Wilson Daily Times, 20 December 1982.
Leroy Mercer was recently featured in a post about his long-time home at 406 North Reid Street.
Wilson Daily Times, 20 December 1982.
Leroy Mercer was recently featured in a post about his long-time home at 406 North Reid Street.
The one hundred-sixtieth in a series of posts highlighting buildings in East Wilson Historic District, a national historic district located in Wilson, North Carolina. As originally approved, the district encompasses 858 contributing buildings and two contributing structures in a historically African-American section of Wilson. (A significant number have since been lost.) The district was developed between about 1890 to 1940 and includes notable examples of Queen Anne, Bungalow/American Craftsman, and Shotgun-style architecture. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
As described in the nomination form for the East Wilson Historic District, this building is: “ca. 1930; 1 story; bungalow with cross-gable roof and engaged porch.”
In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 406 Reid Street, rented for $16/month, Leroy Mercer, 37, grocery store delivery boy; wife Netta, 38, laundry; and children Sylvester, 11, Dempsey, 10, Mattie, 8, Annie D., 6, and James Nixon, 4.
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 406 Reed, rented for $14/month, Leroy Mercer, 47, truck driver, Peacock Grocery Company; wife Mattie, 47, private family laundress; roomer Luvenia Brown, 20; and son Dempsey Mercer, 21, show shiner.
In 1940, Dempsey Mercer registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 19 November 1920 in Wilson; lived at 406 North Reid Street; his contact was Leroy Mercer of the same address; and he worked for Willis Prince, 519 East Nash Street.
In the 1941 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Mercer Leroy (c; Mattie) driver Peacock Gro Co h 406 N Reid
In the 1947 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Mercer Leroy (c; Mattie) hlpr Peacock Gro Co h 406 N Reid
Mattie K. Mercer died 24 August 1959 at her home at 406 North Reid. Per her death certificate, she was born 6 May 1892 in Enfield, N.C. to Berry King and Adeline Bellen and was married to Leroy Mercer. Informant was Mattie Best, 807 East Green.
Photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, April 2022.
In June 1964, the Rocky Mount Telegram reported the tragic death of two teenaged siblings from Spring Hope, Nash County. Seventeen year-old Nora Jane Mercer had drowned trying to save her 16 year-old brother William Earl Mercer, who also drowned in a pond a few miles north of Bailey.
Rocky Mount Telegram, 12 June 1964.
Nora Mercer’s death certificate listed her cause of death as “drowning … while swimming in farm pond” and described her accident as “trying to save her brother.” William Toney’s Funeral Home, still active today in Spring Hope, handled the burial, which took place in … Rountree Cemetery? In 1964?!?
William Mercer’s death certificate also lists Rountree Cemetery in Wilson as his burial place. Why would two Spring Hope children be buried more than 20 miles away in Wilson?
I first wondered if this were a family cemetery — Rountree is not an uncommon surname here — located just over the Nash County line in Wilson County. (I don’t know of any such cemetery, but I wondered.) However, the double obituary for the siblings made clear that they were indeed buried in Rountree (or its sister cemeteries, Vick and Odd Fellows, collectively and confusingly known as Rountree). Further, their funeral was also in Wilson — at Piney Grove Free Will Baptist Church.
Rocky Mount Telegram, 14 June 1964.
The obituary gives Nora and William Mercer’s parents as Mr. and Mrs. Willie Austin. However, this was likely their stepfather and mother (and the surname, per the death certificate, was Alston.) Louise Alston was informant for the certificates, and she named the children’s parents as William Mercer and Louise Webb. William Mercer and Louvenia [actually, Louisianna] Webb were married in Wilson County in September 1946. Both were Wilson County natives. It appears that they divorced, and Louise Webb Mercer married an Alston. So, as we can establish that the Mercer children did have close ties to Wilson, we can be more certain that they were buried in one of the set of cemeteries on (former) Lane Street collectively called Rountree Cemetery.
Now to the most puzzling fact — 1964.
This is an aerial view of Vick, Odd Fellows, and Rountree Cemeteries in 1964.
Vick Cemetery had been condemned in the late 1950s as unfit for human burial. (Vick is the most likely of site of the children’s burials as it was a public cemetery, they were not members of Rountree Missionary Baptist Church, and there is no evidence that their father was an Odd Fellow.) By 1964, all three cemeteries were severely overgrown, with none of the bare-earth family plots so readily observable in earlier decades.
