Wilson’s emergence as a leading tobacco market town drew hundreds of African-American migrants in the decades after the 1890s. Many left family behind in their home counties, perhaps never to be seen again. Others maintained ties the best way they could.
Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver and her husband Jesse A. Jacobs Jr. left Dudley, in southern Wayne County, North Carolina, around 1905. They came to Wilson presumably for better opportunities off the farm. Each remained firmly linked, however, to parents and children and siblings back in Wayne County as well as in the Great Migration north. This post is the first in a series of excerpts from interviews with Hattie Henderson Ricks, their adoptive daughter (and Sarah’s great-niece), revealing the ways her Wilson family stayed connected to their far-flung kin. (Or didn’t.)
Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver, born in 1872, was the eighth of nine children. By time she moved to Wilson, only her brothers James Lucian Henderson, born 1859, and Caswell C. Henderson, born 1865, were living. (Hattie was her sister Loudie Henderson’s grandchild.) Caswell had migrated to New York City by about 1890, but Lucian remained in Dudley to farm. He and his wife, Susan McCollum Henderson, had only one child, who died in early adulthood without a spouse or children.
Susie Henderson had long been sickly and, by the late 1920s, Lucian Henderson’s health had begun to fail. Jesse Jacobs’ nephew, John Wesley Carter, lived nearby. He had developed a close relation with the Hendersons, but could not be expected to assume complete responsibility for their care.
The family turned to the Atlantic Coast Line Rail Road for a solution:
“Mama Sarah [would] fix dinner and send it down to Dudley on the train. The man that run the whatchacallit — engine? Up there, where stokes the fire or whatever is on the train. He would take it. But she would tell what day she was gon send it. And so somebody’d be up there to the train station to get it. And the train, ‘cause a lot of time the train didn’t stop in Dudley. But anyway, the man, the conductor, he would pull the thing, whatever, for the train to stop long enough for him to drop off this package. … Somebody she’d have be out there when the train come through, and then the porter on the train — Mama knew him — and so then Johnnie and them or somebody be out there to take the package. It’d be a shoebox full of food, already cooked and ready to eat. So that’s the way they helped Uncle Lucian and A’nt Susie, like that. Until they died, and so that was the end of trying to feed them and take care of them.”
Look closely at this snippet of a 1936 map of the Atlantic Coast Line’s routes. Wilson is just above the center point. Lucian and Susie Henderson’s care packages traveled south through Goldsboro to the whistle stop at Dudley’s platform, nine miles below and just above Mount Olive.
Adapted from interviews of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, 1996 and 1998. All rights reserved.
The body of Ed Howell, who stoked the firebox and tended the boiler on an Atlantic Coast Line passenger train, was not recovered until eleven days after he fell into Contentnea Creek south of Wilson. The strap of his overalls snagged on a tree limb or root, holding him under several feet of water. The coroner noted that the eighty-five dollars Howell had on his person was missing, but opined that it might have fallen from his pocket as he fell. (Or was he robbed and murdered?)
Wilson Daily Times, 6 February 1935.
Per his death certificate, Howell died 25 January 1935. He was a native of Pitt County, but a resident of Rocky Mount, N.C., 18 miles north of Wilson. Cause of death was described as: “accidental drowning stepping off cab steps while train on tressel over Contentna Creek near Wilson NC Train #83.”
In June 1928, a Atlantic Coast Line railroad worker spotted a grievously wounded elderly man lying by the tracks. He flagged a train, and the “injured negro” was taken to the company’s hospital almost twenty miles north in Rocky Mount. He died. Two days later, the Wilson Daily Times reported the death of “Uncle Dortch.”
So did his death certificate.
Though he lived at the Wilson County Home, also known as “the poorhouse,” no one seemed to know Uncle Dortch’s surname. I regret that I have not been able to restore it to him.
“Fractured Skull (found by side of R.R. track near Wilson)”
In the earliest known map of Wilson, drawn in 1872, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad marked the town’s eastern border. Beyond lay the plank road, a toll house, and a smattering of buildings, but the territory was essentially farmland. By 1882, town limits had pushed east to Pender Street, and a tiny commercial district had grown up at Nash and Pettigrew Streets, convenient to railroad workers, customers and passengers. Although African-Americans owned substantial plots of land along Pender, Stantonsburg and Manchester Streets and the Plank Road [East Nash], the area also contained large farms owned by well-to-do whites. However, with the arrival in the 1890s of tobacco stemmeries and a cotton gin near Railroad Street, working-class neighborhoods such as Little Richmond sprang up. Black businesses and churches solidified their claim to Pender Street end of Nash, and Samuel H. Vick and others began to lay the grid of East Wilson’s streets.
Sanborn fire insurance map, 1885.
Newspapers offer glimpses of the early development of East Wilson. References to the area “below the railroad” — “across the tracks,” in more modern parlance — regularly appeared in the pages of Wilson’s several late nineteenth-century journals.
Burford & Hinnant operated a meat market below the railroad, most likely at Nash and Pettigrew. Their 1883 notice advertised their steaks to customers and solicited “fat cattle” from area growers.
Wilson Advance, 30 November 1883.
Perry Taylor’s grocery/saloon/pool hall stood at one corner of Nash and Pettigrew Streets. The combination was a popular one. This ad appeared in January 1884, but the reference to Christmas suggests that it had first run earlier. Taylor had bought out grocer James Batts and could “whet your whistle” 24 hours a day.
Wilson Advance, 18 January 1884.
Wilson Advance, 4 April 1884.
Stilley & Wooten advertised tobacco products, including “Black Nancy fine-cut tobacco and “Sweet Violet” cigars. In the context of retailers, “below the railroad” in this period seems to have meant the vicinity of Nash and Pettigrew Streets.
