Skilled Trades

Fine cemetery memorials!

Nearly all grave markers from the last 40 years or so are machine-cut, their lettering precise and even and utterly predictable. In Wilson County’s African-American cemeteries, however, even a casual perusal of older markers reveals artisanal work, almost always anonymous. Though there are many hand-cut styles, one repeatedly snags the eye with its distinctive font — squared letters with flared serifs and, especially, 9’s with long, pointed tails. These carvings are the work of marble cutter Clarence Benjamin Best, who chiseled stars, crosses, flowers, lambs, and Masonic emblems, as well as grammatically idiosyncratic epitaphs, into slabs of stone for more than 50 years. I have found his work in rural Wilson County cemeteries and as far afield as Wayne, Edgecombe, and Greene Counties, but Rest Haven Cemetery is the ground zero of his oeuvre.

Best got his start as a marble cutter at Wilson Marble Mantle & Tile Company on North Railroad Street. By the early 1920s, he was designing and cutting headstones for African-American clients as a side gig. Operating from a backyard workshop, Best worked at every price point, often repurposing scrap stone or headstone seconds to create custom monuments that collectively testify to his skill and endless creativity. He opened his own business in 1946, advertising FINE CEMETERY MEMORIALS, and worked another 30 years.

As a tribute to this unsung vernacular artist, I’ve set out to photograph every monument I can attribute to Clarence B. Best and will feature his stand-out pieces in a dedicated Instagram account. Stay tuned.

Behold the Lamb of God. Clarence B. Best’s work is well-represented in Saint Delight Cemetery, near Walstonburg, Greene County, North Carolina.

Barbers and bank — can you confirm this location?

A generous reader shared this breathtaking photo of seven African-American men standing on a Wilson street curb. I know nothing about its provenance. Can you help me identify the men or the location?

A few clues:

(1) My best guess for the time period is 1910-1920.

(2) Two of the seven men are wearing white barber’s jackets.

(3) One of the two men standing in vests at center may have been Columbus E. Artis. Of the two, my money is on the man at left, holding … what? Artis is not known to have been a barber. In fact, in 1913, he operated an eating house at 214 South Goldsboro Street. Artis migrated to Washington, D.C., around World War I, returning to Wilson by 1921, when he commenced a long career as the town’s number 2 Black undertaker, behind Charles and Camillus Darden.

(4) The storefront behind them is adorned with a barber’s pole, and “Baths” is painted on its enormous plate glass window. Better-quality barbershops of the time offered clients bathtubs or showers for a full grooming experience in an era in which hot water and indoor plumbing were still rare home luxuries. This shop would have catered to white clients (you can see vaguely one peering out of the window) and would have been located west of the railroad tracks.

(5) Next to the barbershop, there is a doorway. The letters visible in its multi-muntin transom are an S (imprinted or sewn onto a heavy cloth background) and B-A and a partial N. A bank. With a patron (or perhaps banker) exiting in a top hat.

(6) Though the styles of the storefronts are different, the second floor above them seems to show they are bays in a single building.

(7) An examination of the 1908 and 1913 Sanborn insurance maps reveals only one neighboring barbershop and bank in downtown Wilson — at 108 and 110 East Nash Street in 1913. The map shows a two-story brick building divided into equal-sized spaces. (In 1922, the businesses were still there, but the street numbers had changed to 109 and 111.)

Detail, Sanborn fire insurance map, Wilson, N.C., 1913.

(8) Per the 1912 city directory, 108 East Nash was home to Mayflower Barber Shop, whose owner at that time was Levi H. Jones. None of these men appears to be Jones.

(9) Per the 1912 city directory, 110 East Nash was home to Wilson Trust and Savings Bank, whose president was John F. Bruton and vice-president was Jonah Oettinger.

Is this Mayflower Barber Shop? Who are the men?

Thank you, C. Joyner!

