Work Life

Cool off courtesy of Darden & Sons.

This lovely little tripartite funeral fan, with a bucolic thatched cottage scene printed across its cardboard panels, was a handout of Charles H. Darden & Sons Funeral Directors and Embalmers. Based on the company’s name, address, and telephone numbers, the fan likely dates to about 1940.

Courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

An even better look at Cockrell’s grocery.

We’ve seen two grainy versions of a photograph of the interior of Cockrell’s Grocery, but here’s the original. Shot circa 1948, the image clearly depicts the Cockrell family and employees, including William White and Billy Strayhorn, and the layout of the store, which operated at the corner of East Green and North Pettigrew Streets. (The building still stands.)

Photo courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

The death of Tom Bunch Simms.

Industrial work was especially dangerous in the early twentieth century. In November 1936, Tom Bunch Simms caught his hand in a machine at work, tearing off the end of his thumb. Simms underwent surgery, but the wound became seriously infected, and Simms died of septicemia two weeks after his injury.

“Wound of hands & thumb Prurient infection”

I have not found anything further about Simms’ injury.

Fine cemetery memorials!

Nearly all grave markers from the last 40 years or so are machine-cut, their lettering precise and even and utterly predictable. In Wilson County’s African-American cemeteries, however, even a casual perusal of older markers reveals artisanal work, almost always anonymous. Though there are many hand-cut styles, one repeatedly snags the eye with its distinctive font — squared letters with flared serifs and, especially, 9’s with long, pointed tails. These carvings are the work of marble cutter Clarence Benjamin Best, who chiseled stars, crosses, flowers, lambs, and Masonic emblems, as well as grammatically idiosyncratic epitaphs, into slabs of stone for more than 50 years. I have found his work in rural Wilson County cemeteries and as far afield as Wayne, Edgecombe, and Greene Counties, but Rest Haven Cemetery is the ground zero of his oeuvre.

Best got his start as a marble cutter at Wilson Marble Mantle & Tile Company on North Railroad Street. By the early 1920s, he was designing and cutting headstones for African-American clients as a side gig. Operating from a backyard workshop, Best worked at every price point, often repurposing scrap stone or headstone seconds to create custom monuments that collectively testify to his skill and endless creativity. He opened his own business in 1946, advertising FINE CEMETERY MEMORIALS, and worked another 30 years.

As a tribute to this unsung vernacular artist, I’ve set out to photograph every monument I can attribute to Clarence B. Best and will feature his stand-out pieces in a dedicated Instagram account. Stay tuned.

Behold the Lamb of God. Clarence B. Best’s work is well-represented in Saint Delight Cemetery, near Walstonburg, Greene County, North Carolina.

Where we worked: The Oak filling station.

This photograph of the Wilson Bus Center and the Oak Filling Station (built around the truck of its namesake tree) was probably taken not long after they opened in 1938. An African-American man is pumping gas at the rear of a vehicle. Another African-American man stands near its front fender. 

Detail from photo above.

Wilson Daily Times, 22 September 1938.

Photo courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

Leaving for the turpentine districts of Georgia and South Carolina.

By 1890, North Carolina’s long-leaf pine forests had been decimated, and the state’s once-dominant share of the national naval stores production had plummeted. As highlighted in Imagination Station‘s exhibit “Journey to Wilson,” though the county was never a major player in the turpentine game, western Wilson County had a thriving naval stores industry through much of the nineteenth century. When workers began to follow the work, the Advance took notice.

Wilson Advance, 2 January 1890.

Wilson Advance, 25 December 1890.

Where we worked: Davis Military Academy.

A biographical feature on Dr. Joseph H. Ward noted that he left Wilson to secure work as a waiter at LaGrange, North Carolina’s Davis Military Academy. This notice for Davis ran in a short-lived Wilson newspaper, The Advertiser, in 1888, around the time Ward might have seen it.

The Advertiser (Wilson, N.C.), 27 September 1888.


Where we worked: back of the bawdy house.

In From a Cat House to the White House, Jesse D. Pender painted a richly detailed portrait of life in Wilson and Wilson County in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s — including his adventures as a driver and cook for white madam Betty Powell. Powell and Mallie Paul were among the last of the big-time brothel keepers operating in Wilson’s early twentieth century red light district centered on South Spring [Douglas], South, and East Jones Streets at the heart of Wilson’s blocks of tobacco warehouses. This area, simultaneously, was a solidly working-class African-American neighborhood known as Little Washington and home to Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church’s church and school.

On 28 July 1914, the Wilson Daily Times reported on the visit of the chief of police to all the town’s bawdy houses after “drunk and disorderly conduct at Ola LeRoy’s house a few nights ago and the suicide of” a man named Bunn. Not only had the houses not complied with an earlier directive to shape up, most were in flagrant violation. Ordering all in the trade to leave town by the end of the week, the chief listed his shocking discoveries, naming names:

