gravestone

The graveyard artistry of Clarence Best, pt. 3.

I’ve written here of Clarence B. Best, the marble cutter whose custom gravestones can be found in cemeteries across Wilson County and beyond. Here’s more, all in Rest Haven cemetery.

  • Joseph Earl Mercer, died 1969. Apparently, a young man who loved cars.
  • Clifton L. Howard, died 1969. Best made gravestones affordable by offering customers damaged or repurposed markers such as this one, which appears to be the top portion of a larger piece.
  • Ruby M. Ellis Opie, died 1965, and Charles E. Ellis, died 1964. THEY WAS AN AFFECTIONATE SON & DAUGHTER.
  • Charlie H. Thomas, 1965. Modeled after the white marble markers provided by the military to veterans.
  • Johnnie G. Baker, died 1962. GOD LOVES LITTLE CHILDREN.
  • Rev. Nebraska H. Dickerson, died 1969. To his oft-used dogwood and cross motifs, Best added an open book.
  • Dora M. Hoskins, died 1963. Past Matron, Order of Eastern Star. DIEING IS BUT GOING HOME.
  • William Earl Artis, died 1961. Inclusion of his mother Cora Dawes’ name is unusual as is the near-italicization of the date lines.
  • James Powell, died 1939. DEAR FATHER. GOD FINGER TOUCHED HIM AND HE SLEPT.

Applications for military headstones, no. 2.

  • Admire Zimmerman

In the 1900 census of Philadelphia, Darlington County, South Carolina: farmer Ceasar Zimmerman, 28; wife Irene, 23; and children Leila, 7, Admire, 3, Lillie A., 1, and George, 2 months.

In the 1910 census of Lamar, Darlington County, South Carolina: farmer Cesare Zimmerman, 38; wife Rena, 33; and children Leila, 17, Admire, 12, Lily, 11, Shepherd, 9, Eulis, 7, Charlie, 6, Caesar, 4, Grant, 2, and N. Efether, 11 months.

On 1 July 1920, Sheppard Zimmerman, 22, of Wilson, son of Caesar and Irene Zimmerman, married Florence Howard, 18, of Taylor township, daughter of Deal and Nancy Howard. Admire Zimmerman applied for the license, and a justice of the peace performed the ceremony at Wilson County Court House in the presence of David Woodard, B.E. Howard and Admire Zimmerman.

On 10 July 1920, Admire Zimmerman, 23, of Elm City, son of Caesar and Irene Zimmerman, married Viola Wilson [Williams], 24, of Wilson, daughter of Richard and Martha Jane Williams, in Elm City. Witnesses were David Woodard, J.A. Anderson, and Sid Laws.

On 28 July 1927, Admire Zimmerman, 27, married Alma Dock, 18, in Wilson. Jim Dock, Lillie Dock and G.W. Kinlaw witnessed.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: pubic service laborer Admire Zimmerman, 47; wife Kattie, 37; and children Junior, 14, Mary, 12, and Shirley, 3. The family had lived in Richmond, Virginia, in 1935. Next door: Baptist preacher Ceasar Zimmerman, 68, and wife Irene, 65.

On 5 April 1956, Admire Zimmerman, 63, son of Cecil and Irene Zimmerman, married Ava Gardner, 66, daughter of Stephen and Hattie Roberson Owens, in Wilson.

Admire Zimmerman died 23 February 1962 at 616 Manchester Street, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 10 May 1896 in Darlington, S.C., to Ceasar Zimmerman and Irene Jarrell; was a widower; and was a laborer. Informant was Caesar Zimmerman, 900 Woodard Avenue, Washington, D.C.

  • Jack Washington

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Jack Washington died 23 November 1962 at his 1109 Woodard Street Extension residence. Per his death certificate, he was born 16 August 1884 in Tampa, Florida, to George Washington and Cecil (last name unknown); was married to Daisy Washington; and was a laborer.

Cutt Davis died 9 August 1952 in Wilson. Per his death certificate: he was born 28 September 1888 in South Carolina to Berry Davis; worked as a shoemaker; resided at 803 East Nash Street; and was buried at Rest Haven. Informant was Thomas F. Davis of Washington, D.C.

  • Ned Barnes

Ned Barnes died 14 November 1960 at 1608 Washington Street Extension, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 18 February 1896 in Wilson County to Jessie R. and Sary Barnes; resided at Route 4, Wilson; was a plasterer; and was a widower. Frank Barnes, 308 Ward Boulevard, was informant.

