Violence

Drapped the wrong one.

Casual violence among young men is not new. Unsurprisingly, historically newspapers have sensationalized such violence when it involved black men, playing into the stereotypes and fear-mongering of the era.

I recognize the viciousness of this propaganda.* I also recognize articles reporting violent crime as invaluable, if distorted, glimpses into the lives of ordinary African-Americans during a period in which they were poorly documented. Beyond the basic facts of the terrible crime reported here, what can we learn?

News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 30 July 1907.

  • “on the Owens place” — This reference to the owner of the farm on which the events took place indicates the protagonists were likely sharecroppers or tenant farmers. The Saratoga Road is today’s U.S. Highway 264-A (formerly N.C. Highway 91.)
  • “a negro dance and barbecue supper was given by Robert Hilliard” — Hilliard, who was Black, hosted a Saturday night party on the farm, perhaps in a barn. He sold barbecue — surely Eastern North Carolina-style, with a vinegar-and-red pepper sauce — and sandwiches to patrons from a stand near the road.
  • “a wheezy fiddle” — the source of music for the dance. (Who was the fiddler? Was he locally renowned? Was there accompaniment? Was fiddling a common skill? I can’t name a single one from this era.)
  • “‘Hilliard is the n*gger I wanted to drap.” — The meaning and usage of this now-extreme pejorative has shifted over time. Here, it is almost, but not quite, neutral. More interesting, to me, is the now-archaic pronunciation “drap” for the  verb “drop.”

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  • Will Scarborough 

On 29 January 1903, Will Scarborough, 21, of Saratoga, son of Ashley and Ellen Scarborough, married Lucy Anderson, 18, of Wilson, daughter of Bob and Winnie Anderson, in Wilson County. Jack Bynum applied for the license.

Will Scarborough died 6 August 1968 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 90 years old; was the son of Ashley Scarborough and Ellen [maiden name unknown]; was a widower; lived in Stantonsburg; and was buried at Saint Delight cemetery, Walstonburg. Informant was James E. Best, Stantonsburg.

  • Robert Hilliard

On 1 November 1900, Robert Hilliard, 20, of Wilson County, son of Jack and Laura Hilliard, married Ailsy Bynum, 19, of Wilson County, daughter of West and Sopha Bynum, in Gardners township, Wilson County.

Robert George Hilliard Sr. died 27 February 1944 at his home at 211 Finch Street, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 66 years old; was born in Wilson County to Jack Hilliard and Laura [maiden name unknown]; was a widower; was engaged in farming; and was buried in Rountree cemetery. Mattie Moore, 211 Finch Street, was informant.

  • Riley Faison  

On 8 May 1902, Riley Faison, 30, of Wilson County, son of Henry and Sophia Faison, married Frances Farmer, 26, of Wilson County, daughter of Tom and Polly Farmer, at “Mr. Frank Barnes Plantation.” A.M.E. Zion elder N.L. Overton performed the ceremony in the presence of Mattie V. Overton, James Smith, and Polly Farmer.

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*See Brent Staples’ opinion piece in the 11 July 2021 New York Times, “How the White Press Wrote Off Black America.”

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

Lewis, former sailor, hangs himself.

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 2 July 1910.

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Possibly, in the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Clarisea Lewis, 43, widow, farmer; and children Emma, 18,, 15, Gertrude, 12, Whit, 10, George, 8, Mattie, 6, and Hattie, 3.

In the 1910 census of Connecticut State Prison, Wethersfield town, Hartford County, Connecticut: Edward Lewis, 25, prisoner, born in N.C., does not work; “This man is insane.”

The Government Hospital for the Insane was later known as Saint Elizabeths Hospital.

Blackwell accidentally shot his wife to death.

Wilson Daily Times, 11 June 1920.

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On 20 August 1904, William Blackwell, 29, of Taylors township, son of Nancy Howard, married Sally Ann Taylor, 18, of Taylor township, daughter of Ellen and Dora Taylor, in Wilson County.

