Lydia Bledsoe Hunter continues to share gems from her family, which migrated from the area of northeastern Wilson County and southwestern Edgecombe County. Haywood Armstrong was born enslaved to Abraham and Cherry Armstrong, most likely around the present-day Town Creek community east of Elm City.
Around 1889, Haywood and his wife Agnes Bullock Armstrong, who was born just across the county line in Edgecombe County, following hundreds of Black North Carolinians, moved their family more than 900 miles to central Arkansas.
Haywood and Agnes Armstrong’s descendants created this commemorative calendar to raise funds for the upkeep of the family’s cemetery. It features photos and mini-bios of each of the Armstrongs’ children set against backdrops of rural Lonoke County.
Caroline Lee Armstrong Moore.
Charlie Armstrong Sr.
Mollie Armstrong Daniel.
William H. Armstrong.
Benjamin H. Armstrong.
Cherry Armstrong Meadows, the first child born in Arkansas.
Anna Armstrong Parker and Frank J. Armstrong.
Minnie Armstrong Johnson.
Agnes Armstrong Mitchell and Hayward A. Armstrong.
Lollie Armstrong Nicks.
Many thanks to Lydia for sharing the Armstrong family commemorative calendar.
Wilson County native Haywood Armstrong, son of Abraham and Cherry Armstrong, lead his family to Lonoke County, Arkansas, in the 1890s. Armstrong and his wife, Agnes Bullock Armstrong, reared 14 children and are buried in Hickory Grove cemetery near Scott, Arkansas. In the fall of 2020, their descendants came together for a cemetery clean-up. Lydia Bledsoe Hunter shared these images of the family’s work, as well as a commemorative family calendar developed to raise funds for ongoing upkeep.
Henry Armstrong — in the 1940 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farmer Henry Armstrong, 52; wife Minnie, 42; and children Mary, 19, Fred, 18, Rosa, 16, Clarence, 14, Nathan, 11, Daniel, 9, Louise, 8, David, 6, and Henry, 3.
Sugar Hill section — There is a Sugar Hill neighborhood on the western outskirts of the town of Simms and a Sugar Hill Road that runs just east of and parallel to Interstate 95 near the Nash County line. Neither is in Toisnot township. Henry Armstrong’s family’s land was east of Elm City near Edgecombe County. Can anyone pinpoint the location of Armstrong’s Sugar Hill? [Update, 7/28/2020: Jack Cherry identified Sugar Hill as a community along East Langley Road between Town Creek and Temperance Hall United Methodist Church (which is just across the line in Edgecombe County.) His great-grandfather operated a small general store and gas station at the heart of the community and lent his name to Cherry Chapel Baptist Church.]
Per Kate Ohno, Wilson County’s Architectural Heritage (1981):
“Captain William James Armstrong, the original owner of this house, was born in 1810, and was the son of Gray Armstrong. Armstrong was appointed constable of Edgecombe County in 1828, and by 1834 he had punched a mercantile business near Upper Town Creek Church. Armstrong’s military rank was acquired through his service in the Edgecombe County militia. He was prominent in both the religious and political activities if Edgecombe County, serving as justice of the peace as early as 1845 and as clerk of the Falls of the Tar Primitive Baptist Church (in Rocky Mount) between 1854 and 1856. Armstrong married Elizabeth Braswell in 1832 and after her death he was married to Catherine Williams. By the time of his death in 1856 Armstrong was the principal in a mercantile firm, consisting of Willie Gray Barnes and Baker B. Armstrong, which operated a store at Joyner’s Depot. … The house probably dates circa 1830, about the time of Armstrongs first marriage and consists of a one-story Greek Revival cottage with a hipped roof and two interior chimneys. The board-and-batten siding, possibly dating from the mid-nineteenth century is an unusual survival in Wilson County. Although the fenestration and floor plan have been altered and one chimney removed, the original trabeated door remains intact, as do some of the mantels. The carport was added by the present owner. A charming early twentieth-century latticed well house is located to the east of the house.”
