Work Life

They unlawfully hired their time of their master.

An enslaver could, and often did, rent the services of an enslaved person to others for specific tasks or under long-term leases. Under North Carolina law, however, enslavers were prohibited from allowing their slaves to rent their own time. That is, to come to their own terms and arrangements for working for others for wages that they either kept for themselves or split with their masters. Slaves who hired their own time created their own wealth, a dangerous circumstance. There was a wide gulf between law and reality, however.

Dennis, a man over whom white Wilson County carpenter John Farmer claimed ownership, was indicted on misdemeanor charges of hiring his time at July term, 1859, of the Wilson County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions.  Five years later, at July 1864, jurors indicted Farmer himself for allowing the entrepreneurial activities of enslaved women named Mary, Lucy and Silvia.

The jurors for the State on their oath present, that Dennis, a Slave the property of John Farmer (Carpt) at and in the County of Wilson on the first day of January 1859 and on divers other days and times as well before as afterwards up to the taking of this inquisition by the permission of the said John Farmer his master, unlawfully did go at large, the said Salve having then and there unlawfully hired his own time of his said master, contrary to the form of the Stature in such case made and provided, and against the peace and dignity of the State.

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John Farmer may have been the John W. Farmer of Wilson township, Wilson County, who is listed in the 1860 slave schedule as the owner of ten enslaved men and women.

Court Cases Involving Slaves, Slave Records, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives.

Struck on the head by an iron cog wheel.

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Wilson Daily News, 20 September 1900.

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On 30 November 1892, Thos. Day, 24, parents living, but not listed, of the town of Wilson, married Julia Battle, 19, daughter of Lewis Battle, of the town of Wilson. Presbyterian minister L.J. Melton performed the ceremony at Lewis Battle’s house. J.J. Wilson and J.W. Rogers were witnesses.

In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: tobacco stemmer Thomas Day, 33; wife Julia, 27, laundry woman; and boarders James Parham, 25, teamster, and John H. Gregory, 19, and Donald Parker, 17, both tobacco stemmers.

Dr. Phillips arrives.

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New York Age, 28 September 1916.

In the 1900 census of Raleigh, Wake County, North Carolina: cook Frank Phillips, 47; wife Margarett, 45; and children Mary, 25, Jeanett, 21, Dealian, [illegible], Frank, [illegible], Willie, 8, Bessie, 15, and Susie, 6.

In 1917, William Haywood Phillips registered for the World War I draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 23 December 1891 in Raleigh, North Carolina; lived at 530 1/2 Nash Street, Wilson; was single; and worked as a dentist.

On 30 November 1917, William H. Phillips, 25, married Jewell Jennifer, 18, in Washington, D.C.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 332 South Spring, widow Ella Battle, 52, and her children Grace [Glace], 27, teacher Roberta, 29, tobacco worker John, 25, and Olga Battle, 11, shared their home with boarders Georgia Burks, 25, a Georgia-born teacher, and chauffeur Theodore Speight, 17; and roomers William Phillips, 35, a dentist, and his wife Jewel, 23.

On 6 May 1930, William Haywood Phillips, 36, divorced, son of Frank and Margarett Haywood Phillips, married Rena Manor Carter, 34, widow, daughter of Robert and Mary D. Carter, in Norfolk, Virginia.

In the 1930 census of Tarboro, Edgecombe County: renting at 115 Andrew Street, dentist William H. Phillips, 37, and wife Rena C., 33.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 405 Green Street, dentist William H. Phillips, 47, and wife Rena C., 45.

William Haywood Phillips died 26 October 1957 at his home at 405 Green Street, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 23 December 1892 in Raleigh; was married to Rena J. Phillips; and worked as a dentist.

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Caldwell, A.B., History of the American Negro and His Institutions, North Carolina Edition (1921).

Robbed the watchman.

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Wilson Daily Times, 2 September 1921.

In 1917, Jake Armstrong registered for the World War I draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 11 May 1890 in Wilson; lived at 210 Stantonsburg Street, Wilson; worked as a laborer for Farmers Cotton Oil Company; and had a dependent mother and sister.

On 8 September 1919, Jake Armstrong, 23, of Wilson, married Della Jones, 22, of Wilson. B.P. Coward performed the ceremony at the A.M.E. Zion church in the presence of Rose McCullers, Berta Faulkland and Lucy A. Richards.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Broad Street, oil mill laborer Jake Armstrong, 23; wife Della, 21; and children Kathryn, 6, and Charlie, 1.

The Knights of Labor and the Tobacco Workers union.

