Batts

The stake of life.

While director of the University of North Carolina Press, W.T. Couch also worked as a part-time official of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, serving as assistant and associate director for North Carolina (1936-1937) and as director for the southern region (1938-1939). The Federal Writers’ Project Papers are housed at U.N.C.’s Southern Historical Collection and include Couch’s correspondence and life histories of about 1,200 individuals collected by F.W.P. members. At least two African-American residents of Wilson, Georgia Crockett Aiken and William Batts, were memorialized in this way. 

Folder 550 contains the transcript of the interview with William Batts, titled “The stake of life.” Batts, a tobacco packer, lived at 804 Stronach Avenue. [The 1940 city directory described Stronach Alley as “(formerly Young’s Line) — from a point east of North Av at Adams, north to Tilghman rd.”]

Batts had worked as a packer for ten seasons and enjoyed the work. He was six feet tall and muscular and had farmed on rented land before working in the warehouse.

Batts’ family were sharecroppers, working to keep half the crop they produced. As he reached adulthood and realized how little money his parents received for their toil, he determined to find different work. Batts had wanted an education, but his father did not believe in the value of schooling needed him to work. “He learned us how to treat white folks and let our education stop at dat.” In response to his father’s view that literacy was for white people, Batts said, “… if de nigger could do his own figuring de white folks ‘ud have to figure harder, too.” His first job was as a section hand for Norfolk & Southern Railroad, which he quit to drive a dray.

From there, Batts went to work at a wagon company. (Almost certainly Hackney Wagon.) After he was laid off, he got a job at a tobacco warehouse. The work was seasonal — August to November — and he had been paid $11.88 a week for the ten years he had worked there as a packer, unloading tobacco from farmer’s wagons and placing it in baskets in the warehouse. The odor of tobacco sickened him at first, but he could not quit because his wife was not working and the dollar-a-day he made doing farmwork during the summer did not go far.

Batts worked 7 o’clock A.M. to 6 P.M. five days a week and a half-day on Sunday. When the season ended, he hustled to find more work to supplement his wife’s work washing clothes, “cooking when company come to de white folks” and other occasional work. “when the spring opened up,” there was farm work — setting our tobacco plants, chopping cotton, barning tobacco, and picking cotton kept him “in a regular strut.” In winter, he dug ditches, sawed wood in a sawmill, and cleared land.

“I reckon you’d say I ain’t got no regular job, but I work pretty regular, ‘specially all de months besides December and January.” His wife worked stemming tobacco for about $8 a week. Still, they had trouble saving money. “We had to buy some furniture and clothes and keep up our life insurance and our rent and lights.” The couple was fortunate that their water was included in their rent — “We can take a bath every day if we want it …”

Their son and daughter no longer lived with them. Batts missed them, especially for help when his wife felt poorly because of high blood pressure.

He was seldom seriously ill and felt bad for her and tried to help. She would probably have to quit working. “I reckon I can support us ’cause we don’t owe no debts.” They bought their furniture for cash, and paid groceries ($15/month) and rent ($10/month) in cash. They had life insurance and had set aside a “little,” but feared running into bad luck. Batts dreamed of buying a small farm and a mule. “I think dat is the de stake of life.” A farm could provide security, something he had not thought much of until the stock market crash of 1929.

Batts’ wife was a Christian when they married, but it took her five years to convert him. When she “made [him] see the point,” he joined a Disciples Church. It brought him great comfort.

Batts introduced the interviewer to his wife, who was in the kitchen peeling potatoes. The room contained newly painted furniture, a four-burner oil stove, a linoleum rug, and “snowy white” linens. Mrs. Batts explained that Batts had gotten the idea to paint the furniture green from an issue of Better Homes and Gardens. He had wanted to paint the walls after the owner of the house refused, but she counseled him to paint the things they could take with them if they had to leave the house.

Nursey Batts longed for her own house that she could “fix and mess over” and believed the Lord would provide. She came from a large family with hard-working parents who denied their own needs in their struggle to provide for their children. Only six of their 14 lived to adulthood.

