From the 1979 National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form for the West Nash Street Historic District:

“Harry West Abbitt House, 1105 West Nash Street.

“One of the largest and most impressive examples of the Colonial Revival style in Wilson, this two-and-a-half story, five bay-by-five bay, double-pile brick residence was built for automobile dealer Harry West Abbitt (1881-1957). It was designed by Solon Balias Moore (1872-1930) and constructed by Robert and James E. Wilkins in 1926. Abbitt was a native of Virginia, came to Wilson ca 1915, and opened Wilson’s first Ford dealership. In addition to being one of the pioneer automobile dealers in Wilson, he was the builder of numerous rental commercial properties. This lot was purchased by Abbitt in October 1925 from Wilson Best, a black bricklayer who resided here. The Bests owned a significant portion of this area, then known as Grabneck, which was occupied by blacks at the turn of the century. The massive Abbitt House is sheltered beneath a gable roof and is flanked on each side elevation by twin interior end brick chimneys with slightly projecting exposed faces which have stone shoulders. The east facade features a slightly projecting formal entrance bay crowned by a front gable. This bay contains an entrance with sidelights and transom on the first story and a similar arrangement surrounding a six-over-six sash window on the second story. The front porch is carried by Tuscan columns and is echoed on the south by the glass enclosed sun porch and on the north by the porte cochere. The fenestration consists of six-over-six sash windows with brick soldier course lintels that have stone keystones and end voussoirs and stone sills. Completing the substantial Colonial Revival finish are dentiled boxed cornices with dentiled frieze which return on the central pediment and the end gables, the dentiled porch frieze, two front gable dormers which contain handsome arched windows, and a brick soldier course water table. Shed rooms which flank a screened porch occupy the rear elevation, which has a handsome second story latticed balustrade. Access to the interior was not permitted. At the rear of the house is an equally handsome two-story, two-car garage that echoes the finish of the house. It has a central peaked gable, returning boxed cornices at the side elevations, an exterior end chimney with stone shoulders, stone sills under the six-over-one sash windows, and brick soldier course lintels over the windows and car bays. Abbitt died in 1957 and his widow, Margaret (Dixon) Abbitt continues to occupy the house.”


In the 1910 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: on Nash Road, Wilson Best, 28, bricklayer; wife Ada, 30, laundress; and children Wilson Jr., 2, and Noah, 14 months.

The Bests’ close neighbors included members of their extended family, including Wilson Best’s father Noah Best and uncle Orren Best Their enumeration district, 114, was almost entirely African-American, with houses clustered just outside town limits on or near Nash Road, Raleigh Road, Finch’s Mill Road, Winona Road, and New Creek Road.

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Company did not map the Grabneck neighborhood until 1922, when city limits pushed further northwest.

Here is 1105 West Nash Street, a small one-story wooden dwelling. Abbitt razed it to build his manse.

Sanborn fire insurance map, 1922.

The 1908 and 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory show clusters of Best families at Nash Street near Bynum Street and Best’s Lane near Nash — a dozen in 1912. By 1916, the number had dropped to nine, and by 1920 to eight. By the 1922 city directory, pressures on Grabneck — now seen as attractive real estate for Wilson’s prospering white middle class — had reduced the number of Bests to two, Wilson and Ada at 1105. Had landowners in the community been pressured to sell or other otherwise pushed out? When the Bests sold out in 1925, the makeover of West Nash Street was essentially complete. By 1930, Grabneck’s former residents had dispersed southwest to New Grabneck, southeast to Daniel Hill, or across town to East Wilson, and evidence of this facet of the African-American history of the city slipped into obscurity.

Modern map of Wilson per, with Wilson Best’s land marked.

[Coda: on 10 January 1950, the Wilson Daily Times published a Centennial Anniversary edition to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of Wilson. One article, “Citizen of 1949 Returns to Look at Modern Wilson,” reviewed city landmarks through the eyes of fictional time traveler Rountree Tomlinson Aycock Woodard Barnes, born in 1825. As he roamed neighborhoods north of downtown, Barnes remarked, “I haven’t enough time here to say that the trees on Nash Street are as pretty as they were in 1849. … There is no real Grabneck section now. Only pretty homes and grounds.”]


