley Ricks’ barbershop. Courtesy of Thomas Griffin via Wilson Daily Times, 15 January 2002.

Haircut photo courtesy of article re Ricks in History of Wilson County, North Carolina (1985).

Recommended reading, no. 3.

My well-worn copy.

May I recommend Charles W. McKinney’s excellent Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina? Published in 2010, this fine-grained and meticulous monograph examines the many grassroots groups — including farmers, businessmen, union organizers, working class women — who worked together and separately to drag Wilson County into and through the civil rights movement.