Nursey Batts believed few white folks believed in ghosties or witches or conjuring, and black people were “outgrowing” it. She opined on the origins of conjure. She also had this opinion: “Most niggers feels like dey is imposed on just ’cause dey is niggers, but lemme tell you, a good honest nigger needn’t be skeered of living. De white folks has always been good to me and [William.]”

While waiting for an  iron to heat, Nursey Batts showed the interviewer her parlor, which was neatly furnished and decorated.

“A body never knows when a important person will drop in on him and everything will most likely be like de devil’s had a fit on it. I hate for company to catch me, as de saying is, with my breeches down.” Still, she downplayed the appearance of the room. She had crocheted the bedspread from tobacco twine in a pattern she got from a woman who lived out in the country. She was proud of the chifforobe her husband had bought her for Christmas.

Nursey Batts was hopeful that she and William Batts would get their farm and thought another term for Franklin Roosevelt would be helpful. “I wish dat we could vote for him, but [William] can’t read or write so he can’t vote. I can read a little, but I don’t know nothing ’bout de Constitution of the United States.”

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On 7 July 1915, Will Batts, 23, of Wilson, son of Morris and Nancy Batts of Taylor township, married Nurcy Hill, 22, of Wilson, daughter of Robert Hill, at Graham Woodard‘s in Wilson township. Missionary Baptist minister Jeremiah Scarboro performed the ceremony in the presence of Jason Farmer, Bessie Farmer, and Mena Littlejohn.

In 1917, Will Batts registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 15 December 1889 in Wilson County; lived on Vance Street; and was a butler for N.L. Finch.

In the 1920 Wilson, N.C., city directory: Batts Nursey (c) dom 601 Warren; Batts William (c) drayman h 601 Warren

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: a 804 Stronach Alley, Will Batts, 46, public school janitor; wife Nursey, 36, tobacco factory stemmer; and brother-in-law Freeman Hill, 29, tobacco factory office boy.

In 1942, Freeman Hill registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 25 November 1900 in Wilson; lived in 623 East Viola; his contact was Nursey Batts, 722 Stronach Avenue; and worked for Wilson Tobacco Company, South Railroad Street.

Will Batts died 24 February 1947 in Wilson of congestive heart failure. Per his death certificate, he was born 12 December 1890 in Wilson County to Morris Batts and Nancy Bynum; was married to Nursey Batts; was the janitor at Charles L. Coon High; and lived at 722 Stronach Avenue.

Snaps, no. 23: Willie Batts and children.

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Willie Batts with daughter Josephine and son William.

In the 1880 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farm laborer Tom Batts, 37; wife Maria, 34; and children Joseph, 15, Henry, 13, John, 12, Bettie, 10, George, 8, Amos, 6, Willie, 4, Charles, 3, and “no name,” 1, and granddaughter Eliza, 1.

In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer Tom Batts, 69; wife Mariah, 60; and children Eddie, 22, Willie, 20, Blossom, 18, William, 15, Bettie, 29, and Frank, 11.

On 10 February 1904, Livia Mercer, 21, of Wilson, daughter of Ella Barnes, married Willie Batts, 22, of Wilson, son of Tom and Mariah Batts. Benjamin Ellis applied for the license, and the ceremony took place at E.S. Toney’s home in the presence of Bud Batts, Wade Vick and Addie Batts.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 628 Warren Street, farm laborer Willie Batts, 28, wife Olivia, 29, and children Ernest, 8, Claria, 5, Elizabeth, 3, and twins Jodie and Josephine, 6 months.

Will Batts registered for the World War I draft in 1918. Per his registration card, he lived on R.F.D. 5, Wilson; was born 3 July 1880; and worked as a farmer for Billie Stott.

In the 1920 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Willie Batts, 39, wife Olivia, 39, and children Ernest, 17, Clara, 16, Elizabeth, 13, Josephine, 10, William, 7, E. George, 5, and M. Mary, 1 1/2.