In the 1910 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: on Sharp Road, William Blackwell, 29; wife Sallie A., 20; and son Bennie, 11 months.

In the 1920 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: tenant farmer William Blackwell, 45; wife Sally Ann, 29; and children Bennie, 10, Amos, 7, Jakie, 5, and Nancy, 1.

Sallie Ann Blackwell died 10 June 1920 in Taylors township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was born in 1882 in Wilson County to Dora Locus and was married. Cause of death: “gunshot wound, shot accidentally.”

William Blackwell died 28 January 1928 in Old Fields township, Wilson County, of smallpox. Per his death certificate, he was 50 years old; was born in Wilson County to Nancy Howard; was a farmer; and was married to Carrie Blackwell. Bennie Blackwell was informant.

“Mary, Mary, Mary!”

News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 7 May 1907. 

The setting: the former plantation of Joshua Barnes, then three miles north of Wilson and now on the outskirts.

Several people gathered at Willie Barnes‘ home to go together to a dance in the neighborhood. Barnes was eating his evening meal, and his wife, children, and neighbors sat before the fire. Mary Talley suddenly rushed in. Moments later, her husband Robert Talley appeared in the doorway, cried “Mary, Mary, Mary!,” and emptied a shotgun barrel into his wife’s hip. Willie Barnes grabbed the gun, which discharged its other barrel into the ceiling. Mary Talley lost considerable blood, but the wound was judged not serious. A sheriff’s posse found Talley holed up in his residence with a loaded gun, but arrested him without incident.

I haven’t found anything further about this incident. However, Robert Talley went to prison, he didn’t stay long. He appears in the 1910 census of Wilson … with Mary Talley.

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In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farm laborer Robert Talley, 23, and wife Mary.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Robert Talley, 31, store janitor; wife Mary, 28, cook; and three boarders Lula Vick, 18, cook, Rachel Miller, 19, cook, and Buster Miller, 15 months.

In the 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Tally Robert (c) lab 409 N Pine

In the 1916 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Talley Mary (c) dom h Young’s New Line nr Water Works rd

Mary M. Talley died 22 May 1945 at Mercy Hospital, Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 57 years old; was born in Asheville, N.C., to Eleck Robinson and Dora Miller; was single; and lived at 200 West Lee Street. Rachel Ellis, 200 West Lee, was informant.

The 103rd anniversary of the school boycott.

Today marks the 103rd anniversary of the resignation of 11 African-American teachers in Wilson, North Carolina, in rebuke of their “high-handed” black principal and the white school superintendent who slapped one of them. In their wake, black parents pulled their children out of the public school en masse and established a private alternative in a building owned by a prominent black businessman.  Financed with 25¢-a-week tuition payments and elaborate student musical performances, the Independent School operated for nearly ten years. The school boycott, sparked by African-American women standing at the very intersection of perceived powerless in the Jim Crow South, was an astonishing act of prolonged resistance that unified Wilson’s black toilers and strivers.

The teachers.

The school boycott is largely forgotten in Wilson, and its heroes go unsung. In their honor, today, and every April 9, I publish links to these Black Wide-Awake posts chronicling the walk-out and its aftermath. Please read and share and speak the names of Mary C. Euell and the revolutionary teachers of the Colored Graded School.

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the-heroic-teachers-of-principal-reids-school

a-continuation-of-the-bad-feelings

what-happened-when-white-perverts-threatened-to-slap-colored-school-teachers

604-606-east-vance-street

mary-euell-and-dr-du-bois

minutes-of-the-school-board

attack-on-prof-j-d-reid

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lynching-going-on-and-there-are-men-trying-to-stand-in-with-the-white-folks

photos-of-the-colored-graded-and-independent-schools

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the-program

a-big-occasion-in-the-history-of-the-race-in-this-city

Crazed by family troubles.

Wilson Daily Times, 9 August 1935.

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At findagrave.com, a family member offers a sympathetic portrait of William Bunn and a glimpse at the rest of the life of 17 year-old Maggie Barnes Bunn, who survived her husband’s attack.

