Though they once dominated block on block of south downtown Wilson, relatively few tobacco factory and warehouse buildings remain today. The hulking old Export Leaf building, however, still stands at Mercer and Banks Streets.
The building was originally built for John E. Hughes Company, as shown on the 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map.
Sanborn fire insurance map, Wilson, N.C., 1922.
The wooden buildings shown in yellow are long gone. I took the photo above standing in what would have been the space between them. Samuel H. Vick and Andrew J. Townsend owned considerable property in the area, rented to workers at Export and other nearby tobacco companies.
The 200 laborers would have been largely African-American. From “Six Firms Operate Eight Tobacco Redrying Plants in Wilson,” Wilson Daily Times, 19 August 1955.
Guy Cox or Charles Raines shot this image of Black women sorting tobacco leaves at Export about 1946.
The photo below, which accompanied the article above, dates from a time just outside that covered in Black Wide-Awake, but depicts a scene that would have been much the same ten or twenty years earlier.
Page 3, Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson, N.C., 1913.
Cross-referencing the 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory and the 1913 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson reveals the specific locations of Black-owned businesses just after the turn of the century.
Above, the west side of the 400 block of South Spring [now Douglas] Street, showing a heavy concentration of small restaurants and groceries. This stretch bordered the American Tobacco (later Liggett & Meyers) tobacco warehouse to the rear and was a block away from Smith’s warehouse, Watson warehouse, Export Leaf warehouse, a larger American Tobacco warehouse, and the Norfolk & Southern cotton loading platform, and these businesses no doubt targeted the swarms of warehouse workers.
Meet Virginia native Jacob Tuckerhere; Neverson Greenhere and here; and Nannie Besthere.
Agnes Taylor does not appear in Wilson census records, but her full entry in the 1912 city directory shows that she lived at 418 South Spring, just a few lots down from her eating house.
To stand at the intersection of Goldsboro and Spruce Streets, looking northeast, is to see Wilson much as it looked in the 1920s. Several early tobacco factories operated in this area, and the surrounded streets were lined with the small houses rented to African-American factory laborers.
At left, the two-story brick building, in its original cast-iron form, was Dibrell Brothers Tobacco Factory and Re-Ordering Plant and, by 1922, was the warehouse of tobacco brokers Monk-Adams & Company. The rail line, originally a spur of the Norfolk & Southern Rail Road, is visible in the detail of the 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map below.
The low brick building at the right of the photo contained the office and tobacco storage and drying areas of the British-American Tobacco Company’s facility. The water tower at the far end of the block above can be seen on the map below as a small gray square with a blue insert near the corner of Spruce and Spring [now Douglas] Streets.
The tin-roofed red building in middle distance appears to be an expanded version of the small auto shed marked just above the rail line on the Sanborn map.
The three houses on the west side of Spring/Douglas Street have been demolished, but the little saddlebag house in the distance, its roof white with the remnants of a brief snow, is 515 South Douglas Street. Formerly numbered 601, the house appears in Sanborn maps as early as 1908.
As noted in the earlier “Lost Neighborhoods” posts, downtown Wilson was once shot through with narrow alleys packed with the tiny double-shotgun dwellings of African-American tobacco workers. The whole of Sunshine Alley ran one and a half blocks between Tarboro and Mercer Streets, in the shadow of Liggett & Meyers’ tobacco warehouse and within a block of Planter’s Warehouse, Banner, Monk-Adams, Farmers, and Watson Warehouses. The neighborhood survived a 1924 fire, but by the end of 1928 it was gone — obliterated to make way for the massive Smith’s Warehouses A and B. (You can read a whole page about Smith’s in the nomination report for the Wilson Central Business-Tobacco Warehouse Historic District, but you’ll find no mention of Sunshine Alley.)
Here’s Smith’s in the 1940 aerial of Wilson, occupying the entire block bounded by East Jones, South Goldsboro, Hines, and Mercer Streets.
Today there’s nothing in this block but a Family Dollar store. Stand at the mouth of its driveway at Goldsboro Street. Look west:
The Daily Times printed these photographs without captions. What was the occasion of the parade?
Per an article on a previous page, Hagenback-Wallace — one of the largest circuses “in the land” — was scheduled to perform two shows in Wilson that day. “Great hulking elephants and prancing ponies, stately white ring horses and gaily striped zebras, towering giraffes and snobbish, little llamas, dappled draft horse teams of eight and ten, and double files of supercilious camels — these were the units of the colorful procession … that thrilled hundreds of Wilson circus fans this morning as the three long trains of the big show unloaded on the Norfolk and Southern sidings at Tarboro street and moved to the lot at the Old Ball Park.”
A closer look at the bottom image reveals that parade routes were among the few public spaces in which integration was acceptable in the 1930s.
Samuel H. Vick had his finger in many pots, including tobacco farming. In a three-week span in July 1929, under circumstances that certainly strike a modern reader as suspicious, he lost to fire three barns filled with his tobacco.