In the 1930 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Will Batts, 50, wife Olivia, 50, and children Ernest, 25, William, 16, Georgiana, 14, Magdelene, 11, Rosa L., 10, and Henry, 8.

Willie Batts died 19 July 1939 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 58 years old; was born in Wilson County to Thomas and Mariah Batts; was married to Oliva Batts; worked as a common laborer.

Photograph courtesy of Ancestry user brianandrewbonner.

Studio shots, no. 8: Olivia Mercer Batts.

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Olivia Mercer Batts (1882-1978).

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In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer Dempsey Mercer, 61; wife Cherry, 58; daughters Mary M., 30, Hannah, 24, and Sarah Mercer, 22; granddaughters Olivia P., 18 and Addie S. Mercer, 16; and grandchildren Jesse, 10, Mamie, 8, and Nettie Barnes, 5. [Next door: white farmer E.S. Toney, 37, and family.]

On 10 February 1904, Livia Mercer, 21, of Wilson, daughter of Ella Barnes, married Willie Batts, 22, of Wilson, son of Tom and Mariah Batts. The ceremony took place at E.S. Toney’s home in the presence of Bud Batts, Wade Vick and Addie Batts. [Edward S. Toney was the father of Olivia and Addie Mercer. Their mother, Ella Mercer, married Wesley Barnes, son of Willis and Cherry Battle Barnes, on 4 June 1885 in Wilson County. Ella’s sister Mary Mag married Wesley Barnes’ brother Jesse Barnes on 3 April 1889; their children are in the Mercer household in 1900. (Ned Barnes was Wesley and Jesse’s brother.) Witnesses Bud and Addie Batts were Willie and Olivia’s brother and sister, respectively.]

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 628 Warren Street, farm laborer Willie Batts, 28, wife Olivia, 29, and children Ernest, 8, Claria, 5, Elizabeth, 3, and twins Jodie and Josephine, 6 months.

In the 1920 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Willie Batts, 39, wife Olivia, 39, and children Ernest, 17, Clara, 16, Elizabeth, 13, Josephine, 10, William, 7, E. George, 5, and M. Mary, 1 1/2.

In the 1930 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Will Batts, 50, wife Olivia, 50, and children Ernest, 25, William, 16, Georgiana, 14, Magdelene, 11, Rosa L., 10, and Henry, 8.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 518 Carroll Street, tobacco stemmer Olivia Batts, 61, and children Ernest, 36, farm laborer; Mary M., 21, and Rosa Lee, 20, household servants; and Henry, 16, “new worker.”

Olivia Mercer Batts died 5 September 1978 in Wilson. She is buried in Rest Haven cemetery.

Photograph courtesy of findagrave.com.

The Matthew and Tempie Ann Harris family.

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Tempie Ann and Matthew Harris.

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Nathan, Hattie, Novella, Emma, Oliver and Sidney Harris, circa 1920.

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Sidney Harris with Model T Ford.

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Alus, Martha and Ada Harris.

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In the 1870 census of Cedar Rock township, Franklin County: James Fogg, 52, wife Berchet, 51, daughter Frances, 25, and granddaughters Fannie, 11, and Temperance Fogg, 5.

In the 1880 census of Nashville, Nash County: farmhand Mathew Harris, 24, and wife Tempie, 16.

On 2 June 1880, Matthew Harris, 24, of Nash County, son of Sol and Cealy Harris, married Tempy Fogg, 18, of Nash County, daughter of Jas. Fogg and Frances Fogg.

In the 1900 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farmer Mathew Harris, 39, wife Tempy, 30, and children Sidna, 16, Saunders, 14, and Minnie C., 1.

On 2 June 1903, Alias Harriss, 20, married Martha Powell, 20, in Taylors townships. Witnesses were James Harriss, M. Thompson and Mena Thompson.