For more on the more than two dozen men and women William J. Armstrong enslaved, see here.
“Our late father and mother were Thomas and Mamie Armstrong Hilliard. Members of Mt. Zion First Baptist Church in Rocky Mount in 1914, they moved to Wilson Co. in or around 1917 when their two daughters, Cornelia and Magnolia, were eight and nine years old. Our grandparents were Tom and Fortant Hilliard and Nelson and Mary B. Armstrong.
“We farmed and attended Parker and Turners Elementary School in Wilson Co. Our social activities were concerts and in-school spelling matches every Friday evening. After growing up and marrying we still farmed and kept house. Our pleasures were fireplace reading and church and Sunday school.
“Our most sorrowful experience was when we lost our mother at an early age in 1932. Often we picked cotton in the late fall; the weather was so cold that icicles were hanging on the bolls of cotton. We helped clear new ground by removing stumps and roots by hand after school in the evening.
“We had a 1919 Model T Ford our father drove often. We drove a mule and buggy to Sunday school and church. The family was missionary Baptist. Our father, Tom, was the Sunday school superintendent. Today Cornelia, Magnolia and Marie are mission workers around our community, if we can help somebody along life’s way. Our children are all grown and have their own families.
“After marriage I, Magnolia H. Joyner, went to Baltimore, Md. reared six children and worked for 30 years. I bought a home and retired; then I came back to my old house in Toisnot township to live the rest of my life in 1978. My husband expired, but I’m not alone; God is still by my side.”
In the 1900 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farmer Thomas Hilliard, 53; wife Fortine, 58; children Olive, 24, Becky, 21, and Thomas, 16; and adopted son Thadeous Battle, 12.
In the 1900 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farmer Nelson Armstrong, 45, wife Mary Ann, 40, and children Mamie, 15, Hattie, 13, and Henry, 12.
On 7 February 1906, Thos. Hilliard, 22, son of Tom and F. Hilliard, married Mamie Armstrong, 21, daughter of Nelson and Mary Armstrong. Missionary Baptist minister N.H. Arrington performed the ceremony at Thomas Hilliard’s in Toisnot township.
In the 1910 census of Toisnot, Wilson County, on Wells Daws Avenue, Nelson Armstrong, 58, Mary, 45, daughter Hattie Armstrong, 22, son Henry Armstrong, 20, son-in-law Thomas Hilliard, 25, daughter Mamie, 24, and their children Carnelia, 3, and Magnora Hilliard, 2.
In 1918, Thomas Hilliard registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 2 September 1883; resided on R.F.D. 1, Elm City; was a self-employed farmer; and his nearest relative was Mamie Hilliard. He was literate.
In the 1920 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: on Wilson & Tarboro Road, farmer Thomas Hilliard, 36; wife Mamie, 35; and children Cornelia, 12, Magnolia, 11, and Luther Thomas, 1.
In the 1930 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farmer Tom Hilliard, 45; wife Mamie, 40; and children Maggnolia, 22, Luther, 11, Marie, 7, and Robert, 7.
Mamie Hilliard died 23 May 1932 in Toisnot township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was born 1 December 1885 in Wilson County to Nelson Armstrong and Mary Bulluck and was married to Tom Hilliard.
In the 1940 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farmer Thomas Hilliard, 56; wife Rena, 41; and children Robert, 17, and Marie, 17; and Lucille, 15, Bettie Ruth, 14, and Helen Earles, 11.
Thomas Hilliard died 24 August 1966 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 2 November 1886 in Wilson County to Thomas Hilliard and Fortney Killebrew; resided in Elm City; was a farm laborer; and was married to Rena B. Hilliard. He was buried in Sharpesburg cemetery, Nash County.
Text and photo courtesy of History of Wilson County, North Carolina (1985).
William J. Armstrong died in Wilson County in September 1856. Several months later, his heirs, as tenants in common, petitioned for the division of his enslaved property, identified as Quinny, Abram, Jim, Birden and his wife and child, Ned, Tony, Harry, Julann and her two children, Lizett, Nance and her child, Ciller and her two children, Jane, Lucinda and two children, Berry, and Mahala.