I checked Joan L. Howell’s Wilson County Cemeteries, Vol. V: The Two City-Owned African-American Cemeteries, which contains a list of 600+ burials from the last 25 years or so these cemeteries were active as burial sites. In her searches of local death certificates, the latest burials Howell found were three from 1960, six from 1961, and one from 1962. Thus, as far as now known, Nora Jane and William Earl Mercer were the last people buried in Vick, Odd Fellows, or Rountree Cemeteries.
Many thanks to Noelle Vollaro for bringing the Mercer siblings to my attention.
This version of an obituary for Joe Mercer is considerably less racist than the one that ran in the News and Observer.
Wilson Daily Times, 18 March 1920.
Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.
Wilson Daily Times, 3 December 1920.
In the 1870 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: James Forbes, 38; wife Sarah, 25; and children Garrot, 12, Joseph, 4, Bynum, 3, and William, 1.
In the 1880 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: James Forbes, 48; wife Sarah, 31; and children Garrett, 21, Joseph, 15, Bynum, 14, Martheny, 10, Rose, 9, Mary, 8, Florence, 4, and Reddin, 1.
On 5 July 1888, Bynum Forbes, 22, of Wilson County, son of James and Sarah Forbes, married Mary Smith, 19, of Wilson County, daughter of James and Edney Smith in Gardners township, Wilson County. Harry Barnes and Abram Sharp were witnesses.
On 21 June 1899, Bynum Forbes, 55, of Edgecombe County, son of Jim and Sarah Forbes, married Ida Pleasant, 21, daughter of George Pleasant and Mary Smith, at S.T. Cherry’s farm in Cocoa or #13 Township, Edgecombe County.
In the 1900 census of Township #13, Edgecombe County: Bynum Forbs, 51; wife Ida, 21; children John, 5, Henry, 1, and Edney, 9; sister Florance, 25; niece Mattie, 3; and nephew Jef. B., 2 months.
In the 1910 census of Township #13, Edgecombe County: on Cokey Road, Bynum Forbes, 67; wife Ida, 31; children John, 16, Henry, 13, Mary, 8, William, 5, James W., 2, Bynum Jr., 1 month, and Edna, 18; and grandchildren Mack, 4, Joseph, 2, and Jackann, 1 month.
I have not located Bynum Forbes’ death certificate. His death was one of a string of tragedies for the Forbeses — daughter William Ann Winston was shot to death in Rocky Mount, N.C., in 1924, and son John Forbes, a cement mixer, was crushed to death in a sand cave-in in 1930 in Rocky Mount.
In February 1938, glorified gossip columnist John G. Thomas penned a column about the guilt-soaked confession of William Mercer, who had killed Wade Farmer in the summer of 1921, then fled the state. Mercer had joined a church in his adopted home of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and his conscience preyed on him as he stood in the choir stand.
Wilson Daily Times, 25 February 1938.
The details are difficult to pin down. When the Daily Times article broke the story of William Mercer, alias Green, on 21 February 1938, it quoted B.E. Howard, the sheriff at the time of the murder, who admitted he could barely recall the details of the incident — had the victim had been shot or stabbed? — though he thought it occurred after a “negro dance or frolic.” On the other hand, the 27 February Raleigh News and Observer reported that an argument had broken out at a church gathering, and Farmer “got in the road” of a bullet fired from Mercer’s gun.
Wade Farmer’s death certificate does not shed much light:
Per the document, Wade Farmer of Macclesfield died in Gardners township near Wilbanks in May 1922. He was 22 years old, married to Minnie Farmer, and farmed for Essex Webb, who could provide no information about his parents. The medical certification section is so faded as to be almost unreadable, except for “198,” which was the code for “homicide by cutting or piercing instrument.” The place and date of burial and undertaker fields are similarly washed out, and the registrar did not sign it until 3 January 1923.
On 5 March 1938, the Daily Times reported that Mercer had pled guilty to Farmer’s murder, and a judge had sentenced the 42 year-old to one and-a-half to three years, saying he had been merciful because Mercer had given himself up voluntarily.
But had he really?
Wilson Times, 7 September 1934.
Just four years before Mercer’s “confession,” around the time he claimed he had gotten religion, the Times reported that he had been indicted for Wade Farmer’s May 1922 murder and was to be extradited from New Jersey. Mercer had been arrested in Bridgeton, New Jersey, forty miles south of Philadelphia.
