Segregation

For sale, the following public schools, pt. 1.

In the fall of 1951, having opened several modern — or modernized — brick buildings across the county, the Wilson County Board of Education moved to auction off its old colored school houses, some of which had been built with Rosenwald funds. For several weeks, the Wilson Daily Times ran lengthy notices identifying the properties by name and metes and bounds. Schools set for sale included New Vester, Jones Hill, Sims, Farmer’s Mill, Howard’s, Brooks and Minshew’s Colored Schools in Old Fields, Taylors and Black Creek townships.

Wilson Daily Times, 23 October 1951.

“Chocolate Dandies” comes to town — one night only!

Wilson Daily Times, 12 November 1925.

“This li’l old typewriter hasn’t been reading programs for more than forty years, so it is unable to single out from the more or less confused card of the races that dancin’ colored boy who makes ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ stand out in an uncommonly good road season of uncommonly good road shows. In that jungle of names and numbers, his name is lost. This is regretted, seriously, for the reason that, without regard to color or condition, this keyboard is glad to pound out the fact that he is the most brilliant dancer of his type ever seen on the stage – certainly on the Richmond stage, and, be it remembered, the road sees the good dancers and good actors long before they are “discovered” by reviewers who cover Broadway shows. That statement must be qualified, of course, so as to except imported stars and manufacturer stars – such for example, as Mr. Belasco has fabricated. And, moreover – but this has nothing to do with the case.

“‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is an all-colored show after the general style of ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘Runnin’ Wild,’ but, in so far as the road production is a guide, it is much more pretentious – to use the press agents’ favorite word – than its predecessors. It is slighter in its comedy than either of the others mentioned: but its costuming and setting are more elaborate and handsome than those of both the others put together. A long, gangling colored man named Lew Payton wrote the book and plays the comedy lead. He is so free from exaggeration in his work on the stage and has been so true to life in his comedy writing for the stage that it is quite easy for us down here to understand why this particular play and performance did not turn ‘em away in New York. At any rate, to those who fully realize how good this man is he is the acting star of his own show. That dancin’ colored boy walks away with the performance because his work is spectacular and brilliant and, in its own field just about unapproachable.

“It’s a fact, perfectly clean, amusing show, in which every member of the cast and chorus plays and dances as if for the love of it. The little orchestra carried by the company plays admirably. And the pianist-director, a woman, plays beautifully. One-man opinion is that ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is clinking good entertainment – provided the entertainment is not submerged by the pitiful tragedy of some of the performers, who are white – but colored.

“Why, several of them have well schooled voices, one of the women would make ‘White Cargo’ more realistic than ever it has been – but this is not moralization: it is supposed to be a report of a performance. Therefore, it is repeated that ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is clinking good entertainment – but what a piteous aching thing is this problem of ours!   — Douglas Gordon.”

——

The Wilson Theatre‘s manager reprinted a Richmond critic’s bizarrely incomprehensible review to promote — to an all-white audience — a one-night performance of The Chocolate Dandies, a lavish musical meant to capitalize on the success of Shuffle Along, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake‘s break-out Broadway production. Based on a book by Sissle and Lew Payton and with music by Blake, the stage show played 96 shows the 1200-seat New Colonial Theatre at 1887 Broadway at 62nd Street from 1 September through 22 November 1924. Josephine Baker — a few years away from her Paris debut — had a minor role, but it is not clear whether she took to the road with the traveling show. Douglas Gordon’s piece — which seems to be positive — aside, the critical reception was mixed.

Image courtesy of Maryland Historical Society.

401 1/2 North Pender Street.

The sixty-third in a series of posts highlighting buildings in East Wilson Historic District, a national historic district located in Wilson, North Carolina. As originally approved, the district encompasses 858 contributing buildings and two contributing structures in a historically African-American section of Wilson. (A significant number have since been lost.) The district was developed between about 1890 to 1940 and includes notable examples of Queen Anne, Bungalow/American Craftsman, and Shotgun-style architecture. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

IMG_2565.jpg

As described in the nomination form for the East Wilson Historic District: “ca. 1908; 1 story; two-room house with chamfered-post, hip-roofed porch; fine example of the type in the district.”

The 1908 Sanborn map of Wilson shows 401 1/2 as 300 Pender. By 1922, per the Sanborn map, the house had been renumbered 401. 401 Pender Street is a now 1930-era shotgun shoehorned between Vance Street and 401 1/2 Pender.

