Karole Turner Campbell shared this photograph of her maternal grandparents, Wesley and Martha Taylor Jones, sitting on the stoop of their Stantonsburg Street house in Wilson. In 1954, when she was nine years old, Turner Campbell spent the summer with them. It was her first “sleep-away camp,” and her grandfather Wesley gave her a job. She was to help her grandmother Martha, then 64 years old, learn to read so she could register to vote for the first time in her life. This was the Jim Crow era, and North Carolina still imposed literacy tests and poll taxes to disenfranchise its Black citizens. Martha Taylor had achieved only a third grade education when she had to leave school and go to work. Writes Turner Campbell, “I CANNOT EXPLAIN HOW THAT EXPERIENCE TOUCHED, MOVED AND INSPIRED ME! Nine years old, and I helped teach my grandma to read and vote. This is one reason I became an educator. This is why I ALWAYS vote.”
I woke up this morning disappointed and apprehensive and angry. But, ever inspired by those whose shoulders I stand on, resolute.
Many thanks to Karole Turner Campbell and to the many political pioneers of Wilson County’s Jones family.
In the 1908 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Coppedge General (c) bricklyr h 133 E Nash; also Coppedge James G Rev (c) pastor Second Baptist Church h 113 Manchester
In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Nash Street, brickmason George Copage, 25, and wife Mary A., 23, restaurant cook.
James G. Coppedge died 16 July 1913 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born in 1861 in North Carolina to Washington Coppedge and an unknown mother; lived on Manchester Street; was married; and worked as a butler. G.W. Coppedge was informant.
On 26 September 1915, Geo. W. Coppedge, 30, of Wilson, son of J.G. Coppedge and Sarah D. [last name not given], married Mittie Bynum, 27, of Wilson, daughter of Berry Bynum, in Wilson. A.M.E. Zion minister J.S. Jackson performed the ceremony in the presence of Dudley Bynum, C.L. Coppedge and Allen Brown.
General Washington Coppedge registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County in 1918. Per his registration card, he was born 1 February 1885; lived at 200 Vick Street; worked as a bricklayer for John Barnes, Green Street; and his nearest relative was Mittie Coppedge.
In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 200 Vick Street, brickmason George Coppedge, 34; wife Mittie, 34; and children George Jr., 4, and Elenora, 2.
Mittie Coppedge died 13 December 1933 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 2 December 1887 in Wilson to Berry Bynum and Lottie Willoughby; was married to G.W. Coppedge; lived at 200 North Vick; and was a housewife.
On 18 November 1936, George Coppedge Jr., 21, of Nash County, son of George and Mittie Coppedge, married Eloise Allen, 19, of Nash County, daughter of James and Rachel Allen, in Nashville, Nash County, North Carolina.
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 200 South Vick, George Coppedge, 55, bricklayer; wife Ruth, 40, schoolteacher at county school; [his] son George Jr., 23; daughter-in-law Elouise, 20; and grandchildren Julia, 4, Deloris, 2, and Carrol, 1.
In 1940, George W. Coppedge Jr. registered for the World War II draft. Per his registration card, he was born 14 November 1915 in Lynchburg, Virginia; lived at 1823 H Street, N.E., Washington, D.C.; his nearest relative was father George W. Coppedge Sr., 200 South Vick, Wilson; and he worked for “Fed. Wk. Ag.”
Ruth Hooker Coppedge died 26 May 1945 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 41 years old; resided at 200 South Vick Street, Wilson; was married to George Coppedge; was born in Wilson to Frank Richard Hooker of Greene County and Eleanor Farmer of Wilson County; and was a school teacher.
On 10 July 1963, the Wilson Daily Times reported that George W. Coppedge was awarded a plaque in recognition of fifty years of service to Wilson as a firefighter. Wilson Fire Chief Tyrus Bissette and George K. Butterfield Sr. “praised Coppedge’s work and participation in religious organizations, politics and fraternal groups.”
