The initial reporting of Archie McLean‘s terrible death, in addition to being breathlessly gory, tries and convicts his assailant, “a negro from South Carolina” named Bennett Bethea or Bennett McCarroll or Bennett McNeal. Also, note the third paragraph, in which Officer John Walston fired at a man he “thought” was Bethea/McCarroll/McNeal and instead shot a white woman bystander in the thigh. The reporter laconically noted the target “happened to be the wrong negro,” and Mrs. Davis was all right.
Wilson Daily Times, 29 September 1919.
Benny McNeal (as his name turned out to be) remained on the lam for more than two months before surrendering. He claimed self-defense, and witnesses at the inquest backed him up. After fleeing the scene, McNeal had stopped at his mother’s house, then headed south, finding work on a Hoke County farm.
Wilson Daily Times, 10 December 1919.
The grand jury agreed that McNeal had acted in self-defense and refused to indict him. Witnesses testified that McLean had come at McNeal with a piece of scantling (a small section of sawn timber) studded with twenty-penny (four-inch) nails, and McNeal had lashed out with a trench knife that penetrated McLean’s heart.
Wilson Daily Times, 16 December 1919.
In 1917, Arch McLean registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born March 1895 in Raleigh, N.C.; lived at 509 Stantonsburg Street; worked as a laborer at W.L. Russell Box Company; and was single. He signed his card with an X.
Archie McClain died 28 September 1919 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born in February 1894 in Wake County, N.C., to John Beckwith and Vicy Jones; was single; lived on Stantonsburg Street; and worked as a wagon driver for a L.&M. [Liggett & Meyers] tobacco factory. Bessie McClain was informant.
The “ginger cake colored” woman was Maggie Coleman.
“Struck with stick on forehead and a gash under chin by party unknown (murdered). Sudden Death.”
Per a 26 December Daily Times article, “About noon Jim came into this office and said that his wife had not returned from a trip to Wilson on Thursday where she came to buy her Christmas. He was told that a body of a negro woman had been found and went to the undertaking establishment where he identified the body as that of his wife. It is believed that Jim wanted to get rid of her and took her to the woods and killed her, and then pretended he knew nothing about it.”
Maggie Coleman was buried on Christmas Eve, and her husband James Coleman was arrested for her murder.
The Independent (Elizabeth City, N.C.), 29 December 1922.
On 18 January 1923, the Daily Times reported on the inquest over Coleman’s murder. Jim Coleman did not testify on his own behalf. Maggie Coleman had been found about about two miles north of Wilson near the Atlantic Coast Line railroad. She and her husband lived west of the city “up Nash road.”
June Ross testified that two weeks before Maggie’s death, during a visit to Jim’s store, he had witnessed the two arguing. “Jim told her to shut up and reached up after a pistol.” Ross left. Albert Staples testified that he had seen the Colemans in Wilson on Thursday, but did not know if they had come together. Maggie had been at High’s store and Jim at “the old Mose Rountrees Corner.”
An unnamed witness said he had seen Jim chase Maggie with a knife and said “if she said anything about the other woman he would cut her head off.” “They lived bad together witnesses said.”
Dallas Vail testified that he knew nothing about the killing, but “My wife’s mother bought a pair of shoes, and Jim’s wife wanted them and said Jim would pay for them. Saw Jim who said he would pay for shoes if his wife picked cotton smart. I went later after the money, and Jim said he bought several pair of shoes for her and she had run through them. He said she don’t need any shoes. She has a good pair on now, and the best thing for me to do is to get the shoes and give back to you. He gave me back the shoes. That was Saturday morning when the woman was found dead. I asked when she left home. He replied Thursday. I asked him why he had not looked for her. He said he thought she might have gone to see a relative. He said he and Bill Thorne looked for her. She did not return and they did not go hunting. He said he sent his wife to Mr. Sauls in Grab Neck and Mr. Sauls said he let her have $2.00.”