Vance Street marked a hard boundary on Pender Street. The 300 block of Pender and points south-west were home to African-American families. The 400 block and points north-east were white. This excerpt from the householder’s directory section of the 1930 edition of Hill’s Wilson, N.C., City Directory reveals the line of demarcation plainly:

The parameters of this sharply segregated neighborhood persisted into the 1960s.

Photograph by Lisa Y. Henderson, February 2018.

Buried in a white cemetery.

Tracing Their Wilson Roots: Towering Tree Marks African-American Couple’s Grave in White Cemetery

By Drew C. Wilson, Wilson Daily Times, 1 October 2017.

Paul Sherrod and his nephew spent a day last month cleaning brush off their ancestors’ graves.

“Every time I come here to Wilson I come here to visit this cemetery because it is so special to me,” Sherrod said as he walked up to the resting place for his grandparents, Joseph Tobe Smith, 1871-1956, and Martha Elizabeth Wheeler Smith, 1875-1932.

A massive pine tree stands over the top of the gravesite, which is in the Winstead family cemetery, also referred to as the Parkwood Cemetery, surrounded by the parking lot of the now-closed Wilson Mall.

“I remember as a kid this being farmland,” Sherrod said. “My grandfather was a sharecropper on land owned by the Winstead family. My grandfather was allowed to plant this tallest tree here, we believe, sometime between 1918 and 1922, and he was promised that he could be buried there right along with my grandmother. So proud of this, to know that my grandfather planted that tree.”

Sherrod is not sure who it was in the Winstead family who offered and then kept that promise, but he suspects it might have been Charles Winstead Sr.

“They owned land from here all the way down to Raleigh Road. I had two uncles who sharecropped almost all the way down to the parkway,” Sherrod said.

It is remarkable to Sherrod that early in the 20th century, a black couple would be permitted to have a final resting place in a white cemetery.

“That is really truly amazing because here we are in 1929, in the middle of the Depression and some oppression, you have this act of compassion and courage from this Winstead family to allow this to happen,” Sherrod said. “Looking back on it, I think they must have had, what you call it now, some flack about that, but they were courageous enough to see it through because they made a promise to my grandfather and they held to their promise. And moving forward to the mall being here, as the developers were putting it together, I understand that the Winstead family made a stipulation when they sold them the land that the graves and the bodies will not be exhumed, so here they are. I don’t know which family members it was, but they, again, had the same courage as their forefathers. So that’s remarkable, in 1929, having an African-American buried in a white cemetery.”

Sherrod never knew his grandmother, as she died before Sherrod was born.

“I only know about my grandfather,” Sherrod said. “I remember so much about him because he was actually both a father and a grandfather to me because my father died when I was quite young. He died in 1945. Right after that I started to live with my grandfather, and he mentored me in so, so many ways. He would take me with him as he would take his wagon and his mule and cultivate gardens. He was a farmer, but he was not farming anymore, so he was cultivating people’s gardens, and I learned so much from him about agriculture, how to grow things. I had my own garden. He would help me take care of the tomatoes and the okra. He was a wonderful person.”

They lived together from about 1944 to 1950 when Sherrod was 13 to 18 years old.

“It was a pleasure living with him because I learned so much,” Sherrod said. “He was so patient with me. I understand now, that he could see that I was different. I loved the books, and he wanted to give me the opportunity to do my homework, so he had to always make sure there was enough kerosene in the lamp. A little step up from Lincoln and the candle, but a similar situation.”

Sherrod laughed.

“The house was about a mile and half from here, east of here in New Grab Neck,” Sherrod said. “Later it was called Jefferson Street, and now it’s called Forest Hills. They have changed the name a couple of times.”

Sherrod, who is now 84, said growing up in Wilson in the 1940s wasn’t as bad as it might have seemed that it could have been.

“Our neighborhood was partially integrated. About a quarter of a mile up the street from where we lived, there was a white family. As a matter of fact, my grandfather had lived in that very house back in the early ’40s,” Sherrod said. “The only real signs of segregation were more the public places. We had a colored and white drinking fountain in front of the courthouse. Now it is a memorial to veterans, I believe. You could not sit in a restaurant. You had to go back to the back to get your food handed out the back door to you. And when buses came along, we had to ride in the back of the bus. So those were outward signs of the segregation, but there was never really any brutality. You weren’t afraid to walk around. You knew your place. You understood that. It wasn’t really as bad as it could have been because I have heard some real horror stories from other cities around the country later on. Not then. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”

The pine tree that Joseph Smith planted is at least 4 feet thick and the most prominent tree in the graveyard. There is a crack up its middle, perhaps made by a lightning strike many years ago.