In loving memory.

I have remarked at length about the artistry of Clarence B. Best‘s hand-carved gravestones here and here. In Adventures in Faith: The Church at Prayer, Study and Service, a booklet commemorating the 100th anniversary of Calvary Presbyterian Church, Best’s son Clarence H. Best and daughter-in-law published an ad honoring Best and wife Geneva “Eva” Smith Best.

Best made special mention of his father’s nickname, The Tombstone Man, and memorialized the elder Bests’ gift of a hand-crafted baptismal font, which is still in use. The carving on the edge of the basin block is classic Bestian.

This inscription may have been added later. Though apparently hand-carved, it does not appear to be Best’s work.

Many thanks to Tracey Ellis Leon, a life-long member of Calvary, for lending me a copy of Adventures in Faith and for taking the photos above.

307 North Reid Street.

The forty-fifth in a series of posts highlighting buildings in East Wilson Historic District, a national historic district located in Wilson, North Carolina. As originally approved, the district encompasses 858 contributing buildings and two contributing structures in a historically African-American section of Wilson. (A significant number have since been lost.) The district was developed between about 1890 to 1940 and includes notable examples of Queen Anne, Bungalow/American Craftsman, and Shotgun-style architecture. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

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As described in the nomination form for the East Wilson Historic District: “ca. 1913; 1 story; L-plan cottage with front-facing gable in side wing; cutaway bay; turned porch posts; perhaps built by carpenter John Reid.”

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: 307 Reid Street, rented for $20/month, hospital orderly Henry A. Best, 38, wife Anney C., 40, laundress, and children Thelma, 13, Dubulte, 8, and Reatha, 6; and lodgers Leslie, 23, taxi driver, and Beulah Exam, 20.

In the 1930 Wilson, N.C., city directory: Best Henry A (c) (Annie C) orderly Carolina Genl Hosp Inc h 307 N Reid

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 307 Reid Street, rented for $14/month, Joe McCoy, 40, barber at Barnes Barber Shop, and wife Mittie, 40, laundress; and, renting at $4/month, Willie Forbs, 22, truck driver for Boykin Grocery Company, wife Goldie, 21, cook, and son Jimmie, 3; daughter Erma G. McCoy, 16; and roomer Thomas Elton, 17.

In the 1941 Wilson, N.C., city directory: McCoy Jos (c; Mittie) barber John B Barnes h 307 N Reid.

Photograph by Lisa Y. Henderson, February 2017.

Best and Marjorie Fulcher Stewart.

Best Stewart was born into the household of Ellen McCoy and Louis Stewart in Wake County, North Carolina, on December 24, 1912. He was the youngest of fourteen children …. As a young man in the Wilson area, Best started his career in real estate and super market business.

Marjorie Fulcher was born into the household of Barthena Best and George Fulcher on October 26, 1917, in Wilson, North Carolina. She was the second of five daughters: Hancey Lee, the oldest, and Ernestine, the youngest. She was raised in the area called ‘Grab-Neck’ on the east side of town adjacent to the area known as ‘Daniel Hill.’ Her mother was a holiness preacher.

“Best Stewart started his supermarket business as a very young man. He was a successful businessman with the assistance of his wife, Marjorie, at his side. He can be described as a brick-mason, community leader, gardener, fisher, and hunter and electrician. Even though he never completed his secondary education, he was a self-educated success.

“Marjorie was nicknamed ‘Dorgie’ by her family. … She was a warm, loving, easy-going, quiet and caring sweet wife and mother. She was also a business partner with her husband.

“In 1960 the family moved from the area known as ‘Daniel Hill’ because of the urban renewal project in the Wilson, N.C. area. Even though Best moved his family to the east side of town, he was determined to come back to his home area. In 1970 Best moved his family back to the area which was once known as ‘Daniel Hill’ where new brick homes were built. In 1974 they retired from the supermarket business.

“In August, 1977, Marjorie F. Stewart departed her life. In November 1980 Best Stewart departed his life. Even though these two wonderful people are gone, the memories of what they stood for will never be forgotten.”

Best and Marjorie Fulcher Stewart.


