memorial

Hart Island Project.

I knew, of course, that New York City has a potter’s field. That knowledge, however, did not blunt the impact of drone footage of laborers burying in long trenches the plain wooden coffins of coronavirus victims. The pine boxes, startlingly pale against the dark slash of subsoil, stacked edge to edge, two deep.

More than one million New Yorkers have been buried on Hart Island since the late 1860s. In early April 2020, as hundreds, then thousands, died a day from Covid-19, the city began to bury unclaimed bodies, at least temporarily, on the island.

Hart Island Project, a nonprofit group that has pushed for more public access and awareness regarding the island, published the drone video. The Project has created database (with map) of burials on Hart Island since 1980 and Traveling Cloud Museum, an interactive storytelling platform that provides information about each person, including “a clock that measures the period of time they have been buried in anonymity until someone adds a story, image, epitaph, sound or video.

Hart Island Project’s work and website are powerful models for what might be done to restore to memory the dead of Rountree, Odd Fellows, and Vick Cemeteries.

For more regarding initial efforts to identify Hart Island’s dead, please see “Finding Names for Hart Island’s Forgotten,” a story by Cara Buckley published 24 March 2008 in the New York Times:

“For her part, Ms. [Melinda] Hunt believes that Hart Island should allow public visits, at least once a year, though Stephen Morello, a spokesman for the Department of Correction, said security would be a concern because inmates work there. Ms. Hunt also said the need was urgent for Hart Island’s burial records to be available in a centralized database, an expense that Mr. Morello said the Correction Department did not have the resources to cover. Thousands of records, handwritten in ledgers, were lost in a fire in the 1970s. Ms. Hunt said she would be applying to a state arts foundation for money to post the records online, and to collect the stories behind them.

‘People have the right to know where their family members are buried in the city,’ she said. ‘I’m trying to show a hidden part of American culture that I think is important, that I think is overlooked. These are public records. They belong to the people of New York.’”

Hat tip to Renee Lapyerolerie.

Rest in peace, Monte Vick Cowan.

Occasionally, we are reminded that the past is not so very distant, that we are often only a degree or two removed from the men and women whose achievements we now think of as historic. The news of the death last week of Monte LeRoque Vick Cowan, the youngest and last surviving child of Samuel H. and Annie Washington Vick, is just such a reminder.

A young Monte Vick on a snowy day.

Mrs. Cowan was born in Wilson in June 1918. World War I was raging, and Spanish flu had begun its deadly spread across the United States. At home, though, the Vick family was enjoying perhaps its period of greatest influence and prosperity. With the entrenchment of Jim Crow, Samuel Vick had retired from political life, but, described as the wealthiest man of his race in North Carolina, was involved one way or another in the establishment of nearly every important institution in East Wilson — an Odd Fellows hall, a Presbyterian church, a Baptist church, a public cemetery, a hospital, a theatre. Two months before Mrs. Cowan’s birth, black parents launched a boycott of the colored graded school, and Vick stepped forward with the offer a building to house an alternative school. Just before Mrs. Cowan’s third birthday, her father led the establishment of Wilson’s only black-owned bank. She grew up in her parents’ imposing East Green Street home in a neighborhood he largely planned with streets named for her older sisters Irma, Viola, Elba and Doris. She was five years old when Wilson Colored High School opened its doors, and a young adult when the elementary school named for her father admitted its first students in the late years of the Great Depression. World War II found Mrs. Cowan in Wilmington, Delaware, where she married Army corporal George Alexander Cowan.

Mrs. Cowan’s 101 years offer a bridge to places and events that can now seem remote. Her long life reminds us of the reach of our roots and invites remembrance and recognition of those upon whose shoulders we stand.

Rest in peace, Monte Vick Cowan.

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Monte L. Cowan passed on February 12, 2020. She was a Maywood, N.J., resident, formerly of East Orange. She was a graduate of Bennett College of Greensboro, N.C., class of 1940. She was a life long member The Silver Steppers of East Orange, N.J.