“MR. WILLIAM BUNN the first husband of Mrs. Maggie Barnes Bunn. Their union was blessed with two daughters – Dorothy Mae Bunn and Virginia Bunn. Mr. William Bunn was a loving husband and father and friend. Mr. William Bunn accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior at an early age, also Mr. William Bunn was reared in a Christan Home. However, Mr William Bunn became very controlling and jealous of his wife Mrs. Maggie Barnes Bunn, which lead him into Domestic Violence toward his wife Mrs. Maggie Baines Buun. Mr. William Bunn left home to go to work on the Farm and Mrs. Maggie Baines Bunn took her two daughters Dorothy and Virgina and went to her parents home, Mr General Barnes and Mrs. Clyde Barnes. When Mr. William Bunn arrived at home, he found out that his wife Mrs. Maggie Barnes Bunn and his daughters had left him. Mr. William went over to his wife’s parents home and shot his mother-in-law Mrs. Clyde Barnes, killing her and he shot and wounded her sister. Next Mr. William Bunn found his wife Mrs. Maggie Barnes Bunn and shot her, but the bullet glanced her on the nick and arm. Mr. William left his wife’s parents home, thinking that he had killed his wife Mrs. Maggie Barnes Bunn, Mr. William preceded to a tree that he had in-graved a heart shaped with William and Maggie Love Forever in the tree and blow his brains out. NOTE: Please do not be disrespectful of Mr. William Bunn’s behavior on this sad day, because Mr. William’s was crapped in his mind and heart by being in a jealous rage, which lead him out of his mind.”

“Mrs. Maggie Barnes Bunn Baines, was born on May 15, 1918 in Wilson, North Carolina to Mr. General Barnes and the late Mrs. Clyde Barnes. Maggie was educated at Calvin Level School in Wilson, North Carolina. After completing High School, Maggie met and married the late Mr. William Bunn. Their union was blessed with two daughters. Later Maggie met and married Mr. Jake Baines Sr. Their union was blessed with eleven children. Maggie was a loving devoted wife and mother, always cooked home made meals for her family and friends. Maggie loved to up-keep her home and Maggie was extremely talented at cooking sewing clothing for her children and coats. Maggie would make blankets, bed sheets and curtains for her house windows. Maggie would share her talents with her family, friends and the neighborhood. Maggie loved people and whenever help was needed, Maggie would respond with assistance to those who had a need. Maggie was a Christian Woman and reared her children in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Maggie always encourage her children to love the Lord Jesus Christ, to love one another, to love their family members, to love their neighbors and most of all to love their-selves. Maggie was a kind, caring and loving person, always made numerous of friends wherever she went and Maggie will be sincerely missed by all who loved and knew her. Maggie leaves to cherish her everlasting memories: her devoted husband – Mr. Jake Baines Sr.; six daughters – Mrs. Dorothy M. Dingle, Mrs. Virginia Williams, Mrs. Lillie M. King. Ms. Jackie Baines, Ms. Helen Baines and Ms. Paulette Baines; seven sons – Mr. Jake Baines Jr., Mr. John Davis Baines, Mr. James Arthur Baines, Mr. Willie Gray Baines, Mr. Charles Baines, Anthony Baines and Mr. Christopher Baines; her father – Mr. General Barnes and step-mother Mrs. Laffey Cox Barnes; five sisters – Mrs. Ruth Boykin, Mrs. Lucy Allen, Mrs. Irene Floyd, Mrs. Odessa Boykin and Mrs. Mildred Boykin; three brothers – Mr. Darthur Barnes, Mr. Wiley Barnes and Mr. John Dallas Barnes; five brothers-in-law – Mr. Howard Taft Boykin, Mr. Frank Allen, Mr. James Floyd, Mr. William J. Boykin and Mr. Lee Roy Boykin; one sister-in-law – Mrs. Rosa Barnes; numerous of great-children; aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, and a host of other relatives and friends. NOTE: Maggie was forty-three years old and Cancer was the cause of her death.”