On 11 June 1913, George Fulcher and Barthena Best, both 22, were married by A.M.E. Zion minister B.P. Coward in Grabneck. Ernest Allen, Jesse Barnes and James Daniel were witnesses.

Marjorie Bethena Fulcher was born in 1917 to George and Bathena Best Fulcher in Wilson.

Geo. Fulcher registered for the World War I draft in Wilson in 1917. Per his registration card, he was born 14 September 1891 in New Bern, North Carolina; resided on Nash Street in Wilson; worked as a delivery boy for Patterson Drug; and was married with one child.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 605 Spruce Street, barber Sam Right, 25; wife Bula, 20; mother-in-law Ellen Stewart, 50, widowed laundress; brothers-in-law Lewis, 18, and Bess, 16; and daughters Myrtle E., 4, and Ready G. Wright, 2.

On July 6, 1937, Best Stewart, 25, of Wilson County, son of Louis and Ellen Stewart, married Marjorie Fulcher, 19, of Wilson County, daughter of Bathena Fulcher Lassiter. Bathena Lassiter applied for the license, and A.M.E. Zion minister B.P. Coward preformed the ceremony in Grabneck in the presence of Ernestine Fulcher, Bathena Lassiter and Wms. Bunn.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 409 Spruce Street, retail salesman Best Stewart, 38; wife Marjorie, 27; and children Best Jr., 2, James A., a newborn, and Ellen, 70, mother.

In 1940, Best Stewart registered for the World War II draft. Per his registration card, he was born 24 December 1912 in Fuquay Springs, North Carolina; resided at 409 West Spruce Street, Wilson; was self-employed at Best Stewart’s Place; and his contact was Mrs. Marjorie Fulghum Stewart. Best’s brother Louis Stewart also registered. His card notes that he was born 22 April 1909 in Libby Springs, North Carolina; resided at 409 West Spruce; worked at Export Tobacco Company; and his contact was his mother Ellen Stewart.

Ellen Stewart died 6 April 1960 at 409 West Spruce Street, Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 2 October 1881 in Harnett County to John and Neily McCoy. Informant was Best Stewart.

Wilson Daily Times, 27 August 1977. 

Wilson Daily Times, 17 November 1980.

Text and photo courtesy of History of Wilson County, North Carolina (1985).

1009 East Nash Street.

The thirtieth in a series of posts highlighting buildings in East Wilson Historic District, a national historic district located in Wilson, North Carolina. As originally approved, the district encompasses 858 contributing buildings and two contributing structures in a historically African-American section of Wilson. (A significant number have since been lost.) The district was developed between about 1890 to 1940 and includes notable examples of Queen Anne, Bungalow/American Craftsman, and Shotgun-style architecture. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.


As described in the nomination form for East Wilson Historic District: “ca. 1930; 2 stories. Cubic, hip-roofed house with bungalow-type porch posts; central-hall plan.”

In the 1930 Wilson city directory, cook Nannie Best, laundress Frankie Best and seamstress Eliza Best are listed as residents of 1009 East Nash Street.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Nan Best, 75, widow; daughter Frankie, 55; and grandsons William, 19, and Audrey, 15.

In 1942, Aaron Best registered for the World War II draft in Wilson:

Nannie Best died 18 June 1948 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 11 June 1865 in Greene County to Aaron Best [this is an error; Aaron was her husband, not father] and Evelyn [last name unknown]; resided at 1009 East Green Street; and was buried in Rountree Cemetery. Aaron Best, 1009 East Nash Street, was informant.

William Aaron Best died 21 August 1949. Per his death certificate, he was born 21 September 1900 in Wilson County to Aaron and Nannie Best; was a widower; and worked as a laborer for Export Tobacco Company. Audrey Best, 1009 East Nash, was informant.

Jennette Best Barnes.

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Jeannette Best Barnes (circa 1880-1947)

In the 1870 census of Stantonsburg, Wilson County: Isaac Winstead, 52; wife Jane, 35; and children Edith, 10, Robert, 7, Amanda, 3, and Aneliza, 1. [Edith and Robert’s last name was, in fact, Farmer; they were Jane’s children from a previous marriage.]

