Vocation

Dr. A.S. Clark’s institute.

We did a little trip down to Cordele, Georgia, this weekend. Once there, I was a little hazy on the directions, but I spotted A.S. Clark Drive and knew we were good.

Augustus S. Clark was among the cohort of (mostly) young men who erupted from Wilson in the 1880s and ’90s,* determined to lead. Born in the final days of slavery, or just after, they drank in everything J.C. Price and Samuel H. Vick poured at Wilson Academy, went straight to university (often at Lincoln, their instructors’ alma mater), then set out, in Clark’s later words, to “… do what I can for the uplift of my people.”

Dr. Augustus S. Clark (1874-1959). (Photo courtesy of Frank T. Wilson, ed., “Living Witnesses: Black Presbyterians in Ministry II,” Journal of Presbyterian History, volume 53, number 3 (Fall 1985).)

For his part, in 1902 Clark founded, with his wife Annie, the Gillespie Normal School, later Gillespie-Selden Institute, in Cordele. In 1925, the institute added an hospital. (The closest Black medical facility was 142 miles away in Atlanta.) I’ve written of Gillespie-Selden here and finally went to see it.

Gillespie Institute Founded By Rev. and Mrs. Augustus Clark September 1, 1902 Served By Them Until October 1, 1941 Alumni 1942

The school complex forms the heart of Cordele’s Gillespie-Selden Historic District. Below, the school’s administration building, built in 1935.

The girls’ dormitory below, built in 1929, is the most imposing building in the neighborhood.

A rear addition has been largely torn down, and an open door grants access to the interior.

The building holds evidence of fairly recent use as a family resource and daycare center, as well as squatters. All things considered though, it is in pretty good condition.

This room runs the length of the back wall on the first floor.

At the front of the building, a series of small interconnected rooms flanks a central entry hall. I didn’t venture upstairs.

The cornerstone of the girls’ dormitory.

A marble plaque inlaid by the class of 1929.

The President’s House, also known as Dr. Clark’s house, which sits just to the west of the girls’ dormitory. The Clarks retired from active teaching and school leadership in 1941.

Below, Saint Paul Presbyterian, also founded by Rev. Clark. The tin-roofed section at right appears to be the original church, updated with brick.

Gillespie-Selden Institute, Class of 1947, in front of the girls’ dormitory. (Photo courtesy of St. Paul Gillespie-Selden Learning Center Facebook page.)

Gillespie-Selden Institute closed in 1956 when Cordele finally erected a high school for African-American students. Named in honor of A.S. Clark, the school eventually converted to an elementary school, but closed in 2014. The building is now under development as a non-profit biomedical institute.

For more about Gillespie-Selden Historic District, see the Gillespie-Selden Historic District National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, which contains this passage:

“Within the Gillespie-Selden Historic District, the outreach missionary role of Dr. Augustus S. Clark (1874-1959) and St. Paul Presbyterian Church is significant to the development of the neighborhood. Dr. Clark completed his theological training at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1897; he was sent by the Presbyterian National Board of Missions to Cordele in 1898 as a missionary to help the struggling Portis Memorial Presbyterian Church. During that same year, a loan was secured from the Board of the Church Erection Fund of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church for the construction of a new church building to be named St. Paul Presbyterian Church.

“In 1902, Dr. Clark and his wife, Anna, realized that there were less than adequate educational institutions for African-Americans to attend in Cordele as well as the entire southwest region of the state. Dr. Clark taught elementary-level and Sunday-school classes in the basement of St. Paul Presbyterian Church, but found he needed more space. … By 1904, enough money had been donated by white members of northern Presbyterian churches, especially the Gillespie family of Pittsburgh, that three buildings of the school complex were constructed. …”

See also, this 2009 design charrette prepared by University of Georgia’s Center for Community Design and Preservation and the 2103 Gillespie-Selden Historic District Design Guidelines.

Another memorial plaque, this one embedded in a brick pillar in front of the administration building.