Wilson Advance, 5 December 1884.
The 1888 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson shows the addition of rail lines and businesses to support them. Note, just below the “small lumber yard” at right, an area marked “Negro tenements.” The brick commercial buildings fronting Nash between the railroad and Pettigrew Street were known as the Fulcher block after prominent merchant L.H. Fulcher.
By the 1890s, newspapers — the Advance leading the way — were making hay with the contents of Wilson’s police blotter and criminal court dockets. Crimes alleged to have been committed by African-Americans received conspicuous, and, if at all possible, outlandish coverage.
Wilson Advance, 21, April 1892.
In January 1893, a fire devastated the “colored Odd Fellows Hall” on Nash Street. White grocer Golden D. Walston, who rented storage on the hall’s first floor, was fortunate to have insurance to cover his loss. (The order rebuilt its lodge later that year, erecting a three-story building that towered over the block for nearly one hundred years.)
Wilson Advance, 5 January 1893.
E.G. Rose operated another liquor store-cum-grocery store below the railroad.
Wilson Advance, 11 May 1893.
Finch & Lamm was perhaps a general merchandise store.
Wilson Advance, 2 August 1894.
The last decade of the 1800s saw the break-up of the farms and large lots that made up much of the east side’s property holdings. When Zillah Edmundson died in 1896, her estate sold her six-room house on five acres at Vance and Pender Streets to a seller who immediately flipped it. Before long, the former Edmundson property had been subdivided for house lots, and East Wilson’s familiar grid began to take shape.
Wilson Advance, 8 August 1896.
Wilson Daily Times, 23 October 1896.
Here was a complicated adaptive reuse: Briggs & Flemming converted the former Baptist church building on West Green Street to use as a tobacco prize house. Silas Lucas bought the building, removed the steeple, and planned to move it below the railroad to the former location of the Tate house (which was where?) for further repurposing as a tenement house. (Presumably for African-American tenants. Wilson’s black workforce was booming with the influx of former farmhands seeking factory jobs.)
Wilson Advance, 21 January 1897.
Across Wilson, buildings overwhelmingly were constructed of wood, and fires were an ever-present danger.
Wilson Daily Times, 23 April 1897.
This article covering the criminal docket verged into an opinion piece in 1897. By that time, “below the railroad” was understood to mean the town’s black residential area.
Wilson Advance, 11 November 1897.
In 1898, Benjamin M. Owens moved a wooden building on East Nash Street to make way for “two nice brick stores.”
Wilson Advance, 7 July 1898.
In 1899, Mack D. Felton advertised his fish market (outfitted with one of Wilson’s earliest telephones.)
Wilson Daily Times, 5 May 1899.
In 1899, with the financial assistance of local merchants, the town assigned police patrol at all hours below the railroad. Later that year, as winter approached city council appointed a committee to find a space in the area for police to warm themselves during the night shift.
Wilson News, 2 March 1899.
Wilson News, 12 October 1899.
After the turn of the century, references to “below the railroad” became less common. However, in 1911, Charles H. Darden & Son employed the term in an ad for their bicycle repair shop. With more businesses now lining the streets across the tracks, a specific address was a useful bit of information.
Wilson Daily Times, 17 March 1911.
Another shooting. The 1908 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory lists Benjamin H. Moore as the owner of a grocery on Nash Street near the city limits. Henry Stewart appears in the directory as a laborer living at 127 East Nash. Orlando Farmer was a porter at Wilson Grocery Company, no home address listed.
Wilson Daily Times, 8 August 1911.
Another fish market. Gillikin’s is listed in neither the 1908 nor 1912 city directories.
Wilson Daily Times, 22 December 1911.
Late in 1918, the city announced that it was moving the town lot from Pine Street to Barnes Street.
It’s hard to imagine that a twenty-five-dollar theft warranted bloodhounds from Raleigh, but ….
Wilson Daily Times, 25 February 1919.
Charlie Hines’ listing in the 1920 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory. East Nash Street “extended” was the stretch beyond city limits, near Nestus Freeman’s home. In this period, the city’s southeastern edge crossed East Nash at Wainwright Avenue, at the approximate location of today’s Round House and Museum.
This article announcing a celebration marking the opening of the black-owned Commercial Bank noted that tickets could be purchased at Shade’s Drugstore, below the railroad at 530 East Nash.
Wilson Daily Times, 1 April 1921.
Early in 1925, Samuel H. Vick appeared before Wilson’s board of aldermen to request funds for “the colored hospital” and streetlights from the railroad to the intersection of Nash and Pender Streets. (A “whiteway” is a brightly lighted street, especially in a city’s business or theatre district.) Vick pointed out the bad optics of one well-lit side and the other dark to train passengers. The mayor raised the usefulness of good lighting to police officers.
Wilson Daily Times, 10 February 1925.
Though decreasingly cited, the term remained in currency at mid-century. In 1952, after considerable public controversy and contention, Wilson’s board of commissioners approved appointment of a housing authority to determine the extent of the city’s need for federally funded public housing. As this snippet of an article attests, black citizens crowded the hearings, testifying to the intense post-war housing shortage “below the railroad.”
Shot from the caboose of a departing train, this image captures the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad crossing at East Nash Street. The photograph is undated, but appears to have been taken in the 1940s. It is part of the Atlantic Coast Line album of the John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library, a collection housed at Saint Louis Mercantile Library and digitized on Flickr.
To the right lay East Wilson, the largest of the town’s African-American communities and the locus of its black business district.
To the left is Wilson’s passenger rail station, built in 1924. (The building was restored to its original condition in the late 1990s and now serves as an Amtrak station.)
A closer look at the people walking west toward downtown:
And those headed east, perhaps towards home:
For the same shot today, minus side rails and telegraph poles and pedestrians, see here.