letter to editor

If the newspaper is going to attack these poor, helpless people …

Though strawberry picking is now regarded as a quaint pastime, suitable for Instagrammable photos of one’s toddlers, North Carolina’s strawberry fields were a labor battleground in the late 1930s.

We read here of three African-American Wilson women who were ruled in April 1938 to have committed fraud and misrepresentation for seeking unemployment benefits after refusing offers to pick strawberries.

A month later, the Daily Times reported a “mass strike” by potential pickers — more than 400 unemployed Black men and women who refused to accept job offers working in strawberry fields. When these workers filed for unemployment, they were charged with fraud and tried in mass hearings at which they faced fines and denial of benefits. “‘They seem to feel,’ said Herbert Petty, manager of the [employment] branch office [in Wilson], ‘that they would rather get $4 from us for not working than they would $10 a week by working for it.'” When asked what people would do without unemployment relief, Petty snapped: “‘They got along all right this time last year when they couldn’t get this insurance.”

The spring of 1939 saw the protest reemerge. Per the April 10 edition of the Daily Times, the Wilson employment office sent out a “hurry call” for strawberry pickers, who would be sent to fields near Warsaw and Wallace in Duplin County, 50 to 80 miles south of Wilson. The report noted that there was “nothing mandatory” about the first few calls for laborers, but later in the season the employment office might be “forced” to draft pickers from the ranks of applicants for unemployment. If this happened, and applicants refused to go, “official action would be taken against them.”

In response to Times columnist John G. Thomas’ dismissive takes on the motives and concerns of African-American laborers, Willis E. Prince submitted for publication this remarkable rebuke.

Wilson Daily Times, 13 April 1939.

Who was Willis Ephraim Prince? In 1939, he was a 53 year-old self-employed carpenter and bar owner who had spent a decade living in Philadelphia and New York City and whose financial independence allowed him to raise his voice in protest without fear of repercussion. Just as importantly, he was the son of Turner Prince.

In 1865, formerly enslaved men and women settled on the flats just across the Tar River from Tarboro; they called their community Freedom Hill. Pitt County-born freedman named Turner Prince (1842-1912) and his wife, Sarah Foreman Prince, soon arrived in the community. Prince, a carpenter, constructed houses and other buildings throughout Freedom Hill and involved himself in local Republican politics. In recognition of his leadership and literal community-building, Freedom Hill residents chose the name Princeville when the town was incorporated in 1885, the first town in North Carolina (and probably the United States) incorporated by African-Americans.

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In the 1900 census of Tarboro township, Edgecombe County: carpenter Turner Prince, 58; wife Sarah, 54; children Laura, 18, Sarah J., 16, Willis E., 14, and Jonas A., 11; and granddaughter Lucy Lloyd, 9.

On 21 August 1907, William Prince married Gertrude Pittmon in Manhattan.

In the 1910 census of Manhattan, New York, New York: at 165 West 72nd, William P. Prince, 24, born in N.C., janitor at apartment house, and wife Gertrude P., 30, born in N.C., housekeeper at apartment house.

On 6 June 1912, shortly before he died, Turner Prince made out a will whose provisions included: “I give, devise and bequeath to Ephraim Prince my son & Susie Gray my grandchild the house in which we now live. Ephraim is to have full possession of said house during the minority of said Susie Gray and in return contribute to her support. If at any time he should discontinue to do so, then he shall forfeit ($50.00) Fifty Dollars to my estate, the amount forfeited to be used for the benefit of said Susie Gray. If Susie Gray should die before maturity then said property shall revert to Ephraim in full. Otherwise he is to pay Susie Gray $50.00 upon her becoming of age, and he come in full possession of said property.”

In 1918, Willis Ephraim Prince registered for the World War I draft in Manhattan County, New York. Per his registration card, he was born 22 January 1886; lived at 2470-7th Avenue, New York City; was an unemployed licensed engineer; and his nearest relative was wife Gertrude Prince.

On 22 November 1919, Willis E. Prince, 31, of Edgecombe County, son of Turner and Sarah Prince, married Marina White, 21, of Edgecombe County, daughter of Edgar and Marietta Wilkins, at the courthouse in Wilson.

In the 1920 census of Tarboro, Edgecombe County: on Tarboro Road, carpenter Willis Prince, 32; wife Marina, 21, teacher; and daughter Vivian, 8 months.

On 31 December 1920, Tarboro’s Daily Southerner reported the arrests of four men for stealing a safe from Willis Prince’s store in Tarboro.

On 21 November 1922, Willis Prince, 36, son of Turner and Sarah Prince, married Mary Gear, 36, daughter of Dan and Sarah Gear, in Wilson. A.M.E.Z. minister B.P. Coward performed the ceremony in the presence of Laura Peele, S.A. Coward, and Louise Cooper.