  • John T. Barnes

“I have respect for my father and mother.”

What is now called Rountree Cemetery first caught wider Wilson’s attention in February 1989 when the Daily Times printed a full-page feature. I’ve abstracted the piece, with some commentary, below:

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Wilson Daily Times, 18 February 1989. (Please click image to enlarge.)

“Vick Cemetery is just one of several Lane Street cemeteries being used as trash dumps, but a small group of people want to change all that.”

Ben Mincey Jr., [who is in his 70s and] whose father is buried in the old Odd Fellows Cemetery directly north of and adjacent to Vick cemetery, is trying to get help for both cemeteries.

Councilman A.P. Coleman discussed the cemeteries with City Manager Cyrus Brooks and suggested Mincey seek grants from historic societies or other groups. Brooks said he was aware of the situation at the Vick Cemetery but “had no solutions and had directed inquiries to the [Cemetery] Commission,” over which the city has no control.

Mincey thinks the city or commission should help clean both cemeteries and notes that Vick deeded the property to the city in 1913. With volunteers and hired help, Mincey has cut down and burned off much of overgrowth in Odd Fellows and is trying to remove the accumulated trash, which includes appliances, bed frames, rotting clothing, dead animals wrapped in plastic bags, tires, and bottles.

Mincey says both cemeteries were well cared for when the “older people whose families were buried there” were still living, and he was trying to clean up because “I have respect for my father and mother.” An unnamed cemetery official said he had no idea why relatives had let the old cemeteries deteriorate or why nothing was said until recently.

Both cemeteries are over 100 years old, and neither has been used in more than 30 years. There are no known records on who or how many people are buried in Vick cemetery (or presumably, Odd Fellows.)

“Mincey said many prominent blacks from Wilson’s past are buried in these two cemeteries and the Rountree Cemetery, also on Lane Street, located where Rountree Baptist Church used to sit.” They include Ben Mincey Sr., who helped start the East Wilson Volunteer Fire Department and worked for the city’s Utilities Department; Nettie Foster, a well known teacher; Walter Hines, a downtown barber; and S.H. Vick, the cemetery’s namesake, a former postmaster.”

“Trees not hide all but one grave, which sits by the roadside at the old Rountree Cemetery. The commission was not even aware of the Rountree Cemetery’s existence” and did not know Vick Cemetery existed “until about four years ago” when Mincey brought it to their attention. At that time, they determined that Mincey Sr. was buried in the Odd Fellows, not Vick, cemetery.

Pursuant to a 1923 state statute, the Cemetery Commission was given title to all city property used for cemetery purposes, including Vick Cemetery. Currently, only Rest Haven and Maplewood are active cemeteries. The commission does not receive city funding, but is audited by the city.

Cemetery Commission chairman Earl Bradbury says of Vick Cemetery, “Burial patterns are any which way. Nobody has any records of who was buried there. It just sat there and so nobody had any interest in it and it just grew up.” After its “discovery,” the commission authorized $8000 for cleanup by hand “because heavy machinery would cause the graves to collapse.”  (As wooden caskets decay, the ground above them subsides, creating sunken graves.) “Because of this, no local firms will help with the cleanup.” Heavy rains prevented the completion of the cleanup, and the area still needs to be burned off and treated with weed killer. Bradbury agrees that the Vick property should be cleaned and cared for, but says the commission did not have the funds to do so. “He said he hoped to pack the collapsed graves with silt dredged from Toisnot Lake, but that silt is just sitting on unused Maplewood Cemetery property. Also, Bradbury thinks people with relatives in the Vick cemetery should show some interest in having the cemetery renovated, and he said it would be nice if the city could help with possibly a one-time grant.” As for Odd Fellows, it is the responsibility of the fraternal organization or relatives of the deceased to clear that cemetery.

Councilman Coleman notes that the city might have a “moral obligation” to find a solution, notuing that “the Lane Street area was included in the 1972 annexation of east Wilson, wich was an area that had been neglected for many years.”