At January term 1858 of the Wilson County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, a team of commissioners reported their division, randomly allotted, thus:
Lot 1 to Catherine Armstrong, consisting of Abram, Avy, Nelson and Allis, valued at $2275.
Lot 2 to Caroline Armstrong, consisting of Julan, Mahala and Nancy, valued at $2175.
Lot 3 to Willie G. Barnes and wife, consisting of Quinny, Harry, Scilla and her child, valued at $3050.
Lot 4 to George W. Armstrong, consisting of Ned, Clary, Sarah and Barry, valued at $3100.
Lot 5 to James G. Armstrong, consisting of James, Burton, Rufus and Lucinda and her child, valued at $3325.
Lot 6 to John H. Winstead and wife, consisting of Tony,Lizette, Lucinda, Jane and her child, valued at $3320.
The petitioners clearly underestimated the number of enslaved people William Armstrong had owned at his death.
Scilla and one of the Lucindas were each separated from one of their (youngest) children. (Children over about age eight would have been listed individually.) Julann and Nancy were completely divided from their children.
Burton, who seems to have been the only man with a wife living on the Armstrong plantation, was separated from his wife Clary and child.
Only a few of the men, women and children formerly enslaved by William J. Armstrong are readily identifiable in post-Emancipation records:
A Wilson County justice of the peace registered Abram Armstrong and Cherry Proctor’s 16-year cohabitation in 1866. In the 1870 census of Joyners township, Wilson County: AbrahamArmstrong, 52, wife Cherry, 32, and children Nancy, 16, Haywood, 14, Nelson, 12, Joshua, 11, and Burlee, 7. As Cherry Armstrong and children were owned by a different enslaver, this Abraham’s son Nelson is a different person than the Nelson listed above. So is Nancy.
A Wilson County justice of the peace registered Burton Armstrong and Clary Armstrong’s 18-year cohabitation in 1866. In the 1870 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Burden Armstrong, 45, farm laborer, who owned $400 personal and $300 real property, and wife Clara, 38. Burton and Clara Armstrong became Exodusters and are found in the 1900 census of Portland township, Ashley County, Arkansas, with granddaughter Laura Binam, 6.
A Wilson County justice of the peace registered James Armstrong and Pricilla Braswell‘s two-year cohabitation in 1866.
In the 1880 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: Lucinda Armstrong, 41; her children Charley L., 16, Gray Anna, 13, and Shadrick, 10; her sister Lizette Armstrong, 51; and Mourning Pitt, 80. Charley Armstrong may have been the child allotted with Lucinda to James G. Armstrong. Though they presumably spent the last decade of slavery owned by Barneses, Lucinda and Lizette retained Armstrong as their surname.
A Wilson County justice of the peace registered Ned Armstrong and Eliza Whitehead‘s cohabitation in 1866.
Images of estate documents available atNorth Carolina Wills and Estates, 1665-1998 [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com.
For hundreds of years, the Akan of Ghana and Ivory Coast have used symbols, called adinkra, as visual representations of concepts and aphorisms. Sankofa is often illustrated as a bird looking over its back. Sankofa means, literally, “go back and get it.” Black Wide Awake exists to do just that.