On 30 August 1877, Sam Best, 22, married Edith Winston, 20, at the residence of D.G.W. Ward, Justice of the Peace. Edward Whitehead, Lawrence Ward and Scott Ward were witnesses. [Note: One hundred years later, Sam and Edith’s granddaughter Minnie Bell Barnes Barnes rented the house that had been David D.G. Ward‘s.]

In the 1880 census of Stantonsburg township, Wilson County: farmer Isaac Winstead, 60; wife Jane; children Manda, 14, Ann, 12, Charlie, 10, Major, 7, Lucy, 4, and Levi, 1; stepchildren Ada [Edith] Best, 20, and Rob Farmer, 17; and grandchildren Sam, 3, and Mary Best, 1.

On 22 December 1898, Redman Barnes, 24, son of Calvin and Cely Barnes, married Jennet Best, 20, daughter of Sam Best and Edy Strickland, at W.H. Applewhite’s in Stantonsburg. Witnesses were Frank Farmer of Wilson County, Julius Ruffin of Stantonsburg and Charlie Ruffin of Moyton.

In the 1900 census of Stantonsburg township, Wilson County: farm laborer Redmond Barnes, 25; wife Genette, 21; and daughter Dora, 8 months.

In the 1920 census of Stantonsburg township, Wilson County: tenant farmer Redman Barnes, 47; wife Genette, 43; children Dora, 20, Fred, 19, Mary E., 17, Minie B., 15, Eddie Bell, 13, Petcandy, 11, Nora Lee, 9, Alice, 7, Lula Mae, 4, and Redman Jr., 1.

In the 1930 census of Stantonsburg township, Wilson County: farmer Raymond Barnes, 59; wife Jeanette, 50; children Dora, 29, Fred, Fred, 25, Mary, 23, Minnie B., 20, Edith, 18, Bettie L., 17, Nora L., 16, Alice J., 14, Lula Mae, 12, Raymond Jr., 10, and John H., 8; and nephew Author Ellis, 20.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1116 East Nash Street, Mary Barnes, 33, who taught at Healthy Plains Grade School; her widowed mother Jenettie Barnes, 62; brothers Redman, 22, a shoe repairer at Rex Shoe Shop, and John, 19, a tobacco factory laborer; brother-in-law Doll Speight, 26, apartment elevator operator; sister Lula, 23, and their daughters Letrice, 2, and Bettie, 8 months.

Jennette Barnes died 3 April 1947 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 18 June 1886 in Wilson County to Samuel Best and Edith Winstead; was widowed; and resided at 1116 East Nash Street. Mary Estell Barnes of the same address was informant.

Photograph courtesy of user skeeweept.

Studaway injured in big Hackney fire.

Hackney Brothers Suffer Another Big Fire Loss – Within Two Months – Paint Shop Burned Yesterday Afternoon With Loss of $50,000 Covered By Insurance. Fire Quick and Hot. Four Workmen Were Injured. Two In Hospital

One of the fastest and hottest fires ever seen in this city occurred yesterday afternoon about five o’clock when the paint shop of Hackney Bros. in this city burned, and four workmen came near losing their lives before they were able to escape from the building. This is the second fire suffered by the Hackney buggy and automobile plant located on Green street and running back to an alley between this property and their store property which fronts on Nash street since Christmas. This was the fifth fire yesterday.

The fire at Christmas caused a loss of around $400,000. That fire burned two building fronting on Green street and stopped at a double wall, leaving the rear ends of the buildings adjoining the alley. The Hackneys moved their garage equipment and were getting ready to replace the old buildings with a modern garage building, with a service and filling station in front and offices on Green street, when this second fire changed their plans and now they are uncertain what to do.

After the first fire they located their paint shop in the building on the north side, here they painted buggy bodies, automobile bodies and cars for customers. In the other building just across the alley they had their workshop for repairing cars.

The front of both buildings were burned in the Christman fire. The fire yeasterday burned the paint shop, but the repair shop across the way was not injured.

The burning of this shop has completely changed the plans of the proprietors and therefore they are uncertain at present as to what they will do.

