Work Life

I have no men to send for them.

Though Wilson is a few miles closer to Rocky Mount, Wilson County was under the jurisdiction of the Goldsboro field office of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The people of northeastern Wilson County — the area around Elm City — were closely tied to southeastern Nash and southwestern Edgecombe Counties, and many families moved frequently across county lines for work and family.

In this letter, William Cox, the assistant superintendent at the Rocky Mount field office referred a matter to Goldsboro. In a nutshell: father and son Spencer and Churchwell Bullock signed a labor contract with James J. Taylor of Joyners Depot (now Elm City) in Wilson County. However, the Bullocks had left Taylor’s employ to work for E. Ferrell in “this county” (either Edgecombe or Nash County, Rocky Mount straddles the county line and Joyners Depot was close to both). Cox had no staff to spare to go out and round up the Bullocks and, in any case, because Taylor’s farm was in Wilson County and the contract therefore was approved by the Goldsboro F.O., the problem was not his.

Freedmen’s Bureau, Rocky Mount April 25th, 1866.

Captain Geo. O Glavis, U.S.A., Asst. Supt. Bureau of R.F. and A.L., Goldsboro, N.C.

Captain:

I have the honor to request that two freedmen, Spencer Bullock, and Church Bullock, his son, who have entered into a written contract with Mr. Jas. J. Taylor of Wilson County, and who have left him, The contract is approved by You, The freedmen are now living in this County, on the plantation of E. Ferrell Near Joiners Depot in this County, I have no men to send for them, and as the contract was drawn up in Your County, and as Mr. Taylor lives in Wilson County, I have referred the case to you,

I am, Captain,

Very respectfully, William F. Cox, 2d Lieut. and Asst. Supt.

P.S. I suppose the reason why Mr. Taylor did not go to you is that freedmen are in this county. W.F. Cox

——

In the 1870 census of Tarboro township, Wilson County: farm laborer Spencer Bullock, 56; wife Mathilda, 53; and children Georgewell [Churchwell], 17, Emeline, 9, Leda, 8, and Louisia, 3.

North Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1863-1872, Rocky Mount (assistant superintendent), Roll 55, Letters Received Dec 1865-Aug 1868, http://www.familysearch.org

Paid by their former master.

Thomas L. Mann issued these three receipts to freedmen for work performed in 1865. I have been unable to locate Mann or the men he had formerly enslaved — Lewis, Jocks and Jim Mann. However, it was not unusual for freedmen to “try on” one or more surnames before making a permanent selection, often different from their former enslaver’s name.

Jany 6th 1866 Recd of Thos. L. Mann our Former Master Fifty Six Dollars in full For my Services  for the Year 1865. Lewis (X) Mann

Witness [signature illegible]

——

Jany 6th 1866 Recd of Thos. L. Mann our Former Master Fifty four Dollars in full For my Services & Wife for the Year 1865. Jacks (X) Mann

Witness [signature illegible]

——

Jany 6th 1866 Recd of Thos. L. Mann our Former Master Forty Six Dollars 25/100 in full For my Services and Wife Patsey for the Year 1865. Jim (X) Mann

Witness [signature illegible]

Wage Receipts, Slave Records, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives.

 

The stake of life.

While director of the University of North Carolina Press, W.T. Couch also worked as a part-time official of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, serving as assistant and associate director for North Carolina (1936-1937) and as director for the southern region (1938-1939). The Federal Writers’ Project Papers are housed at U.N.C.’s Southern Historical Collection and include Couch’s correspondence and life histories of about 1,200 individuals collected by F.W.P. members. At least two African-American residents of Wilson, Georgia Crockett Aiken and William Batts, were memorialized in this way. 

Folder 550 contains the transcript of the interview with William Batts, titled “The stake of life.” Batts, a tobacco packer, lived at 804 Stronach Avenue. [The 1940 city directory described Stronach Alley as “(formerly Young’s Line) — from a point east of North Av at Adams, north to Tilghman rd.”]

Batts had worked as a packer for ten seasons and enjoyed the work. He was six feet tall and muscular and had farmed on rented land before working in the warehouse.

Batts’ family were sharecroppers, working to keep half the crop they produced. As he reached adulthood and realized how little money his parents received for their toil, he determined to find different work. Batts had wanted an education, but his father did not believe in the value of schooling needed him to work. “He learned us how to treat white folks and let our education stop at dat.” In response to his father’s view that literacy was for white people, Batts said, “… if de nigger could do his own figuring de white folks ‘ud have to figure harder, too.” His first job was as a section hand for Norfolk & Southern Railroad, which he quit to drive a dray.

