Add Mary Church Terrell to the surprising list of nationally prominent African-Americans with speaking engagements in Wilson in the first half of the twentieth century.
Wilson Daily Times, 15 April 1925.
This notice of Terrell’s appearance is curious. “Half the proceeds for the benefit of the Kenan Street school”? The Kenan Street School, later known as Frederick A. Woodard School, was a white-only elementary school. Why would Terrell, an activist for civil rights and women’s causes (and, especially, their intersection), appear at such a benefit?
Wilson Daily Times, 15 April 1925.
A companion piece penned by J.D. Reid, principal of Wilson’s Colored Graded School, named a different beneficiary — the County Commencement of the Colored Schools, which were to be held at Banner Warehouse in downtown Wilson. “Prof. J.L. Cooke” — Jerry L. Cooke, who was not a professor at all, but a railway postal clerk — was in charge of the local entertainment, which included James Weldon Johnson’s poem “O Southland!” and a selection of Negro spirituals. The ever-popular Excelsior Band was also on the bill.
I’m honored that Wilson County Public Library has invited me to speak again during Black History Month.
I’ll be talking about Wilson County’s free families of color. Are you an Artis, a Hagans, a Jones, a Lassiter, a Locus or Lucas, a Reid? The history of these and other free families is little known, though their many descendants can still be found across the county.
My talk is scheduled for Saturday afternoon this year, so I hope you’ll be able to make it.
Wilson County Public Library — Main Branch, 249 Nash Street W., Wilson, N.C.
At the end of October, I had the extraordinary good fortune to develop and conduct three workshops for Gentlemen’s Agreement, an achievement program targeting African-American young men attending Wilson County high schools. Both the format and the audience were new for me. I was nervous, but I needn’t have been. The students were attentive and responsive and gratifyingly curious about the history of their hometown and the contributions of African-Americans to Wilson’s development. I am grateful to Gentlemen’s Agreement, Living the Word Ministry/North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Wilson County Public Schools and Freeman Round House and Museum for the opportunity to introduce these young people to the idea of sankofa and to give back to the community that nurtured me.
The Rev. Maurice Barnes, left, and historical blogger Lisa Henderson, right, joined Wilson high school students for a windshield tour of African American history in Wilson. Pictured are some of the students who participated. From left are Barnes, Michael Thomas, Jaden Spruill and Christopher Richardson, all Hunt High School students, and Henderson. (Photo courtesy of Wilson Times.)
Wilson teens from three high schools took windshield tours of places in African American history recently.
“In Our Backyard: Black Genius and the Quest for Racial Equity” is a youth development and leadership program to show participants of The Gentlemen’s Agreement and other youth from Wilson’s three traditional high schools a slice of Wilson history that is often forgotten.
Lisa Henderson, curator of the Black Wide Awake blog about black history in Wilson, led the most recent tour on a bus through Wilson’s streets.
“It was an amazing opportunity for me,” Henderson said. “One of the reasons I do the blog is to create a record that anyone can access going forward and to be able to connect. What is always exciting to me is to be able to find something in the historical record and then picture where it is now or what’s there now. And Wilson has changed so much in good ways and in bad that I wanted to give these students a sense of possibilities, a sense of what has come before and what could be possible going forward.”
Henderson is a Wilson native who was born at Mercy Hospital and educated in Wilson schools.
“To be able to take the windshield tour and go down the 500 block of Nash Street and see some of the sights that we had talked about in the workshop and have them go, ‘Wow, wait, I know that place,’ or ‘Yeah, I get my hair cut there’ or ‘I go to church there’ and to understand the age of these places and the significance of these places in history is really rewarding.”
“It showed us where people stayed and bigger places like the Mercy Hospital,” said Jaden Spruill, a senior at Hunt High School. “A lot of people don’t know these things. I personally didn’t know a lot of these things until I got into Gentlemen’s Agreement. I feel like this is important to know. If you don’t know this about Wilson, you get the history behind Wilson and you take more pride and you get more understanding about what was really going on around here before we were here.”
“I learned a lot of stuff I didn’t know about Wilson about the old places from back in the ’30s I didn’t know,” said Christopher Richardson Jr., a Hunt junior. “We heard is was just a country road past the hospital, and now they have a lot more. It is important for people to know about the past then and what can happen now.”
Michael Thomas, a Hunt sophomore, said it was a good experience. “I just learned about black history in Wilson,” he said. “It is good just to know where you come from and what your background is.”
“There was a lot that I didn’t know,” Michael added. “That strip of downtown, the 500 block of Nash Street, before you get to the railroads, there were a lot of stores there, but now it’s just empty. I could picture those roads there being jam-packed with people, and it was a good sight to see. You’ve got to know where you come from. If you are going to live here in Wilson and have an impact, you have got to know where you come from.”
Henderson had given talks here about African American history in Wilson when the Rev. Maurice Barnes approached her to ask if she could lead a series of workshops for The Gentlemen’s Agreement program.
“I jumped on the opportunity,” Henderson said. “The more I understood about the organization and what it is trying to do with promising young men in our school systems, any way I could help, I wanted to do it. It is important for young people to understand the past and the history of their community and have a pride in that community. Any way that I can contribute to another generation of Wilsonians knowing their past, I am happy to do it.”
“All told, for all three days, we had about 55 kids, from all three of the high schools to participate in this three-day workshop,” Barnes said.
Similar workshops held in January and March and the windshield tours were paid for by a collaborative grant from Living the Word Ministry and the Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House Museum.
On February 5, I’ll be giving a lecture at Wilson County Public Library, 249 Nash Street N., Wilson, North Carolina, as part of the library’s ongoing commitment to supporting the study of local and African-American history. I hope to see you there.
I’m looking forward to speaking on the development of Wilson’s African-American neighborhoods tonight at the Wilson County Public Library. The Wilson Times ran this interview Tuesday; I appreciate the hometown love.