After the Christmas fire, as explained above, the company decided to erect a factory on their property on Herring avenue located on the Atlantic Coast railroad in the eastern part of the city, and just across the railroad from the Hackney Wagon Company. Here commercial automobile bodies, and buggy bodies will be built. They will not change their plans as to this, but will go ahead with their work here. The fire has for the moment caused them to be undecided as to what they will do with their property fronting on Green street which has been destroyed.

The fire yesterday afternoon was caused by the breaking of an electric light bulb, attached to an extension cord which was being used by Mr. Albert Flowers underneath a car on which he was engaged in cleaning the chassis. He had a bucket of water and gasoline, as is usual in such cases. When the bulb broke fire began to run around the floor on which was water and gasoline. Mr. Flowers got from under the car, and others around the car secured fire extinguishers and began to fight the flames.

Mr. Robert Smith who is in a local hospital, and one most badly burned, except a colored man named Lucien Studaway, who is confined in the Negro hospital, tells the following story of the accident.

“When the bulb broke, and the fire began to run around on the floor, Jim Wallace ran for a fire extinguisher, and Mr. Ben Owens, foreman of the paint shop, also came back there. All of us fought the flames but we did not think it was so bad. I then ran to get a fire extinguisher, and it seemed in a second the whole floor was in a blaze, and I said to Ed Winstead, we can’t put it out, lets get our clothes and get out. I ran to the place where my clothes were hanging, and the smoke blinded me so, I could not get to the door. I was near a window and started to break the glass with my hands. I then noticed there was a nail holding down the window and I pulled this out and escaped.”

Four altogether suffered burns and had a narrow escape. These were Mr. Bob Smith who is burned on the face and hands and arms to his elbows. He is in the hospital. Mr. John Whitehead is burned on the face, and hands, and one eye is closed. He was taken to the hospital at first, but was later taken home. He is able to sit up. Mr. Ed Winstead is burned on the face and back of the head. He is also able to be up. Lucien Sturdaway, Colored, is still in the hospital. His injuries are about as those of Mr. Smith. He is also not seriously burned.

Within a few moments after the alarm sounded the flames and smoke were pouring from the building, a three story structure containing much paint, a barrel of turpentine and linseed oil. Just where the fire started there were two automobiles, customers’ cars, newly covered with a coat of varnish, and these burned like a tinder. There were probably a dozen customers’ cars in the building and these are a total loss. Some of them carried insurance while others did not.

The firemen did heroic work, and deserve special commendation for their efforts. Notwithstanding the terrific heat and the danger from falling walls, they stayed on the roofs of the adjoining buildings and from both engines four streams of water played on the fire, two from the north side and two from the south side. By playing streams on the corners of the building they held these intact, and through the walls in the center on the north side fell in, the corners kept them from falling directly, and thus adjoining buildings were not endangered. The walls came down in sections beginning at the top. About half of the north wall fell in.

At one time it was thought the Municipal building would go, and Mr. Hinnant, city clerk, prepared to remove furniture and valuable papers, but the fine work of the fire department kept the flames confined to its origin in the Hackney building. This is the proud record of our firemen for several years. They have managed to keep the flames confined in the building where it had started. The Times believe that we have the best fire company in the country, and they should be commended by our people.

On account of the number of fires occurring yesterday, there was not sufficient time to wash and prepare the hose. Mr. Murray says he needs a place to wash the hose, and that this would save hundreds of dollars worth of fabric. The alkali in the dirt being very injurious to the fabric. The city fathers should provide a place for this purpose.

Wilson Times, 24 February 1922.


Site of Hackney Wagon Company, Sanborn insurance map, 1922.


Location of former Hackney Wagon plant today.


In the 1900 county, Wilson, Wilson County: carriage painter Wyatt Studaway, 53, wife Jancy, 43, and son Lucian, 23, tobacco factory day laborer.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Manchester Street, Wyatt Studaway, 56, wife Gincy, 48, and children Lucian, 22, Palmar, 4, and Margarett, 1.

Jensy Studaway died 23 January 1915 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was married and was born 20 September 1862 in Greene County to Lewis Bess and an unknown mother. Wyatt Studaway was informant.

Lucian Studaway registered for the World War I draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 4 September 1874, resided at 114 Manchester Street, worked as a painter for Hackney Brothers, and was of medium height and stout build. His next-of-kin was Wyatt Studaway.