George W. Coppedge died 15 May 1973 in Washington, D.C. His obituary noted that he ran for public office twice.
Black Wide-Awake‘s temporal cut-off is generally 1949, but 2020 calls for flexibility. If you are of voting age, but are not registered to vote, I don’t know what will stir you. Here’s a story for you though.
This receipt acknowledged the seven dollars my grandmother paid dentist George K. Butterfield for services on 17 September 1955. I’m not sure why she saved it, but perhaps the times felt historic. [And look who signed it — Marie Everett!] Just a few months before this office visit, Dr. Butterfield had thwarted the city’s voter suppression shenanigans to win a second term on Wilson’s Board of Aldermen. In 1957, to make sure this didn’t happen again, Wilson dynamited its ward system.
Dr. Butterfield’s son George K., Jr. is, of course, the United States Congressman for the 1st District of North Carolina, which includes Wilson County. “That is the thing that has precipitated my whole interest in law and politics,” Butterfield Jr. told the Wilson Daily Times in a 3 February 2003 article, “I’ve learned how government can work for you and against you. And in this case, it worked against a significant portion of the community.”
The bullet-point version:
In 1928, Dr. Butterfield was one of 46 Black registered voters in Wilson.
In the 1930s and ’40s, several organizations formed to support political and educational advancement of African-Americans, including voter registration.
By the early 1950s, about 500 Black voters were registered, almost all of whom lived in the city’s Third Ward, a long narrow precinct that crossed Wilson east to west.
In early 1953, Dr. Butterfield announced his candidacy for a seat on Wilson’s Board of Aldermen, the precursor to today’s city council. He drew immediate widespread support from unionized tobacco leafhouse workers (many of whom were women), churches, and the small African-American professional class.
A few days before the election, incumbent Herbert Harriss challenged the eligibility of 185 voters. Of 150 voters struck from the rolls as a result, all but three were Black.
On election night, Dr. Butterfield and Harriss each received 382 votes, but Butterfield objected that the registrar had violated regulations requiring votes be counted where ballot boxes were opened. City Attorney W.A. Lucas conceded the count was irregular, but declared the point moot, as there were tie-breaker provisions. Over Dr. Butterfield’s expostulations, the City Clerk placed the two candidates’ names in a hat, blindfolded a three year-old girl, and asked her to draw a name.
Dr. Butterfield won!
Two years later, the City of Wilson rolled up its sleeves to get in front of Dr. Butterfield’s re-election. First, it threw out all the registration books, ostensibly to clear the rolls of dead or otherwise ineligible voters. It gave citizens one month to re-register by notifying their ward registrar at his house on a weekday, a difficult feat for factory workers and domestics working on the other side of town from their homes. Next, the city expanded Ward 3 on its western end to pull in hundreds more white voters. And the Wilson Daily Times did its part to highlight the peril by publishing running tallies of new registrations by race.
Wilson Daily Times, 8 April 1955.
Wilson Daily Times, 25 April 1955.
On election day, 93% of all eligible Black voters voted — let me say that again, NINETY-THREE PERCENT OF ALL ELIGIBLE BLACK VOTERS VOTED — and Dr. Butterfield won again! (Won’t He do it?)
In 1957, faced with another Butterfield campaign, the City went for the nuclear option and chucked the whole ward system for “new and fair” city-wide, at-large seats. Further, to thwart bloc voting, voters would not be able to vote for just one candidate. Rather, they had to select six or their ballots would be invalidated. Jim Crow protocols prevented Dr. Butterfield from campaigning directly to white voters, and he was unable to counter when his white opponents sneered at his ties to “special interest groups” like the NAACP and cast him as a candidate solely interested in advancing Black issues. (One, oh, the hypocrisy! Two, doesn’t this all sound familiar?)
Unsurprisingly, Dr. Butterfield placed eighth of 16 candidates and was the sole incumbent to lose his seat.