From there, Batts went to work at a wagon company. (Almost certainly Hackney Wagon.) After he was laid off, he got a job at a tobacco warehouse. The work was seasonal — August to November — and he had been paid $11.88 a week for the ten years he had worked there as a packer, unloading tobacco from farmer’s wagons and placing it in baskets in the warehouse. The odor of tobacco sickened him at first, but he could not quit because his wife was not working and the dollar-a-day he made doing farmwork during the summer did not go far.

Batts worked 7 o’clock A.M. to 6 P.M. five days a week and a half-day on Sunday. When the season ended, he hustled to find more work to supplement his wife’s work washing clothes, “cooking when company come to de white folks” and other occasional work. “when the spring opened up,” there was farm work — setting our tobacco plants, chopping cotton, barning tobacco, and picking cotton kept him “in a regular strut.” In winter, he dug ditches, sawed wood in a sawmill, and cleared land.

“I reckon you’d say I ain’t got no regular job, but I work pretty regular, ‘specially all de months besides December and January.” His wife worked stemming tobacco for about $8 a week. Still, they had trouble saving money. “We had to buy some furniture and clothes and keep up our life insurance and our rent and lights.” The couple was fortunate that their water was included in their rent — “We can take a bath every day if we want it …”

Their son and daughter no longer lived with them. Batts missed them, especially for help when his wife felt poorly because of high blood pressure.

He was seldom seriously ill and felt bad for her and tried to help. She would probably have to quit working. “I reckon I can support us ’cause we don’t owe no debts.” They bought their furniture for cash, and paid groceries ($15/month) and rent ($10/month) in cash. They had life insurance and had set aside a “little,” but feared running into bad luck. Batts dreamed of buying a small farm and a mule. “I think dat is the de stake of life.” A farm could provide security, something he had not thought much of until the stock market crash of 1929.

Batts’ wife was a Christian when they married, but it took her five years to convert him. When she “made [him] see the point,” he joined a Disciples Church. It brought him great comfort.

Batts introduced the interviewer to his wife, who was in the kitchen peeling potatoes. The room contained newly painted furniture, a four-burner oil stove, a linoleum rug, and “snowy white” linens. Mrs. Batts explained that Batts had gotten the idea to paint the furniture green from an issue of Better Homes and Gardens. He had wanted to paint the walls after the owner of the house refused, but she counseled him to paint the things they could take with them if they had to leave the house.

Nursey Batts longed for her own house that she could “fix and mess over” and believed the Lord would provide. She came from a large family with hard-working parents who denied their own needs in their struggle to provide for their children. Only six of their 14 lived to adulthood.

Nursey Batts believed few white folks believed in ghosties or witches or conjuring, and black people were “outgrowing” it. She opined on the origins of conjure. She also had this opinion: “Most niggers feels like dey is imposed on just ’cause dey is niggers, but lemme tell you, a good honest nigger needn’t be skeered of living. De white folks has always been good to me and [William.]”

While waiting for an  iron to heat, Nursey Batts showed the interviewer her parlor, which was neatly furnished and decorated.

“A body never knows when a important person will drop in on him and everything will most likely be like de devil’s had a fit on it. I hate for company to catch me, as de saying is, with my breeches down.” Still, she downplayed the appearance of the room. She had crocheted the bedspread from tobacco twine in a pattern she got from a woman who lived out in the country. She was proud of the chifforobe her husband had bought her for Christmas.

Nursey Batts was hopeful that she and William Batts would get their farm and thought another term for Franklin Roosevelt would be helpful. “I wish dat we could vote for him, but [William] can’t read or write so he can’t vote. I can read a little, but I don’t know nothing ’bout de Constitution of the United States.”

——

On 7 July 1915, Will Batts, 23, of Wilson, son of Morris and Nancy Batts of Taylor township, married Nurcy Hill, 22, of Wilson, daughter of Robert Hill, at Graham Woodard‘s in Wilson township. Missionary Baptist minister Jeremiah Scarboro performed the ceremony in the presence of Jason Farmer, Bessie Farmer, and Mena Littlejohn.

In 1917, Will Batts registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 15 December 1889 in Wilson County; lived on Vance Street; and was a butler for N.L. Finch.