Wyatt Studaway died 2 October 1926 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he resided at 112 Manchester Street; was a widower; was engaged as a minister and merchant; was 75 years old; and had been born in Wake County to Isaac and Mary Studaway. Lucian Studaway was informant.

Lucian Studaway outlived his father by less than a year, dying 13 June 1927 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 42 years old, single, lived at 112 Manchester Street, worked as a day laborer, and was the son of Wyatt Studaway of Wake County and Jency Studaway of Wilson. Hattie Mae Vinters was informant.

Studaway executed a will three months before his death. He had been the sole heir of his parents’ property, and he passed all that he owned to his cousin Hattie May Venters, “who had been kind to me and who has visited me in my illness and shown me consideration and been attentive to my health and welfare.” Venters was the daughter of Charles and Sarah Best Thomas.


North Carolina Wills and Estates, 1665-1998 [database on-line],

Daniel Best awaits the resurrection morn.


Wilson Advance, 25 July 1889.

In the 1870 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farm laborer Daniel Best, 62; wife Jane, 50; and children Laura, 19, Nicy, 17, Noah, 16, Orange, 21, and Hancy, 21.

In the 1880 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: hireling Daniel Best, 72, and wife Jane, 55, living amid a cluster of household that included farmer Orren Best, 31, wife Hancy, 31, and children James, 9, Oscar, 6, George, 4, Frances, 2, and Hattie, 3 months; hireling Lewis Best, 53, wife Harriette, 50, and children Daniel, 23, Sarah, 12, John, 8, and Willie, 10; and brickmason Noah Best, 27, wife Sarah, 25, and sons William, 2, and Thomas, 4 months.

1300 East Nash Street.

The third in a series of posts highlighting buildings in East Wilson Historic District, a national historic district located at Wilson, North Carolina. As originally approved, the district encompasses 858 contributing buildings and two contributing structures in a historically African-American section of Wilson. (A significant number have since been lost.) The district was developed between about 1890 to 1940 and includes notable examples of Queen Anne, Bungalow/American Craftsman, and Shotgun-style architecture. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

On 6 January 1920, surely in the morning, census enumerator Sam E. Clark left his home just south of downtown Wilson and turned east on Nash Street, the town’s main artery. In short order, he would have crossed the Atlantic Coast Line tracks and entered African-American Wilson’s business district in the 500 block. Passing the deep red brick tower of First Baptist Church, Clark would have returned to residential district, this one at the heart of black east Wilson. Clark may have parked his car just past Carroll Street, then dug into his satchel to pull out a fresh enumeration sheet and a fountain pen. He had arrived at Wilson city limits. Across the street, then called Saratoga Road, squatted a small bungalow — household number 1 in Enumeration District 110, Wilson township — and Clark set off on foot to tackle his task.

After briefly interviewing a resident, Clark carefully inscribed the name of the head of household, Oliver N. Freeman, struggling a bit over the spelling of his first name. Freeman’s listed occupation, brickmason, hardly did justice to his growing reputation as a master builder, especially in stone.

More than 90 years later, the Freeman house, now well inside city limits, yet stands at a bend of Nash Street. In the nomination form for the historic district, the house is described as: “Nestus Freeman House; bungalow with stone veneer and gabled entry porch; enlarged to this form in the late 1920s; Freeman was noted stone mason and builder in East Wilson; contributing stone fence and six concrete yard ornaments, including dinosaur.”

Oliver N. Freeman house, 1300 East Nash Street, Wilson.


(Note that directly next door to Oliver Freeman lived East Wilson’s other artistic artisan, marble cutter Clarence Best, at 1306 East Nash.)

Photograph by Lisa Y. Henderson, December 2016.

“Gone but not forgotten”: the eternal art of Clarence B. Best.

Nearly all grave markers from the last 30 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. Though there are many styles, one font repeatedly snags the eye — squarish letters with flared serifs and, especially, 9’s with long, pointed tails. These engravings are the work of marble cutter Clarence Benjamin Best, who, for more than 50 years, chiseled lambs, stars, stylized flowers and Masonic emblems, as well as pithy grammatically idiosyncratic epitaphs, into slabs of stone. I have found his work in rural Wilson County cemeteries and as far afield as Wayne, Edgecombe and Greene County, but Rest Haven cemetery is the ground zero of his oeuvre.