In the 1925 and 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directories, Willis and Mary Prince are listed at addresses on Suggs Street.

Mary Prince died 14 November 1928 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 45 years old; was born in Wilson County to Daniel and Sarah Gier; was married to Willis Prince; and was buried in Rountree Cemetery. Alice Woodard was informant.

In the 1930 census of Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania: at Chestnut Hill Hospital, Willis E. Prince, 49, boarder, porter at public hospital; born in North Carolina.

On 27 January 1934, Willis Prince, 47, son of Turner Prince and Sarah [maiden name not listed], married Alma Mae Hines, 29, daughter of Amos and Sarah Hines, in Wilson. C.E. Artis applied for the license, and A.M.E. Zion minister I. Albert Moore performed the ceremony in the presence of M.W. Hines, C.L. Darden, and A.M. Dupree.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Willis Prince, 54, carpenter/private contractor, and wife Allie, [blank].

In the 1941 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Prince Willis E (c; Ella M; Small Town Club) h 205 Stantonsburg

1941 Wilson, N.C., city directory.

The last will and testament of Willis E. Prince, 1947. Daniel McKeithen, Talmon Hunter, Dr. Kenneth Shade, S.P. Artis, and Daniel Carroll witnessed the document.

Willis Ephraim Prince died 2 October 1950 at Mercy Hospital. Per his death certificate, he was born 17 January 1889 in Edgecombe County to Turner Prince and Sarah [maiden name not listed]; was married to Allie Mae Prince; lived at 205 Stantonsburg Street, Wilson; and worked as a merchant at his own business.

For more about Princeville, see here and here and here.

The re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan.

On 21 December 1920, Dr. Frank S. Hargrave penned a letter to the editor of the Wilson Daily Times expressing quiet alarm about anonymous invitations sent to white men to become members of “the most powerful secret organization in America,” the Ku Klux Klan.

Wilson Daily Times, 22 December 1920.

Though not framed as a direct response, the Times published a tepid editorial a week later in which it cautioned against the rise of secret societies comprising the “worst,” not the “best” men in the county. “We just throw this out as food for thought, for we believe we know some of the gentlemen who are members of the Ku Klux Klan, and we believe also that they would not have joined if they had for one moment suspected that they had a single member in the fraternity with brains so small and intelligence so little” as to have written J.D. Gold an unspecified note — perhaps the invitation to which Dr. Hargrave referred?

Wilson Daily Times, 31 December 1920.

As we now know, Gold gave the “best men” of Wilson too much credit. By the end of the decade, the Klan held its regular meetings in the white Odd Fellows Hall upstairs at 208 South Goldsboro Street, along with all of the other white-only benevolent and fraternal organizations except the Masons.

Proud he was born in Wilson.

Dr. Joseph H. Ward, circa World War I. Photo credit unknown.

In September 1926, Dr. Joseph H. Ward sent a note of thanks to Daily Times editor John D. Gold for a complimentary article the paper had published a few weeks before. The New York World had picked up and reprinted the piece, which had caught Dr. Ward’s attention. 

Dr. Ward noted the “generosity and goodwill” of Wilson’s citizens and proclaimed that he was “proud to have been touched by the benign influence of the men who laid the foundation of the Wilson of today — the Messrs. Barnes, Woodards, Ruffins, Rountrees, Golds, Daniels, Conners, Davises, Vicks and Prices, and their illustrious compatriots.” 

By populating his roll call with surnames only, Dr. Ward was able to place on an equal footing the African-American men who had positively impacted his youth — Samuel H. Vick and Joseph C. Price (and possibly, Rev. Fred M. Davis.) Notably, he did not name the family of his biological father, Dr. David G.W. Ward.

Wilson Daily Times, 3 September 1926.

I have not been able to find the August 19 article.

Many thanks to J. Robert Boykin III for the clipping.

A few reasons why Negro ministers should support race enterprises.

The Word, in short: “buy Black.”

Cleveland Gazette, 6 July 1912.

  • A.N. Darden — Arthur N. Darden, son of Charles H. and Dinah Scarborough Darden, was only 23 years old when he penned this opinion letter published in the Cleveland Gazette, an African-American newspaper. His message of “race pride” to Black clergy is summarized in his final paragraph: ” … if the race sticks together in business life the day is nearer than we think when Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hand to God and our race become the chief corner stone that the builders rejected.”

Fisher suggests a labor camp.

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Wilson Daily Times, 6 October 1942.