I had never heard of Marie Everette until I read Charles W. McKinney’s excellent Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina. I’m not sure how it is possible that her struggle was so quickly forgotten in Wilson. However, it is never too late to reclaim one’s history. To go back and get it. So, here is the story of the fight for justice for Everett — a small victory that sent a big message to Wilson’s black community and likely a shudder of premonition through its white one:
On 6 October 1945, 15 year-old Marie Everette took in a movie at the Carolina Theatre in downtown Wilson. (The Carolina admitted black patrons to its balcony.) As Everette stood with friend Julia Armstrong at the concession stand, a cashier yelled at her to get in line. Everette responded that she was not in line and, on the way back to her seat, stuck out her tongue. According to a witness, the cashier grabbed Everette, slapped her and began to choke her. Everette fought back. Somebody called the police, and Everette was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The next day in court, Everette’s charge was upgraded to simple assault. Though this misdemeanor carried a maximum thirty-day sentence and fifty-dollar fine, finding her guilty, the judge upped Everette’s time to three months in county jail. As Wilson’s black elite fretted and dragged their feet, the town’s tiny NAACP chapter swung into action, securing a white lawyer from nearby Tarboro and notifying the national office. In the meantime, Everette was remanded to jail to await a hearing on her appeal. There she sat for four months (though her original sentence had expired) until a court date. Wilson County appointed two attorneys to the prosecution, and one opened with a statement to the jury that the case would “show the n*ggers that the war is over.” Everette was convicted anew, and Judge C.W. Harris, astonishingly, increased her sentence from three to six months, to be served — even more astonishingly — at the women’s prison in Raleigh. (In other words, hard time.) Everette was a minor, though, and the prison refused to admit her. Branch secretary Argie Evans Allen of the Wilson NAACP jumped in again to send word to Thurgood Marshall, head of the organization’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Marshall engaged M. Hugh Thompson, a black lawyer in Durham, who alerted state officials to the shenanigans playing out in Wilson. After intervention by the State Commissioner of Paroles and Governor R. Gregg Cherry, Everette walked out of jail on March 18. She had missed nearly five months of her freshman year of high school.
The Wilson Daily Times, as was its wont, gave Everette’s story short-shrift. However, the Norfolk Journal & Guide, an African-American newspaper serving Tidewater Virginia, stood in the gap. (Contrary to the article’s speculation, there was already a NAACP branch on the ground in Wilson, and it should have been credited with taking bold action to free Everette.)
Norfolk Journal & Guide, 23 March 1946.
Sankofa bird, brass goldweight, 19th century, British Museum.org. For more about the Carolina Theatre, including blueprints showing its separate entrance and ticket booth for African-Americans, see here.
Sidney Wheeler was a man, not a boy, and married nine months after this mishap. On 23 December 1896, Sidney Wheeler, 24, married Lou Armstrong, 20, in Wilson. W.T.H. Woodard performed the ceremony in the presence of Richard Renfrow, S.A. Smith and Janie Booth.
In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: day laborer Sidney Wheelus, 27; wife Lula, 23; and son Sidney, 8 months.
In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Sidney Wheeler, 40, barber; wife Lou, 40, private cook; and children Sidney, 9, Dave, 7, Floyd, 4, and Emma, 2.
In March 1910, Sidney Wheeler Jr. accidentally shot his sister in the head while playing with a gun. She died instantly. Their mother was away from home cooking supper for Frederick Woodard’s family; their father presumably was also at work. The Wheeler girl’s name is unknown. The 1900 census lists only one child; the 1910, only one daughter, Emma, who lived to adulthood. Though described as eight years old, Sidney Jr. was more likely about ten.
News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 17 March 1910.
Fourteen months later, Sidney Wheeler Jr. (still described as eight years old) was charged with assault with a deadly weapon against General Tyler, “another colored boy.”
Wilson Daily Times, 19 May 1911.
The Daily Times published two articles about the incident. The second doubled down on the sensationalist editorializing, but there seems little question that Sidney Jr. engaged in unusually violent behavior.
Wilson Daily Times, 19 May 1911.
Six months later, a Raleigh paper picked up a local-interest bit from Wilson and printed it using the exaggerated dialect and descriptions saved for negro anecdotes. In a nutshell: Anderson Dew visited Sidney Wheeler’s barber shop. With half his face shaved, Dew attempted to spit. Wheeler warned there was no spitting while he was shaving. Further, there was the matter of Dew having testified against Wheeler on a liquor charge. Dew distracted Wheeler’s attention, then jumped from the chair and ran off to tell this tale.
The Farmer and Mechanic (Raleigh, N.C.), 7 November 1911.
Sidney Wheeler died 8 March 1912 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 35 years old; was born in Nash County to Richard and Annie Wheeler; worked as a barber; was married; and resided at 710 Vance Street. Lula Wheeler was informant.
