In 2018, North Carolina welcomed home a native son, renowned jazz drummer Billy Kaye. Born Willie King Seaberry in Wilson in 1932, Kaye performed with Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and other luminaries, but had never played in Wilson. Not long after his June performance at Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, Sandra Davidson interviewed Kaye for North Carolina Arts Council’s “50 for 50: Artists Celebrate North Carolina.”
Below, an excerpt from the interview.
S.D.: Tell me what you remember about growing up in Wilson.
Kaye: I was born in ‘32 a couple blocks from the train station near the Cherry Hotel, one of the top hotels in Wilson. My grandparents’ home was 517 Church Street which was something like a two-block walk to the train station. It was a block off Nash Street. Most of the employment was done there. Nash Street had [a] drug store, dentist, doctor. There was a Ritz Theater on Nash Street. There were three churches in that area. That was basically it. I grew up running around the yard playing the Lone Ranger with a broomstick between my legs. I used to enjoy coming home in the summers when I was a youngster to play in the dirt, climb the trees, play under the house. That kind of stuff.
S.D.: … What is it like to for you to play your first hometown show?
Kaye: It’s hard to explain. It’s the biggest thing that ever happened. Playing at home was something I wasn’t even about when I left here. I had no history. I was just a guy that moved up [North]. I played in Greensboro some years back. It was okay. It was North Carolina, but it wasn’t Wilson. Goldsboro—that was great, but it still wasn’t Wilson. Home is where I was born. So, this thing here, it’s hard to explain. I’m playing at home. I’m seeing things that I didn’t see and appreciating things. I see these trees, the most magnificent things. There’s nothing there but trees. Man, they are the greatest trees I’ve ever seen. It’s like home.
Billy Kaye performs at Whirligig Park. (Photo: Astrid Rieckien for the Washington Post.)
For the full transcript of Kaye’s interview and to watch videos of his performance in Wilson’s Whirligig Park, see here.
“my grandparents” — Kaye’s mother was Helen King. On 8 March 1929, Henrietta King, 50, whom I believe to be Helen King’s mother, married W.J. Howell, 58, in Wilson. Rev. B.F. Jordan performed the ceremony in the presence of George W. Coppedge, Eva M. Hines, and Willie Faulkland. William J. Howell died 8 November 1939 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 67 years old; was born in Cumberland County, N.C., to Rachel Barnes; was married to Henrietta Howell; lived at 517 Church Street; worked as a laborer; and was buried in Rountree Cemetery. In the 1941 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Howell Henrietta (c; cook) h 517 Church. Henrietta King Howell died 28 December 1948 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Indiana was an early destination for African-Americans leaving North Carolina for perceived greener pastures. Several hundred free people of color migrated to Indiana in the 1830s and 1840s, but only two families have been definitively linked to the area that is now Wilson County. Another large migration circa 1880 was the subject of a Congressional inquiry. During the Great Migration, Indianapolis was a popular focus of migration.
Though the Great Migration to California most often drew seekers from states like Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas, Wilson County natives also joined the tide that increased the African-American population of that state exponentially.
Perhaps the first nationally known Wilson native to take up residence in California arrived not in the Great Migration, but as a result of the National Football League draft. The Los Angeles Rams drafted Saint Augustine’s College defensive end Isaac T. Lassiter in 1962, and he later spent five seasons with the Oakland Raiders, playing in the 1967 Super Bowl. Lassiter was born in 1940 in Wilson to Dempsey and Mary Jane Bynum Lassiter and graduated from C.H. Darden High School.
Hat tip to Bernard Patterson for the football card image.
Philadelphia was the site of my closest personal connections to the Great Migration. In the 1940s and ’50s, my father’s brothers and then his mother left Wilson for Philly, and every summer we hit the highway for a week or so at my grandmother’s house on Wyalusing Avenue. Her block was filled with migrants from Georgia and North Carolina and Virginia, and her broader social circle included relatives who had settled in other parts of the city.
(I lived in Philadelphia for a few years in the 1990s, in both West Philly and Germantown. By then, many of the first generation of Southern migrants had passed on, but their legacy is firm. The fourth generation of my eldest uncle’s offspring is growing up in North Philadelphia right now.)
Pennsylvania’s plethora of on-line records makes for easy documentation of a long list of Wilson County natives who sought new lives in the Keystone State. Not surprisingly, almost all landed in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or their suburbs.
I recently revisited Isabel Wilkerson’s epic The Warmth of Other Suns and, if you haven’t basked in this brilliance, please do. Others have said it better than I can. Toni Morrison called the book “profound, necessary, and a delight to read”; Tom Brokaw praised it as “an epic for all Americans who want to understand the making of our modern nation”; The New York Times Book Review” proclaimed a massive and masterly account”; The New Yorker, “a deeply affecting, finely crafted and heroic book.”
Black Wide-Awake is largely about people who cast down their buckets where they were, but also shines light on those whose paths carried them away from Wilson County. I can say with confidence that nobody I knew growing up did not have relatives in Harlem or Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx. Every summer, our little pack swelled with migrants’ grandchildren sent down South and inevitably one of our own went North for two weeks and came back “talking proper.” (Disclosure: I spent two years living in New York. I was in graduate school at Columbia and lived on West 121st Street in Morningside Heights. From the park at the end of my street, I could look out over the expanse of pre-gentrified Harlem, and 125th Street served up any Southernness I was homesick for.)
A definitive listing of these many thousands of migrants is impossible, but a try seems well worth it. In a slight expansion of the general timeline of the blog, these running lists will focus on documented migration prior to 1960. Arguably, New York was the lodestar for North Carolinians during the Great Migration, and I’ll start there.