In the fall of 1942, farmers complained that, rather than spending their final weeks toiling to harvest crops, men waiting to be called up for military service were taking “vacations” and carousing instead. Edwin D. Fisher, ex-confirmed cabin steward, U.S. Navy, took pen in hand to suggest a solution. He was willing to join one hundred others to purchase ten acres of land in Wilson County for the establishment of a “federal migratory labor camp.” Fisher had been assured by his neighbor, “Nurse Raison,” that migrant workers were harvest specialists who did not seek “recreation or jaunts into surrounding towns,” being satisfied with the entertainment provided in the camp. Moreover, “sweat worn men, women and youth rest in their cots at night” in such camps. Fisher had seen it with his own eyes.

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In the 1910 census of New Haven, Connecticut: at 30 Hazel Street, hardware merchant Edwin W. Fisher, 37; wife Daisy, 32; and children Edwin D., 16, Eugene L., 13, Clarence R., 10, Anna V., 6, Milton W., 3, and Susie A., 1.

Edwin Dortche Fisher registered for the World War I draft in New Haven, Connecticut. Per his registration card, he was born 1 February 1894 in Essex, Connecticut; resided at 26 Charles Street, New Haven; was a student and club car waiter; worked for the N.Y.N.H. & H. R.R., New York; and had a “weak back from injury.”

In the 1920 census of Westport, Fairfield County, Connecticut: William Dorsey, 64, master mason; son-in-law Edwin Fisher, 26, steward on [illegible]; daughter Edith Fisher, 26; and their daughter Mary, 1.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: banker Judge D. Reid, 52, public school principal Elnora Reid, 50, sons Fredrick, 17, and Herbert, 14, and lodger Edwin D. Fisher, 36, a studio photographer. The house was owned free of mortgage and valued at $6000.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 302 Vick, widow Letitia Lovett, 62, born Georgia, dressmaker, and roomer Edwin D. Fisher, 46, “World War veteran.”

On 2 February 1941, Edwin D. Fisher, 47, son of Edwin W. Fisher and Nannie D. Fisher, married Letitia H. Lovett, 57, daughter of Frank and Sarah Jones, at Lovett’s residence. Baptist minister Fred M. Davis performed the ceremony in the presence of Milton W. Fisher, Mrs. Almira Fisher, Mrs. Rosa B. McCuller, and Mrs. Eva L. Brown.

Letitia Lovette Fisher died 1 November 1969 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 10 January 1876 in Georgia to Franklin Jones and an unknown mother; lived at 301 North Vick; was married Edwin Dortch Fisher; and was a seamstress and teacher.

Edwin Dortche Fisher died 15 November 1973 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 18 February 1893; lived at 301 North Vick Street; was a widower; and worked in photography. Harry J. Faison was informant.

Eating the hog is the thing uppermost in their minds.

In 1924, Samuel H. Vick, elbowed out of formal political activity, clapped back at a Greensboro, North Carolina, newspaper’s op-ed piece about African-Americans and the state Republican Party.

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Wilson Daily Times, 23 September 1924.

Editor Daily Times:

In regard to the editorial appearing [on] the Negro and the Republican party in this state, we wish to state that the “Hog Combine” has no desire to carry North Carolina for the Republican party.

Eating the hog is the thing uppermost in their minds, and they eat so much until they have nightmares.

Control of national Republican patronage is their sole ambition.

The party who wrote the editorial in the Greensboro Daily News is evidently a member of the “Hog Combine.”

If this is not true it is rather strange that he should dictate the policy of the Republican party in North Carolina in regard to the Negro.

The Negro has been politically asleep for the past twenty years, but he is arousing now and will be heard from.

We have no desires or ambitions politically, but we have an interest in our people politically as well as otherwise.

This explains our activity in the matter if the little part we have taken in such things can be called by that name.

Since we were mentioned personally in the editorial, we wish to make this statement: If I have incurred “a legacy of everlasting race rancor and hatred by a temporary (ten years) tenure of a Wilson Post Office” it has never been shown or demonstrated by the people of Wilson. They were my friends then and have shown their friendship ever since. Whatever I may have or possess is due largely to their friendship which this editor calls race rancor and hatred.

In regard to being invited into the party we wish to say that the Anglo-African does not have to be invited into the Republican party. He has no doubt been too loyal. It was the Anglo-Saxon who was invited into the ranks of the party. He came in and took possession and shut the door on the Anglo-African, but the original Republicans are coming back in spite of the “Hog Combine,” believing what is good for the white man is good for the negro with equal intelligence.

Respectfully, S.H. VICK

Details of a drowning.

The day after Eugene Fisher drowned while swimming in the lake at Contentnea Park, the Daily Times printed an article suggesting that “Sam Vick,” i.e. Samuel H. Vick Jr., bore some responsibility for the accident.

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Wilson Daily Times, 29 July 1924.