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General Barnes, 21, of Gardners township, son of Jarman and Mollie Barnes, married Clyde Barnes, 18, of Gardners township, daughter of Wiley and Lucy Barnes, on 2 December 1916 in Wilson in the presence of James Barnes of Elm City and Louis Barnes and Dempsey Mercer of Wilson.

In the 1920 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer General Barnes, 21; wife Clyde, 19; and children E. Ruth, 3, and E. Maggie, 1.

In the 1930 census of Crossroads township, Wilson County: farmer General Barnes, 31; wife Clyde, 29; and children Ruth, 13, Maggie, 11, Luther, 9, John D., 8, Arthur, 5, Wiley, 3, and Irene, 1.

William Thomas Bunn died 6 August 1935 in Crossroads township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was 23 years old; was married to Maggie Barnes Bunn; was a farmer; and was born in Lucama to James (crossed through) Bunn and Maggie Oniel (crossed through). James Bunn, 606 Warren Street, Wilson, was informant. Cause of death: “(Suicide) by shooting self in head with shot gun.”

Clyde Barnes died 6 August 1935 at Mercy or Moore-Herring Hospital [both are listed.] Per her death certificate, she was 33 years old; was married to General Barnes; was a farmer; was born in Wilson County to Wiley Oree and Lucy Barnes; and died of a gunshot wound to the neck. 

Barnes dies after hunting accident.

Twenty-five-year-old Sylvester Barnes Jr. was shot in the stomach in a hunting accident in January 1948. He died in Wilson’s Mercy Hospital.

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In 1942, Sylvester Barnes Jr. registered for the World War II draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 23 October 1923 in Wayne County, N.C.; his contact was Willie Best, Route 3, Box 217, Wilson; and he worked for Sylvester Barnes Sr., Route 3, Box 216, Wilson.

More than 17 years after his death, Sylvester Barnes’ mother Mary Barnes applied for a military headstone for him. Per the application, he had served in the U.S. Navy Reserve from 1943 to 1945 and ranked as a Seaman 1st Class. The stone was to be delivered to Darden Memorial Funeral Home.

The story of a 27 year-old murder.

In August 1912, 17 year-old Nash County boy Lieutenant Hawkins was found stabbed to death on his employer Iredell Williams’ farm near the Wilson County line. His body had lain in a pasture overnight. The Wilmington Morning Star reported that two men, Paul Powell and Oscar Eatmon, were quickly arrested.  

Eatmon was convicted “of having something to do with the killing.” (What?) He served five years in state prison and returned to Wilson. Meanwhile, Paul Powell’s brother Dempsey Powell, also involved in the incident, left the state. When he returned in May 1939 for one of his brothers’ funeral, he was arrested and charged with Hawkins’ murder. 

Wilson Daily Times, 27 May 1939.

A mere five days later, the Nashville Graphic reported that Powell had been acquitted. Eatmon was the star witness. Eatmon, Hawkins, Powell and others had argued on their way home from church. A fight broke out, and Hawkins was slain. Eatmon was taken into custody as a witness, but “at a preliminary hearing talked too much and was arrested in connection with the crime.” Powell  returned to North Carolina about 1933 and saw and talked to Eatmon, but Eatmon had not reported him. When Powell came back in 1939, Eatmon alerted authorities. 

All good until cross examination. Defense attorney I.T. Valentine confronted Eatmon with a sworn statement from the 1912 trial record. Eatmon had testified then that another boy, named Wiggins, had stabbed Hawkins, and Powell had only pulled Wiggins off the victim. After reviewing this bombshell, the judge directed a “not guilty” verdict, and Powell’s ordeal was over. 