Best, whose monument business operated from his home on the outskirts of east Wilson, 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, perhaps initially as a side gig. He seemingly worked at every price point, offering custom monuments that collectively testify to his skill and endless creativity.

Clarence Best is just one of North Carolina’s unsung vernacular artists. These samples are a tribute to  the breadth of his work:


  • James Brody Artis, died 1963. June S. Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County. GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.
  • George and Beulah Best, died undated and 1972. William Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County.
  • William and Mary Kittrell, died 1952 and 1947. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Likely a repurposed machine-etched stone. Not uncommonly, Best was off with his spacing estimates for lettering and here had to squeeze in the H. for William Kittrell’s middle initial.
  • Ben Hart, died 1951. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Modern asymmetric concrete slab inset with etched black glass.
  • Virginia Hooks, died 1972. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Virginia Hooks and her mother Donella died within months of one another. The shapes of their stones differ, but the style is much the same — name, dates, and a long epitaph. For Virginia, some extra verbiage crept in: WE MISS YOU NOW OUR HEARTS ARE SORE AS TIMES GOES BY WE MISS YOU NOW OUR HEARTS ARE SORE AS TIMES GOES BY WE WILL MISS YOU MORE. YOUR LOVING SMILES AN GENTLE FACE. NO ONE CAN FILL YOUR SPACE.
  • Jacob Edwards, died 1950. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson.
  • Archie Harris, died 1935. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. WE LOVED YOU BUT GOD LOVED HIM BEST.
  • Matthew and Lillian Williams, died 1968 and 1975. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Pink granite was an unusual medium for Best. Names engraved on the front. On the back, astonishing and enigmatic carvings. Depending from banners, two large peaches (hearts?) carved with a plump fish for Lillian and a rifle for Matthew.


  • Henry and Mamie Lucas, died 1942 and 1962. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. A rather plain piece with lettering somewhat rougher than usual.
  • Charles and Gertrude Jones, died 1963 and 1968. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. All Best’s main motifs — extra deeply incised family name, flowers, decorative border and religious epitaph.
  • Maggie Ellis, died 1964. Hilliard Ellis cemetery, Wilson. Dogwood design at top center.
  • Daisy Price, died 1965. Elm City colored cemetery. Extraordinary piece with stylized angel.
  • Dewey Gaston, died 1946. Elm City colored cemetery. A unique lily of the valley motif, symbolizing Christ’s second coming.
  • Link Bell, died 1959. Pyatts Chapel A.M.E. church cemetery, Edgecombe County. This oddly proportioned marker was perhaps the recycled top half of a broken slab.
  • Clarence Winstead, died 1968. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church cemetery, Stantonsburg.
  • Lucy Edwards, died 1971. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church cemetery, Stantonsburg. An apparently recycled marker, as tablet seems to have been chiseled clean.
  • Lucille Ellis, died 1964. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church cemetery, Stantonsburg. A heart engraved with a dainty ‘LOVE’ depending from a dogwood flower.


  • Fannie Newsome, died 1960. William Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County.
  • Ada Artis Rowe, died 1964. William Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County. Unusual ablet in the form of a closed book.
  • Sarah Artis Speight, died 1950. Artis Town cemetery, Greene County.
  • Ruel and Louise Bullock, died 1969 and 1968. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Masonic and Eastern Star emblems.
  • Malissia Hill, died 1929. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. An early model, the tails of the 9’s are rounded. Off-center epitaph.
  • Betty J. Levy, died 1975. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Marble plaque inset into brick. Among Best’s last works.
  • Addie W. Taylor, died 1963. Masonic cemetery, Wilson.
  • Rev. R.J. Young, died 1933. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Masonic emblem.
  • Short W. Barnes, died 1943. Masonic cemetery. A delicate cross top center.