[Update: Dana Corson pointed out an O.V. Foust photo of the construction of the First National Bank building in 1926 that confirms 109 (108) and 111 (110) East Nash Street as the location of the buildings in this photo. Ironically, the buildings were gone — subsumed in the footprint of Wilson’s high-rise building. The window forms and dentil corbelling seen above, however, continued across to 105 and 107 and are visible in this close-up.]

Raines and Cox Studio Photograph Collection, State Archives of North Carolina.

Detail from 1930 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson, N.C.

Stepney Buck, a faithful newspaper worker.

In an undated manuscript titled “Early Wilson Newpapers,” James H. Evans reminisced about working for various Wilson journals between 1865 and 1882.

As he recalled his hire by Josephus Daniels at the Wilson Advance, Evans noted: “… and by the way, I have been overlooking one very faithful worker on every newspaper in town — Stepny Bush[sic], a colored man, he pulled every Washington hand press on every newspaper in the town, and it kept him very busy; he had press work every day except Sunday.”

In the 1880 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Nash Street, Martha Vick, 30, servant; her children Thomas, 13, Lucy, 8, Peter, 3, and John, 10 months; and Stepney Buck, 50.

In the summer of 1881, a pseudonymous writer contributing news of Elm City happenings praised Buck’s work while the Advance‘s editors were away:

Wilson Advance, 1 July 1881.

A year later, Buck’s name appeared in this incomprehensible jab at future United States Congressman James E. O’Hara published in the Wilson Siftings, which Evans described as “a semi-news and humorous newspaper”:

Wilmington Weekly Star, 4 August 1882.

Eight months later, Buck was dead. On 20 April 1883, horse dealer T.H. Selby, newspaper owner/editor Josephus Daniels, bookkeeper H.R. Strong, printer J.C. Rhodes, James Lucas, and lawyer (and later United States Congressman) F.A. Woodard posted a seventy-dollar bond for the appointment of Selby as administrator of Stepney Buck’s estate. I have found nothing further about this.

Rest in peace, Vanilla P. Beane.

Black Wide-Awake mourns the passing of Vanilla Powell Beane, Wilson native, Washington, D.C., legend, and milliner extraordinaire. Her 103 years of life were exceptionally well-lived, and the world so much richer for her talents.


Vanilla Beane, the District’s ‘Hat Lady,’ dies at 103.

By Michael Rosenwald, The Washington Times, 25 October 2022.

Vanilla Beane, whose radiant hats topped the heads of legions of African American women at church, weddings and funerals in the District for half a century, earning her the title of “D.C.’s Hat Lady,” died Oct. 23 at a hospital in Washington. She was 103.

The cause was complications following an aortic tear, said her grandson Craig Seymour.

Mrs. Beane’s hats, which she had designed and fabricated at the Bené Millinery and Bridal Supplies shop on Third Street NW, were featured on postage stamps and in collections at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Every hat was one-of-a-kind.

“Nobody wants to walk into a church and see someone else wearing their hat,” she once said.

Poet Maya Angelou wore one of Mrs. Beane’s millinery creations. Civil rights activist Dorothy I. Height donned them for meetings with presidents and other officials. “Hats give me a lift and make me feel real special,” Height explained — a sentiment shared by the countless others who shopped at Mrs. Beane’s store.

Mrs. Beane worked six days a week into her 100th year.

“Some people like real fussy hats,” she told The Washington Post in 2009. “Others like sophisticated hats, and a lot of people like simple hats. I try to please people regardless of their race or background.”

Mrs. Beane made her hats the old-fashioned way, wetting buckram — a stiff cotton — into molds decorated with all manner of fabrics. Keeping her fingernails cut short, Mr. Beane made tams, turbans, panamas, sailors and cloches. Decades of the repetitive fashioning turned her fingers stiff and rough.

“They look like I have been digging potatoes,” she said.