——

  • Odd Fellows cemetery? This is the first I’ve heard of it. The obelisk now marking the remaining stones says “Rountree-Vick.” If Odd Fellows was north, and “north” means northeast toward Martin Luther King Parkway/U.S. 264, is it now completely wooded? As this cemetery was not city property, was it just left to revert to nature? In the mid-1970s, headstones were visible among the trees and underbrush in this area. Though we called it Rountree, was this actually Odd Fellows? (For more about Hannibal Lodge No. 1552, International Order of Odd Fellows, see here.)
  • If so, where was Rountree cemetery? The article seems to imply that it was not immediately adjacent to Vick and Odd Fellows. The east parking lot of the “new” Rountree Missionary Baptist Church, built in the late 1970s, was laid over the site of the clapboard predecessor. There is no apparent graveyard immediately adjacent to the church now, and it’s not clear where a location closer than the known cemetery could have been.
  • It’s heartbreaking that Ben Mincey Sr.’s headstone is not one of those that survives.
  • Silt from Toisnot Lake? Did this ever happen? Is this really a sanctioned method of handling sunken graves? Several of the remaining graves have collapsed, and at least one has been breached to the point that a dark vacuum is visible below ground.

Cemeteries, no. 21: Rountree.

Though commonly known as Rountree cemetery, this abandoned graveyard originally comprised two burial grounds. One, whose founding date is unknown, was associated with nearby Rountree Missionary Baptist Church. The other was established on land deeded to the city in 1913 by Samuel H. Vick. Into the 1950s, black Wilson’s leading lights and their families were buried here, along with hundreds, if not thousands, of lesser known residents. A half-century after the cemetery closed, only a handful of grave markers remain on a slight rise cleared along the southern ditch bank.

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They include:

  • Della and Dave Barnes

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Della Hines Wife of Dave Barnes 1858-1935 She is not dead but sleeping.

Dave Barnes died Jan. 23, 1913 Age 52 years Death was the gate through which to life he passed.

The most prominent of the remaining headstones are those of Della Mercer Hines Barnes and, at left above, her husband Dave Barnes, mother and father/step-father of three of early East Wilson’s most successful sons, William Hines, Walter Hines and Boisey O. Barnes.

  • Delzela Rountree

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Delzela Dau of Jack & Lucile Rountree Born Aug 5, 1897 Died Mar. 8, 1914. An angel visited the green earth and took the flower away.

In the 1900 census of Falkland township, Pitt County: farmer Jack Rountree, 49; wife Lucy, 27; and children Julius, 5, Daisy E., 2, and Cora, 2 months; sisters Marcela, 23, Cora, 24, and Ella Bargeron, 26; and boarder Jacob Worthan, 18.

In the 1910 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: on Saratoga Road, farmer Jack Rountree, 53; wife Lucy, 35; and children Junius, 15, Delzel, 12, Cora Lee, 10, John H., 7, James, 6, Mable, 4, and Gollie May, 1.

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Charles S. Thomas departed this life Sept. 5, 1937 From all life’s labors he rests on high.

  • Sarah Best Thomas

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Sarah wife of Charlie Thomas Born 1868 Aug 18 1916 Gone But Not Forgotten.

Sarah Thomas was not married to barber/insurance agent Charles S. Thomas above. Rather she was married to printing office employee Charles Thomas.

On 25 January 1888, Charles Thomas, 23, son of Sarah Thomas, married Sarah Best, 21, daughter of Lewis and Harriet Best. Missionary Baptist minister J.T. Clark performed the ceremony at Lewis Best’s in the presence of Charles Barbry, Wyatt Studaway and Charles Williamson.

In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Charlie Thomas, 38, pressman for printing office; wife Sarah, 33; and children Elton, 9, Louis, 8, Elizabeth, 6, and Hattie May, 2.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Charlie Thomas, 49, laborer for printing office; wife Sarah, 44; and children Elton, 20, Lizzie, 18, Louis, 15, Hattie M., 11, Mary, 5, and Sarah, 1 month.

  • Nunnie Barnes

Nunnie Barnes Born June 8 1885 Died Aug 25 1921

  • Lucinda White

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Lucinda Wife of Geo. W. White Oct 15 1880 Nov 30 1915 Age 35 

  • Tate family

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Noah J. Tate (1876-1926) may be among the family members buried here.

  • Hardy Tate

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Hardy Tate‘s foot marker lies at some distance from the Tate family plot, but he seems likely that he is buried there.

  • Emma Oates and Rev. Henry W. Farrior

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Emma wife of Charlie Oates Died Sept 3 1908 Age 40 years

Rev Henry W Farrior Aug 12 1859 May 6 1937

In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: day laborer Charles Oates, 34; wife Emma, 30; and children Willie, 11, Fannie, 9, Annie, 8, Effie, 5, and Queen E., 4.