Mrs. Cowan leaves to cherish her memories her daughter Vicki M. Cowan, granddaughter Kyara A. Cowan, nieces Joyce Freeman, Beverly Adams, Darnell Street, Denise Cowan, Emma Cowan, Roslyn Lanham, and a host of other relatives and friends. Funeral Services Tuesday February 18, 10 am at Mt. Olive Baptist Church 260 Central Avenue, Hackensack. Visitation 9-10 am Tuesday at the church. Cremation at the convenience of the family. In lieu of flowers donations can be made to Bennett College of Greensboro, N.C. in the name of Monte L. Vick Cowan Class of 1940. Arrangements by Earl I. Jones Funeral Home, 305 First Street, Hackensack. Brent Smallwood Senior Director.

My thanks and condolences to Vicki L. Cowan on the loss of her mother and for sharing these family photographs. Thanks also to Cynthia S. Ellis for the notification of Mrs. Cowan’s passing and for connecting me with the Vick-Cowan family.

In memory of my husband.

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Wilson Daily Times, 22 July 1960.

For at least 15 years, Mary Jane Bynum Lassiter placed an annual ad in the Daily Times to commemorate her husband Dempsey Lassiter‘s life.

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In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: lumber sawyer Charley Bynum, 41; wife Julia Ann, 43; and children Calvin, 21, Mary Jane, 18, Ameta, 16, Annie, 13, John C., 9, and Abraham, 1.

Dempsy Lester, 38, of Wilson, son of Green and Mary Lester, and Mary Jane Bynum, 28, of Wilson, daughter of Charlie and Julie Bynum. Primitive Baptist minister Jonah Williams performed the ceremony on 2 October 1912 at the bride’s residence. Witnesses were A.R. Phillips, Roscoe Barnes, and C.L. Coppedge.

Rufus Lassiter died 10 October 1914 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 11 July 1913 in Wilson to Dempsey Lassiter and Mary J. Bynum.

In 1918, Dempsey Lassiter registered for the World War I draft. Per his registration card, he lived at 103 East Street; was born 28 October 1874; was a blacksmith for Hackney Wagon Company; and his nearest relative was Mary Jane Lassiter.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on East Street, wagon factory laborer Dempsey Lassiter, 35, and wife Mary, 25.

In the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Lassiter Dempsey (c: Mary J) farmer h 106 S East

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 106 East Street, owned and valued at $1250, Dempsey Lassiter, 55, wife Mary J., 44; nephew Charles Bynum, 16; and nieces Katie Powell, 10, and Willie M. Leonard, 6.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: farm laborer Dempsey Lassiter, 65; county school teacher Mary, 55; and widowed sister-in-law Carrie Bynum, 30, a housekeeper.

Dempsey Lassiter died 16 July 1946 at his home at 106 South East Street, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he he was married; was 68 years old; was born in Wilson County to Green Lassiter and Mary Powell; was a farmer; and his informant was Mary J. Lassiter. He was buried in Rountree cemetery.

Mary Jane Lassiter died 21 August 1966 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 84 years old; was born in Wilson County to Charles Bynum and Julia Ann Davis; was a school teacher; and was a widow. James Bynum was informant.

He was faithful in all his houses.

On 15 December 1915, Zion’s Landmark published a lengthy obituary for Elder Jonah Williams of Wayne and Wilson Counties. The Landmark was a semi-monthly newsletter begun in 1867 by Pleasant Daniel Gold, (1833-1920), pastor of Wilson Primitive Baptist Church, who filled the periodical with sermons and homilies, ads for homeopathic remedies, testimonials, altar calls and, most enduringly, obituaries of Primitive Baptists throughout eastern North Carolina.

African-Americans did not often make it into the pages of the Landmark, but P.D. Gold held Jonah Williams in considerable esteem as the founder or leader of nearly every church in the Turner Swamp Primitive Baptist Association, including Turner Swamp (1897), London’s (1897), Barnes (1898), Little Union (1899), and Rocky Mount (1908). The middle three congregations were in Wilson County.

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