The Knights of Labor was the largest and one of the most important American labor organizations of the late 19th century. The Knights promoted the social and cultural uplift of the working man, rejected socialism and anarchism, demanded the eight-hour day, and supported efforts to end child and convict labor. After a rapid expansion in the mid-1880s — ballooning to nearly 800,000 — it quickly lost new members and became a small operation again. The Knights of Labor had a mixed history of inclusiveness and exclusiveness, accepting women and African-Americans (after 1878) and their employers as members and advocating the admission of blacks into local assemblies, but tolerating the segregation of assemblies in the South and strongly supporting the Chinese Exclusion Act.

On the basis of local newspaper coverage, the Knights of Labor seem to have been most active in Wilson County in about 1888. Though its strength had peaked elsewhere by that time, the organization boasted 100 locals in North Carolina, the most of any Southern state.

Wilson Advance, 21 June 1888.

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Dues cards for Jane Bynum, a member of Wilson’s Knights of Labor lodge.

Many decades later, tobacco factory workers ushered into Wilson County a new era of labor organizing.

A North Carolina Highway Historical Marker in 18 miles north in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, reads: “Black leaf house workers in eastern N.C. unionized in 1946. First pro-union vote, at tobacco factory 1 block W., precursor to civil rights movement.”

Per the marker program’s essay: “In the summer of 1946, nearly 10,000 tobacco “leaf house” workers in eastern North Carolina, primarily African American women, joined unions in a mass organizing campaign (tagged ‘Operation Dixie’) headed by the Tobacco Workers International Union (TWIU-AFL) and the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers of America (FTA-CIO). From South Boston, Virginia, to Lumberton, North Carolina, workers secured union contracts in nearly thirty tobacco leaf houses.”

“The labor protest and organization campaign followed the 1943 effort that took place at R. J. Reynolds factories in Winston-Salem. The 1946 campaign differed in that it not only focused on labor rights, but also resulted in important strides in civil rights for African Americans. Efforts were made by the union organizers to increase black voter registration and to instigate political action against segregation within the leaf houses. Nearly ten years before the Montgomery bus boycott, black workers in eastern North Carolina worked for civil rights through ‘unionism.’ As one participant recorded, ‘We’re not just an organizing campaign, we’re a social revolution.’ And another, ‘It wasn’t just wages we wanted, but freedom.’

“While the movement began with the TWIU-AFL organizing locals and securing contracts in six leaf houses in Wilson and one in Rocky Mount in the summer of 1946, the first official union election, which was won by the FTA-CIO in September 1946, took place at China American Tobacco Company in Rocky Mount. After that election the FTA-CIO won 22 of 24 elections in North Carolina. The consequence was that the organizers established a significant union presence in eastern North Carolina leaf houses, benefitting the tobacco workers of the area. Today only two union locals remain.”

One is in Wilson.

This early National Labor Relations Board decision, reported at 73 NLRB 207 (1947), offers a peek at the earliest days of this movement. Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers Union filed a petition to represent a unit of employees at a Liggett & Myers stemmery in Wilson. TWIU intervened, claiming to have beat FTA to the punch by securing voluntary recognition of its bargaining representative status a few weeks prior to FTA’s petition. The Board upheld the hearing officer’s rulings in the matter and dismissed FTA’s petition.

Per the decision: “The Wilson, North Carolina, plant, the only plant involved in this proceeding, is a subsidiary of the Durham, North Carolina, plant, which is the main factory of the Employer. The Wilson plant receives tobacco from various markets in North Carolina and engages in a process called redrying and tobacco stemming. A portion of the tobacco is stored in Wilson, and the remainder in Durham. All of the tobacco processed by the Wilson plant ultimately reaches the Durham plant, where it is  manufactured into cigarettes and pipe tobacco and shipped throughout the United States. The Wilson plant normally operates from 3 to 4 months a year, August to November, and processes from 8 to 12 million pounds of tobacco per season at an estimated value of $5,500,000. In 1946, during the off season, the plant employed 12 employees, and at its peak employed 217 employees.”

On 19 August 1946, when three of the facility’s five departments were operating, Liggett and TWIU conducted an informal card check that revealed that TWIU represented a majority of 123 employees then employed at Wilson. The same day, they entered into a one-year contract. The next day, all five departments were up and operated by the same 123 employees. FTA asserted that on 16 August 1946 it had written a letter to Liggett claiming to represent a majority of its employees. There was no evidence that the letter was mailed, and Liggett denied receipt. On 21 August, FTA sent Liggett a letter that made no claims of representation and did not reference the August 19 letter. On August 29, FTA sent another letter demanding recognition and claiming majority representation, and the Union filed a petition on September 3, at which time the Employer had reached its peak 217 employees. TWIU claimed its contract barred FTA’s claim, and the Board agreed.

