Though the Great Migration to California most often drew seekers from states like Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas, Wilson County natives also joined the tide that increased the African-American population of that state exponentially.
Perhaps the first nationally known Wilson native to take up residence in California arrived not in the Great Migration, but as a result of the National Football League draft. The Los Angeles Rams drafted Saint Augustine’s College defensive end Isaac T. Lassiter in 1962, and he later spent five seasons with the Oakland Raiders, playing in the 1967 Super Bowl. Lassiter was born in 1940 in Wilson to Dempsey and Mary Jane Bynum Lassiter and graduated from C.H. Darden High School.
Hat tip to Bernard Patterson for the football card image.
Participants did not need to make up their own mockeries. Titles of negro wedding plays include “Henpeck at the Hitching Post,” “My Wild Days are Over,” and “The Coontown Wedding.” Characters in Mary Bonham’s “The Kink in Kizzie’s Wedding: A Mock Negro Wedding,” published in 1921, include Lizzie Straight, Pinky Black, Sunshine Franklin, Necessary Dolittle, George Washington Goot, and Uncle Remus. The opening lines: “CAPT. COTTON — ‘Bein’ as Ise de Knight ob de Hoss-shoe, an’ while we’s waitin’ fo’ de bridal paih, we will practice de riding’ gaits.’ ALL GROOMSMEN — ‘Thank-u-doo, obleeged-to-you!’ (They salute the Captain.)” Charming.
Philadelphia was the site of my closest personal connections to the Great Migration. In the 1940s and ’50s, my father’s brothers and then his mother left Wilson for Philly, and every summer we hit the highway for a week or so at my grandmother’s house on Wyalusing Avenue. Her block was filled with migrants from Georgia and North Carolina and Virginia, and her broader social circle included relatives who had settled in other parts of the city.
(I lived in Philadelphia for a few years in the 1990s, in both West Philly and Germantown. By then, many of the first generation of Southern migrants had passed on, but their legacy is firm. The fourth generation of my eldest uncle’s offspring is growing up in North Philadelphia right now.)
Pennsylvania’s plethora of on-line records makes for easy documentation of a long list of Wilson County natives who sought new lives in the Keystone State. Not surprisingly, almost all landed in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or their suburbs.
I recently revisited Isabel Wilkerson’s epic The Warmth of Other Suns and, if you haven’t basked in this brilliance, please do. Others have said it better than I can. Toni Morrison called the book “profound, necessary, and a delight to read”; Tom Brokaw praised it as “an epic for all Americans who want to understand the making of our modern nation”; The New York Times Book Review” proclaimed a massive and masterly account”; The New Yorker, “a deeply affecting, finely crafted and heroic book.”
Black Wide-Awake is largely about people who cast down their buckets where they were, but also shines light on those whose paths carried them away from Wilson County. I can say with confidence that nobody I knew growing up did not have relatives in Harlem or Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx. Every summer, our little pack swelled with migrants’ grandchildren sent down South and inevitably one of our own went North for two weeks and came back “talking proper.” (Disclosure: I spent two years living in New York. I was in graduate school at Columbia and lived on West 121st Street in Morningside Heights. From the park at the end of my street, I could look out over the expanse of pre-gentrified Harlem, and 125th Street served up any Southernness I was homesick for.)
A definitive listing of these many thousands of migrants is impossible, but a try seems well worth it. In a slight expansion of the general timeline of the blog, these running lists will focus on documented migration prior to 1960. Arguably, New York was the lodestar for North Carolinians during the Great Migration, and I’ll start there.
John H. Skinner, an accommodationist’s accommodationist, wrote this letter to the editor of the Smithfield Herald in 1896. His point is not entirely clear, but his disparagement of African-Americans — in service to race relations — is painfully so.
Margaret Colvert Allen, seated far right, third row, circa 1915.
Greensboro Daily News, 10 March 1916.
Margaret C. Allen, second from right, second row from top. Her sister Launie Mae Colvert Jones, at left, first row of middle section, circa 1916. Both photos, I believe depict students of Statesville’s Colored Free School. The second photo may show the school itself shortly before it burned or may depict one of the other buildings in which the school met before a replacement was built in 1921.
High school principals were required to file annual reports with the North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction. In 1941, Robert E. Lee filed this report for newly opened Williamson High School.
The school year was only 120 days long and ran from 21 January 1941 to 31 May 1941. (Compare Elm City Colored School, which ran from February to June. Darden, on the other hand, had a 180-day school year.) Three teachers taught at Williamson — two women and one man. Astonishingly, these three taught 114 children — 39 boys and 75 girls — in three grades. (The school had no 11th or 12th grades.) Six-room Williamson Colored School housed all grades in one building. It had no restrooms, principal’s office, library, or auditorium. It did have a lunchroom run by the home economics department.
The high school offered classes in English, spelling, general mathematics, citizenship, American history, world history, geography, general science, and biology.
Classes met at 9:00, 9:48, 10:45, 11:27, 1:48 and 2:38. Lunch was at noon. R.E. Lee taught science, geography and history. J.P. Brown taught English, spelling and citizenship. C.J. Nicholson taught math, English and spelling.
All the teachers were college graduates. Each was in his or her first year teaching at Williamson.
The school had no laboratories or maps. It published a newspaper, The Oracle, and sponsored an English Club. Lee made this note: “Our Agriculture, Home Economics and guidance programs will begin in September, 1941, as steps are already being taken to put them into effect.”
High School Principals’ Annual Reports, 1940-1941, Wayne County to Wilson County; North Carolina Digital Collection, digital.ncdcr.gov.
The school year was only 120 days and ran from 10 February 1941 to 28 June 1941. Seven teachers taught at Elm City — two men and five women. They taught 164 children — 48 boys and 116 girls. Elm City Colored School housed all grades in one building. It had no restrooms, lunchroom or auditorium. It had no librarian, but it did have a library room.
The high school offered classes in English, general mathematics, geometry, algebra, citizenship, American history, world history, sociology, general science, biology, home economics, and French.
Classes met at 8:45, 9:35, 10:30, 11:30, 1:00 and 2:00. Odelle Whitehead Barnes taught English and French; Clara G. Cooke taught history and English; Mabel Brewington taught home economics and history; Earl C. Burnett taught science and math; and Robert A. Johnson taught math and tended the library on Fridays.
All the teachers were college graduates. Barnes had the most tenure at Elm City, with 8 years; Brewington and Burnett were newcomers.
The school had no laboratories or maps. It published a newspaper, The Elm City Journal; had both girls’ and boys’ glee clubs; a 4-H Club; and an English Club. Elm City Colored School graduated fourteen in the Class of 1941 — William Bynum, Volious Harris, Willie R. Mitchell, Mary Armstrong, Minnie E. Armstrong, Nelia Brown, Essie Bynum, Alice Ellis, BessieLancaster, Clara Lancaster, Eva Lindsey, Ada B. McKinnon, Georgia Toliver, and Marie Wynn.
High School Principals’ Annual Reports, 1940-1941, Wayne County to Wilson County, North Carolina Digital Collection, digital.ncdcr.gov.
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.