Where we worked: back of the bawdy house.

In From a Cat House to the White House, Jesse D. Pender painted a richly detailed portrait of life in Wilson and Wilson County in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s — including his adventures as a driver and cook for white madam Betty Powell. Powell and Mallie Paul were among the last of the big-time brothel keepers operating in Wilson’s early twentieth century red light district centered on South Spring [Douglas], South, and East Jones Streets at the heart of Wilson’s blocks of tobacco warehouses. This area, simultaneously, was a solidly working-class African-American neighborhood known as Little Washington and home to Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church’s church and school.

On 28 July 1914, the Wilson Daily Times reported on the visit of the chief of police to all the town’s bawdy houses after “drunk and disorderly conduct at Ola LeRoy’s house a few nights ago and the suicide of” a man named Bunn. Not only had the houses not complied with an earlier directive to shape up, most were in flagrant violation. Ordering all in the trade to leave town by the end of the week, the chief listed his shocking discoveries, naming names:

  • at Cora Duty’s house, he found women from Richmond, Virginia, Washington, D.C.; Washington, N.C.; Chicago, Illinois; and Louisville, Kentucky [in the 1900 census of Wilson, Cora Duty is listed with four “boarders”; in the 1912 city directory, her address is 404 South Spring]
  • at Gertrude Augustine’s house, he found a woman from Jamestown, New York, and evidence that other young women had come and gone
  • at Beck Walston’s, one woman [probably also known as Bessie Walston; in the 1920 census, at 510 Spring]
  • at the house of Gertrude Stone, who hailed from Providence, Rhode Island, a woman from Baltimore, Maryland
  • at the house Jessie Smith, originally of Winston-Salem, N.C., no one else, because they’d all left after Bunn’s death
  • at Ada Coleman’s, no one else, but the weekend before there had been “a bunch of drunken men” and other evidence that she was violating prohibition laws
  • at Bessie E. Stamper’s, no one else, but other women had been seen there
  • at Maude Weston’s, “the others left after the death of Bunn and purpose to stay away until everything is quiet again” [in the 1916 city directory, Weston is at 511 South Spring]
  • at the house of Lou R. Padgett, alias Ola LeRoy, LeRoy and another woman were drunk only a day after LeRoy had been found guilty of disorderly conduct
  • at the houses of Gertie Sears, Lida Simpson, and “Alice,” no one else [in the 1916 city directory, Sears is at 513 South Spring; Lida (Lydia) Simpson appears in directories at 404 South Spring, 310 East Jones, and 312 East Jones; and Alice Hinson at 310 East Jones]
  • at Clyde Bell’s, known as Pat Moore, “a house full of men and beer” [a native of Norfolk, Virginia, in 1916, Bell married L.E. Pittman at her home at 313 Mercer Street]
  • at the house of Fannie Ange, alias Theodora Davis, several women [in the 1916 city directory, at 328 South Street]
  • at “the house where Trixie Clark died,” three women, including Fannie Ange’s sister [in the 1912 city directory, Clark was at 322 South Street; a Clara Clark, age 23, residing at 324 South, died 30 January 1924 of opium poisoning and a pistol shot wound — was this “Trixie”?]
  • at Mollie Johnson’s, one girl [in the 1912 city directory, at 318 South Street; in the 1916 directory, 311 South Street; in the 1920 census, 508 Spring]
  • at Fannie Burwell [Burrell]’s, one woman [in the 1900 census, Burrell ran a boarding house with three young women boarders, including Mallie Paul; in the 1908, 1912 and 1916 city directories, she is at 309 South Street]

Wilson Daily Times, 23 December 1910.

Fannie Burrell died 26 January 1917 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 64 years old; was born in Virginia; and was a “land lord of bawdy-house.” She is buried in Maplewood cemetery.

Burrell had made out a will on 23 November 1916, broadly dispensing her sizable wealth. She left money, diamond jewelry, furniture, land lots, and houses to numerous friends, including two Wilson madams, Mallie Paul and Theodora Davis, and two trusted members of her domestic staff, Mary Floyd and Carrie Strickland. [In the 1910 census of Wilson, Mallie Paul and Mollie Johnson are listed on either side of Burrell on Jones Street.]

To Floyd, her cook, Burrell left her house on Spring Street (or $400, if the house sold under option.)

To her “faithful servant and friend” Strickland, Burrell left a house at the corner of Spring and Hines Streets (or $400).

Robert N. Perry, the rector of Saint Mark’s Episcopal, witnessed Burrell’s execution of the will. He was her neighbor at 315 South Street.