The collection in Wilson County Public Library’s Local History Room includes the transcript of a 1986 interview with Clifton Tomlinson, a farmer who had grown up in the Black Creek-Lucama area.
These pages include recollections of the some of the African-Americans who had been his family’s tenants and neighbors.
Sidney and Milbry Ramseur
In the 1910 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: Sidney Johnson [sic], 56, and wife Millie, __, both laborers working out.
In the 1920 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: on Black Creek and Lucama Road, farmer Sidney R. Ramseur, 69, and wife Milly, 60.
In the 1930 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farm laborer Sidney Ramsoo, 73, and wife Millie, 70.
Sidney Ramseur died 30 October 1941 at Mercy Hospital, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 90 years old; was born in Wilson County; lived on Viola Street; and was the widower of Milbry Ramseur. Informant was J. Clifton Tomlinson, Black Creek.
John and Robert Clay
In the 1910 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer John Clay, 45; wife Elizabeth, 46; and children Maggie, 21, Charlie, 20, Joseph, 17, Pearle, 15, Levi, 13, Johnnie, 10, Esrayson, 8, Bettie, 7, and Earl, 2; plus nephew Sam, 15, and widowed mother Mariah, 84.
In the 1910 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer Robert Clay, 24; wife Mary, 23; son James, 7 months; and sister-in-law Hattie Artis, 12.
In the 1920 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer John H. Clay, 54, wife Elizabeth, 54, and children Lary, 24, Bettie, 16, and Early, 12; next door, farmer Robert Clay, 33, wife Mary, 32, and children James, 10, Ollie, 6, and Lottie, 3; and next door to them Joseph Clay, 28, wife Essa, 22, and children Ethel, 2, and Joseph, 9 months.
John Edward Artis
In the 1920 census of Stantonsburg township, Wilson County: on Stantonsburg & Wilson Road, John Ed Artis, 31, tenant farmer; wife Maggie, 32; and children Jessie, 9, Rosa, 7, Henry, 5, Claud, 2, Lyra, 2, and Ella, 6 months.
In the 1930 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: John E. Artis, 41, farmer, widower, and children Jesse, 19, Rosa, 18, Henry, 15, Claud, 13, Larry, 12, Mary, 10, Eddie, 8, Mamie, 6, Carry L., 4, and Maggie, 2.
Ruthie and Anderson Hunter
Anderson Hunter, 45, of Toisnot township, applied for a license to marry Lula Farmer, 23, of Toisnot township, on 7 May 1901.
In the 1910 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer Anderson Hunter, 50; wife Lula, 33; and children Chanie, 18, Sam, 16, Emma, 15, Robert, 11, Annie, 6, and Clyde, 2.
In the 1920 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer Anderson Hunter, 62; wife Lula, 39; and children Emma, 25, Robert, 21, Annie, 15, Clyde, 11, and Hazel, 4.
In the 1930 census of Town of Sharpsburg, Edgecombe County: cotton and tobacco farmer Anderson Hunter, 71; wife Lula, 47; and children Clyde, 22, Hazel, 14, and James C., 9.
Floyd W. Farmer was not only a prosperous farmer, he was a force in the effort to get Wilson County to build rural high schools for African-Americans in the late 1940s.
In the 1930 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Cromwell Farmer, 57; wife Mary Jane, 48; and children James, 20, Ida, 20, Cromwell, 19, Ella, 17, Maggie, 16, Clara, 14, Floyd, 12, Viola, 9, Liola, 9, Esther, 8, Lee A., 7, and George, 6.
In the 1940 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: Mary Jane Farmer, 65, and children Floyd W., 21, Leola, 19, Viola, 19, Queen Esther, 17, and George, 15.
In 1940, Floyd Willie Farmer applied for the World War II draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born in April 1919 in Wilson; lived on Route 1, Elm City; his contact was mother Mary Jane Farmer; and he worked as a tenant farmer for Mrs. M.A. Bryant.
On 14 November 1942, Floyd Farmer, 24, of Elm City, son of Crumel and Mary J. Farmer, married Odell Sharp, 20, of WIlson, daughter of Alvin and Carrie Sharp, in Wilson. C.E. Artis applied for the license, and a justice of the peace performed the ceremony in the presence of J.H. Forbes, J.E. Miles and B.E. Howard.
Over the last couple of decades, the once ubiquitous tobacco barn has largely disappeared from the rural Wilson County landscape. I was surprised to find this one, then, completely enclosed in a grove of trees near a Springhill township cemetery, but otherwise in remarkably good condition.
After tying freshly picked tobacco leaves to wooden sticks with twine, workers hung the sticks from racks inside the barn to be dried, or “cured,” in the heat delivered via flue from an external fire box. The grueling work of barning season ended around this time of year.
I invite anyone knowledgeable to estimate the age of this barn. Thank you!