Segregation

Lane Street Project: radar project begins.

Radar project begins at Vick Cemetery

By Drew C. Wilson, Wilson Times, 22 June 2022.

It took only a few minutes Monday afternoon for ground-penetrating radar operators to detect graves at Vick Cemetery.

The two-man crew from Greensboro-based New South Associates will work at the African American cemetery for two weeks in an effort to pinpoint every burial site.

The 7.84-acre, city-owned graveyard off Bishop L.N. Forbes Street was cleared of all its trees and grave markers in the mid-1990s after an extended period of neglect, but the effort to clean up the cemetery resulted in the destruction of a considerable amount of history for the African American community in Wilson.

“We just finished our first grid of ground-penetrating radar, and immediately we were seeing radar reflections that are indicative of graves,” said assistant geophysics specialist Jordan Cole. “It is hard to tell exactly how many, but it looks fairly densely packed from what I have seen already. We did a grid that was 14 meters by 16 meters, and in each profile, we are seeing evidence for six to 10 graves.”

Wilson historian Lisa Y. Henderson, a former resident of Wilson who now lives in Atlanta, called the city’s use of ground-penetrating radar “a huge step” in many ways.

“First, it is the first affirmative action by the city in several decades to claim its ownership of Vick Cemetery,” Henderson said. “The things that were done at Vick in the past, which were well intended but had pretty devastating consequences, can’t be corrected, but it is vital for us to have a sense of how many people are buried there.”

Right now, people who drive past Vick Cemetery just see a big, empty field.

“If we aren’t able to even tell people how many people are buried there and where they are buried, it is difficult for Vick to regain its place in people’s consciousness as a sacred place,” Henderson said.

In the mid-1990s, she said, a visual survey located about 1,500 graves.

“But given the period of time that Vick was active, which was roughly 1913 when the city acquired it until the 1950s, that’s 40 years, and there would have been at least 100 burials a year, probably more for much of that period,” Henderson said.

She said records are difficult to decipher because Vick Cemetery and the adjacent Rountree and Odd Fellows cemeteries were collectively called Rountree.

“So it kind of obscures where the actual burials were, but the aerial imagery that we are lucky enough to have from the ‘30s and ‘40s shows that it was an active cemetery, a full cemetery, a place that was an important institution in our community,” Henderson said.

HOW IT WORKS

Cole and archaeologist Chris Triplett of Farmville set up a grid system across the property and began a systematic scan of the whole area.

“GPR works by telling the difference between dense soil and less dense soil,” Cole explained. “Wherever there is a contrast between the density of the soil, the GPR will pick that up. So we will see regular disturbance, but we should also be able to see graves as long as the cut from the grade is still preserved from the disturbance that is higher up.”

The system is able to see close to 3 to 4 meters (9.8 to 13.1 feet) deep.

“It’s the same concept as regular radar that you might use to watch and track air traffic,” Cole said. “It focuses its energy and looks straight down at the ground. It will send out an electromagnetic pulse into the ground. The pulse will hit something, and then the pulse will return back to the antennae and the machine records the time that it takes to leave the machine, hit something, which in this case is a change in density of soil, and return. By telling how quickly that travel time is — it is called travel time — we will know how far away it is from the antennae, which translates into how deep it is below the soil.”

GPR works by collecting a series of parallel lines of data.

“We space them at half a meter between each line,” Cole said. “When we are collecting data in the field, we can only see that individual line that we are collecting at that time in the field. Then when we go and process it with the computer, we can line up every profile side by side and use a computer to interpolate that data and produce a bird’s eye view of the reflections in the ground, and that will show us the graves in the ground and how big they are.

“Once the crew takes the data back to the office to start processing it, they will be able to produce a map that shows wherever there is ground disturbance across the whole area, and we can map the size of those disturbances and mark which ones are graves. Hopefully we can produce a pretty accurate map of where every grave is across the whole zone.”

The city is paying $29,159 for the company to conduct the work.

WHO IS BURIED THERE?

“The way a community treats its dead says something about that community,” Henderson said.

“I think it’s past time that Wilson demonstrates is commitment to all of its citizens, past and present, and honors the lives of the folks that are buried in Vick, probably most of whom were working-class people, tobacco factory workers, agricultural laborers and domestic workers,” she said. “They are the people who built east Wilson. They are the people who worked in the homes and the businesses downtown and in west Wilson and eased the lives of what might have been called the city’s leading citizens, so in that way they played a role too in the development of what we now know as Wilson.”

Henderson said she is excited about the project.

“I am looking so forward to seeing the report that results from it,” she said. “I have seen some reports for ground-penetrating radar, but on a much smaller scale. So it will really be exciting to see what evidence is left.”

