Grabneck

The obituary of Noah Best, well-known brick layer.

Wilson Daily Times, 30 January 1929.

Noah Best was a member of the extended family who owned most of the land in the community known as Grabneck.

——

In the 1870 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farm laborer Daniel Best, 62; wife Jane, 50; children Laura, 19, Nicy, 17, Noah, 16, and Orange, 21, and [Orren’s wife] 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 Hansey, 31, and children James, 9, Oscar, 6, George, 4, Fannie, 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.

In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Noah Bess, 45, brickmason; wife Sarah, 45; and children Henry, 22, brickmason, Morris, 20, day laborer, Wilson, 17, Clinton, 15, Frank, 11, Thad, 8, Noah, 6, Alis, 5, Lorra, 3, and Hillard, 1.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Nash Road, bricklayer Noah Best, 52, widower; son Clinton, 24, bricklayer; daughter-in-law Minnie, 21, seamstress; son William, 19, bricklayer; and daughters Alice, 15, and Laura, 13.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Nash Street, laborer Frank Mitchell, 27; wife Alice, 23; daughter Nora A., 1; and boarder Noah Bess, 63, widower.

Noah Best died 29 January 1929 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 62 years old; was born in Greene County to Daniel Best; and lived near Grabneck. Informant was Clinton Best.

Noah Best drafted a will on 9 January 1924, leaving bequests to his children Laura Best [Boddie], Morris Best, Clinton Best, Alice Best Mitchell, William Best, Wilson Best, and Henry Best. (On 8 July 1927, Best signed a codicil modifying the second provision slightly, leaving his house on Griffin Street to both daughters.)

Noah Best Will, North Carolina Wills and Estates, 1665-1998 [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com.

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.

The land formerly owned by Orrin Best.

Wilson Daily Times, 5 October 1928.

Here’s the plat of Orren and Hancy Best‘s former Grab Neck property mentioned in the notice of sale, with lots 12 and 13 clearly marked:

Here is the current landscape, showing that five houses sit on the 11 platted lots facing Cone between West Nash and West Vance.

Lots 12 and 13 (and a sliver of 11) are now 111 Cone Street North, a four-bedroom Colonial Revival cottage built circa 1928.

Photos courtesy of Google Maps.

The demise of Grabneck, pt. 2.

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:

  • from Clinton and Minnie Best [who preferred the spelling “Bess”] for $4250, Briggs bought three lots in Grabneck adjoining other Bests, Leah Holloway, U.H. Cozart, Tobe Barnes and Henry Barnes. (Deed book 125, page 62)
  • from Orren and Hancy Best, for $5000, Briggs bought “all of the land owned by Orren Best in Grabneck,” two lots on Nash Road adjoining Jeff Holloway and Frank and Noah Best (Deed book 125, page 64)
  • from Frank and Mamie Best, in exchange for a house to be built in Griffin Hill by John H. Griffin, Briggs purchased one lot.  (Deed book 125, page 65)
  • from Noah Best, for $8250, Briggs bought four lots. (Deed book 125, page 65)

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.

The demise of Grabneck.

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.]