On 17 February 1909, Sidney Harriss, 24, of Toisnot, son of Matthew and Tempy Ann Harris, married Hattie Lena Batts, 19, of Toisnot, daughter of Dennis and Rose Ann Batts at Dennis Batts’ house. Witnesses were G.A. Gaston, J.G. Mitchell, and J.F. Carter, all of Elm City.

In the 1910 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farmer Mathew Harris, 54, wife Tempie, 44, and daughter Minnie G. Harris, 11.

In the 1910 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: Sidney Harris, 26, drayman, wife Hattie, 21, and daughter Emma, 4 months.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Nash Street, Alus Harris, 24, and wife Martha, 25, who shared a home with John Davis, 30, and wife Mary, 28. Alus worked as a drayman for a sawmill, and John, as a sawmill fireman. Martha was a laundress, and Mary, a private cook.

On 12 September 1918, Sidney Harris and Alus Harris registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Sidney’s registration card listed his address as Elm City, his occupation as a laborer for B.A. Harrelson, and his next of kin as Mrs. Sidney Harris. Alus’ registration card lists his address as 909 Carolina Street, gives his date of birth as 1 November 1883, and his occupation as a carpenter with Bobbitt & Roberson, Contractors, of Camp Hill, Newport News. His temporary address was 708 20th Street, Newport News. His next of kin was wife Martha Harris.

In the 1920 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: Matthew Harrise, 59, and wife Tempy, 51.

In the 1920 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farmer Sidney Harris, 41, wife Hattie, 26, and children Emma, 9, Oliver, 7, Nathan, 5, and Novela, 3.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Alous Harris, 28, house carpenter, wife Martha, 30, and daughter Ada O., 8.

Tempie Ann Harris died 31 December 1922 in Toisnot township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was born 6 January 1865 to Jerry Perry and Frances Fogg in Franklin County, North Carolina. Her husband, Mathia Harris of Elm City, was informant.

On 20 July 1923, Matthew Harris, 50, son of Solomon and Celia Harris, married Sarah Person, daughter of Larry and Henrietta Person, in Nashville, Nash County.

Alus Harriss died 19 September 1923 of a stroke. Per his death certificate, he was 38 years old; born in Wilson County to Mathew Harriss and Tempy Corppedge; was married to Martha Harriss; worked as a carpenter; and resided at 1007 Carolina Street.

Per his gravemarker, Matthew Harris died 1 June 1927. He is buried at William Chapel church cemetery near Elm City. Upon authentication by witnesses Lula Whitehurst and John D. Gold, Harris’ last will and testament entered probate in Wilson County in January 1928. In the document, dated 28 September 1923, Harris bequeathed (1) to Martha Harris the forgiveness of Alus Harris’ debt of $550; (2) his personal property to be divided between children Sidney Harris and Minnie Armstrong; and (3) his real property to Sidney and Ada; and appointed Sidney Harris his executor.

In the 1930 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: Sidney Harris, 50, wife Hattie, 40, and children Emma, 17, Oliver, 16, Nathan, 13, Novella, 11, Volious, 8, Hattie M., 6, Beatrice, 3, and Clarence, 1.

In the 1940 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: Sidney Harris, 59, wife Hattie, 50, and children Novella, 22, Volious, 17, Hattie Magarette, 15, Beatrice, 13, and Clearance, 12, and granddaughter Deloris McMillian, 6.

Sidney Harris died 1 July 1964 at Mercy Hospital in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 4 October 1881 in Nash County to Matthew Harris and Tempie Copplege; was married to Hattie Harris; was a farmer; and resided at 1008 Stantonsburg Street, Wilson. Informant was Nathaniel Harris, Elm City.

Many, many thanks to Shearer Bridges, a great-granddaughter of Matthew and Tempie Fogg Harris, for sharing these wonderful family photographs. They stand as important documentation of Wilson County’s African-American heritage.

Jurors for the regular term.

WDT 2 6 1880 jurors

Wilson Daily Times, 6 February 1880.