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* This cohort included A.S. Clark’s brothers John H., William H., and Thomas G. Clark, Samuel H. Vick, his brother William H. Vick, and cousin Frank O. Blount, brothers Daniel C. and James T. Suggs, Henry C. Lassiter, Braswell R. Winstead, and Charles H. Bynum, all Lincoln University graduates; the Suggses’ sister Serena Suggs MooreJoseph H. Ward; Ardella Kersey; Mahala Williamson Reid; sisters Ada G. Battle and Geneva Battle Faver; and J. Arthur Cotton.

Photos of G.S.I. taken by Lisa Y. Henderson, June 2020.

Billy Kaye comes home.

In 2018, North Carolina welcomed home a native son, renowned jazz drummer Billy Kaye. Born Willie King Seaberry in Wilson in 1932, Kaye performed with Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and other luminaries, but had never played in Wilson. Not long after his June performance at Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, Sandra Davidson interviewed Kaye for North Carolina Arts Council’s “50 for 50: Artists Celebrate North Carolina.”

Below, an excerpt from the interview.

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S.D.: Tell me what you remember about growing up in Wilson.

Kaye: I was born in ‘32 a couple blocks from the train station near the Cherry Hotel, one of the top hotels in Wilson. My grandparents’ home was 517 Church Street which was something like a two-block walk to the train station. It was a block off Nash Street. Most of the employment was done there. Nash Street had [a] drug store, dentist, doctor. There was a Ritz Theater on Nash Street. There were three churches in that area. That was basically it. I grew up running around the yard playing the Lone Ranger with a broomstick between my legs. I used to enjoy coming home in the summers when I was a youngster to play in the dirt, climb the trees, play under the house. That kind of stuff.

S.D.: … What is it like to for you to play your first hometown show?

Kaye: It’s hard to explain. It’s the biggest thing that ever happened. Playing at home was something I wasn’t even about when I left here. I had no history. I was just a guy that moved up [North]. I played in Greensboro some years back. It was okay. It was North Carolina, but it wasn’t Wilson. Goldsboro—that was great, but it still wasn’t Wilson. Home is where I was born. So, this thing here, it’s hard to explain. I’m playing at home. I’m seeing things that I didn’t see and appreciating things. I see these trees, the most magnificent things. There’s nothing there but trees. Man, they are the greatest trees I’ve ever seen. It’s like home.

Billy Kaye performs at Whirligig Park. (Photo: Astrid Rieckien for the Washington Post.) 

For the full transcript of Kaye’s interview and to watch videos of his performance in Wilson’s Whirligig Park, see here.

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Ben Mincey’s legacy.

I stumbled upon this history of the East Nash Volunteer Fire Department while searching for information about Frank W. Barnes. First, I’ll highlight the fascinating details of the career of Benjamin Mincey, the early twentieth-century chief of the Red Hot Hose Company. Then, though it happened well after the period of this blog’s focus, I’ll outline the history of inspiring story E.N.V.F.D., which carries on the 130+ year legacy of the Red Hots.

John Mincey, one of the leaders in the [Volunteer Fire Department], gets his firemanship naturally. A teacher at Speight High School, Mincey is the son of the late Ben Mincey, long a champion of the Negro fire organization in Wilson and North Carolina.

“The elder Mincey served several years as captain of the Negro fire company with the Wilson Fire Department.

“His company, considered one of the top Negro fire-fighting companies anywhere, was appropriately dubbed ‘The Red Hot Hose, Reel and Truck Co.’

“During statewide competition, Mincey’s company virtually walked off with first prize in every contest — including reel races, truck races and fire extinguishing.

“An employe of the city fire department for nearly one-half century, Mincey died in August of 1959.

“He was carried to the Rountree Church [actually, Odd Fellows] cemetery aboard a city fire department, and resting above his grave today is a fire hydrant, symbolic of his love for fire-fighting.

“Mincey started to work for the city fire department when there were no trucks and when the reels had to be pulled by the firemen.

“He had a fire alarm hooked up to his house and connected the main station. When it rang, he was off and pedaling his bicycle to the blaze.

“It has been said that Mincey was the fastest bicyclist in the city.

“During his service with the city, Mincey fought nearly every major major fire.

“Mincey was one of the leaders of N.C. Colored Volunteer Firemen’s Association, and worked in every department of the association.

“Before he died, he received an award for saving a family trapped in a home during a serious flood.”