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  • Dempsey Powell — in the 1900 census of Jackson township, Nash County, N.C.: Ichabod Powell, 50, farmer; wife Mary A., 50; children Mary A., 20, Martha, 18, Joseph, 16, Margarett, 14, Geneva, 12, Billie P., 11, Dempsey H., 9, and Paul J., 6; and nephew Henry Lassiter, 28. In the 1910 census of Oldfields township, Wilson County: farmer William T. Powell, 38; wife Mary, 21; brother-in-law Dempsie, 16; and sister-in-law Martha, 6. On 14 February 1912, Dempsey Powell, 19, of Old Fields township, son of Tom and Clarky Powell, married Bessie Hedgpeth, 18, of Oldfields township, daughter of Dock and Clara Hedgpeth, in Wilson County. [Is this the same Dempsey?]
  • Paul Powell — Paul Powell died 21 July 1966 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 30 May 1894 in Nash County to Jabe [Ichabod] Powell and Mary Ann Lancaster [Lassiter]; lived at 1304 Carolina Street; and was never married. 
  • Oscar Eatmon — in the 1910 census of Jackson township, Nash County, Oscar Eatmon is a 16 year-old farm laborer living with his widower father Jarman Eatmon.
  • Lieutenant Hawkins — in the 1910 census of Jackson township, Nash County, Lieutenant Hawkins is a 14 year-old farm laborer living with his parents Bynum and Julia Hawkins.
  • I.T. Valentine — Itimous Thaddeus Valentine, later an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Confession.

In February 1938, glorified gossip columnist John G. Thomas penned a column about the guilt-soaked confession of William Mercer, who had killed Wade Farmer in the summer of 1921, then fled the state. Mercer had joined a church in his adopted home of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and his conscience preyed on him as he stood in the choir stand.

Wilson Daily Times, 25 February 1938.

The details are difficult to pin down. When the Daily Times article broke the story of William Mercer, alias Green, on 21 February 1938, it quoted B.E. Howard, the sheriff at the time of the murder, who admitted he could barely recall the details of the incident — had the victim had been shot or stabbed? — though he thought it occurred after a “negro dance or frolic.” On the other hand, the 27 February Raleigh News and Observer reported that an argument had broken out at a church gathering, and Farmer “got in the road” of a bullet fired from Mercer’s gun.

Wade Farmer’s death certificate does not shed much light:

Per the document, Wade Farmer of Macclesfield died in Gardners township near Wilbanks in May 1922.  He was 22 years old, married to Minnie Farmer, and farmed for Essex Webb, who could provide no information about his parents. The medical certification section is so faded as to be almost unreadable, except for “198,” which was the code for “homicide by cutting or piercing instrument.” The place and date of burial and undertaker fields are similarly washed out, and the registrar did not sign it until 3 January 1923.

On 5 March 1938, the Daily Times reported that Mercer had pled guilty to Farmer’s murder, and a judge had sentenced the 42 year-old to one and-a-half to three years, saying he had been merciful because Mercer had given himself up voluntarily.

But had he really?

Wilson Times, 7 September 1934.

Just four years before Mercer’s “confession,” around the time he claimed he had gotten religion, the Times reported that he had been indicted for Wade Farmer’s May 1922 murder and was to be extradited from New Jersey. Mercer had been arrested in Bridgeton, New Jersey, forty miles south of Philadelphia.

Why, then, the framing of Mercer’s come-to-Jesus moment as the astonishing re-appearance after 17 years of a man who’d gone underground for a crime barely remembered? 

Well, in part, because the man arrested in New Jersey in 1934 and hauled back to Wilson was not William Mercer. Rather, he was Ben Faison, originally of Faison, North Carolina. Though an informant positively identified the man as Mercer, several others who “looked him over” said he was not. On 21 September, the Daily Times informed its readers that Wilson police nonetheless would hold Faison until they were satisfied of his identity. 

So, while law enforcement had never forgotten Farmer’s murder, Mercer’s apprehension was entirely the result of his own doing. He had made an apparently upstanding life for himself in Pennsylvania and had completely cut ties with Wilson in order to do so. When his mother Fannie Mercer visited him at the Wilson County jail, it was the first time she had seen her son in 17 years.

News and Observer, 27 February 1938.