BCTGM Local 270-T, 121 South Pettigrew Street.

TWIU merged with Bakery & Confectionary Workers International Union in 1978 to form Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers & Grain Millers International Union. For the Union’s history in its own words, see here. For more on the Union’s involvement in early civil rights efforts in Wilson, see Charles W. McKinney’s Greater Freedoms: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina (2010).

 Copies of union cards courtesy of Deborah Moore Vles; photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, 2016.

Teachers at Sam Vick.

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Teachers at Samuel H. Vick Elementary School, 1949-50.

Front row

Back row

  • John Maxwell Miller Jr. — J.M. Miller (1910-1995), a native of Chesterfield, South Caroline, was principal of Sam Vick Elementary from 1944 to 1968.
  • Irene Wallace
  • Carrie Herndon — Carrie Lee Herndon (1915-1986) was probably a Nash County native.
  • Classie Jones Jarman — Classie Jones Jarman (1925-1993) was a native of Tarboro, North Carolina.
  • Ann Bostic — Annie Watson Bostic (1915-1959), a native of Johnston County, apparently lived in Wilson only briefly.
  • Etta Givens — Etta Daisy Wynn Givens (1921-2002) was a native of Mount Olive, Wayne County.
  • Hattie Dixon Nemo
  • Alvis Hines — Alvis Ashley Hines (1918-1981) was the son of Ashley and Mattie Barnes Hines. (His mother was a daughter of Ned and Louisa Gay Barnes.)

This photograph, contributed by Jennie P. Kerbo, is reprinted from 23 February 1999 edition of the Wilson Daily Times.

The awning and tent company.

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Wilson Daily Times, 10 April 1946.

Hattie Henderson Ricks recounted the difficult work of men and women employed in the sewing room of Wilson Awning & Tent Company:

“There was a fellow when I was working in the tent and awning company. He was one of the boys that worked there that pulled the tent, the thing we had, where was on the table. You know it was a great big table, big as this whole length of this house. And he was on there and to pull the table, when you were putting them flaps, somebody had to pull it around and [inaudible] sewing then you sit in the cubby holes, and the machine was up there. And I was at the bobbin, I had to thread the bobbin. And time I’d get around it and thread – oh it was a big place, it was all the way ‘round and like a horseshoe. The way the sewing machines were made. And then this thing was built up, but it was this material to lay on, and somebody had to be up on that thing to pull it through the machine ‘cause they couldn’t push it. They’d just push it a little bit out, and sewing’d go along, and it’d pile up, and they had to keep it carried through. And I’d thread the bobbins.

“The war [World War II], I think, was over, but they were making, it was Boy Scout tents, like for camping tents or whatever it was. And so when I went there I was pulling on the table where was back there.   I didn’t like that, so I said, well, it was a white girl was threading bobbins and so she was sick or something one day, and she didn’t come to work, so they let me. I said, “Let me thread the bobbins.” They said, “Well, somebody’ll have to thread ‘em,” said, “Go ‘head.” So I went there, didn’t know nothing ‘bout how to thread ten bobbins on one spindle.   So I looked at the thing, and a girl had to show me. So I got a hold of it, and it was those little round bobbins where you put on this long thing, you slide ‘em on there and you thread when you start off with the first one, then it goes around it, jump right up and push the other one up there and jump up and … But you had to cut that thread on the bobbin, and so that’s where I messed up when I first got there. When I would take the razor blade and cut in there, I cut two or three pieces and every time they’d always be having thread breaking, the thread … and it was oil, and you couldn’t take it with your hands and break it. So then I have a shoebox – not a shoebox, but a cigarette box, cigar box, and that thing was full of bobbins. And I had to take it around, all the way ‘round and come up the other side, and back to place. Any time I [inaudible] piling up again, go ‘round again. “I’m out of thread! Bring me some thread!” I said, ‘Lord have mercy, these folks is there ‘fore I can get this thing together.’ And then it come to me how to work it. And, didn’t have so much oil in it. If you let the oil stay in there too long, it’d make it slick, and it didn’t half cut. But you had to put it in oil because it would break. Them little … And then it got the thing messed all up under there, and the white guy had to come there and take his pocket knife and reach down there and cut it out and take some scissors with the end and try to cut the place out. So then the white girl where was working there, she didn’t like it either. She didn’t like to thread bobbins, she’d rather pull the tent, had to have probably four, five of them girls up there pulling tents and that thing was just as big as that whole – it was big as this house. Bigger than this thing here, the table that it was on. And it [inaudible]. But I still stayed on there until the place closed up.