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In the 1870 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Washington Farmer, 43, wife Wady, 44, children Edith, 14, Fortin, 13, Gimsey, 11, John W., 8, Nancy, 6, and Orgius, 6, and farm laborer Nelson Thomas, 21. In the 1880 census of Old Fields township, Wilson County: Washington Farmer, 52, wife Waity, 50, children Edieth, 25, Gincy, 21, John W., 18, Nancy, 16, and Ojus, 13, and granddaughters Mariah J., 5, and Margaret, 2.

In the 1870 census of Joyners township, Wilson County: Orren Batts, 41, wife Mary, 34, and children Dennis, 16, Amos, 14, Henriet, 10, Haywood, 9, Precilla, 5, and Louisa, 3. In the 1880 census of Toisnot: Orren Batts, 53, wife Mary, 47, and children Haywood, 19, Priscilla, 14, Louiza, 12, John, 9, Reddick, 7, and James B. Batts, 1.

Among the items, 25 negroes.

In the name of God amen

I William Batts sen’r of the County of Edgecombe and State of North Carolina being of sound and perfect mind and memory, blessed be God, do this twenty-seventh day of June in the year of our Lord One thousand eight hundred and forty nine make and publish my last Will and Testament revoking all others that I may have made heretofore in manner and form as follows Viz —

Item 1st. I give and bequeath unto my beloved wife Patsey Batts two feather beds and furniture, and two bedsteads, fifty dollars in money and one years support of corn pork &c for herself and family and three cows & calves to her and her heirs forever.

Item 2nd. I lend unto my wife Patsey Batts during her widowhood the following property to wit the tract of land and its appurtenances whereon I now live lying on the North side of the Big swamp containing about four hundred and seventy five acres more or less. Also the following negroes Isaac, Eley and her youngest child Thomas, boy Amos also boy Meedy until my grandson William Henry Edwards arrived to the age of twenty one years, then I give and bequeath the said boy Meedy to him the said William H. Edwards to him and his heirs forever. Also I lend to my wife two head of horses, three sows & pigs and twenty shoats her choice.

Item the 3rd I give and bequeath unto my son John Batts one negroe man named Ben also seven hundred dollars in money to him and his heirs forever.

Item 4th. I give unto my son Guilbert Batts one feather bed, bedstead and furniture, one negro boy by the name of young Isaac, also that part of the tract of land that I purchased of David Bunn lying on the North side of Maple creek — Four hundred dollars in money and one brandy still (the one that is at Wright W. Joyner) to him and his heirs forever.

Item 5th. I give unto my son John Batts in trust for the benefit of my daughter Sally Flowers and her children which she now has or may hereinafter have the following property to wit: One tract of land whereon Gray Flowers now lives lying on the north side of Whites swamp, adjoining the lands of John Farmer, and others containing two hundred and fifty acres more or less. Three feather beds and furniture which said  Gray Flowers & Sally has in their possession at this time also the household and kitchen furniture and all the stock of hogs & cattle which the said Gray & Sally Flowers has in possession also one negroe boy named Orren and five hundred dollars in money. Now my will and desire is that after my death should my son John Batts think it advisable to hire out said negro Orren he is to do or manage in any way that he may think his labour will be most advantage to Sally & her children. It is my desire that Sally and her children shall remain on lands so long as she may wish to do so. The money and the labour of the negroe and the other property reserved at all times to be applied to the support and comfort of Sally and her children in the way that my son John shall think best. After the death of my daughter Sally it is my will and desire that all the property that is then remaining which is given to my son John Batts, for the benefit of Sally and her children shall then be equally divided between her living children. My desire is that should my son John Batts die before my daughter Sally or refuse to act that theCounty Court of Edgecombe shall appoint some discreet and suitable person to take the property and manager it in the way that will be best for the support of Sally and her children.