The story didn’t end there, of course. Butterfield’s final defeat coincided with the emergence of new grassroots civil rights organizing efforts to attack segregation and racism in every corner of Wilson life. I’m shining a timely light on Dr. Butterfield’s pioneering political career to remind you that there is nothing new under the sun; that voter suppression is the weapon of choice whenever you show your strength; and that, though you may not win every battle, you can do no less than the Black men and women of Wilson who defied their government and risked it all to vote over and over and over.
“Victors in May 3 City Elections Are Given Oaths of Office Today,” Wilson Daily Times, 6 June 1955.
The deadline for registration in Georgia is October 5.
The deadline for registration in North Carolina is October 9.
For the full, fascinating source of my summary of Dr. Butterfield’s elections, please read Charles W. McKinney Jr., Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina (2010).
P.S. Right on time — today, the first in the New York Times’ video series, Stressed Election, focuses on voter suppression in Georgia, where I now live.
Black Wide-Awake is focused on historical people, places and events, but:
The whole of my politically conscious life, Wilson has had two mayors. Ralph El Ramey from 1979-1992, and Bruce Rose from 1992 to date. Last night, Carlton Stevens Jr., 44, having campaigned under the slogan “One Wilson,” defeated Rose to be elected the city’s first African American mayor.
The support of East Wilson’s residents, many of whom feel forgotten amidst efforts to rebrand and revitalize other parts of town, was critical to his victory. The work begins.
Tom Johnson — in the 1880 census of Town of Wilson, Wilson County: teamster Thomas Johnson, 30; wife Milly, 25; and children Willie, 9, Ella, 8, and Daisey, 5.
Jolly Taylor — in the 1880 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farmer Jolly Taylor, 60; wife Cherry, 38; son Richard, 18, farm laborer; and David Cotton, 18, farm laborer.
Jack Woodard — Jackson Woodard. In the 1880 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer Jack Woodard, 35; wife Fanny, 32; and children John, 12, Julia, 7, Cynthia, 6, Albert, 5, and Aaron, 2.
Randall Hinnant — in the 1880 census of Old Fields township, Wilson County: Randall Hinnant, 33, farmer; wife Angeline, 26; and children J. Thomas, 10, James H., 8, Lilly Ann, 6, Roscoe F., 4, and Hugh M., 7 months.
Ruffin Woodard — in the 1880 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Ruffin Woodard, 56; wife Lucy, 38; and children Zilpha, 19, John, 13, Polly, 12, Sallie, 2, and Oscar, 1.
Joe Cox — perhaps, in the 1870 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farm laborer Joseph Cox, 33; wife Litha, 27; children Augustin, 6, Bunyan, 11, Iredell, 4, and Zella, 3; and farm laborer Esther Hinard, 54.
Ned Scarboro — in the 1880 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: laborer Ned Scarboro, 35; wife Bedie, 27; and children Rufus, 14, Leda, 11, Jennie, 8, Polly, 6, Martha, 3, and Penny, 1.
Preston Jenkins — probably, in the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Preston Jenkins, 49; wife Patsy, 43; daughters Nancy, 22, and Lizzie, 18; and adopted son King Tom, 20.
Alfred Woodard — in the 1880 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: farmer Alfred Woodard, 50; wife Sarah, 45; children Florence, 28, Mary, 22, Howell, 18, Sarah E., 16, Zilly A., 17, Lundon, 13, Minnie, 12, Willie, 10, Josephine, 7, and Evvy, 4; and grandchildren Elizabeth, 7, Robt. B., 5, and John H. Bynum, 4.
In August and September 1896, the Chairman of the Republican State Executive Committee submitted lists of Registrars and Judges of Election for elections to be held in November 1896.