Wilson Daily Times, 7 March 1965.

Now, in a nutshell, the story of E.N.V.F.D.:

In the 1950s, Clarence Hoskins, David Suggs, J.E. Williams, Henry Hagans, and L.H. Coley began meeting in a back room at Frank W. Barnes’ Sanitary Barber Shop to discuss the urgent need for firefighting services east of U.S. Highway 301. As interest grew, the group moved to Brown Chapel Missionary Baptist Church and then Rountree Missionary Baptist Church to accommodate larger gatherings.

The group sold barbecue and chicken dinners to raise money. The fire that destroyed Clarence Hoskins’ home in 1960 and other catastrophic losses spurred them in 1962 to establish a $25 per home assessment to build and equip a fire station.

In 1964, the group received a state charter as a volunteer fire department. They bought two second-hand trucks and sent them to Rocky Mount to be converted into fire engines. The next built their own building with donated labor. By then, they were $7000 in debt.

In 1965, Wilson County approved the department, added it to the county’s rural fire system, and began issuing $100 per month in funds. E.N.V.F.D. continued its weekend plate sales to retire its debt.

East Nash Volunteer Fire Department remains active, with a main facility on N.C. Highway 91 east of Wilson and a sub-station on U.S. 301.

Charles S. Darden’s groundbreaking legal work against segregation.

In 2018, the City of Los Angeles nominated the Cordary Family Residence and Pacific Ready-Cut Cottage at 1828 South Gramercy Place, Los Angeles, California, for historic-cultural monument designation. 

Page 13 of the nomination form contains this arresting statement: “Until recently the case of Benjamin Jones and Fanny Guatier, Plaintiffs v. Berlin Realty Company, a corporation, Defendant, has been an obscure footnote to history. But observers are now not just rediscovering the case itself, but also reminding us that the legal arguments against racial covenants used by Plaintiffs’ attorney Charles S. Darden in this case — and adopted by the Los Angeles Superior Court judge in ruling favorably for the Plaintiffs — preceded and foresaw what became the notable winning argument of later precedent-setting “Sugar Hill” case that took place in Los Angeles in 1945.” That case, involving actors Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers‘ fight against racially restrictive covenants, is credited with being the first to cite the 14th Amendment as justification for overturning such covenants. That recognition, however, more properly belongs to Jones and Gautier — and the arguing attorney, Wilson’s own Charles S. Darden — which has been overlooked because it did not rise to California’s Court of Appeals. Read more about Darden’s innovative arguments below.

Employee of the Robinson minstrel show.

In 1940, 29 year-old Langstard Miller registered for the Word War II draft in Wilson County. A native of Saint Louis, Missouri, Miller listed his address as 700 Stantonsburg Street, Wilson, the home of his friend Betsy Freeman. [Was this actually his permanent address or just a mailing address?] Miller listed his employer as Dr. C.S. Robinson Minstrel Show, based on Wilmington, North Carolina.

I have found very little on Miller and nothing else to link him to Wilson. However, on 11 July 1932, Gurnie Langstard Miller, 25, son of Joe Miller and Mattie Langstard, married Annie Amelia Evans, 21, daughter of John Evans and Ida Ash, on 11 July 1932 in Northampton County, Virginia.

Betsy Freeman was not living at 700 Stantonsburg Street when the census enumerator arrived in 1940. Rather, the censustaker found City of Wilson laborer George Freeman, 56; wife Effie, 45, tobacco factory laborer; son James, 26, tobacco factory laborer; and grandchildren Edward, 13, and Doris Evans, 11. The latter were the children of Bessie [sic] Freeman and James Evans, whom she had married in Wilson on 23 June 1925. [Was Betsy/Bessie Freeman also a minstrel show employee?]

Robinson’s Silver Minstrels were a white-owned tent show that featured African-American performers. The “Repertoire-Tent Shows” section of the 21 November 1942 issue of The Billboard magazine featured this short piece:

A few months later, in the 27 February 1943 Billboard, Robinson’s Silver Minstrels advertised for “colored performers and musicians, girl musicians OK; trumpets, saxophones, piano player, chorus girls, novelty acts.” The company promised the “highest salaries on road today” and a “long, sure season.” “All performers who have worked for me in past, write” to the show’s Clinton, N.C., address.