Wilson Best testified that about December 1, on Warren Street in Wilson, Jim Coleman told him his wife tried to poison him, and he had been staying by himself for three months and had been eating can goods. “He offered me $100.00 to kill her.”
Hattie Vail (the shoe seller) testified that the report “about the woman Henrietta Knight who lived near them and Jim was bad.”
Paul Barnes testified that he lived up Nash road about a mile from Jim Coleman and knew Coleman’s [mule] team. He said he encountered a mule and wagon headed toward Wilson on Nash road on Friday night between Lamm’s store and Etheridge. A person standing up in the wagon turned his head to the side and Barnes could not see his face, but believed him to be Coleman. The person was wearing a man’s coat and seemed to be a colored person.
Tom Coleman testified that there had been much trouble over the past two months between Jim and Maggie Coleman over Henrietta Knight. Jim threatened to kill Maggie before she could testify against Knight [presumably in an adultery action.] Tom was at Henrietta’s house one night in December and asked for a Pepsi-Cola. Maggie also asked for one, and Jim cursed at her. Tom paid for the drink. Jim threatened to hit Maggie with the bottle, and Tom stayed his hand. Jim was Tom’s nephew, and Maggie was Tom’s wife’s half-sister.
Prosecutor Oliver Rand read a statement by Elam Ross, who testified that he was at his father’s house near Barnes crossing and saw a man and woman going north toward Elm City. The woman was wearing a red sweater. “She went down the embankment and the man followed. Both disappeared in the woods.” Ross stated he went to the jail and identified Coleman as the man he had seen going into the woods.
Jim Baker testified that he lived near Coleman about five years. He saw Jim Thursday night on a wagon coming to Wilson about eleven at night, but did not pay attention. He heard on Saturday that Jim’s wife was dead.
Jim Coleman was tried and convicted of Maggie Coleman’s murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Three years later, Roy Armstrong was arrested and charged with the same crime. Armstrong had been a suspect at the time of Coleman’s murder, but had escaped prosecution by leaving town. According to “the evidence,” Roy Armstrong and Maggie Coleman argued over ten dollars she found, and he killed her with a blow to the head. Armstrong went to Coleman’s husband, who said “I don’t care,” and demanded twenty dollars for his escape. Coleman, though he had always protested his own innocence, apparently did not implicate Armstrong until Armstrong was arrested.
Wilson Daily Times, 7 November 1925.
Despite this development, little changed. Nearly a year later, Armstrong was still in jail awaiting prosecution, and I have found no record that he was ever tried.
In February and March 1930, Jim Coleman’s attorneys published a series of notices that he intended to apply for a pardon for his wife’s murder, having served a little more than seven years.
Wilson Daily Times, 6 March 1930.
The application apparently was turned down. However, Coleman walked free three years later when the governor of North Carolina paroled him for risking his life to prevent a boiler explosion at the prison camp saw mill. (Note the article states Coleman had served 18 years of a 20-year sentence. In fact, he served no more than ten years.
Charlotte Observer, 18 April 1930.
Maggie Coleman and James Coleman
In the 1900 census of Oldfields township, Wilson County: Benjaman Wooten, 51; wife Clara, 55; and children Elizabeth, 19, Joseph, 15, Maggie, 11, Eddie, 5, and Willie, 11 months.
In the 1900 census of Oldfields township, Wilson County: James Coleman, 15, was a servant in the household of white farmer John F. Flowers, 29.
Jim Coleman, 22, of Taylor township, son of Gray and Harriet Coleman, married Maggie Wootten, 18, of Wilson township, daughter of Ben and Clara Wootten, at Ben Wooten’s in Wilson township. Free Will Baptist minister Daniel Blount performed the ceremony in the presence of Ben Wooten, Eddie Coleman, and Spisey Barnes.