Why, then, the framing of Mercer’s come-to-Jesus moment as the astonishing re-appearance after 17 years of a man who’d gone underground for a crime barely remembered?
Well, in part, because the man arrested in New Jersey in 1934 and hauled back to Wilson was not William Mercer. Rather, he was Ben Faison, originally of Faison, North Carolina. Though an informant positively identified the man as Mercer, several others who “looked him over” said he was not. On 21 September, the Daily Times informed its readers that Wilson police nonetheless would hold Faison until they were satisfied of his identity.
So, while law enforcement had never forgotten Farmer’s murder, Mercer’s apprehension was entirely the result of his own doing. He had made an apparently upstanding life for himself in Pennsylvania and had completely cut ties with Wilson in order to do so. When his mother Fannie Mercer visited him at the Wilson County jail, it was the first time she had seen her son in 17 years.
News and Observer, 27 February 1938.
Wilson Daily Times, 4 April 1938.
I have not been able to find William Mercer, alias William Green, in either Wilson County or Coatesville, Pennsylvania, records.
Indianapolis Recorder, 22 July 1939.
The Recorder was rather late to Harriett Mercer‘s remarkable story. A month earlier, the New York Daily News had cast Mercer as latter-day Cinderella in a piece whose mockery was only thinly veiled.
A few basics about Mercer: she was born in Wilson about 1913; lived in Philadelphia with her uncle and family; graduated Simon Gratz High School; briefly attended Cheyney State; worked as a teacher in a W.P.A. project; moved to New York after a layoff; and found work as a laundress. (Note that the African-American Recorder — choosing to focus on the uplifting aspects of Mercer’s life — omitted this last detail. The Daily News, on the other hand, blared it in its headline.)
New York Daily News, 27 June 1939.
There was, unfortunately, more. Reportedly, a Pullman porter named Carson C. Rollins Jr. glanced at a newspaper on a train to find that his estranged wife, Harriett Mercer Rollins, was about to marry Prince Batoula of Senegal. Rollins claimed that the two had married in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1931 and separated ten months later when she walked out on him.
New York Daily News, 29 July 1939.
Things got worse.
Baltimore Afro-American, 22 July 1939.
Perhaps needless to say, Prince Batoula was no prince at all. But here’s what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had to say about him when he arrived in New York:
7 May 1939.
The New York Age, another African-American paper, ran a full article six days later. Batoula had arrived at the World’s Fair to find that he was not welcome in the best New York hotels and was forced to seek lodging in Harlem at the Braddock, which adjoined the Apollo Theater and catered mostly to the theatrical trade. In addition to touting his own religion, Batoula, a self-professed World War I hero, expressed in meeting Father Divine and Franklin D. Roosevelt and hoped to “make a tour of the Negro educational institutions of the South.”
In fact, per historian Katherine Keller, who is working on a scholarly treatment of his life, Prince Batoula was Mamadou Alioune Kane, a Senegalese immigrant to France who worked as a taxi driver and fruit seller in Paris before transforming himself into African royalty.
Prince Batoula, Pittsburgh Courier, 20 May 1939.
As for Harriett Mercer, there’s relatively little.
Pittsburgh Courier, 1 July 1939.
I have found no references to her birth family or life in North Carolina. Nor have I found her 1931 marriage license to Carson Rollins.
In the 1930 census of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: at 1910 North 21st Street, John Highsmith, 45, grocery store keeper; wife Katie, 42; uncle William Mercer, 18; nieces Cary, 14, and Harritt Mercer, 17; and roomers Winnie Robinson, 25, maid, and Elizabeth Cart, 35, cook, all born in North Carolina.
And here, the manifest for the ship that returned Harriett Mercer to New York.
She apparently made the best of her situation, spending six weeks in France. On 10 August 1939, she boarded the S.S. Champlain at Le Havre, bound for New York City. On 17 August, she was back at home.
New York New York Passenger and Crew Lists, 1909, 1925-1957, www. familysearch.org.
Green Mercer died 17 January 1910 at the Wilson County Home, which housed indigent people. Mercer, who was married and whose regular address was on Church Street, had been in “general bad health” for several months. Though just 69, he was described as a “very old negro” for whom no family information was available. Undertaker John W. Quinn buried Mercer in the “Wilson N.C. Colored Cemetery.”
But which colored cemetery?