Vanilla Powell was born in Wilson, N.C., on Sept. 13, 1919, the second youngest of nine siblings. Her father was a carpenter and farmer, and her mother was a seamstress who also worked in White people’s homes washing their clothes.

Growing up during the Depression instilled a robust work ethic in the Powell children, who worked in the fields picking tobacco and cotton. On Sundays, they rested and walked to Sandy Point Baptist Church, where women sat in the pews wearing fancy hats.

“In the past, when most Blacks had blue-collar jobs, dressing up on Sundays was a cherished ritual,” Craig Marberry, co-author of “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats,” said in a 2019 story about Mrs. Beane in The Post. “The hat tradition grew out of the idea that you were expressing how God has blessed you. The more flamboyant a hat, the more God has blessed you.”

After graduating from [C.H. Darden] high school in 1940, Vanilla Powell moved to Washington and two years later married Willie Beane Sr., producing the name that endlessly charmed her customers and friends, though it took her a little bit to realize its novelty.

“I was in the drugstore and the pharmacy said, ‘Do you know there is a Vanilla Beane?’” she recalled in a television interview in 2020. “I said I guess it was meant to be.”

In Washington, Mrs. Beane worked as an elevator operator in a downtown building with a hat store called Washington Millinery Supply. She was enamored by the intricate hats and the craft of making them, so she bought some supplies and began making them herself.

Eventually she showed her hats to the store’s owner, Richard Dietrick Sr. “She had very much talent, but she didn’t have the design know-how in those days,” Dietrick recalled later. “She picked it up very quickly.”

Mrs. Beane eventually began working for him, and when he moved his shop to Gaithersburg, Md., she bought his supplies and, in 1979, opened her own store. She was a shrewd businesswoman, convincing Ethel Sanders, the owner of Lovely Lady Boutique in Bethesda, Md., to move her store near Bené Millinery.

“People knew us as a team,” Sanders recalled in 2019. “Women would come in for a dress and I’d send them to Vanilla for a hat. Or they’d go for a hat and she’d send them to me for an outfit.”

Mrs. Beane’s shop had White customers, as well. One of them was Sherry Watkins, who founded the Rogue Hatters, a group of women who collected Mrs. Beane’s hats. Watkins owned 75.

Mrs. Beane taught them the rules of hat wearing.

“Don’t match the hat to the outfit,” Watkins recalled. “Just buy a hat you like and the outfit will come. Never wear your hat more than one inch above your eyebrows. Slant it to look more interesting and possibly even risque.”

Mrs. Beane seemed to never get designer’s block. Her designs constantly evolved.

At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, one of Mrs. Beane’s hats is green velveteen.

“The hat is circular with a rounded peak and constructed by layering a strip of fabric over itself in a wrapped design,” the museum’s description says. “The base of the fabric is a light green while the pile is a darker green, giving the hat a two-tone appearance.”

Another is a red felt bicorn style.

“The hat is composed of a single piece of stiff felt that has been folded up at the center front,” the museum notes. “The dome of the hat is cylindrical, with the raised brim attached at the top of the crown. There are red felt bows affixed at the attachment points.”

Mrs. Beane’s husband died in 1993. Their son, Willie G. Beane Jr., died in 1980. Ms. Beane is survived by two daughters, Margaret L. Seymour of Charleston, S.C., and Linda R. Jefferson of the District; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Beane was such a fixture of Washington that then-Fox News host Chris Wallace named her “Power Player of the Week” in the summer of 2020.

Wallace asked her what made a proper church hat.

“Well,” she answered, “any hat that’s not too fancy, not too wide.”

The host marveled at her longevity.

“In these challenging times,” Wallace said, “it’s nice to know there are still some constants in the world, like Vanilla Beane.”

Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post.

Graduates of Sales Beauty College.

Wilson Daily Times, 1 July 1950.

In 1950, Sales Beauty College graduated 12 new beauticians in a ceremony held at Saint John A.M.E. Zion church.