Vick immediately fired back. His grief, he stated sharply, had “been still more aggravated by the misstatement of facts concerning my part in the matter, for the facts were badly twisted and really just the opposite what really happened.” Georgia Aiken also contributed a corrective, milder in tone, but just as firm.

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Wilson Daily Times, 30 July 1924.

And where was Contentnea Park? References in contemporaneous news articles reveal that (1) it was not an African-American-only park — the Kiwanis met there regularly — but rather seems to have had a section reserved for black patrons, “the negro park”; (2) it was privately owned and operated; (3) it was located above the dam on Contentnea Creek; and (4) entrance was gained via a road marked by two stone pillars. A dam spans Contentnea Creek just above U.S. Highway 301 to form what is now known as Wiggins Mill Reservoir, still a popular recreational area. With a hat tip to Janelle Booth Clevinger, here is my best guest at the park’s location:

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  • Eugene Fisher — Connecticut-born Eugene Leonard Fisher was newly arrived to Wilson at the time of his tragic death. His father Edwin W. Fisher was a manager with North Carolina Mutual and moved his wife and remaining children to Wilson between 1926, when Edwin is listed in the 1926 Durham, N.C., city directory, and 1928, when he appears in the Wilson directory. They settled into 624 East Nash Street, the house built for Dr. Frank S. Hargrave next door to Samuel Vick’s family home at 622. The Fishers appear in Wilson in the 1930 census, and Daisy Virginia Fisher (Eugene’s stepmother) died there on 25 April 1935. Per her death certificate, she and her husband were living at 539 East Nash at the time. Eugene Fisher’s younger brother Milton W. Fisher remained in Wilson into the 1940s, and his older brother Edwin D. Fisher lived there the remainder of his life.

Eugene Fisher’s death certificate reveals that he was an insurance agent for North Carolina Mutual. Fisher was living at an unspecified address on Nash Street. His father Edwin, then a Durham resident, was informant.

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Eugene L. Fisher served in the United States Naval Reserve Force during World War I as a mess attendant. The Messman Branch of the Navy, which was restricted to non-white sailors, was responsible for feeding and serving officers. Fisher was assigned to U.S.S. Black Hawk, a destroyer depot ship. After his death, his brother Edwin D. Fisher of 600 East Green Street applied for a military headstone to be shipped to the “Negro Cemetery (Fayetteville Street)” in Durham. [Edwin Fisher, himself a veteran of World War I, signed as “Liaison Officer, [illegible] A.V. of World War, Sumter S.C. chap. #2.” (What does this signify?)]

Aerial images courtesy of Google Maps.

UPDATE, 9 April 2019:

The “stone” pillars I identified above are actually brick. Until a better guess arrives though, I will stick with hypothesis that they mark the entrance to Contentnea Park. Many thanks to Janelle Booth Clevinger for this photo. — LYH

UPDATE, 11 April 2019: Per additional intel, the pillars shown above were erected in the 1960s. Thus, the location of Contentnea Park remains a mystery.

God bless Wilson and her worthy people.

One hundred nineteen years ago today, the Wilson Times ran a letter sent from Monrovia, Liberia, by Rev. Owen L.W. Smith, U.S. consul to that West African country. Largely a sycophantic roll call of Wilson’s elected officials, halfway through Smith suddenly jabs. Praising a hospital director, he commented that all had “the appearance that better things are coming, notwithstanding the ‘Jim Crow Car’ law, the election franchise act, and the constitutional amendment. But I believe you will let me vote.” He then drops a few lines describing Liberia’s system of suffrage. It’s not universal, but. Touché.

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Wilson Times, 9 June 1899.

I will get all the subscribers I can.

New York Age, 14 January 1915.

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In the 1908 Wilson city directory: Joyner Washington, painter, h 616 Viola.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: wagon factory laborer Willie Paulkin, 26, wife Pearl, 22, son Atric, 2, and brother Sam, 24, a wagon factory laborer; also house painter Wash Joyner, 35, wife Sarah, 32, a laundress, and son Alexander, 13.

In the 1912 Wilson city directory: Joyner Washington, barber, h 616 Viola.

In 1918, George Washington Joyner registered for the World War I draft. Per his registration card, he was born 15 April 1875; resided at 616 Viola Street; was a self-employed barber at 213 Goldsboro Street; and his nearest relative was Sarah Jane Joyner.

It tells about the good things that the Negro does.

NY Age JW Pitts

New York Age, 8 March 1917.

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Two men named John W. Pitts lived in East Wilson in the early part of the 20th century. They do not seem to have been related and are not easily distinguished from one another. The letter writer above, however, appears to be the older man.

On 12 September 1918, John William Pitts registered for the World War I draft in Wilson. He reported that he was born 26 December 1878; resided at 619 Railroad Street; was a minister; and his next-of-kin was Louiser Pitts.