When his grandfather died in 1956, Sherrod was overseas serving in the Air Force and could not attend the funeral.

“Before, they just had a simple marker,” Sherrod said.

Family members placed a granite marker at the site several years ago, and Sherrod recently purchased an additional stone marker to note the couple’s birth and death dates.

When Sherrod and his nephew, Bradley Sherrod of Wilson, spent the day clearing the brush around the gravesite, they left one little sapling.

“We toyed with the idea of taking it out, but my nephew and I decided no. Let that grow and see what happens. It’s obviously from the seed of this tree, so we left that one alone, that little baby pine, and over the years I’ll see what happens,” Sherrod said. “I hope the Lord allows me to be on this Earth long enough to see it be a pretty big tree. It’s growing nicely.”

Sherrod, who now resides in California, recently held a large family reunion on the site of the Sherrod family homeplace near Stantonsburg. He had spent the whole summer preparing for the event.

That is from his father’s side of the family. The Smiths are from his mother’s side of the family in Wilson.

“I firmly believe that if more people explored the roots from which they came, there would probably be a better world,” Sherrod said. “There is so much rich history on all sides on all ethnic groups, and if we had that history, we would have an opportunity to have a better understanding. It would be wonderful if people would do that on a large scale.”

——

In the 1880 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: on Pettigrew Street, farmer James Smith, 34, born in Virginia; wife Adline, 30; and children John, 14, Joseph, 9, Windsor, 12, Kate, 6, Allace, 5, and Julious, 2.

On 19 October 1892, Joe Smith, 21, of Wilson, son of Jim and Adeline Smith, married Martha Wheeler, 19, of Wilson, daughter of Amy Wheeler, at Amy Wheeler’s home. Free Will Baptist minister Crockett Bess performed the ceremony in the presence of Noah Wood, John Wheeler and Jno. Artis.

In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Joseph Smith, 29, farmer; wife Martha, 25; and children Addie, 5, Fenner, 4, and Mark, 2, and widowed mother Amma, 55.

In the 1910 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: Joseph Smith, 39; wife Martha, 36; and children Addie, 15, Fenner, 13, Mark, 11, James, 9, Lillie, 7, Mary F., 5, and Martha, 15 months.

In the 1920 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: Joseph Smith, 49; wife Martha, 41; and children Mark, 21, Lillie, 19, Mary Ford, 13, Martha, 10, Margaret Earls, 4 months, and Josie Brow, newborn.

In the 1930 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Tobe Smith, 59, farmer; wife Martha, 54; and children Frenner, 35, farm laborer, Mark G., 32, farm laborer, James, 30, schoolhouse janitor, Josephine, 14, and Beulah, 11.

Martha Smith died 21 March 1932 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born born in Nash County to Dick Wheeler and Amy Rice; was married to Tobe Smith; and worked as a tenant farmer.

Joseph Tobe Smith died 20 January 1956 at his home at 315 Jefferson Street, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 20 August 1884 in Wilson County to James Smith and Adline Darden; was a retired farmer; resided at 315 Jefferson Street; and was buried in Winstead cemetery. Mrs. Martha Sherrod, 315 Jefferson, was informant.

Aerial view of Winstead cemetery behind Wilson (former Parkwood) Mall, Wilson. Courtesy Google Maps.

An important move; or what to do about shiftless negroes.

Wilson Daily Times, 21 March 1919.

A gathering of men at the Colored Odd Fellows Hall. The topic at hand? How to “make the negro more efficient and helpful, more energetic, more responsible and in any every way a better citizen.” The means? A temporary organization headed by Camillus L. Darden and Dr. William H. Phillips. R. McCants Andrews, Howard ’15, newly graduated from Harvard Law School and soon to be counsel for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, was the principal speaker, holding the audience spellbound as he “discussed the shiftless ones, those who desire to get off on Saturday it matters not how badly he is needed, or how it will break up the oorganization, he talked about those who roam around with no settled abiding place, and of the crap shooter and general loafer and vagrant.” The Negro is a great imitator, he intimated, and “if the white man could get him to imitate work he would go to that and stick to it.” And the South was the place for him to do it.

The white businessmen in the audience chimed in. F.M. Miller, superintendent of Farmer’s Cotton Oil Company. There were “great possibilities in the development of the Negro,” he opined, “if they were handled in the right way an taught to understand the responsibilities of life.” He then supplied “some personal reminiscences to prove this.” Publisher John D. Gold answered the call for a remark. He confessed that he had long wondered if there a way “to make the shiftless colored man who shot craps and loafed ” much of the week “a better man and citizen.” The organization, he thought, would be useful in reaching these unreliable folk when they were young. After all, “he believed in his colored folks.”