In the 1920 Wilson, N.C., city directory: Batts Nursey (c) dom 601 Warren; Batts William (c) drayman h 601 Warren

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: a 804 Stronach Alley, Will Batts, 46, public school janitor; wife Nursey, 36, tobacco factory stemmer; and brother-in-law Freeman Hill, 29, tobacco factory office boy.

In 1942, Freeman Hill registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 25 November 1900 in Wilson; lived in 623 East Viola; his contact was Nursey Batts, 722 Stronach Avenue; and worked for Wilson Tobacco Company, South Railroad Street.

Will Batts died 24 February 1947 in Wilson of congestive heart failure. Per his death certificate, he was born 12 December 1890 in Wilson County to Morris Batts and Nancy Bynum; was married to Nursey Batts; was the janitor at Charles L. Coon High; and lived at 722 Stronach Avenue.

Clara and Emeline are working for me.

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Stantonsburg, N.C., April 3rd, 1867

Major N.D. Norton, Dear Sir:

Your favor of April 2nd is to hand and contents noted. In reply I have to state that the two girls, named Clara Ann and Emeline are in my employment, they having hired themselves to me, and having entered into a written contract to work with me on my farm for the balance of the year. The contracts, which I hold, were drawn up by a Notary Public, and signed by the girls. The girls agreed to work with me of their own accord, and part of their wages have been paid them.

I will be in Goldsboro on Saturday next, and will call and see you, and bring the contracts.

Yours truly  Jno. B. Carrow

P.S. If I fail to come up on Saturday I will try and come on Monday next if possible.  J.B.C.

North Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1863-1872, Goldsboro (subassistant commissioner), Roll 15, Letters received, Jan 1867-Feb 1868, http://www.familysearch.org 

Dark side of the campus.

There’s a small liberal arts college in Wilson, once known as Atlantic Christian College, now as Barton. It was founded in 1902 by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on a campus just southeast of Grabneck. The actress Ava Gardner attended the school, but did not graduate. In her era, and into my lifetime, Atlantic Christian admitted only white students. Those students produced a yearbook called The Pine Knot, filled each year with cheerful images of the people and events deemed most memorable. In the 1935 edition, the editors saw fit to insert between the campus athletes and the advertisements this page, labeled “Dark Side of the Campus”:

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The men and women depicted are not named or otherwise commented upon. They are, presumably, the housekeepers and custodians, cooks and gardeners, mechanics and porters who kept Atlantic Christian College running and eased life for its merry undergraduates. I cannot identify them, but I can honor their service and memory by recognizing them individually. If you know any of these Depression-era employees of A.C.C., please let me know.

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Notes due.

About 1857, as Benjamin Simpson took stock of his son’s estate, he prepared a list of notes owed to Jesse Simpson. Several free people of color, all neighbors of the Simpsons, are listed among the debtors.

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  • “1 note against Silas Laseter for 7.17 on the mande from intrust from the date given the 1 of Febraury 1855″ — In the 1860 census of Wilson district, Wilson County: farmer Silas Lassiter, 38; wife Orpie, 34; children Sallie, 12, Mary, 11, James, 9, John, 7, Elizabeth, 5, Penina, 4, Hardy, 3, Silas, 1, and George, 2 months; and Delpha Simpson, 14.
  • “1 acount against Jo Jones for 6.00″ — in the 1860 census of Wilson district, Wilson County: Joseph Jones, 40, turpentine; wife Zillah, 34; and children Milly, 17, Jesse, 10, Nathan, 8, and Frances and Lenora, 6.
  • “1 acount against William Jones for 2.50″ — in the 1860 census of Oldfields district, Wilson County, either: William Jones, 35, making turpentine, and wife Mary, 37, domestic, in the household of farmer Jethro Harrison, 31, or, more likely, William Jones, 20, mulatto, farm laborer; Mahaly Jones, 17, domestic; John Locus, 10; Mary Jones, 35, domestic; John, 10, and Josiah Jones, 6; all mulatto; in the household of farmer Elizabeth Simpson, 30.

