Photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, August 2022.
The sentiment prevailing in 1924, as expressed in the Wilson Daily Times, bears repeating:
“The history of this Grab Neck property is interesting. Four years ago there were in this locality a number of small houses, that stood in the way of the progress of the city, and Mr. Roscoe Briggs put up the money in order to remove this obstacle.”
The 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson’s West Nash Street corridor makes this obstacle plain:
At the end of the 19th century and through World War II, Wilson’s tobacco barons and other wealthy businessmen and professionals lined blocks of Nash west of downtown with fine homes in a variety of architectural styles. By 1920, several blocks away, just beyond city limits, developers laid out West End Park in a tidy grid of new streets, including West End, Kincaid and Clyde Avenues. Between these neighborhoods, like a foot wedged in a door, was a large uncharted expanse whose few tiny clapboard houses clustered in the 1100 block of Nash. Who owned this land?
By and large, one family — the children and grandchildren of Daniel and Jane Best.
The Bests and their small houses were standing in the way of Wilson’s westward progress, and Briggs bought them out. On 27 March 1920, he did business with four sets of Bests:
These sales set the stage for the auction described in the Times article, but there were still some holdouts. The red arrow on the Sanborn map indicates this one-story dwelling at 1105 Nash:
It was the home of Wilson and Ada Best. In October 1925, they finally relented, accepting $4000 from H.W. and Margaret Abbitt for their 66 by 200-foot lot on Nash Street.
The Abbitts quickly tore down the Bests’ little frame house, and in 1926 erected an impressive Colonial Revival residence. The 1930 Sanborn fire insurance map shows how quickly developers moved into the area vacated by the Bests. On the northeast side of West Nash Street, a sinuous extension of Vance Street was cut through, and houses sprang up along West Cone and West Gold.
On the southeast side, all of the Bests’ houses were razed to make room for the muscular brick showplaces of white Wilson’s elite.
Grabneck was gone.
The Abbitt house, 1105 West Nash Street.
Photograph by Lisa Y. Henderson, April 2018.
These stories appeared in early and late editions of the Wilson Daily Times on 8 January 1924 and paint an unsurprising picture of the erasure of Wilson’s African-American Grabneck community.
One paragraph unabashedly spells it out, emphasis added: “The history of this Grab Neck property is interesting. Four years ago there were in this locality a number of small houses, that stood in the way of the progress of the city, and Mr. Roscoe Briggs put up the money in order to remove this obstacle.” Obstacle cleared; a “fashionable residence section” emerges.
The lots sold like gangbusters. Atlantic Coast Realty Company handled the auction, which pulled in $21.935. “The property, which was formerly owned by Mr. R.G. Briggs, and others, was divided into 26 lots, all of which faced on Nash Street. This property was purchased by Mrs. Cora M. Dupree, Mrs. Sarah E. Griffin and Messrs. Troy T. Barnes, J.C. Eagles and H.P. Yelverton.”
[Sidenote: Wilson Best held out for almost two more years. Pressure from “the people of Wilson” to remove obstacles to the gentrification of West Nash Street must have reached fearsome intensity by time he sold to Harry Abbitt in October 1925.]
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 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.”]