In the 1900 census of Lisbon township, Sampson County, North Carolina: Virginia-born preacher Henry Farrior, 39, wife Izzy, 37, children Lillie, 17, Dallas, 15, and Diane, 5, and divorced brother-in-law Richard Robinson, 50. Dallas and Richard worked as farm laborers. [Henry W. Farrior was an A.M.E. Zion minister.]

Henry W. Farrior appeared in Wilson city directories as early as 1916 and throughout the 1920s. In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Christian Church minister Henry W. Farrior, 60, and wife Aria, 60, with boarders tobacco factory stemmer Earnest Bulluck, 35, his wife Lena, 30, and children Earnest Jr., 12, Paul T., 8, and Lee, 7.

Henry William Farrior died 6 March 1937 in Wilson. Per his death certificate: he was born 12 August 1859 in Powhatan, Virginia, to Henry and Sylvia Farrior; resided at 203 Pender Street, Wilson; was married Isiebell Farrior; and was a preacher. Dalley Farrior was informant.

  • Charles Oates

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Charles Oates

  • Irma Vick

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Irma day of S.H. and A.M. Vick Gone but not forgotten

Irma Vick was a daughter of Samuel H. and Annie M. Washington Vick. She died while a student in Asheville, North Carolina. (It is likely that Irma’s parents and grandparents, and perhaps other siblings, was buried in this cemetery, but none of their headstones remain.)

  • Clarence Lenwood Carter

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C.L. Carter

Clarence Lenwood Carter registered for the World War I draft in 1918. Per his registration card, he was born 29 October 1882; resided at 423 Green Street; worked as a merchant for G.S. Walston, 507 East Nash; and his nearest relative was Mena Carter.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 423 Green Street, barber Clarence Carter, 36; wife Meena, 25; and children Omega, 9, Clarence H., 7, and Mina G., 3.

Clarence L. Carter died 13 February 1925 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was married to Mina Carter; lived at 418 East Green; was born 29 October 1877 in Bertie County to George Carter and Annie Outlaw; and worked as a day laborer.

  • Dawson family

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Virginia S. Dawson and her mother L. [Lucy Annie Hill] Dawson are among those buried here.

  • Edith Omega Carter Spicer

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Omega C. Spicer Dec. 7, 1910 Apr. 27, 1945

On 7 October 1933, Elverde Taylor, 23, son of Jim and Matilda Taylor, married Omega Carter, 22, daughter of Clarence and Mina Carter. C.A. Artis applied for the license, and a justice of the peace performed the ceremony in the presence of L.M. Mercer of Elm City and L.F. Winborn and W.W. Clark of Wilson.

Edith Omega Spicer died 27 April 1945 at the Eastern North Carolina Sanatorium. Per her death certificate, she was born 7 December 1910 in Wilson County to Clarence Carter of Bertie County and Mena Rountree of Wilson County; worked as a waitress; resided at 538 East Nash Street; and was separated.

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Walter Hines’s headstone has disappeared.

The area outlined in red below, south of Lane Street, is the approximate area of Rountree cemetery. Its 7.45 acres also extends west the edge of the image. After a stab at clean-up in the early 1980s, the City of Wilson determined that restoring the cemetery would be too costly. In 1995, after some public input, the City elected to clear and grade much of the site and erect a stone marble memorializing Rountree’s dead. Some cracked markers are visible inside the tree line near the cleared area. Otherwise, no trace of the locations of graves remains. Broken stones were to be catalogued and stored, but recent queries into their location have been fruitless.

Photographs of Rountree cemetery taken by Lisa Y. Henderson in 2016.

Cemeteries, no. 16: Mary Grove Missionary Baptist Church.

Mary Grove church‘s cemetery lies behind the sanctuary on Wiggins Mill Road near Lucama. Among its earliest marked graves are those of members born in the 1870s, ’80s and ’90s.

  • Renda Green

In the 1900 census of Stantonsburg township, Wilson County: farm laborer James Green, 47; wife Lurenda, 33; daughter Rhoda, 13; and stepchildren Cornelia, 10, Larry, 9, Eddie, 4, William, 3, and Addie Dew, 1.