In the 1910 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: sawmill laborer James Coleman, 25; wife Maggie, 21; and children Bettie, 3, and Grady, 3 months.
In 1918, Jim Coleman registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his draft registration card, he was born 1 October 1880; lived at Route 3, Wilson; was a farmer [“owns home”]; and his nearest relative was wife Maggie Coleman.
In the 1920 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: Jim Coleman, 35; wife Maggie, 34; and children Grady, 11, Sanders, 7, Claydee and Collie, 6, and Leroy, 2.
Perhaps, in the 1920 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer Tom Wilson, 56; wife Leanna, 50; and children Sarah, 17, Ester, 15, Thomas, 14, Georgia, 11, Nancy, 9, Gola, 7, and Margie, 3; plus sister Nanie, 16.
In the 1920 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: on Finch Mill Road, farmer June Ross, 40; wife Nancy, 38; and children Sylvina, 14, Nancy Ann, 11, Charles Willie, 8, John Ed, 5, and Marse Robert, 1.
Dallas and Hattie Vail
On 8 February 1914, Dallas Vails, 34, of Wayne County, son of Ned and Rachel Vails, married Hattie Barnes, 23, of Wayne County, daughter of Perry and Louisa Barnes, at Turner Swamp church. Primitive Baptist minister Jonah Williams performed the ceremony in the presence of Thomas Ayres of Lucama, Geo. Robbin of Spring Hope, and C.H. Hagans of Sharpsburg.
In the 1900 census of Oldfields township, Wilson County: farmer James Joyner, 27; wife Mahalia, 26; and boarders Auston Daws, 28, farm laborer, and Roy Armstrong, 3.
In the 1910 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: on Wilbanks and Elm City Road, farmer Guston Armstrong, 73; wife Pricilla, 66; and grandchildren John C. Geer, 14, Roy Armstrong, 12, Frank Armstrong, 11, and Paulina Armstrong, 5.
In the 1920 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farm laborer Roy Armstrong, 23; wife Mary, 22; children Daisey, 3, and Mary, 2; and boarder Gerin(?) Bullock, 21.
Josephus Daniels’ News & Observer loved a good laugh at the expense of Black folk, even the ones back home in Wilson. Here, a “special” report of the antics of Wesley Rogers at the Mason Hotel one Saturday night. Rogers, a swell and a dandy, had taken offense at remarks made by another patron and had thrown the man out the door. Rogers’ alleged performance in Mayor’s court was deemed worthy of several column inches of print.
News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 11 November 1908.
Wesley Rogers — I had assumed this to be John Wesley Rogers, but the facts do not fit. Rogers owned several businesses over the course of his life, but not a clothes cleaning establishment, and he was in 1908 a married man with children who was not likely to have been lodging at a hotel.
“the Mason Hotel, a joint on the east side of the railroad where the negroes do congregate” — I do not know of a Mason Hotel on Nash Street. The description sounds rather like the Orange Hotel (whose owner, Samuel H. Vick, was a well-known Mason), a boarding house that was cited often for gambling and prostitution.
More articles about the mysterious circumstances under which Joe Gaffney (or Goffney) shot and killed his girlfriend Blanche Williams in September 1921.
The breaking news:
Wilmington Morning Star, 26 September 1921.
The Daily Times‘ edition, published the same day, gave a blow-by-blow of the testimony adduced at the preliminary hearing. Both Gaffney and Williams were married to other people, but were in a relationship. Williams had come to Wilson from Goldsboro to work in domestic service. Gaffney and Williams were at the home of a woman named Joe Lee (or Joe Brodie) when Clifton Johnson brought in a gun. While Gaffney was examining it, he accidentally shot Williams. However, witnesses claimed they overheard Gaffney say, “If you go with that man I will kill you.” When Williams stepped in the house, Gaffney shot her, then threatened everyone else in the house before he fled.
In December 1921, Joe Gaffney was convicted of Williams’ manslaughter. He drew a twelve-month sentence “to be hired out to pay costs.”