  • at Cora Duty’s house, he found women from Richmond, Virginia, Washington, D.C.; Washington, N.C.; Chicago, Illinois; and Louisville, Kentucky [in the 1900 census of Wilson, Cora Duty is listed with four “boarders”; in the 1912 city directory, her address is 404 South Spring]
  • at Gertrude Augustine’s house, he found a woman from Jamestown, New York, and evidence that other young women had come and gone
  • at Beck Walston’s, one woman [probably also known as Bessie Walston; in the 1920 census, at 510 Spring]
  • at the house of Gertrude Stone, who hailed from Providence, Rhode Island, a woman from Baltimore, Maryland
  • at the house Jessie Smith, originally of Winston-Salem, N.C., no one else, because they’d all left after Bunn’s death
  • at Ada Coleman’s, no one else, but the weekend before there had been “a bunch of drunken men” and other evidence that she was violating prohibition laws
  • at Bessie E. Stamper’s, no one else, but other women had been seen there
  • at Maude Weston’s, “the others left after the death of Bunn and purpose to stay away until everything is quiet again” [in the 1916 city directory, Weston is at 511 South Spring]
  • at the house of Lou R. Padgett, alias Ola LeRoy, LeRoy and another woman were drunk only a day after LeRoy had been found guilty of disorderly conduct
  • at the houses of Gertie Sears, Lida Simpson, and “Alice,” no one else [in the 1916 city directory, Sears is at 513 South Spring; Lida (Lydia) Simpson appears in directories at 404 South Spring, 310 East Jones, and 312 East Jones; and Alice Hinson at 310 East Jones]
  • at Clyde Bell’s, known as Pat Moore, “a house full of men and beer” [a native of Norfolk, Virginia, in 1916, Bell married L.E. Pittman at her home at 313 Mercer Street]
  • at the house of Fannie Ange, alias Theodora Davis, several women [in the 1916 city directory, at 328 South Street]
  • at “the house where Trixie Clark died,” three women, including Fannie Ange’s sister [in the 1912 city directory, Clark was at 322 South Street; a Clara Clark, age 23, residing at 324 South, died 30 January 1924 of opium poisoning and a pistol shot wound — was this “Trixie”?]
  • at Mollie Johnson’s, one girl [in the 1912 city directory, at 318 South Street; in the 1916 directory, 311 South Street; in the 1920 census, 508 Spring]
  • at Fannie Burwell [Burrell]’s, one woman [in the 1900 census, Burrell ran a boarding house with three young women boarders, including Mallie Paul; in the 1908, 1912 and 1916 city directories, she is at 309 South Street]

Wilson Daily Times, 23 December 1910.

Fannie Burrell died 26 January 1917 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 64 years old; was born in Virginia; and was a “land lord of bawdy-house.” She is buried in Maplewood cemetery.

Burrell had made out a will on 23 November 1916, broadly dispensing her sizable wealth. She left money, diamond jewelry, furniture, land lots, and houses to numerous friends, including two Wilson madams, Mallie Paul and Theodora Davis, and two trusted members of her domestic staff, Mary Floyd and Carrie Strickland. [In the 1910 census of Wilson, Mallie Paul and Mollie Johnson are listed on either side of Burrell on Jones Street.]

To Floyd, her cook, Burrell left her house on Spring Street (or $400, if the house sold under option.)

To her “faithful servant and friend” Strickland, Burrell left a house at the corner of Spring and Hines Streets (or $400).

Robert N. Perry, the rector of Saint Mark’s Episcopal, witnessed Burrell’s execution of the will. He was her neighbor at 315 South Street.

Little Washington/the red light district as drawn on the 1913 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson. At (A), Saint Mark’s Episcopal and at (B) a “Sanctified Church (Negro).” The numbers mark addresses associated with white bawdy houses from 1900-1922 — (1) 313 Mercer (Clyde Bell); (2) 404 South Spring (Cora Duty; Lida Simpson; Alice Hinson); (3) 418 South Spring (Fannie Burrell); (4) 508 South Spring (Mollie Johnson) (5) 510 South Spring (Bessie Walston); (6) 512 South Spring (Nan Garrett); (7) 511 South Spring (M. Weston); (8) 513 South Spring (Gertrude Sears); (9) 308 [renumbered 409] East Jones (Betty Powell); (10) 310 [renumbered 410] East Jones (Alice Hinson); (11) 312 East Jones (Lida Simpson; Alice Hinson); (12) 314 East Jones (Evelyn Belk); (13) 309 [renumbered 304] South (Fannie Burrell; Mallie Paul); (14) 311 South (Mollie Johnson); (15) 314 [renumbered 309] South (Mallie Paul); (16) 318 South (Mollie Johnson); (17) 322 South (Trixie Clark); (18) 328 South (Theodora Davis).


  • Mary Floyd

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Spring Street, Mary Williams, 20, tobacco factory laborer, and lodger Junis Floyd, 35, odd jobs laborer.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 311 Hines, Seary Mitchell, 31, and wife Gertie, 19; Junous Floyd, 41, gas plant fireman; wife Mary, 32, tobacco factory worker; brother Allen, 25, tobacco factory laborer; and roomer Pattie Williamson, 40, private cook. [Next door: Mollie Johnson, above.]

Junius Floyd died 30 November 1929 in Forks township, Wayne County, at the hospital. Per his death certificate, he was 50 years old; was married to Mary Floyd; and worked as a laborer.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 519 South Spring, widow Mary Floyd, 40; son James A., 9; and roomers Bertha Johnson, 27, and Ellen Williams, 22.

Mary Floyd died 13 May 1931 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 46 years old; was born in Franklin County, N.C., to Saul Williams and Hellen Richardson; was married to June Floyd; lived at 519 South Spring; and worked as a tobacco factory laborer. Bertha Smith was informant.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Spring Street, brickmason Goodsey Holden, 50; wife Laura, 47; daughters Estella, 25, Bertha, 24, laundress, and Ione, 20, laundress; and lodger Carrie Strickland, 18, hotel chambermaid.

In the 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Strickland Carrie (c) dom h 603 S Spring

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 603 Spring Street, brickmason Goodsey Holden, 59; wife Laura, 52; and roomer Carrie Strickland, 29, tobacco factory worker.

In the 1920 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Strickland Carrie I (c) hairdresser h 603 S Spring

In the 1922 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Strickland Carrie (c) hairdresser 528 E Nash h 504 S Lodge

Many thanks to J. Robert Boykin III for transcribing “Ordered to Leave Town: Disorderly Conduct in ‘Red Light District’ Causes Mayor Dickerson to Issue the Order,” Wilson Daily Times, 28 July 1914.