Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque.

In May 2019, Dr. Joseph H. Ward‘s granddaughter and great-granddaughter, both born and reared in the Midwest, came home to Wilson. Zella Palmer FaceTimed me as she and her mother Alice Roberts Palmer stood outside David G.W. Ward‘s house near Stantonsburg, the house in which Joseph Ward’s mother Mittie Ward and grandmother Sarah Ward toiled while enslaved. D.G.W. Ward was the father of at least three of Sarah Ward’s children, including Mittie. Joseph Ward’s father, Napoleon Hagans, who lived not far away in Wayne County, was my great-great-grandmother’s brother, and thus Cousin Alice and Zella are my people. I was so grateful to be able to share, even if remotely, the tangle of emotions the Palmers felt as they stood on ancestral ground. But who knew there was more to come for Zella in Wilson?

This week, Zella announced that the cookbook she wrote with Wilson’s own barbecue pitmaster extraordinaire Ed Mitchell and his son Ryan Mitchell is now available for pre-order on Amazon, with a publication date of June 2023! Zella is chair of Dillard University’s Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture in New Orleans and passionately committed to preserving Black foodways. Who better to capture the family stories and recipes of my father’s old friend Ed Mitchell? And who better than I to provide source material and to introduce the world to Black Wilson at the book’s opening?

My gratitude goes to Ed Mitchell, who has long stood in the gap for the preservation of eastern North Carolina food culture (and respect and recognition for its practitioners and purveyors); to Ryan Mitchell, whose True Made Foods embodies the spirit of sankofa; and to my cousin Zella Palmer, who drew me into this project and showed love and grace when I missed deadlines as I struggled to find words during my father’s illness.

“In his first cookbook, … Ed explores the tradition of whole-hog barbeque that has made him famous. It’s a method passed down through generations over the course of 125 years and hearkens back even further than that, to his ancestors who were plantation sharecroppers and, before that, enslaved. Ed is one of the few remaining pitmasters to keep this barbeque tradition alive, and in Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque, he will share his methods for the first time and fill in the unwritten chapters of the rich and complex history of North Carolina whole-hog barbeque.”

Y’all — get your orders in!

In memoriam: Libby McDonald McPhatter, restaurateur.

Wilson Daily Times, 14 November 1997.

Near the end of the Great Depression, Libby McPhatter opened a cafe in the 500 block of East Nash Street that served barbecue dinners for three decades.


In the 1910 census of Lumber Bridge township, Robeson County, North Carolina: farm laborer Archie G. McDonald, 28; wife Lucy J., 35; and children Suda, 14, Augusta, 8, Hetta, 6, Sandy, 5, Libby, 4, and Pibel, 1.

In the 1920 census of Lumber Bridge township, Robeson County: farmer A.G. McDonald,  42; wife Elam, 42; and children Samuel, 15, Libie, 14, Manilie, 8, William, 7, and Susie R., 3.

On 11 April 1926, Nathaniel McPhatter of Robeson County, son of Fred and Maggie McPhatter, married Libby S. McDonald, 20, of Robeson County, daughter of A.G. and Ella McDonald, in Lumber Bridge township, Robeson County.

In the 1930 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: McPhatter Nathan (c; Libbie) truck driver h 113 Pender

James Arthur McPhatter died 23 March 1932 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 4 September 1931 in Wilson to Nathaniel McPhatter and Libbie McDonald, both of Robeson County, and he lived at 113 Pender Street.

In 1940, Elmond Henry McKeithan registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 5 July 1914 in Cumberland County, North Carolina; resided at 539 East Nash Street, Wilson; his contact was cousin Libby McPhatter, 539 East Nash; and he worked for Woodard-Herring Hospital, Green and Douglas Streets, Wilson.

In the 1941 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: McPhatter Libby (c; Libby’s Cafe) h 539 E Nash. Also: McPhatter Nathaniel (c; Libby) driver h 539 E Nash.

In 1942, Nathaniel Green McPhatter registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 7 November 1902 in Robeson County, North Carolina; resided at 539 East Nash Street, Wilson; his contact was Pinkey Townsed, Red Springs, N.C.; and he was unemployed.

In the 1950 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 539 East Nash (“over Libby’s Cafe”), restaurant proprietor Lillie McPhatter, 44, widow; Louise C. McPhatter, 8; and roomers Doll Brown Jr., 30; Mabel Brown, 45; J.C. White, 38, tobacco factory laborer; Wilbert Signal, 35, construction company building helper; Alfonso Hodge, 40, restaurant cook; and Ozy Allen, 50, restaurant cook. [In fact, McPhatter was separated. She and Nathaniel McPhatter did not divorce until 1953.]

Wilson Daily Times, 12 May 1981.

The pitmasters of Dixie Inn.

From “Facts … About Wilson North Carolina: The City of Beautiful Trees,” a 1934 publication of the Wilson Chamber of Commerce.

The Dixie Inn opened in 1930 just south of Wilson and quickly established itself as the go-to spot for nights out, civic group meetings, company banquets, and rehearsal dinners. Its painted roof proclaimed its specialties, barbecue and oysters. Like every restaurant of its time and place, Dixie Inn was strictly segregated — at least, in terms of its dining tables. The Inn’s cooks and wait staff were Black, as were their so-called “pitboys,” the men who produced the barbecue for which the Inn was renowned. The photo above shows several African-American men shoveling charcoal under a long row of halved hogs and others tending to the fire that produced the coals while a boy in a cap looks on.


The colored firemen issue an invitation to feast.

Wilson Daily Times, 30 December 1925.