“And after I left there, that’s when I went over to the hospital [then the Eastern North Carolina Sanatorium, which opened in 1943 for the treatment of tuberculosis patients, now Longleaf Neuro-Medical Treatment Center] and worked. I was going over there one day and so, Lizzie – I’ll never forget what was her name – she said she was going over there to see if she could get a job. And I said, well, told her, “Come by for me,” said, “We’ll go over there.” And both of us went over there. They hired me and didn’t hire her. So I worked there ‘til I come up here to Philadelphia.”

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Wilson Awning & Tent was located at 105 South Douglas Street during Hattie Henderson Ricks’ employment. The company closed this location and moved to Highway 301 South in 1948.

Interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.

Killed in sawmill.

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Fayetteville Observer, 26 October 1921.

Probably, in the 1920 census of Stantonsburg, Wilson County: on Moyetown Road, tenant farmer Elijah Ward, 34; his wife Florance, 26; farm laborer Hillery Wootten, 26, servant; farm laborer Robert Speight, 35, servant; his brother James Ward, 19, and sister Sarah Ward, 16.

He was successful in every business he started.


Herbert Woodard Sr., age 100.

Herbert Woodard Sr., 100, of 1735 Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, died peacefully on Saturday, June 21, 2008, at Pitt County Memorial Hospital, Greenville. Herbert, son of the late James and Nancy Woodard, was born July 4, 1907, in Wilson County. Herbert was reared in Wilson County, where he attended the public schools. Though he never went beyond the 4th grade, what he lacked in education, he gained in common sense and wisdom. In the 100 years he lived, “Herb,” as he was affectionately called by friends, saw a lot of changes in this nation — from the rise of the age of television to the possibility of a black man becoming the president of these United States. He started working at the age of 13 to provide financial stability, not only for his family, but for others as well. Always self-employed, this magnate’s business ventures were successful whether selling coal and fish or by hauling water to men working at the now defunct Hackney Wagon Company. He cleaned septic tanks by day and ran a “Night Club” at night. He was the only black man to own and operate a motel in Wilson. It can be truthfully said that he was successful in every business he started. In celebration of Herbert’s 100th birthday, Mayor Bruce Rose presented him the key to the City of Wilson. Surviving to cherish fond memories are his wife, Mrs. Georgia Battle Woodard, of the home; two daughters, Georgie W. Hobbs of Hillside, N.J. and Annie Miller Woodard of Wilson; three sons, Ralph Woodard of Yonkers, N.Y., Herbert Woodard Jr., and David Woodard, both of Wilson; 13 grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; and other relatives and friends. Funeral services for Mr. Woodard will be conducted Friday, June 27, 2008, at 1 p.m. at St. Rose Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, 605 S. Douglas St., Wilson. Bishop M.W. Johnson will officiate. Burial will follow in the Rest Haven Cemetery. The family will receive visitors and friends at a wake on Thursday, June 26, 2008, from 7-8 p.m. at the Hamilton Funeral Chapel, 726 S. Tarboro St., Wilson, and at other times at the residence.

Wilson Times, 25 June 2008.

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In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Nancy Woodard, 33, widow, and children Lizzie, 14, Mamie, 11, Hubbard [Herbert], 4, and David, 2. [In fact, Nancy Woodard was divorced.]

On 13 February 1924, Herbert Woodard, 21, son of London and Nancy Woodard, married Mary Jones, 18, daughter of Tom and Mary Jones. Dock Barnes [husband of Herbert’s half-sister Lizzie Woodard Barnes] applied for the license, and A.M.E. Zion minister John A. Barnes performed the ceremony at the bride’s home. Witnesses were Walter Barnes, Roosevelt Lipscomb, and David Downey.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Herbert Woodard, 32, self-employed manager of filling station restaurant; wife Lucille, 28; and lodger Jimmy Long, 24, tire repairer at filling station.

In 1940, Herbert Woodard registered for the World War II draft in Wilson County. His card noted that he was self-employed:

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Woodard’s original filling station-cum-grocery store, built in 1935.

Jesse “Buster” Forte Jr. in front of a later version of the business.

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Woodard’s Motel, at left, and the Herbert Woodard home today. At the time of construction, they were at the far outskirts of east Wilson where Nash Street became Highway 264. Image courtesy Google Maps.

On 9 February 2008, just months before his death, The Wilson Daily Times printed a full-page story on Herbert Woodard in its Life/Feature section. His story is told largely in his own words and those of his children, and all the photos above, except the last, were reprinted from that article.