  • Lawyer Whitley

  • Charlie Cannady

In the 1940 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: South Carolina-born farmer Charlie Cannady, 60; wife Mary, 50; daughter Marie Braswell, 23; son-in-law Kennel Braswell, 24; and their children Minnie M., 2, and Charlie T., 1. Mary and Marie were also born in South Carolina.

Charlie Canaday died 21 February 1946 in Cross Roads township. Per her death certificate, he was born 29 February 1894 in South Carolina to Honor Canaday; was married to Mary Canaday; and worked as a farmer. Informant was Kennon Braswell.

  • Rev. Willie Barnes

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Photographs taken by Lisa Y. Henderson, September 2017.

 

Applications for military headstones, no. 1.

  • John Melton

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In the 1900 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: John Melton, 42, wife Lucy, 45, sons John, 16, and Samuel A., 13.

In the 1910 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: John Melton, 51, wife Lucy, 55, son Johnnie Jr., 24, boarder James Dudley, 20, and grandson Sam Melton, 12.

On 29 October 1917, John Melton, 26, of Wilson, married Cora Barnes, 25, of Wilson. Rev. Fred M. Davis performed the ceremony in the presence of Linnie Wilson, M.H. Wilson, and Lorena E. Gregg.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: house carpenter John Melton, 28, wife Cora, 26, with son Robert O., 1, and cousin Della Griswill, 24.

  • Albert Battle

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On 28 December 1917, Albert Battle, 31, of Wayne County, son of Albert and Annie Battle, married Hannah Pate, 30, of Stantonsburg, daughter of John and Vinie Pate, in Wilson County. Rev. S.J. Brown, a Freewill Baptist minister, at P.P. Barnes’ house in Stantonsburg in the presence of Smithie Barnes, P.P. Barnes, and Rosa Battle.

In the 1920 census of Great Swamp, Wayne County: Albert Battle, 33, wife Hannah, 31, and daughter Linday, 12, on Pikeville and Fremont Road.

In the 1930 census of Great Swamp, Wayne County: Albert Battle, 43, wife Hannah, 39, sister-in-law Smythia, 45, nieces and nephews Odie, 18, Flossie M., 17, Hettie B., 10, Beatrice, 7, Viola, 6, and James O. Battle, 3.

Albert Battle died 19 March 1936 in Fremont, Wayne County. Per his death certificate, he was born 9 March 1886 in Edgecombe County to Albert Battle and Dossie Ann Drake; worked as a laborer; was married; and was buried in Wilson. Hannah Battle of Fremont was informant.

  • Larry Hooks

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In the 1910 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Larry Hooks, 20, listed a prisoner in the county stockade on Wiggins Mill Road.

Lary Hooks, 27, registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County on 5 June 1917. Per his registration card, he was born 10 May 1890 in Fremont, North Carolina, and worked as a “convict on road” in the Nashville road district. He was married and described as medium height and stout with brown eyes and black hair.

Larry Hooks died 3 August 1936 in Wilson’s Mercy Hospital. Per his death certificate, he was married to Sarah Hooks; was born about 1890 in Wayne County to Charlie Hooks and Melvina Reid of Wayne County; and worked as a common laborer. Charlie Hooks of Elm City, North Carolina, was informant.

  • Willie Gay

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In the 1880 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Emma Gay, 35, and children Charlie, 15, steam mill worker, Mary, 11, Etheldred, 8, and Willie, 6, plus boarder Fannie Thompson, 19, cook.

On 8 January 1894, Willie Gay, 18, son of Charles and Emma Gay, married Mary Bunn, 21, daughter of Dick and Mary Bunn, at Willie Gay’s house in Wilson. Presbyterian minister L.J. Melton performed the ceremony in the presence of W.M. Phillips, L.A. Moore, and C.C. Williams.

Probably, in the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: day laborer William Gay, 26, a widower, living alone.

On 29 October 1902, Willie Gay, 27, married Mary Johnson, 22, in Wilson. Missionary Baptist minister Fred M. Davis performed the ceremony in the presence of Cain Artis, Chas. S. Thomas, and Robt. E. Artis.

On 23 March 1906, William Gay, 33, son of Charles and Emma Gay, married Augustus McNeil, 30, daughter of Peter and Emily Patterson of Fayetteville, North Carolina, at William Gay’s house in Wilson. Rev. Fred M. Davis performs the ceremony in the presence of J.E. Fanner, Robert Stricklin, and Charlie Fain.