Little Washington/the red light district as drawn on the 1913 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson. At (A), Saint Mark’s Episcopal and at (B) a “Sanctified Church (Negro).” The numbers mark addresses associated with white bawdy houses from 1900-1922 — (1) 313 Mercer (Clyde Bell); (2) 404 South Spring (Cora Duty; Lida Simpson; Alice Hinson); (3) 418 South Spring (Fannie Burrell); (4) 508 South Spring (Mollie Johnson) (5) 510 South Spring (Bessie Walston); (6) 512 South Spring (Nan Garrett); (7) 511 South Spring (M. Weston); (8) 513 South Spring (Gertrude Sears); (9) 308 [renumbered 409] East Jones (Betty Powell); (10) 310 [renumbered 410] East Jones (Alice Hinson); (11) 312 East Jones (Lida Simpson; Alice Hinson); (12) 314 East Jones (Evelyn Belk); (13) 309 [renumbered 304] South (Fannie Burrell; Mallie Paul); (14) 311 South (Mollie Johnson); (15) 314 [renumbered 309] South (Mallie Paul); (16) 318 South (Mollie Johnson); (17) 322 South (Trixie Clark); (18) 328 South (Theodora Davis).


  • Mary Floyd

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Spring Street, Mary Williams, 20, tobacco factory laborer, and lodger Junis Floyd, 35, odd jobs laborer.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 311 Hines, Seary Mitchell, 31, and wife Gertie, 19; Junous Floyd, 41, gas plant fireman; wife Mary, 32, tobacco factory worker; brother Allen, 25, tobacco factory laborer; and roomer Pattie Williamson, 40, private cook. [Next door: Mollie Johnson, above.]

Junius Floyd died 30 November 1929 in Forks township, Wayne County, at the hospital. Per his death certificate, he was 50 years old; was married to Mary Floyd; and worked as a laborer.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 519 South Spring, widow Mary Floyd, 40; son James A., 9; and roomers Bertha Johnson, 27, and Ellen Williams, 22.

Mary Floyd died 13 May 1931 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 46 years old; was born in Franklin County, N.C., to Saul Williams and Hellen Richardson; was married to June Floyd; lived at 519 South Spring; and worked as a tobacco factory laborer. Bertha Smith was informant.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Spring Street, brickmason Goodsey Holden, 50; wife Laura, 47; daughters Estella, 25, Bertha, 24, laundress, and Ione, 20, laundress; and lodger Carrie Strickland, 18, hotel chambermaid.

In the 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Strickland Carrie (c) dom h 603 S Spring

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 603 Spring Street, brickmason Goodsey Holden, 59; wife Laura, 52; and roomer Carrie Strickland, 29, tobacco factory worker.

In the 1920 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Strickland Carrie I (c) hairdresser h 603 S Spring

In the 1922 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Strickland Carrie (c) hairdresser 528 E Nash h 504 S Lodge

Many thanks to J. Robert Boykin III for transcribing “Ordered to Leave Town: Disorderly Conduct in ‘Red Light District’ Causes Mayor Dickerson to Issue the Order,” Wilson Daily Times, 28 July 1914.


Remembering Ambrose Floyd.

After I found this charming portrait of long-time taxi driver Ambrose Floyd, I went searching for more about his life:

Wilson Daily Times, 3 November 1980.

Ambrose Floyd first appears in local newspapers in connection with a reckless driving charge that was dismissed when prosecutors realized that: (1) the charge under which Floyd was indicted was not law until after July 1; (2) Floyd was not driving his car at the time of the accident; and (3) the witness could not remember whether the driver of Floyd’s car made a “stop signal.”

Wilson Daily Times, 29 June 1927.

Floyd placed this ad in the Daily Times early in his taxi-driving career, when he also offered moving services.

Wilson Daily Times, 19 May 1931.

A 1940 article reporting the results of national and local elections included a brief mention of an “unusual” event: Ambrose Floyd received a dozen votes as a write-in candidate for township constable.

Wilson Daily Times, 7 November 1940.

As World War II dragged on, representatives of Safety Cab Company — Ambrose Floyd, Hugh T. Foster, and Lemore Hannah — informed the public that the business agreed with the Office of Defense Transportation to adopt measures “to conserve tires, gas, and equipment.”

Wilson Daily Times, 15 September 1943.

Local color columnist John G. Thomas wrote this story about Floyd and a mysterious fireball in 1941.

Wilson Daily Times, 21 April 1945.

This 1947ad dates Floyd’s transportation services work to 1926.

Wilson Daily Times, 29 August 1947.