“Dr. Sam Vick” stepped forward. If he was struggling to contain a reaction to the guests’ words, his own comments offer no hint. Instead — according to the Times reporter, at least — he echoed the general sentiments. “The colored man should be taught the value of a dollar, how it came and what it would bring” and should be “systematically trained” to eliminate his troubles. Episcopal priest Rev. Robert Perry, Dr. Frank S. Hargrave, Dr. William Mitchner and others offered their own hear-hears.

A reminder of “quasi-innocent wrongdoing.”

This chapter, offering a wistful comment on the destruction of a vestige of Jim Crow, is excerpted from William B. Clark Jr.’s Some Reflections On and Trivia of Wilson’s Tobacco Auction Warehouses 1890-1980, self-published in 1991:

A LESS THAN OBJECTIVE COMMENTARY?

Whenever local history buffs engage in a discussion involving the BANNER WAREHOUSE’s original segment (built in 1899), surely they concur that this particular construction deserves to be recognized as a Wilson landmark. The presently on-going demolition, therefore, cannot help but elicit at least some cry of protest and disappointment.

Inside the structure’s Kenan and South Tarboro Streets corner area formerly stood a two-unit, public drinking fountain (previously mentioned on page 47), its water cooled by passage through segments of half-inch galvanized pipe arranged in convolution and laid upon the floor of a deep box-like container kept filled with large blocks of ice delivered, when needed, to the warehouse by a local ice company. Vestigial evidence of this archaic fixture is found in the continued, but flaking-off, presence of two words (black in-color-of-paint, capitalized lettering) on the white-washed Kenan Street wall an eye level’s height above the warehouse sales floor; viz., WHITE to the viewer’s right and COLORED on the left … guilt-evoking “artifacts” from a by-gone era of southern culture and history when even water fountains in places so publically wide open — at least during the marketing season — as tobacco auction warehouses were rigidly maintained on a separate-but-equal basis.

Social reformers need not despair; for whatever taboos Civil Rights Legislation has failed to erase inside a commercial building long ago closed to the general public will be vanquished in their entirety once this demolition project has been completed.

If the dismantling of BANNER WAREHOUSE for a moment in brevity causes something of another era to resurface and remind the observer of a prior generation’s quasi-innocent wrongdoing, then the crumbling of these aged walls serves-up a meaning and purpose which reaches far beyond the mere physical activities taking place on this plot of urban soil.

It is more than simply traditions which are being laid to a dusty rest; for “transgressions” are being obliterated in reality even if not expunged from the pages of all our history books; and if nostalgia abounds in the loss of a tobacco auction warehouse long the epitome of this community’s central warehouse district, yet must there rise spontaneously a wholesome candor that applauds the demolition of walls and their lettered, gasping reminders of a “way that was.”

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 9.00.06 PM.png

This aerial view of Banner Warehouse, taken perhaps in the 1930s, shows the building’s location at Tarboro and Kenan Streets, at the edge of Wilson’s sprawling central tobacco warehouse district. Photo courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III’s Historic Wilson in Vintage Postcards (2003).

The Green Book.

The Negro Motorist Green Book (later titled The Negro Travelers’ Green Book and called the Green Book) was an annual guidebook for African-American travelers. New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green published the volume during the Jim Crow era, from 1936 to 1966, when hotels, restaurants and other businesses openly discriminated against black motorists. To counter the inconveniences and dangers and inconveniences they faced along the road, Green created a guide to services and places relatively friendly to African-Americans.

Only a few of the many Wilson businesses catering to black clientele were listed in the Green Book. The 1941 edition of the guide is excerpted below.

Victor H. Green, The Negro Motorist Green-Book (1941).

  • Biltmore, East Washington Street — The 1941 Wilson city directory does not list a hotel on East Washington.
  • The Wilson Biltmore, 539 East Nash Street — The 1941 Wilson city directory lists Libby McPhatter‘s cafe at 539 East Nash. However, per the nomination form for Wilsons Central Business District Historic District, McPhatter’s cafe was at 541, in a one of two buildings erected after the Hotel Union, a three-story frame hotel, burned in the late 1940s. It seems much more likely that the Union was the Wilson Bitmo
  • M. Jones, 1209 East Queen Street — The 1941 Wilson city directory does not list an M. Jones at 1209 East Queen Street, nor an M. Jones who is a taxi driver.
  • The 1948 Green Book lists the same three businesses in Wilson. Odd.

Copy of Green Book courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collections.