displacement

Finch’s Mill Road (or, Erasure, no. 2).

Wilson Advance, 16 February 1899.

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Wrote Bainbridge and Ohno in Wilson, North Carolina: Historic Buildings Survey (1980):

“Finch’s Mill Road was developed in the 1920’s on the former site of a shantytown.”

The “shantytown,” of course, was an African-American community. Until the 1920s, Finch’s Mill, like nearby Grabneck, was a black westside neighborhood.

“A natural extension of Residence Park, lying between that neighborhood and the main road to Raleigh (Rt. 264), Finch’s Mill Road, as it name suggests, once led to Finch’s Mill, outside of Wilson. A major change in the roadway in the 1920’s and then again in the 1970’s has changed this neighborhood. In the 1920’s Finch’s Mill Road became a less traveled way and it linked the older residential neighborhoods to the fashionable neighborhood which was to grow in the 1930;s along the Raleigh Road axis beyond Recreation Park. Finch’s Mill Road sill branches this gap between the old and the new neighborhoods. The character of the neighborhood is mainly residential, although the Recreation Park creates a large public open space. A few houses were built here in the 1920’s, but the bulk of the growth of the neighborhood took place after 1930, although few houses are being constructed in the 1970’s.”

Here is Finch’s Mill Road as depicted in the 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map, branching west off the northern end of Kenan Street and heading out toward Nash County. It is lined with tiny duplexes, likely no more than one or two rooms per side. (Finch’s Mill Road is now Sunset Road. South Bynum roughly follows the course of today’s Raleigh Road; the little spur is Cozart Road; and Sunset Drive is now Sunset Crescent.)

In the 1910 census of Wilson township, Wilson County, 29 households appear on Finch Mill Road, every single one of them African-American.

Excerpt from 1910 census of E.D. 114, Wilson township, Wilson County.

Wilson Daily Times, 22 October 1918.

In 1920,  the census taker recorded 23 households on Finch’s Mill, mostly African-American, but with a sizable white minority. All were farmers, and none of the black heads of household owned their land. Soon, however, there would be no farmers of any kind at the end of the road nearest town.

In the mid 1920s, a large swath of the neighborhood, now known as Westover, was subdivided into “high-class residential” lots on Kenan and Bynum Streets, Sunset Road and Sunset Crescent, and offered for sale at auction:

Wilson Mirror, 16 December 1924.

Wilson Mirror, 17 December 1924.

By 1930, the old neighborhood was gone. Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory for that year lists only four occupied households on “Finch’s Road” and only one by an African-American family, the Reeds at #630. It’s not entirely clear what thoroughfare was considered Finch’s at that point, as the section of Finch’s Mill off Kenan Street had been rechristened Sunset Road and was home to Wilson’s white elite. The 1930 census lists cotton merchant Willie T. Lamm in a $25,000 house on “Westover.” Next door, in what may have been the last of the little duplexes shown on the 1922 Sanborn map, this household: Louisiana-born farmer Zion Read, 56, his North Carolina-born wife Lara, 25, and children Zoreana, 8, Hesicae, 12, William, 4, and Walter E., 0, in one half, and farm helper Jack Dixon, 25, wife Hattie, 24, their children John H., 3, and Susie M., 0, and a roomer Fes Scarboro, 45, in the other. Each family paid $6/month rent. Nearby, wholesale distributor John J. Lane was listed in a $15,000 house at 1015 Sunset Drive.

This Google Maps image shows today’s short stretch of Sunset Road, formerly Finch’s Mill Road, between Kenan Street and its dead-end at Recreation Park Community Center. The old road would have skirted the swimming pool and continued west across Hominy Swamp toward Finch’s Mill, five miles away near what is now the intersection of Raleigh Road/U.S. 264 and Interstate 95.

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  • Windsor Darden — in the 1910 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Winsor Dardin, 45; wife Mattie, 35; and children George, 22, Jesse, 16, Willie, 14, Winsor, 12, Charlie, 10, Olivia, 7, Annie M., Leroy, 3, and Mattie, 9 months.
  • Luther, Henry and Lottie Harris

Wilson Daily Times, 15 November 1910.

Erasure.

Wrote Robert C. Bainbridge and Kate Ohno in Wilson, North Carolina: Historic Buildings Survey (1980):

“Residence Park was Wilson’s first subdivision. This land, formerly used as farmland, on the western edge of Wilson was purchased by a group of developers from Norfolk, Virginia. The first lot was sold to Selby Hurt Anderson in 1906. The architectural fabric of the area is predominately representative of the Bungalow style, although many houses were built in the Colonial Revival style as well. This area flourished in the 1910’s and 1920’s but few houses date after 1930. Residence Park is the most cohesive residential neighborhood in town.”

Farmland? No doubt there were farms in the area. However, Residence Park’s development and expansion came at the immediate expense of the black community of Grabneck, which, anchored by the Best family, had taken root along a stretch of West Nash Street in the late 1800s. By the mid-1920s, all traces of the Bests and their neighbors had disappeared under Residence Park’s lovely bungalows, and within a few decades few remembered that black people had ever lived on that side of town.  Here, encapsulated, is the raison d’etre of Black Wide-Awake — to combat the erasure of African-American people and spaces of historic Wilson.

Detail of Bainbridge and Ohno’s map of Residence Park, which lies atop the old Grabneck neighborhood. #322, the H.W. Abbitt home, was built on land purchased from Wilson and Ada Best.

For more about Grabneck, see here and here and here and here.

Grabneck.

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.”

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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 Bing.com, 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.”]