In 1952, after bus companies complained of unfair competition, the North Carolina Utilities Commission commenced proceedings against Ambrose Floyd and three other taxi drivers. After an investigation, the commission dismissed the charges.

Wilson Daily Times, 28 October 1952.

In 1955, Floyd was proclaimed safe driver of the day for an unblemished 29-year safety record.

Wilson Daily Times, 25 November 1955.

Ambrose Floyd passed away in October 1981, just under a year after his in-depth feature in the Daily Times.

Wilson Daily Times, 26 October 1981.

Ambrose Floyd buys a piano.

On 18 December 1934 (during the depths of the Great Depression), Ambrose Floyd purchased a Gulbransen piano and bench from the R.C. Bristow & Company of Petersburg, Virginia. Floyd paid $345 for instrument, to be remitted in eight-dollar installments. Delivery was to be made to his address at 1214 East Washington Street, Wilson.


In the 1910 census of Back Swamp, Robeson County: Troy Floyd, 48; wife Cary, 36; and children Clara, 15, Harvey, 11, Ambrose, 9, Winford, 7, Hayden, 5, and Ada, 3.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 622 [West] Nash, general store merchant Paul L. Woodard, 50; wife Ida F., 43; servant/laborer Ambrus Floyd, 19; and servant/cook Elinor(?) Moses, 34.

On 19 February 1921, Ambrose Floyd, 21, of Wilson County, son of Troy and Cattie Floyd of Wilson County, married Mattie Moye, 19, of Wilson County, daughter of Delia Moye of Wilson County, in Wilson. Hardy Tate applied for the marriage license, and A.M.E. Zion minister B.P. Coward performed the ceremony in the presence of Rosa E. McCullers, Clarence McCullers and Beatrice Wood.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1011 Washington Street, rented at $17/month, taxi chauffeur Ambrose Floyd, 28; wife Mattie, 29; and children William A., 9, James, 8, Mateel, 6, Earnsteen, 5, and Hattie M., 1; plus Hattie McLoran, 29, cook.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1214 Washington Street, owned and valued at $1800, shoe shop and taxi owner Ambrose Floyd, 39; wife Mattie, 39, cleaner; and children Mattelene, 17, James, 18, Ernest, 15, and Hattie, 12.

In 1942, Ambrose Floyd registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 4 February 1901 in Lumberton, North Carolina; resided at 1214 East Nash Street; his contact was Clara Smith; and he was employed by Gary Fulghum, 901 Branch Street, United States Post Office.

Also in 1942, Neal Williams registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 15 October in Littleton, North Carolina; resided at 913 Atlantic Street; his contact was Ambrose Floyd, 1214 Washington Street; and he “drives a truck for Ambrose Floyd.”

Mattie Moye Floyd died 11 January 1972 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 22 June 1900 to Boston Moye and Delia Malone; was married to Ambrose Floyd; and resided at 1214 Washington Street.

Ambrose Floyd died 23 October 1981.

Book 213, pages 18-19, Register of Deeds Office, Wilson County Courthouse.

The end of the Red Hots?

In 1938, the city of Wilson professionalized its firefighting operations, converting the white volunteer department to semi-paid status. The Daily Times originally reported that the black volunteer organization, the Red Hots, would be abolished, but here clarified that, while they were being retired from active service, they would continue to send representatives to competitions and state conventions and would be called upon in emergencies.

Wilson Daily Times, 14 July 1938.


  • Ben Mincey
  • George Coppedge — in the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: brickmason George Coppedge, 34; wife Mittie, 34; and children George Jr., 4, and Elenora, 2.
  • Aaron Best — William Aaron Best died 21 August 1949 at his home at 1009 East Nash Street, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 21 September 1900 in Wilson County to Aaron Best and Nannie Best; was a widower; and had been a laborer at Export Tobacco Company. Audrey Best was informant.
  • Ambrose Floyd — in 1942, Ambrose Floyd registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 4 February 1901 in Lumberton, North Carolina; resided at 1214 East Nash Street; his contact was Clara Smith; and he was employed by Gary Fulghum, 901 Branch Street, United States Post Office.
  • W.J. Howell
  • Henry Sauls — in 1942, Henry Sauls registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 10 February 1898 in Black Creek; resided at 21 Carolina Street (mailing address 1114 Carolina Street); his contact was Hattie Davis, 19 Carolina Street; and he worked for W.T. Clark Jr., 1415 West Nash Street, Barnes Street tobacco factory.
  • Louis Thomas — in the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 715 East Green Street, carpenter Louis Thomas, 53; wife Lillie, 33; and children Louis Jr., 16, Charlie H., 14, and Van Jewel, 12.