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The list of “book accounts” included:

  • Penne Powel — probably Penelope Taborn Powell, the wife of Calvin Powell, see below.
  • Wilis Jones — in the 1860 census of Oldfields district, Wilson County: Willis Jones, 62, black, farm laborer; wife Sarah, 51, mulatto; and children Henry, 20, Alexander, 17, Noel, 16, Willis, 12, Paton, 10, Burthany, 7, Sarah, 13, and James, 10.
  • Calvin Powel — In the 1860 census of Black Creek district, Wilson County: Calvin Powell, 35, teamster; wife Penelope, 30; and children Jefferson, 12, Cidney, 10,  and Calvin, 6. Next door: Dempsey Powell, 30, turpentine; wife Sallie, 28; and Susan, 9.
  • Dempsy Powel — see above.
  • Asbary Blackwell — in the 1860 census of Kirby’s district, Wilson County: Asberry Blackwell, 45, turpentine laborer, wife Nancy, 30, farm laborer, and children Charity, 14, Drucilla, 9, Albert, 7, Appy, 7, Zilpha, 4, Obedience, 3, and Asberry, 2 months.
  • Alin Powel — in the 1870 census of Oldfields township, Wilson County: Calvin Powell, 49; William Powell, 4; and Allen Powell, 79, basket maker. [William and Allen Powell were described as white; Calvin, as mulatto.]
  • Stephen Powel — in the 1860 census of Winsteads township, Nash County: 50 year-old Stephen Powell; wife Cyntha, 45; and children Gray, 21, Dollerson, 17, Queenanah, 13, Crocket, 12, Matchum, 10, and Frances, 8.
  • Lige Powel Ju. — Elijah Powell Jr. Probably, in the 1860 census of Wilson district, Wilson County: John Valentine, 32, engineer, with Elijah Powell, 23, and Josiah Blackwell, 21, sawmill laborers.

North Carolina Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [database on-line], ancestry.com.

Doctors in the house.

Again, for a town whose population did not hit 10,000 until 1920 (of which only half were black), Wilson produced an astounding number of African-American physicians in the last decades of the nineteenth century and first few of the twentieth century. To the ranks of Drs. Joseph Henry WardCharles Hudson Bynum, William Henry BryantJohn Wesley Darden, James Thomas Suggs, Walter Theodore Darden, James Alexander Battle, James Arthur Cotton, John Clemon Williamson and Rolland Tyson Winstead, add four grandsons of Della Hines Barnes — Drs. Boisey O. Barnes, William C. Hines, Walter D. Hines and Clifton R. Hines.

African-American physicians who practiced in Wilson prior to World War II, but were born elsewhere, included: George W. Williams, Frank Settle HargraveWilliam Arthur Mitchner, Michael Edmund Dubissette, William H. Atkinson Jr., Thomas Clinton Tinsley, Matthew Stanley Gilliam Sr., and Joseph Franklin Cowan.

Native-born dentists from this period, none of whom practiced in Wilson, included Paul L. Jackson, Christopher L. Taylor and James D. Reid, while William H. Phillips, Lee C. Jones and George K. Butterfield Sr. settled in the community from elsewhere.

Simms’ Blue Book and National Negro Business & Professional Directory (1923).

A sharecropping contract.

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This is a copy of the contract between Virgil Bridges W.L. Quarles      State of North Carolina Wilson County

Articles of agreement concluded between Virgil Bridges of the one part and W L Quarles of the other part both of the state and county above written. The said Virgil Bridges for the consideration hereinafter mentioned doth hereby covenent and agree to wit

That he the said Virgil have bound him self and three of his children viz. Siah Rachel and Bunny to serve the said W L Quarles the present year (1867) commencing the 1st day of Jany and ending the 31st day of December (inclusive) the said Virgil are to board him self and children to furnish seed to plant of any and every description such as are usually planted in this section of country. The said are to do all manner of work usually done on farms such as fencing putting the fences in good repair raising manures ditching cleaning out ditches clearing of lands &c &c. In consideration of the said Virgil faithfully discharging us duty (and having his children to do same as set forth in this agreement the said Quarles do agree to give unto the said Virgil two thirds of the crop that he may make and save. The said Quarles also agrees to furnish the said Virgil with two plow nags for which the said Virgil do agree to give him for the use of same (that is the two horses, twelve (12) barrels of corn and 2500 lbs of fodder for each horse or mule he the said Virgil shall pay trict attention to the wellfare of the animals that may be placed under his charge the animals are to be used on

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the farm only without first obtaining permission from the said Quarles to do otherwise. The said Quarles also agrees to furnish such agricultural implements as may be necessary to carry on the farm for which the said Virgil Bridges are to pay the said Quarles the sum of Ten (10) dollars he the said Virgil further binds him self and the above named children to be governed by the orders and instructions that may be given by the said Quarles the said Virgil also hires unto the said Quarles two other of his children viz Easter & Turner for Easter the said Quarles is to pay at the rate of four (4) dollars per month until the 1st day of Jany next half of which going to the hireling and half to the said Virgil and for Turner five (5) bunches of cotton yarn board and clothes until Jan next.