Henderson has provided the company with documents to compare to its findings.

“We appreciate the opportunity to assist the city in mapping the landscape of the Vick Cemetery so that all who lie there can be recognized and remembered,” she said.

Castonoble Hooks, a member of the Wilson Cemetery Commission, said he is delighted that the project has started.

“It is not too late for them to begin to rectify the wrongs that they have done,” Hooks said. “Omitting these people for so very long, I hope that this is a sea change as far as the direction that the city has in public cemeteries and its treatment toward Blacks.”

For more photos and to support local media, please visit this article at Wilson Times online.

Wilson’s only Green Book hotel.

Though several hotels opened and closed on East Nash Street in the first half of the twentieth century, only one, the Wilson Biltmore, made it into the famous Negro Motorist Green Book. (Other listings for Wilson include a taxi service and an ambiguous reference to a residential address on Washington Street.)

North Carolina African American Heritage Commission’s Green Book Project is an interactive web portal compiling in-depth information about more than 300 Green Book sites across the state. The project also includes a traveling and virtual exhibition that highlights the experiences of African American travelers in North Carolina during the Jim Crow era.

The Project’s entry on the Wilson Biltmore Hotel cites to research in Black Wide-Awake, and I’m happy and honored to be able to contribute to the documentation of this era in African-American history.

Image courtesy of Smithsonian Digital Volunteers: Transcription Center.

Parker refuses to give up his seat on the bus.

Wilson Daily Times, 6 April 1943.

Meet James Parker, American hero.

In April 1943, Parker boarded a Wilson city bus on Saturday evening. He sat down in the white section and remained firmly ensconced when the driver asked him to move. The driver, James Batchelor, abandoned his route to drive the bus to the police station, where Parker was arrested and charged with violating North Carolina’s “passenger law,” which allowed for the designation of colored and white sections in commercial transport vehicles. Parker was adjudged guilty and given a thirty-day suspended sentence provided he remain “in good behavior.” Per the Daily Times, Parker was the first person to challenge Jim Crow laws in Wilson County in 25 years.  

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

Lane Street Project: Maplewood vs. Vick, 1940.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Aerial photographs shot in 1940 show the stark difference in the design and upkeep of segregated Maplewood and Vick Cemeteries.

We see Maplewood, founded in 1876 (and since expanded northwest across Hill Street), laid out in an orderly grid. The circle of trees, since removed, at the center of the first eight sections marks the location of the city’s Confederate monument, which was unveiled in 1902. The gateway arch is southwest of the monument, at Woodard Street.

And here we see Vick Cemetery — plus Odd Fellows and Rountree — on a dirt road outside city limits and surrounded by piney woods and corn fields. Vick, founded in 1913, is at left and takes up about two-thirds of what looks like a single graveyard, but is in fact three. There is no internal grid, no clearly marked access paths, no uniform spacing of graves or family plots. Certainly no Spanish Revival gateways or monuments to heroic ancestors. Though the city had established Rest Haven Cemetery in 1933, Vick remained active until the early 1960s, and hundreds of people were buried there in the 1940s alone. As poorly as it compares to Maplewood, Vick Cemetery never looked this good again.

County Commission gives in, buys more buses for rural schools.

Wilson Daily Times, 10 March 1941.

In March 1941, after repeated complaints by “a delegation of negroes,” Wilson County Commissioners were forced to supply two additional school buses to alleviate severe overcrowding on the buses ferrying children to and from the county’s two Black high schools, Elm City and Williamson. A state school commission inspection disclosed that the two buses serving Elm City were carrying 280 children a day on a route that wove across the top half of the county. (Children were picked up in dangerously overcrowded shifts, which resulted in forces tardiness and absences for many.)

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

White personnel make way for Dr. Ward and staff.

Wilson Daily Times, 13 March 1924.

In early 1924, Wilson native Dr. Joseph H. Ward, a major in the Army Medical Corps and a pioneering physician in Indianapolis, was appointed first African-American chief surgeon and medical director of a Veterans Administration hospital. The appointment was poorly received by many in Tuskegee, Alabama, and the displacement of former personnel by a nearly all-Black staff was initially stiffly resisted.

Burch Williams’ Golden Follies at Lincoln Theatre.

Wilson Daily Times, 16 March 1928.

The Lincoln Theatre, a theatre catering to African-American audiences, operated in the late 1920s and early 1930s at 417 East Nash Street. Greek immigrant George C. Woller was the theatre’s proprietor. Burch Williams’ Golden Follies were a Black act, but white audiences could buy tickets for a special midnight show at another Greek-owned establishment, the European Cafe.

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.