Item 6th. I give unto my friend Redding S. Petway in trust for the benefit of my daughter Emily Joyner and her children which she now has or may hereafter have the following property to wit all that part of the tract of land that I purchased of David Bunn lying on the south side of the Maple Creek whereon Wright W. Joyner now lives, negroe woman Venice and her five youngest children and all her increase hereafter. The house hold and kitchen furniture and all the stock of every kind that belongs to me that is now in the possession of Wright W. Joyner & Emily his wife and two hundred dollars in money. It is my desire that Emily and her children shall remain on lands so long as Emily shall desire, And that the said Redding S. Petway shall so manage the negroes and other property in that way that will be most advantageous to the support of Emily & her children. After the death of Emily it is my will and desire that the property that is then remaining shall be equally divided between her living children. It is my further desire that if the said Redding shall die or become incapable of managing of affairs or refuse to act before the death of Emily that the County Court of Edgecombe shall appoint some discreet person to take said property and manage it in the best way for the support of Emily and her Children.

Item 7. I give and bequeath unto my daughter Elizabeth Farmer one negroe girl named Harriet and her increase hereafter and one negroe boy by the name of Peter to her and her heirs forever.

Item the 8th. I give and bequeath unto my friend David Williams in trust for the benefit of Elizabeth Farmer and her children one thousand dollars in money the said David is to keep the money out at interest and from time to time as necessity may require to apply the interest to the support and comfort of Elizabeth and her children which she now has or may hereafter have, never to apply any of the principal as long as can lie down without, and what is remaining of the thousand dollars at the death of Elizabeth to be equally divided among her living children. If the said David shall die before Elizabeth or refuse to act it is my will and desire that the County court will appoint some discreet person to take the money and act as directed.

Item 9th. I give and bequeath unto my daughter Patsey Thorn one negro boy named Charles and one negroe girl named Nelly and after the death of her mother I then give her the two negroes lent her mother viz Elsey and her child Thomas and One thousand dollars in money to her and her heirs forever.

Item 10th. I give and bequeath unto my friend David Williams in trust for the benefit of Polly Farmer and her children the following property to wit negroes Dinah and her three children Jerry, Hilliard and Sinday and all the increase of Dinah hereafter One bed and furniture two cows and one calf seventy five acres of land where William Pittman lives adjoining the lands of John G. Williams & others (for Polly a home) and eight hundred dollars in money. The said Davis to manager the said property in the best way for the support and maintenance of Polly and her children which she now has or may hereafter have. And after the death of Polly, what is then remaining is to be divided between her then living children. It is my will and desire that if the said David shall die before my daughter Polly or refuse to act that the County Court of Edgecombe will appoint some descent person to act &.

Item 11th. I give and bequeath unto my son William W. Batts after the widowhood of his mother the tract of land whereon I now live lying on the north side of the Big Swamp containing five hundred acres more or less (being the whole tract except seventy five acres given Polly) negroes Isaac & Haywood, one bed bed stead and furniture two cows and calves and One thousand dollars in money to him and his heirs forever.

Item 12th. I give and bequeath unto my grandson William Henry Edwards the tract of lands which was sold as Henry Edwards’ dcd[?] which I bought adjoining the lands of Charles Land and others, containing one hundred and forty acres more or less, and after the widowhood of my wife Patsy, negroe boy Meedy and four hundred dollars in money to him and his heirs forever.

Item 13th. I give and bequeath unto mu granddaughter Martha Ann Edwards two small negroes by the names of Hagar and Meedy and a note against Egbert A. Taylor for fifty dollars to her and her heirs forever.

Item 14th, I give and bequeath unto my grandson William Batts son of John Batts after the widowhood of my wife Patsey negroe boy Amos, which I lent to my wife to him and his heirs forever.

Item 15th. All the balance of my property of every kind that I have not lent or given away be sold on a credit of six months and all the money and notes that are left after paying my just debts and the legatees that I have given off in money together with the account of sales be equally divided among all my heirs — signed sealed and published by the said William Batts as his last Will and testament the day and date first Written.   William (X) Batts {seal}

Witness — Willie G. Taylor, Wm. D. Petway, James Wiggins

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William Batts Sr.’s will entered probate in Wilson County in 1856.

North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [database on-line], Ancestry.com.