Teachers, 1890.

From the chapter concerning Wilson County in the 1890 edition of Branson’s North Carolina Business Directory:

Iredell County Chronicles, no. 4.

“Finding Statesville’s Nurse Daisy”

“I was contacted recently by someone at the library at UNC Chapel Hill concerning a question they had received from Joyce Busenbark of Statesville. Busenbark had discovered a 1935 patient discharge paper from the old Davis Hospital on West End Avenue. The names of the patient had been blacked out, meaning it had been discarded at some point, but she noticed something curious. Under the heading of ‘Discharged’ were the words ‘To Daisy’s.’ Not knowing what Daisy’s meant, she had contacted the library at UNC. When I first heard that a patient had been discharged to Daisy’s I drew a blank as well. Was some smart aleck saying this person had died and was now ‘pushing up daisies’?

“One clue was the fact that the patient was listed as ‘colored.’ After some research, I discovered that the patient had actually been discharged to the care and home of Daisy Conner Robinson. Daisy’s husband, Thomas Robinson, was deceased and she was known locally in Statesville by her maiden name of Daisy Conner. In the 1930 Statesville City Directory, she is shown living at 249 Garfield St., right at the Green Street intersection. The entry for 249 also says ‘Colored Branch Davis Hospital’ and below the listing for Davis Hospital is another entry that reads, ‘Davis Hospital, colored branch, 249 Garfield, Daisy Robinson nurse.’ Some of the older members of the black community in Statesville explained what was going on.

“Davis Hospital was opened in December 1925. Please note that I am referring to the old Davis Hospital, 709 W. End Ave., in 1930, and not the modern one on Old Mocksville Road. During those early years, Davis Hospital treated black patients in what locals called the ‘basement,’ separate from the white patients. Black patients were not allowed to stay overnight in the hospital and if they were seriously ill or injured and needed to be hospitalized, they were discharged to Daisy’s home on Garfield.

“Daisy was a black nurse who was born Dec. 4, 1892, in Catawba County. She cared for the black patients from the mid-’20s until the early ’40s. The unknown patient had received an appendectomy in 1935 and the discharge paper said ‘Going to Daisy’s tonight.’

“Daisy’s address at 249 Garfield placed her close to Dr. Robert S. Holliday at 241 Garfield. Holliday was a black physician in Statesville and could have helped with the patients under Daisy’s care. Holliday’s wife was Mary Charlton Holliday who was over the black schools in Iredell County from 1915 to 1956.

“Daisy died on Jan. 6, 1947, at age 54, from tuberculosis probably caught from a patient she cared for. Her funeral was held at First Baptist Church on Green Street. She is listed as being buried in the ‘colored cemetery,’ now known as the Green Street Cemetery, but there appears to be no headstone. The house is gone now and we have been unable to find a photograph of either Daisy or the house. Her daughter, Pheonia R. Smith, lived at 528 Falls St., with her husband, John R. Smith, until her death on June 11, 1965.”

Joel Reese, Statesville Recorder & Landmark, 11 March 2014.

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In the 1930 census of Statesville, Iredell County: at 249 Garfield Street, rented for $20/month, widow Daisy Robinson, 39, hospital annex nurse; son Samuel Robinson, 19, grocery store delivery boy; cousin Henriettie Abernethy, 13; roomers Horace Locket, 21, motor company machinist, and widow Louise Sherrill, 45; grandson Lonnie Bernard, 5; and roomer Isabella Knox, 17, maid.

In the 1940 census of Statesville, Iredell County: at 249 Garfield Street, rented for $12/month, widow Daisy Robinson, 39, private hospital nurse; widow Janie Connor, 70, mother-in-law; grandson Lonnie Smith, 15; and nephew Odel Abernethy, 18.

Daisy Robinson died 6 January 1947 on Garfield Street, Statesville. Per her death certificate, she was born 4 December 1894 in Catawba County, North Carolina, to W.N. Connor and Janie Abernathy; was the widow of Thomas Robinson; and worked as a nurse.