Wilson County was divided into 14 precincts — four in Wilson, two in Toisnot township, and one each in Taylors, Old Fields, Springhill, Cross Roads, Black Creek, Stantonsburg, Saratoga and Gardners townships. Braswell R. Winstead was appointed Judge of Election for Wilson Precinct No. 1 and Toisnot Precinct No. 1 and Elijah L. Reid was appointed Judge of Election for Stantonsburg Precinct. William H. Vick was appointed Registrar for Wilson No. 2; Alexander D. Dawson for Wilson No. 3; and Jeremiah Scarboro for Wilson No. 4. Jessie Howard was appointed Taylors registrar and Gray Newsome, Cross Roads.
Election Records 1896, Officials’ Bonds and Records, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
A.D. Dawson — Alexander D. Dawson (circa 1860-??) worked as a teacher, and then a fishmonger and merchant.
Samuel Gay — in the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Sam Gay, 54, wife Alice, 50, and children Charlie, 23, Edgar B., 25, Lucy, 17, Samuel, 14, Albert, 10, Beatrice, 10, and Lily, 4. Samuel Gay died 2 July 1919 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 73 years old; born in Wilson County; married to Allace Gay; and worked as a tenant farmer at W.E. Warren’s.
Jack Woodard — in the 1900 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: JacksonWoodard, 56, wife Fannie, 53, and children Daisy, 30, Aaron, 22, Harry, 19, Augustus, 18, Steven, 16, Mary, 11, and Harriet, 8, plus grandchildren Eddie, 5, Bessie, 3, and Nank, 10 months. Jack Woodard died 15 March 1920 in Black Creek township. Per his death certificate, Jack, 78, was born in Wilson County to Aaron Farmer and an unknown mother, was married to Carlin [Caroline] Woodard, and was a tenant farmer for Graham Woodard.
Smith Mercer — in the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer Smith Mercer, 60, wife Chaney, 46, children Lily V., 12, LeRoy, 8, and Linda, 24, and grandchildren Annie Bell, 6, and Charlie, 1.
Isaac Rich — in the 1900 census of Crossroads township, Wilson County: widower farmer Isaac Rich, 50, daughters Martha A., 28, and Wibby, 16, niece Littie Langston, 8, and nephew Rommie O’Neil, 8.
Joseph Hinnant — in the 1900 census of Spring Hill township, Wilson County: farmer James T. Hinnant, 35, his mother Rhoda, 59, father Joseph, 70, sisters Louisa, 25, Martha, 21, and Mary, 18.
Richard Jones — in the 1900 census of Old Fields township, Wilson County: farmer Richard Jones, 65, wife Lucy, 52, sister Cherry, 50, granddaughter Annie, 9, brother Joseph Huston, 50, and nephew Weston Huston, 25.
Noel Jones — in the 1880 census of Old Fields township, Wilson County: laborer Noel Jones, 34, wife Sarah, 32, and children Josiah, 13, Charity, 12, Edieth J., 10, and Noel J., 6.
Alfred Woodard — in the 1900 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: farmer Alfred Woodard, 69, wife Sarah, 59, daughters Nora, 21, and Francis, 7, and servant Bessa Foard, 19.
John Ellis — in the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: day laborer John Ellis, 50, wife Marry, 50, and children Antney, 21, Alex, 18, James, 16, Marry, 14, and Delphia, 8.
Mark Barron — in the 1900 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Mark Barron, 54, wife Mason, 50, children Frank, 18, Peter, 21, John, 20, and Mary, 16, granddaughter Mary M., 6 months, and sister Gatsie, 51. Mark Barron died 26 April 1928 in Gardners township. Per his death certificate, he was 83 years old; lived on Route 3, Elm City; was born in Wilson County to Benjamin and Marion Barron, both of Wilson County; and worked as a tenant farmer.
Amos Ellis — in the 1900 census of Stantonsburg township, Wilson County: Amos Ellis, 39, wife Cherry, 37, and children Samuel, 15, Lizzie C., 14, James, 7, Lena, 4, Mack B., 3, and Walter L., 9 months.
Louis Barnes — in the 1900 census of Stantonsburg township, Wilson County: Lewis Barnes, 57, wife Allie, 53, and children Adline, 24, James, 19, Sallie, 15, and Lucinda, 13.