Six and-a-half years after their father died, Sidney Wheeler Jr.’s younger brother Dabbie fetched up in court on a breaking and entering charge. As he had already done time on a county road gang, the judge sentenced him to five-to-ten in the state penitentiary.
News & Observer, 7 September 1918.
In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Hackney Street, college cook Lula Wheeler, 49, widow, and children Richard, 12, Emma, 10, John, 8, and Sammie, 6.
Dabbie Wheeler died four years into his prison term of tuberculosis of the shoulder joint and bowels. He was 17.
Dabbie Wheeler died 21 June 1922 at the State Penitentiary in Raleigh, North Carolina. Per his death certificate, he was born 27 August 1904 in Wilson to Sidney Wheeler and Lula Armstrong and worked as a laborer. He was buried in Chapel Hill.
Ten months later, Sidney Wheeler Jr. escaped from a prison camp near the Rocky Face Mountain quarry in Alexander County, North Carolina. I have found nothing further about him.
Alamance Gleaner, 5 April 1923.
Lulu Wheeler died 5 May 1925 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 11 August 1878 in Elm City to Emma Armstrong; she was the widow of Sid Wheeler; she resided at 523 Church Street; and she did housework for Atlantic Christian College. Emma Wheeler was informant.
Among the dozens of families who migrated up to Wilson County from North Carolina’s southern Sandhills area were those of Dock Roberson and Margaret Armstrong McDougal Blue. After her husband Levi Blue died in Wilson County in 1919, Maggie Blue and Dock Roberson married, and Maggie’s parents John “Jack” and Annie Murphy Armstrong briefly came to live with their blended family in Taylors township. Likely during this time, Jack Armstrong traveled into Wilson to sit for a portrait in Picture-Taking George W. Barnes‘ studio. Jack’s descendants explained that his curled fingers were the result of an injury inflicted during slavery.
John “Jack” Armstrong (ca. 1820-1932), circa 1920.
In the 1870 census of Flea Hill township, Cumberland County, North Carolina: farm laborer John Armstrong, 40; wife Anna, 38; and children Dublin, 14, Charles, 9, Penny, 8, Margrett, 7, Elizabeth, 5, Barbry, 4, William, 3, and David, 2; plus Amy Armstrong, 52.
In the 1880 census of Flea Hill township, Cumberland County, North Carolina: farmer John Armstrong, 54; wife Annie J., 43; and children Charley, 18, Margret, 16, Barbra A., 12, William J., 10, David, 8, Joe, 6, Daniel R., 4, and Rebecca, 3; plus A. Murphy, 60, mother-in-law.
In the 1900 census of Geddies Gin township, Cumberland County, North Carolina: farm laborer Jack Armstrong, 75; wife Annie, 68; daughter Janie, 15; and grandson George W. Murphy, 12.
In the 1920 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: tenant farmer Doc Robinson, 55; wife Maggie, 53; children Mary, 18, James C., 19, Virginia, 17, David, 14, Elijah, 12, and Jessie B., 3; Vangie, 32, Geneva, 17, and Addie McDoogle, 15; and Moses Robinson, 8, and lodgers Jack, 103, and Annie Armstrong, 101.
Annie Armstrong died 5 April 1920 in Taylor township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was 103 years old; was born in Johnston County to Annie Murphy and an unknown father; worked as a farmer for George Piage; and was married to Jack Armstrong. William Jas. Armstrong was informant.
Maggie Roberson died 5 April 1928 in Wilson township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was 55 years old; was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Jack and Annie Armstrong; was married to George Roberson; and farmed for Will Carr.
Jack Armstrong died 5 January 1932 in Mingo township, Sampson County, North Carolina. Per his death certificate, he was born 11 February 1815 to John Wood and an unknown mother; was widowed; and was a farmer.
Newspapers across the state reported that Jack Armstrong had been “the oldest North Carolinian” at the time of his death.
Wilson Daily Times, 12 January 1932.
Photo courtesy of F. Cooper Jr., great-great-grandson of Jack Armstrong.