  • John and Mary Hogans, died 1951 and undated. Elmwood cemetery, Goldsboro, Wayne County. In God we trust, and a cross sprouting leaves.
  • Henry Sharper, died 1945. Elm City colored cemetery. Bird in tympanum (symbolizing eternal life) perhaps machine-cut. Veteran of World War I.
  • William H. Hall Sr., died 1925. Bethel A.M.E.Z. Church cemetery, Stantonsburg. One of the earliest stones, before Best settled in on the pointed 9’s.
  • Georgina Hall, died 1933. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church Cemetery, Stantonsburg. A tiny off-center cross leans curiously atop the tablet.
  • Edward Newsome, died 1956. Fremont colored cemetery, Fremont, Wayne County.
  • Milton and Nora Reid, died 1961 and 1965. Turner Swamp Baptist Church cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County.
  • Locus. Turner Swamp Baptist Church cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County. Perhaps a repurposed machine-cut stone. (The scroll at top is not Best’s work.) The incised trapezoid below the deeply cut tablet is unusual.
  • Walter M. Foster, died 1928. Rountree cemetery, Wilson. A fine early work framed in delicate florals with an epitaph whose freehand font diminishes in size.
  • Gus and Cora Armstrong. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Bizarrely proportioned lines of lettering.


In the 1900 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: farmer Benjamin Best, wife Eliza, and children Virgin N., Mildred, Junius, Sopremia, Benjamin, Corinthia, Remantha, Olian, and Clarence. Benjamin and Eliza reported having been married 25 years, and Eliza reported that 10 of the 12 children she had borne were living.

In the 1910 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: widow Eliza Best, 53, with children Junius, 29, Rematha, 20, Allen, 18, and Clarence, 16, plus grandchildren Suprema, 5, and Martha A., 3.

On 24 January 1917, Clarence Best, 22, of Wilson township, son of Benjamin and Eliza Best, and Geneva Smith, 22, of Gardners township, daughter of Henry and Mahala Smith, were married in Gardners township by C.H. Hagans, a Primitive Baptist minister. Fred Woodard, John Barnes and Len Woodard witnessed.

Clarence Best registered for the World War I draft on 5 June 1917. He reported that he was born 22 October 1894 in Wayne County, North Carolina; that he resided at RFD #4, Box 4, Wilson; and that he worked as a stone rubber at Wilson Marble Mantle & Tile Company. He claimed that he supported his wife and his mother and her two grandchildren. He was described as medium height and build, with brown eyes and black hair.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Saratoga Road, marble cutter Clarence Best, 26, wife Geneva, 26, and son Clarence H., 1, plus Eliza Best, 68, Martha Ann Best, 11, and Suprema Hooks, 11. Next door, Junius Best, 38, wagon factory assembly man, wife Mary A., 27, and children Mary Olivia, 2, and Colonius, 4 months.

Eliza Best died 1 September 1929 in Wilson of “injury of rt. leg; cut her leg on a piece of tin.” She resided at 1310 East Nash Street, Wilson, and was the widow of Benjamin Best. She was about 64 years old and had been born in Wilson County to Jim Ellis and Zannie Applewhite. She was buried in Rountree cemetery; Clarence Best was informant.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 203 East Nash Street, marble works polisher Clearance Best, 37, wife Geneva, 37, and son Clearance, 11. Nearby: wagon factory laborer Junious Best, 47, wife Mary, 39, and children Mary, 12, Colanelus, 11, Mattie, 7, and Rematha, 2.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: marble dresser Clarence Best, 46, wife Geneva, 46, and son Clarence H. Best, 21, tobacco stemmer, plus nephew Frank Brake, 14.

In 1943, Clarence Herman Best registered for the World War II draft. He reported his home address as 1306 East Nash Street, Wilson; his date of birth as 3 October 1918; and his closest relative as Clarence Benjamin Best, his father. His employer was Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte, North Carolina.

Genevia Smith Best died 23 September 1969 in Wilson. Per her death certificate , she was born 19 August 1896 to William Henry Smith and Martha (last name unknown.) She was buried at Rest Haven cemetery; Clarence Best was informant.

Clarence B. Best died 18 November 1980 in Wilson. The double headstone he had created after his wife’s burial — with extra pointy 9’s, a cross, and a slighty too-long epitaph — awaited his death date as a final entry. When the time came, it was, of course, incised perfectly by machine.


Be honest & true. Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.


Wilson Daily Times, 23 May 1951.

All photos by Lisa Y. Henderson.