This ad for musical comedy The Big Broadcast focused on Cab Calloway and his Orchestra (who performed the opening of their big new hit “Minnie the Moocher), rather than stars like Bing Crosby. Wilson’s African-American moviegoers would have had to enter through a side door and watch from Carolina Theatre’s balcony.
When I stumbled upon this article, I was not sure if the terrible incident it described involved African-Americans from Wilson County. (It turns out they were not.) I did know, however, that state legislator Troy T. Barnes of Wilson co-sponsored a bill to award the victims pensions, and I knew I wanted to know more.
Wilson Daily Times, 29 March 1935.
A review of the widespread state news coverage reveals:
In December 1934, Woodrow Wilson Shropshire, 19, was sentenced to 120 days on a chain gang for drunkenness and drunk driving. In January 1935, Robert Barnes, also 19, was sentenced to a year “on the road” for possession of a stolen camera. Both were sent to a Mecklenburg County labor camp.
In January 1935, Shropshire and Barnes were placed in solitary confinement for alleged insubordination and cursing at a guard. The men were chained in a standing position against a wall for eight hours a day for four days. During the cold nights, they slept in an unheated room with little covering. The camp doctor failed to check on them as required by law. Both suffered severe damage to their feet that led to gangrene.
In early March, Wilson and Barnes were taken to Central State Prison in Raleigh where their feet were amputated. The following week, the state legislature opened an investigation into the matter.
Per testimony, the men originally been held at Mecklenburg County camp #411. When they attempted to warm themselves at a fire without permission during frigid January temperatures, a guard warned them away and Shropshire cursed him. Because camp #411 had no solitary confinement, they were moved to camp #413. Barnes, Shropshire, and a former prisoner named John Reid testified that a prison guard beat Barnes unconscious for spitting on the floor. The men were fed half a biscuit twice a day and a small amount of water. Prison officials claimed the men’s feet had been damaged by erysipelas, a strep bacterial infection. And/or their gangrene had been caused by the men stuffing rags too tightly between their skin and shackles. (“It is astonishing,” [testified prison physician] Coleman, “how some prisoners will mutilate themselves to escape work.”]
The investigation turned up an additional atrocity — the secret burials of Black convicts in a Watauga County cornfield during construction of the Boone Trail state highway in 1930. (The men had been reported as escapees.) Legislators had questions about the laws concerning prisoners in state camp, the limits (or lack thereof) on the kind of punishment guards could mete out, and the practice of transferring prisoners to camps with “little dark houses” used for solitary confinement. Three state representatives, including Barnes of Wilson, sponsored a bill providing a lifetime pension for Shropshire and Barnes.
In early April, the camp superintendent, camp physician, and three guards were arrested and charged with crimes including neglect, torture, maiming, and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. Shropshire was taken by ambulance from Raleigh to testify before a Mecklenburg County grand jury; Barnes was still too weak from his injuries.
The committee’s recommendation, issued in late April, was conservative. North Carolina penal camps could continue using whips and “dark cells” to punish prisoners. On the bright side, Shropshire and Barnes were to receive prosthetic feet and jobs in the highway or prison departments.
By mid-May, the State had spent $500 for four sets of artificial limbs for the two men, but neither was strong enough to use them.
The trial got underway in mid-July. Surprise — all defendants were acquitted!
Shropshire made good progress adjusting to his prosthetics. He declined a job in Raleigh, preferring to return to Mecklenburg to be near family, and the State promised to find him a job there. Barnes continued to struggle. In 1940, when he registered for the World War II draft, he was described as unemployed. His card noted “both feet amputated below knees.”
As discussed here, the Atlantic Coast Line’s handsome passenger rail station was the point of departure for many African-Americans leaving Wilson during the Great Migration. Now an Amtrak stop, the station was restored and renovated in the late 1990s.
Here’s the station’s main waiting room today. Through a doorway, a sign marks a second room for baggage.
Into the 1960s, though, the baggage area was the train station’s “colored” waiting room.
Photos by Lisa Y. Henderson, June and September 2021.
An article about the results of hearings for businesses charged with liquor law violations contains an interesting tidbit. Effie Boswell, a white woman who ran a roadhouse “just off the Wilson-Lucama Highway,” i.e. today’s U.S. Highway 301, was ordered to reduce her hours and pay a five hundred dollar bond to keep her place open pending her next hearing. The order also provided that “there was to be no more mixed dancing of white and negro persons at the place,” an allegation the judge considered was alone sufficient to shut the place down.
Wilson Daily Times, 12 April 1939.
An earlier article reported that Boswell’s place, described as a grocery store and filling station, had been closed initially, but the judge had amended his order after legions of upstanding citizens vouched for her good character. Nevertheless, by May 1939, Boswell had agreed to shut her doors permanently, and the State dropped its prosecution.
Effie Boswell — Per her death certificate, Effie Lamm Boswell was born 21 January 1889 in Wilson County to Edwin and Zillah Bass Boswell. She died 13 September 1970. She was the widow of Jesse Boswell.
“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.”
On 4 August 1942, the Daily Times printed two short pieces on the extraordinary match-up at Wilson’s Municipal (now Fleming) Stadium — the Homestead Grays vs. the New York Black Yankees!
Grays’ catcher and power hitter Josh Gibson in an undated photograph. AP.
Wilson Daily Times, 4 August 1942.
Buck Leonard at bat, 1945. He and Gibson were known as the Thunder Twins. Now regarded as among the best ever to play the game, neither played Major League baseball. Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Homestead Grays in 1942, the year they visited Wilson. Getty Images.
Black Yankees Leslie “Chin” Green and Jimmy Ford, 1942. Detail, Getty Images.