Wilson Daily Times, 23 December 1921.
Wilson Daily Times, 30 December 1921.
In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer Lemon Barnes, 51; wife Dollie Ann, 51; children Ida, 26, Lemon Jr., 20, Mattie, 17, Charlie, 15, and Howard, 12; and stepsons Cornelius Neal, 12, Paul Goffney, 17, and Joseph Goffney, 15.
Blanch Williams died 24 September 1921 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 24 years old; was single; was born in Wayne County to Wash Smith and Laura Williams; and worked as a common laborer. Selina Craig of Goldsboro, N.C., was informant.
Cause of death: “Revolver wound of head (probably accidental)”
This event didn’t happen in Wilson County, but it has everything to do with the mission of Black Wide-Awake, and I want to share it.
The freshly unveiled marker.
“First, I’d like to recognize my family, Joseph R. Holmes’ family, here today — including three of his brother Jasper’s great-granddaughters. Some here may remember their uncle, Dr. J. Maxwell Allen, who practiced dentistry in Charlotte Court House. His sister, my great-aunt Julia, first told me of Joseph Holmes when I was an inquisitive teenager digging for my roots. She did not know the details — only that her grandfather’s brother Joseph, born enslaved, had been killed because of his political activity. That was enough, though, to set this journey in motion.
“On behalf of the Holmes-Allen family, I extend thanks to all who made this day possible. So many in Charlotte County gave in so many ways — time, money, influence, prayer (look at God!) — and we are profoundly grateful for your embrace and support of this project.
“We are also grateful to Kathy Liston. When I reached out to Kathy nearly ten years ago, seeking help to find the truth of Joseph Holmes’ life, I did not even dream of this day. I first visited Charlotte Court House in 2012 at Kathy’s invitation. She took me to Joseph Holmes’ homestead; to Roxabel, the plantation on which he may have been enslaved; to the school at Keysville whose establishment he championed; and finally to this courthouse, to the very steps on which he bled and died. The historical marker we reveal today stands as a testament to Kathy’s persistence and insistence, her values and vision, her energy and expertise, and we cannot thank her enough.
“The beautiful story of Joseph R. Holmes’ life, and the terrible story of his death, were all but forgotten in Charlotte County — suppressed by some, repressed by others. This is an all too common phenomenon of American history. Though Africans arrived in this very state in 1619, the contributions of African Americans to the building of this country — both literally and metaphorically — are seldom recalled, much less memorialized. Black communities dealt with their trauma by hiding it away, refusing to speak of their loss and pain. It is never too late, however, to reclaim our heroes.
“For hundreds of years, the Akan people of Ghana have used symbols, called adinkra, as visual representations of concepts and proverbs. The word Sankofa, often depicted as a bird looking toward its tail, means ‘go back and get it.’ The broader concept of Sankofa urges us to know our pasts as we move forward.
Today, we have gone back for Joseph R. Holmes. In the shadow of Confederate monuments, we shine a light on his works; we affirm his life; we reclaim his legacy. As long as we speak his name, he lives forever. Will you say it with me?
“Joseph R. Holmes. Joseph R. Holmes. Joseph R. Holmes.
“Your family remembers. Your community remembers. We honor your life and sacrifice.
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.”
In his 2005 memoir Son of the Rough South, journalist Karl Fleming painted a dark picture of police officer Philemon Ray Hartis in the late 1940s, a dozen years after he shot Ernest Sanders to death. In a chapter titled “My First Bad Cop,” Fleming introduced Hartis as the detective whose job it was to follow what was happening across the tracks in “n*ggertown” and in other pockets of the town’s demimonde, who ran white madames and black bootleggers as informants, who hoarded the dirty secrets of the white upper class, and who smacked around any black body he deemed deserving.
Earnest Sanders’ death was ruled a justifiable homicide, “shot by policeman.”