The Red Hot fire company issued an invitation to Wilson’s leaders to celebrate the New Year. Those who received offers to partake in a barbecue supper included City Fire Department Chief A.L. Lancaster; Herring’s Drug Store proprietor Needham B. Herring and pharmacist Doane Herring; R.J. Grantham, vice-president of Wilson Trust Company and superintendent of the City Water, Light & Gas Department; Roscoe Briggs, president of Citizens Bank, W.W. Simms Company, and Wilson Cotton Mill Company, and vice-president of Wilson Home & Loan Association; R.C. Welfare, president of Welfare Auto Company; clerk of City Police Theo Hinnant; clerk of City Police Court Glaucus Hinnant; Wilson Daily Times editor John D. Gold; and Silas R. Lucas, mayor and City Police Court judge.

Curiously, the invitation noted that “the colored fireman have been 28 years in service helping protect the property of the people of Wilson.” However, as contemporary news articles attest, Black volunteer firefighters were working in Wilson as early as 1887 and were known as the Red Hots as early as 1896.

Bazaar to benefit the hospital.

Wilson Daily Times, 7 December 1916.

A few years after it opened, friends of the Wilson Colored Hospital (later known as Mercy) held a pop-up shop of sorts in the Odd Fellows Hall on East Nash Street to raise money for indigent tuberculosis patients. On offer, clothing, but mostly undoubtedly delicious food — barbecue, chicken salad, oysters, sausages, sandwiches, sweets and ice cream.

Drapped the wrong one.

Casual violence among young men is not new. Unsurprisingly, historically newspapers have sensationalized such violence when it involved black men, playing into the stereotypes and fear-mongering of the era.

I recognize the viciousness of this propaganda.* I also recognize articles reporting violent crime as invaluable, if distorted, glimpses into the lives of ordinary African-Americans during a period in which they were poorly documented. Beyond the basic facts of the terrible crime reported here, what can we learn?

News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 30 July 1907.

  • “on the Owens place” — This reference to the owner of the farm on which the events took place indicates the protagonists were likely sharecroppers or tenant farmers. The Saratoga Road is today’s U.S. Highway 264-A (formerly N.C. Highway 91.)
  • “a negro dance and barbecue supper was given by Robert Hilliard” — Hilliard, who was Black, hosted a Saturday night party on the farm, perhaps in a barn. He sold barbecue — surely Eastern North Carolina-style, with a vinegar-and-red pepper sauce — and sandwiches to patrons from a stand near the road.
  • “a wheezy fiddle” — the source of music for the dance. (Who was the fiddler? Was he locally renowned? Was there accompaniment? Was fiddling a common skill? I can’t name a single one from this era.)
  • “‘Hilliard is the n*gger I wanted to drap.” — The meaning and usage of this now-extreme pejorative has shifted over time. Here, it is almost, but not quite, neutral. More interesting, to me, is the now-archaic pronunciation “drap” for the  verb “drop.”


  • Will Scarborough 

On 29 January 1903, Will Scarborough, 21, of Saratoga, son of Ashley and Ellen Scarborough, married Lucy Anderson, 18, of Wilson, daughter of Bob and Winnie Anderson, in Wilson County. Jack Bynum applied for the license.

Will Scarborough died 6 August 1968 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 90 years old; was the son of Ashley Scarborough and Ellen [maiden name unknown]; was a widower; lived in Stantonsburg; and was buried at Saint Delight cemetery, Walstonburg. Informant was James E. Best, Stantonsburg.

  • Robert Hilliard

On 1 November 1900, Robert Hilliard, 20, of Wilson County, son of Jack and Laura Hilliard, married Ailsy Bynum, 19, of Wilson County, daughter of West and Sopha Bynum, in Gardners township, Wilson County.

Robert George Hilliard Sr. died 27 February 1944 at his home at 211 Finch Street, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 66 years old; was born in Wilson County to Jack Hilliard and Laura [maiden name unknown]; was a widower; was engaged in farming; and was buried in Rountree cemetery. Mattie Moore, 211 Finch Street, was informant.

  • Riley Faison  

On 8 May 1902, Riley Faison, 30, of Wilson County, son of Henry and Sophia Faison, married Frances Farmer, 26, of Wilson County, daughter of Tom and Polly Farmer, at “Mr. Frank Barnes Plantation.” A.M.E. Zion elder N.L. Overton performed the ceremony in the presence of Mattie V. Overton, James Smith, and Polly Farmer.


*See Brent Staples’ opinion piece in the 11 July 2021 New York Times, “How the White Press Wrote Off Black America.”

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

Seeking barbecue photos.

Marion Post Wolcott image of man and two women rendering fat after a hog killing, near Maxton, N.C., 1938. Library of Congress. (Not Wilson County, but this scene would have been familiar.)

Time to dig in those old scrapbooks. Black Wide-Awake is collaborating on a major research project, and we need your help! We are looking for African-American family photos of Wilson County pig pickings, whole hog barbecues, cookouts, and farm life. If you are interested in sharing your family photos for an amazing project that will celebrate the foodways, traditions, and legacy of Wilson, North Carolina, please contact Zella Palmer at or Lisa Y. Henderson at

 Photo of Parker’s Barbecue pit worker courtesy of “The Barbecue Bus: Parker’s Barbecue, Wilson, N.C.” (2011).

The bullet pierced his heart.

8 5 24.jpg

Wilson Daily Times, 5 August 1924.


“Rifle shot wound in breast by drunken father”


In the 1920 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: farmer John Bynum, 35; wife Carrie, 29; children Rosetta, 5, and John, 4; nephew and niece Isaac, 7, and Geneva Bynum, 4; niece Susan Bridges, 19; laborer Bruce Daniel, 19; and niece Sudie Ward, 15.