  • Jennie M. Alston
  • Columbus Hannah — in the 1950 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 725 Lincoln Street, Clara Pritchett, 58, tobacco factory stemmer; son-in-law George Gay, 25, filling station attendant; daughter Mary L. Gay, 26, tobacco factory feeder; and grandchildren Nathaniel, 9, William D., 8, and Columbus Hannah, 5.
  • Lillie M. Sales — beauty school founder Sales lived in Raleigh, North Carolina.
  • Mary L. Flemming    
  • Mary L. Gay — see above.  
  • Carrie L. Hopkins — in the 1950 census of Wilson, Wilson County: in the duplex at 511 East Green, (right side) Pauline Knight, 30, widow, saleslady at grocery store; (left side) Luke Hopkins, 32; wife Berline, 22; daughter Pecolie Maxine, born in September; and sister Carrie Lee Hopkins, 19.
  • Rebecca McRae — in the 1950 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1110 Atlantic Street, Julia Green, 68, widow; Rebecca McRae, 35, widow, cook in domestic service; and Mary Harris, 38, teacher in primary grade at city elementary school.
  • Rosa Arrington — in the 1950 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 208 Reid Street, carpenter Levi Arrington, 62; wife Rosa, 67, beauty parlor proprietor; and foster daughter Margaret Kenny, 9.
  • Dorethea Lewis
  • Evelyn H. Moore
  • Lucille Goram — in the 1950 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 320 Finch Street, farmworker Earnest Goram, 53; wife Mary, 46, maid; and daughter Lucille, 30.
  • Katie Sewell — in the 1950 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 813 East Green, James W. Sewell, 49, cook in cafe; wife Katie, 37; and daughter Marian, 14.
  • Hattie Battle 
  • Elsie Hobbs — in the 1950 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1205 Atlantic, carpenter Hadie Hobbs, 47, and wife Elsie, 41. 
  • Inez Holmes — in the 1950 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 713 Robeson, Arthur C. Holmes, 32, hauling coal for ice and ice company; wife Inez, 33, maid at local bank; boarder Edward Barber, 67, father-in-law.

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

The colored painters meet.

Wilson Daily Times, 21 March 1936.

Who were “the colored painters of Wilson” during this period?

I’ve been able to identify James Ashley Whitfield, David Dupree, Butler E. Jones, Alexander Obery, and Samuel Swinney as painters active in the 1930s. (Commercial painter Ramon Martinez was in Wilson by 1940, but probably had not yet arrived in 1936.)

Barbershop ratings.

Wilson Daily Times, 2 August 1935.


The paper carried a ranking of 13 barber shops in Wilson, ten of which exclusively served white customers. The shops known to be African-American-owned were William Hines, Briggs Hotel (the location of Walter Hines‘ shop), Hargroves, Neal’s, and Sanitary, and perhaps. 

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

The death of Junius Woodard, another victim of the Contentnea Guano collapse.

We’ve read of the death of Rev. Basil B. Tyler, crushed under a cascade of fallen timber. Two other men, Junius Woodard and Tobe Bellamy, were seriously injured.  Bellamy recovered and lived to see 104 years. Junius Woodard, on the other hand, was dead within weeks from septicemia arising from a compound fracture of his lower leg.


In the 1880 census of Speights Bridge township, Greene County: laborer Jesse Woodard, 36; wife Pennie, 28; and children Caroline, 14, Junius, 6, Margarett, 4, Mary, 3, Willie, 2, and Minnie, 11 months.

On 24 April 1901, Junius Woodard, 26, married Ella Barnes, 20, in Wilson. Missionary Baptist minister Fred M. Davis performed the ceremony in the presence of G.H. Holden, W.M. Foster, and J.S. Jackson.

This version of the accident offers slightly different details, but is not entirely accurate. Woodard, not “Woodward,” was not white. The Times-Mercury (Hickory, N.C.), 24 November 1909.