Now should it appear that from any neglect that either party fails to do his duty as setforth in this agreement he or they shall forfeit the sum of Ten dollars in every instance for such neglect. Given under our hands and seals this the 15th day of May 1867

Witness Z. Johnson           Virgil (X) Bridges   W.L. Quarles

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Wilson NC Septr 5th 1867

Lieut Allison Sir

[Illegible] I herewith transmit you a copy of contract between myself and Virgil Bridges [illegible]. I hope the instructions you gave to impart to him will have a very desirable effect he has gone to work though the crop is badly damaged from his neglect I am yet willing to over look it in a great measure provided he will stick up to his contract for the balance of the year accept my thanks for what you have done in the matter and oblige Yrs very respectfully W.L. Quarles

——

In the 1870 census of Lower Town Creek, Edgecombe County: farmer Virgil Bridgers, 66; wife Frances, 51; and children Josiah, 22, Turner, 15, Easter, 21, Bunny, 13, Harriet, 11, and Manda, 6.

On 18 July 1872, Simon Pope, 21, of Edgecombe County, married Ester Bridgers, 22, of Edgecombe County, in Wilson County.

On 12 March 1876, Turner Bridgers, 23, of Edgecombe County, married Nelly Horn, 23, of Edgecombe, in Wilson County.

In the 1880 census of Lower Town Creek, Edgecombe County: laborer Virgil Bridgers, 74 laborer; wife Francis, 74; daughters Hannah, 23 and Amanda, 17; and grandchildren Laura, 4, Esther, 3, and Richmond, 12.

On 7 January 1886, Hilliard Barron, 43, married Rachel Bridgers, 35, at Wilson County Courthouse.

In the 1900 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Hilliard Barron, 56; wife Rachel 49; and son Hilliard, 19.

In the 1900 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Turner Bridgers, 52; wife Nellie, 50; sons General, 17, and Isaac, 14; mother-in-law Lany Horne, 97; and boarder Nelson Williams, 40.

In the 1910 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Hilliard Barron, 67, and wife Racheal, 60.

In the 1910 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: odd jobs farm laborer Turner B. Bridgers, 55; wife Nellie, 60; and son Isaac, 17.

Rachel Barron died 31 March 1917 in Wilson township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was married; was about 60 years old; was born in Wilson County to Virgin Bridger and an unknown mother; and worked as a tenant farmer.

In the 1920 Saratoga township, Wilson County: on Stantonsburg Road, Turner Bridgers, 72, farmer; Nellie, 74; grandchildren Willie, 16, Georgeanna, 12, and Nathan, 7; and adopted daughter Hattie Stokes, 13.

Turner Bridges died 16 October 1921 in Saratoga township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was born 1850 in Saratoga; was a farmer; and was married to Nellie Bridgers.

North Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1863-1872, Goldsboro (assistant subassistant commissioner) > Roll 17, Letters received, Jul-Sep 1867, http://www.familysearch.org 

Fred Davis buys a bicycle.

I, Fred M. Davis of Wilson, Wilson County State of North Carolina for value received hereby sell and mortgage unto Rouse Hazard & Co of Peoria, Ill. the following goods and chattels, to wit:

One #3 Overland safety bicycle with Morgan & Wright pneumatic tires provided that if the said Mortgagor shall pay the sum of Forty six and 66/100 dollars with interest [illegible] and collection charges according to the terms of Nine certain promissory notes  signed by said Mortgagor Payable to Rouse Hazard & Co on order as follows to wit:

One note dated August 10th 1893, due Sept 10th 1893 for $5.00

One note dated August 10th 1893, due Oct 10th 1893 for $5.00

One note dated August 10th 1893, due Nov 10th 1893 for $5.00

One note dated August 10th 1893, due Decr 10th 1893 for $5.00

One note dated August 10th 1893, due Jany 10th 1893 for $5.00

One note dated August 10th 1893, due Feby 10th 1893 for $5.00

One note dated August 10th 1893, due Mar 10th 1893 for $5.00

One note dated August 10th 1893, due Apl 10th 1893 for $5.00

One note dated August 10th 1893, due May 10th 1893 for $6.66

Mortgage Book 35, page 24, Register of Deeds Office, Wilson County Courthouse.

Where we worked: tobacco barn.

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!

Photographs by Lisa Y. Henderson, July 2019.