By 1910, there were four in Wilson — Odd Fellows, Rountree, Masonic and the “old” cemetery, sometimes called Oaklawn or Oakdale, which was established after Emancipation near Cemetery Street south of downtown. The Odd Fellows and Masonic cemeteries seem to have been restricted to burials of lodge members and their families, and Rountree was probably intended originally for Rountree Missionary Baptist church members. (The land now known as Vick cemetery was still an undeveloped tract owned by Samuel H. Vick in 1910.)
It’s likely that Green Mercer, and other African-Americans with no ties to a masonic order or Rountree who died in Wilson up to the early 1920s, were buried in the “old” cemetery. In 1940, the city moved — or said it moved — graves from this cemetery to the newly opened Rest Haven cemetery.
On 24 August 1866, Green Mercer obtained a license to marry Margarett Wilkins in Edgecombe County.
In the 1870 census of Cokey township, Edgecombe County: farm laborer Green Mercer, 27; wife Margaret, 27; children Fanny, 3, Major Totten, 1, and Frederick Cotton, 54, Randal Parker, and Louisa Ruffin, 21.
In the 1880 census of Cocoa township, Edgecombe County: farmer Green Mercer, 42; wife Margarett, 37; and children Reden, 15, Fannie, 14, Tatin, 11, William, 8, and Joseph, 3.
In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County, Green Mercer, 50, widower, is listed as a servant in the household of Arthur Farmer, 73.
In 1911, Dempsey Mercer filed for divorce from his wife Mattie Knight Mercer.
Wilson Daily Times, 11 October 1911.
In the 1900 census of Cokey township, Edgecombe County: farm laborer Laura Mercer, 65, and children Dollie, 26, farm laborer, Susan, 22, and Dempsey, 16, farm laborer.
In the 1900 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Cooper Farmer, 55; wife Caroline, 55; boarder Lewis Williams, 18, farm laborer; and servant Mattie Knight, 16.
On 23 January 1902, Dempsey Mercer, 20, married Mattie Knight, 20, in Edgecombe County.
In the 1910 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Dempsy Mercer, 27; wife Mattie, 20; children Charles, 7, William, 6, Robert, 3, and Walter, 2 months; nieces Lula, 2, and Gertrude Hines, 1 month; and sister Margarett Hines, 19.
Dempsey Mercer died 7 July 1914 in Gardners township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was born 10 January 1914 in Wilson County to Dempsey Mercer of Edgecombe County and Mattie Hines of Nash County.
Mary Mercer died 11 February 1915 in Wilson township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was born March 1912 to Dempsey Mercer and Maggie Hines.
In the 1920 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: Dempsy Mercer, 40, widower; children Charley, 17, William, 15, Robert, 10, Walter, 9, and Maggie, 8; sister-in-law Maggie Hines, 24, and her children Lula, 8, Silvey, 7, and James, 4. [Dempsey Mercer was divorced rather than widowed.]
On 24 June 1921, Dempsey Mercer, 40, of Wilson County, son of Joe Williams and Louisa Mercer, married Fannie Barnes, 37, of Wilson County, daughter of Luke Holmes and Mary Holmes, at W.A. Pool’s in Black Creek.
In the 1930 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Dempsey Mercer, 50; wife Fannie, 40; children Charlie, 27, Lee, 19, Jonah, 16, Jamar, 13, and C[illegible], 10; and lodger Rachel Melton, 30. [The younger children appear to be Fannie’s by an earlier relationship.]
In the 1930 census of Rocky Mount, Edgecombe County: Gilmore C. McCoy, 58, tobacco factory stemmer, and wife Mattie, 49, laundress.
Robert Mercer died 9 December 1930 in Gardners township. Per his death certificate, he was 23 years old; was born in Wilson County to Dempsey Mercer and Mattie Knight, both of Edgecombe; was a farmer; and was single.
Charlie Mercer died 9 December 1936 in Gardners township. Per his death certificate, he was born January 1902 in Edgecombe County to Dempsey Mercer and Mattie Knight, both of Edgecombe; was a farmer; and was single. Informant was Mattie McCoy of Rocky Mount.
Dempsey Mercer died 20 April 1949 in Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was born 6 September 1883 in Edgecombe County to Joe Mercer and an unknown mother and was married. Informant was Will Mercer of Bailey, N.C.
Mattie Knight McCoy died 31 December 1970 in Rocky Mount, Nash County. Per her death certificate, she was born 9 September 1897; resided in Edgecombe County; was widowed; and was a retired tobacco worker. Mary Bullock, 1205 Atlantic Street, Wilson, was informant.