Possibly, in the 1940 census of Kecoughtan, Elizabeth City County, Virginia: Willie Gay, 66, born in North Carolina, patient at Veterans Administration facility.

N.B.: Gay, who served 1898-99, was a veteran of the Spanish American War.

  • Robert Crocker Harris

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In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1018 Wainwright Street, farmer Moses Dupree, 50; wife Henrietta, 48, nurse for private family; grandson Robert Harris, 8; and roomer Virginia Humphreys, 54, cosmetics peddler.

In 1942, Robert Crocker Harris registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. His draft card reports that he was born 6 June 1922 in Wilson County; resided at 1018 Wainwright Street; listed Henriette Dupree of that address as his contact person; and worked as a tobacco farm aide.

Robert Croker Harris died 21 June 1952 in Durham, North Carolina. Per his death certificate, he was born 6 June 1922 in Wilson County to Willie Harris and Smithie Dupree; was married; worked as an orderly at Duke Hospital; and resided at 613 Fayetteville Street. Detective W.H. Upchurch was informant. Cause of death: “Abdominal hemorrhage; two pistol shot wounds of back; shot while being arrested for disorderly conduct & resisting arrest — officer exonerated by grand jury.”

The graveyard artistry of Clarence Best, pt. 2.

I’ve written here of Clarence B. Best, the marble cutter whose custom gravestones can be found in cemeteries across Wilson County and beyond. Here’s more.

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  • Sylvia Boykin, died 1939. Rocky Branch United Church of Christ, near Kenly, Wilson County. SLEEP IN PEACE. Unusual dark pink granite marker.
  • Mrs. Polly B. Deans, died 1962. Rocky Branch United Church of Christ. Best’s basic rectangular layout, though addition of husband Ernest Deans‘ name is unusual.
  • Henrietta Stevens, died 1959.  Rocky Branch United Church of Christ. SHE WAS THE SUNSHINE OF OUR HOME. Heart shape executed in concrete.
  • Willie Coleman, died 1964. Or 1967. Jones Hill Baptist Church cemetery, near Sims, Wilson County. I have not been able to find a death certificate to settle the question of his death date. [Based on the number accepted and installed, I assume Best deeply discounted the stones upon which he made indelible engraving errors.]
  • Henry Winstead II, died 1966. William Chapel Baptist Church cemetery, near Elm City, Wilson County. Rough-cut marker with “II” squeezed in as an afterthought.
  • Roscoe and Mary J. Ford, died 1965 and 1954. William Chapel. Best apparently obtained much of his stone from reject piles, probably belonging to larger outfits like Wilson Marble & Mantel. This marker is clearly a single headstone split into his and hers. It is also a repurposed stone. As shown in the detail below, the lower two-thirds of the faces of the markers were ground clean. The ends of the machine-cut lines were erased, and scratches left by the abrasive can be seen below the letters.
  • Theodore R. Lenzy, died 1969. William Chapel. Seldom seen format highlighting the decedent’s surname.
  • Cleo and Thomas Davis, died 1974 and 1986. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Their marriage date is a nice touch. Thomas’ info added by machine.
  • Viola S. McCray, died 2007. Rest Haven. This is mystifying. Best carved McCray’s name and birthdate when he carved those of her husband on the other half of this marker. McCray died more than 40 years after Best stopped carving (and 30 years after his death.) Who, then hand-engraved her death date in Best’s style?

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All photos by Lisa Y. Henderson, November 2016.

“Gone but not forgotten”: the eternal art of Clarence B. Best.

Nearly all grave markers from the last 30 years or so are machine-cut, their lettering precise and even and utterly predictable. In Wilson County’s African-American cemeteries, however, even a casual perusal of older markers reveals artisanal work. Though there are many styles, one font repeatedly snags the eye — squarish letters with flared serifs and, especially, 9’s with long, pointed tails. These engravings are the work of marble cutter Clarence Benjamin Best, who, for more than 50 years, chiseled lambs, stars, stylized flowers and Masonic emblems, as well as pithy grammatically idiosyncratic epitaphs, into slabs of stone. I have found his work in rural Wilson County cemeteries and as far afield as Wayne, Edgecombe and Greene County, but Rest Haven cemetery is the ground zero of his oeuvre.

Best, whose monument business operated from his home on the outskirts of east Wilson, got his start as a marble cutter at Wilson Marble Mantle & Tile Company on North Railroad Street. By the early 1920s, he was designing and cutting headstones for African-American clients, perhaps initially as a side gig. He seemingly worked at every price point, offering custom monuments that collectively testify to his skill and endless creativity.

