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Smith and Church Streets, today.

Smith and Church are narrow streets running parallel to Nash Street between Pettigrew and Pender Streets. By the 1930s, both were densely packed with working class housing, mostly wooden double shotguns, as shown on the 1930 Sanborn fire insurance map.

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By the 1980s, these blocks had developed grim reputations, and today they are, essentially, vacant. There are no remaining houses on Smith Street and only three on Church. 507 Church Street, shown below just to the left of the word “Church,” is clearly visible above as a long, narrow shotgun house.


Aerial view of Smith and Church Streets in 2017, courtesy of Mapquest.

Smith Street in July 2016, looking west toward Pettigrew Street, with the Cherry Hotel looming on the horizon.

Photograph by Lisa Y. Henderson.

Bird’s eye view.

“During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the cheap cost of printing lithographs coupled with the pride of small towns laid the foundation for the success of artists who specialized in hand drawn panoramic birds-eye view maps of American cities. The idea behind the panoramic birds-eye view was to draw the town at an oblique angle from an imaginary vantage point in the air, from the viewpoint a bird would have flying over the city. Although the scale of certain buildings were exaggerated to make the town more visible, the accuracy and attention to detail was otherwise so meticulous that each building was almost an exact copy of its real world counterpart down to the number of windows it possessed. There were numerous artists that gained popularity during this period. One such artist was Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler, known more by the name printed on each of the maps he completed, T.M. Fowler.” From Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler, Pennsylvania State Archives, http://www.phmc.state.pa.us

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In 1908, T.M. Fowler issued a bird’s eye map of Wilson. Drawn from the perspective of, say, a hawk floating above what is now Barton College, the map focuses on the town’s most prosperous districts. The Atlantic Coast Line Rail Road slices across the top left corner of the map, however, and beyond the track — Black Wilson.

Though none of the district’s buildings were highlighted on the margins of the map, a close examination reveals several that are immediately identifiable. At (1), looming over the 600 block of Green Street, is the turreted home of postmaster-cum-real estate developer Samuel H. Vick. At (2), at the corner of Green and Elba Streets, Pilgrim Rest Primitive Baptist Church. At (3), Calvary Presbyterian Church. At (4), Darden and Sons funeral home. At (5), First Baptist Church. At (6), Saint John A.M.E. Zion Church.

Continuing across the top of the map — headed southeast on the ground —  at (7), down Stantonsburg Street, the Colored Graded School, and (8) the stemmeries and tobacco factories of Little Richmond.

In 1908, little of East Wilson was inside city limits, which did not extend much beyond Pender Street or the tobacco factory district. Thus, many of the houses and other buildings depicted in Fowler’s fabulous map, including the graded school and all of Vick’s neighborhood, were not surveyed in the Sanborn fire insurance map produced the same year.

Sanborn fire insurance map, Wilson, North Carolina (1908).

Elm City’s Negro community, pt. 3.

Cecil Lloyd Spellman was a professor of rural education at Florida A&M in Tallahassee. In 1947, he published “Elm City, A Negro Community in Action,” a monograph intended to employ sociology to “interpret the Negro in his actual day to day activities and interrelationships with members of his own and other races.”

Early in the work, on page 11, Spellman included this hand-drawn map of the Elm City community and its neighborhoods.

ELm City neighborhood

Below, the same community via Google Maps. Topographically, little has changed in 70 years. The major roads lacing the area — all two-lane except U.S. Highway 301 — remain in place, though now all are paved. The railroad still slices north to south. The small communities marked by one-room schools have largely dissipated in all but name, however.

Google Elm City

The 500 block.

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Page 14, Wilson, North Carolina, Sanborn map, 1908.

The intersection of East Nash, Pender Street and Stantonsburg Road. (Jane Street down there is now Ashe.) First Baptist’s church was two years away, but an early version of the Saint John A.M.E. Zion building was in place. The Darden Funeral Home building had a bicycle shop and general repair shop on the first floor, the undertaking business on the second, and lodge quarters on the third. In 1908, the main commercial strip of black Wilson — the 500 block of East Nash — was still primarily residential, but the map does show several general stores (540, 552, 565), a barbershop (528), two cobblers (525 and 526), a drugstore (538), and the Hotel Union (532-534) in place. An adjoining map (page 8), which depicts Nash Street from the railroad east, shows at 500-502, a general store; 504, barber; 508, tailor; 514, pool room; 516, bike shop and fishmonger; and 518, meat market.

The 1908 edition of Hill’s Wilson city directory identifies the block’s shopkeepers and business owners. (African-Americans are indicated by an *):

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Map of Wilson, 1872.

This is the first known map of Wilson, copied from a drawing made in 1872 by E.B. Mayo:

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The orientation is odd, as the bottom of the page is north. (Or, more strictly speaking, northeast.) There, encircled at the edge, is the only reference to any of the African-Americans who made up just over a quarter of the town’s population in the early 1870s. It’s Lemon Taborn‘s barbershop.

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Here, roughly outlined, is that area of downtown Wilson today:

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Spring Street is now Douglas and Nash Street extends across the tracks (replacing “the Plank Road,”) but otherwise street names remain the same. There are, of course, no marl holes or wells or trees in the middle of roads. The railroad in the 1872 map is not angled enough; despite appearances, it does not parallel downtown streets. Today, Lemon Taborn’s location at Tarboro just past Vance Street is roughly the site of the Wesley Shelter, Wilson County’s domestic violence and sexual assault agency.

Map of Wilson, 1882.

This is Gray’s New Map of Wilson, Wilson County, North Carolina, published in 1882:

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There, on the right edge of town, encircled here in red, is the sole reference to any building owned or occupied by African-Americans: “Col. Ch.” (Please click the image for a closer look.)

Don’t be mislead.

In 1880, town of Wilson had a population of 1475 of whom about 30% were black. The federal census of that year split the town and surrounding township into two enumeration districts, 303 and 304, and most African-Americans were clustered in neighborhoods in 304, south of the Plank Road (east of town limits), Nash Street (within town limits) and Nash Road (west of town limits). East Wilson, as we know it today, lay more than 25 years in the future, but black Wilsonians had begun to stake claim to the area east of the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, as shown by the presence of a “colored church” on Pender Street, probably Saint John A.M.E. Zion.

[UPDATE, 23 Jan 2016: After publishing this, I returned to re-examine this map. Sure enough, at Tarboro, between Vance and Lee Streets, is “L. Tabourne” — Lemon Taborn’s house. My point yet stands.  — LYH]