Clarence Best is just one of North Carolina’s unsung vernacular artists. These samples are a tribute to  the breadth of his work:

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  • James Brody Artis, died 1963. June S. Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County. GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.
  • George and Beulah Best, died undated and 1972. William Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County.
  • William and Mary Kittrell, died 1952 and 1947. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Likely a repurposed machine-etched stone. Not uncommonly, Best was off with his spacing estimates for lettering and here had to squeeze in the H. for William Kittrell’s middle initial.
  • Ben Hart, died 1951. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Modern asymmetric concrete slab inset with etched black glass.
  • Virginia Hooks, died 1972. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Virginia Hooks and her mother Donella died within months of one another. The shapes of their stones differ, but the style is much the same — name, dates, and a long epitaph. For Virginia, some extra verbiage crept in: WE MISS YOU NOW OUR HEARTS ARE SORE AS TIMES GOES BY WE MISS YOU NOW OUR HEARTS ARE SORE AS TIMES GOES BY WE WILL MISS YOU MORE. YOUR LOVING SMILES AN GENTLE FACE. NO ONE CAN FILL YOUR SPACE.
  • Donella Hooks, died  1972. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. TO SOME, SHE MAY BE FORGOTTEN/ TO OTHERS, JUST PART OF THE PAST/ BUT TO THOSE WHO LOVED AND LOST HER/ HER MEMORIES WILL ALWAYS LAST/ JUST A CLUSTER OF BEAUTIFUL LOVE SPRAYED WITH A MILLION TEARS/ WISHING GOD COULD HAVE SPARED HER/ FOR JUST A FEW MORE YEARS. (The last line shoe-horned in.)
  • Jacob Edwards, died 1950. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson.
  • Archie Harris, died 1935. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. WE LOVED YOU BUT GOD LOVED HIM BEST.
  • Matthew and Lillian Williams, died 1968 and 1975. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Pink granite was an unusual medium for Best. Names engraved on the front. On the back, astonishing and enigmatic carvings. Depending from banners, two large peaches (hearts?) carved with a plump fish for Lillian and a rifle for Matthew.

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  • Henry and Mamie Lucas, died 1942 and 1962. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. A rather plain piece with lettering somewhat rougher than usual.
  • Charles and Gertrude Jones, died 1963 and 1968. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. All Best’s main motifs — extra deeply incised family name, flowers, decorative border and religious epitaph.
  • Maggie Ellis, died 1964. Hilliard Ellis cemetery, Wilson. Dogwood design at top center.
  • Daisy Price, died 1965. Elm City colored cemetery. Extraordinary piece with stylized angel.
  • Dewey Gaston, died 1946. Elm City colored cemetery. A unique lily of the valley motif, symbolizing Christ’s second coming.
  • Link Bell, died 1959. Pyatts Chapel A.M.E. church cemetery, Edgecombe County. This oddly proportioned marker was perhaps the recycled top half of a broken slab.
  • Clarence Winstead, died 1968. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church cemetery, Stantonsburg.
  • Lucy Edwards, died 1971. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church cemetery, Stantonsburg. An apparently recycled marker, as tablet seems to have been chiseled clean.
  • Lucille Ellis, died 1964. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church cemetery, Stantonsburg. A heart engraved with a dainty ‘LOVE’ depending from a dogwood flower.

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  • Fannie Newsome, died 1960. William Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County.
  • Ada Artis Rowe, died 1964. William Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County. Unusual ablet in the form of a closed book.
  • Sarah Artis Speight, died 1950. Artis Town cemetery, Greene County.
  • Ruel and Louise Bullock, died 1969 and 1968. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Masonic and Eastern Star emblems.
  • Malissia Hill, died 1929. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. An early model, the tails of the 9’s are rounded. Off-center epitaph.
  • Betty J. Levy, died 1975. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Marble plaque inset into brick. Among Best’s last works.
  • Addie W. Taylor, died 1963. Masonic cemetery, Wilson.
  • Rev. R.J. Young, died 1933. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Masonic emblem.
  • Short W. Barnes, died 1943. Masonic cemetery. A delicate cross top center.

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  • John and Mary Hogans, died 1951 and undated. Elmwood cemetery, Goldsboro, Wayne County. In God we trust, and a cross sprouting leaves.
  • Henry Sharper, died 1945. Elm City colored cemetery. Bird in tympanum (symbolizing eternal life) perhaps machine-cut. Veteran of World War I.
  • William H. Hall Sr., died 1925. Bethel A.M.E.Z. Church cemetery, Stantonsburg. One of the earliest stones, before Best settled in on the pointed 9’s.
  • Georgina Hall, died 1933. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church Cemetery, Stantonsburg. A tiny off-center cross leans curiously atop the tablet.
  • Edward Newsome, died 1956. Fremont colored cemetery, Fremont, Wayne County.
  • Milton and Nora Reid, died 1961 and 1965. Turner Swamp Baptist Church cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County.
  • Locus. Turner Swamp Baptist Church cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County. Perhaps a repurposed machine-cut stone. (The scroll at top is not Best’s work.) The incised trapezoid below the deeply cut tablet is unusual.
  • Walter M. Foster, died 1928. Rountree cemetery, Wilson. A fine early work framed in delicate florals with an epitaph whose freehand font diminishes in size.
  • Gus and Cora Armstrong. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Bizarrely proportioned lines of lettering.

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In the 1900 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: farmer Benjamin Best, wife Eliza, and children Virgin N., Mildred, Junius, Sopremia, Benjamin, Corinthia, Remantha, Olian, and Clarence. Benjamin and Eliza reported having been married 25 years, and Eliza reported that 10 of the 12 children she had borne were living.

In the 1910 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: widow Eliza Best, 53, with children Junius, 29, Rematha, 20, Allen, 18, and Clarence, 16, plus grandchildren Suprema, 5, and Martha A., 3.

On 24 January 1917, Clarence Best, 22, of Wilson township, son of Benjamin and Eliza Best, and Geneva Smith, 22, of Gardners township, daughter of Henry and Mahala Smith, were married in Gardners township by C.H. Hagans, a Primitive Baptist minister. Fred Woodard, John Barnes and Len Woodard witnessed.

Clarence Best registered for the World War I draft on 5 June 1917. He reported that he was born 22 October 1894 in Wayne County, North Carolina; that he resided at RFD #4, Box 4, Wilson; and that he worked as a stone rubber at Wilson Marble Mantle & Tile Company. He claimed that he supported his wife and his mother and her two grandchildren. He was described as medium height and build, with brown eyes and black hair.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Saratoga Road, marble cutter Clarence Best, 26, wife Geneva, 26, and son Clarence H., 1, plus Eliza Best, 68, Martha Ann Best, 11, and Suprema Hooks, 11. Next door, Junius Best, 38, wagon factory assembly man, wife Mary A., 27, and children Mary Olivia, 2, and Colonius, 4 months.

Eliza Best died 1 September 1929 in Wilson of “injury of rt. leg; cut her leg on a piece of tin.” She resided at 1310 East Nash Street, Wilson, and was the widow of Benjamin Best. She was about 64 years old and had been born in Wilson County to Jim Ellis and Zannie Applewhite. She was buried in Rountree cemetery; Clarence Best was informant.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 203 East Nash Street, marble works polisher Clearance Best, 37, wife Geneva, 37, and son Clearance, 11. Nearby: wagon factory laborer Junious Best, 47, wife Mary, 39, and children Mary, 12, Colanelus, 11, Mattie, 7, and Rematha, 2.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: marble dresser Clarence Best, 46, wife Geneva, 46, and son Clarence H. Best, 21, tobacco stemmer, plus nephew Frank Brake, 14.

In 1943, Clarence Herman Best registered for the World War II draft. He reported his home address as 1306 East Nash Street, Wilson; his date of birth as 3 October 1918; and his closest relative as Clarence Benjamin Best, his father. His employer was Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte, North Carolina.

Genevia Smith Best died 23 September 1969 in Wilson. Per her death certificate , she was born 19 August 1896 to William Henry Smith and Martha (last name unknown.) She was buried at Rest Haven cemetery; Clarence Best was informant.

Clarence B. Best died 18 November 1980 in Wilson. The double headstone he had created after his wife’s burial — with extra pointy 9’s, a cross, and a slighty too-long epitaph — awaited his death date as a final entry. When the time came, it was, of course, incised perfectly by machine.

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Be honest & true. Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.

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Wilson Daily Times, 23 May 1951.

All photos by Lisa Y. Henderson.