Wilson Daily Times, 10 March 1911.
In the 1880 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Spring Street, drayman Harper Best, 30, and his lodger “Methodist preacher” Franklin Bird, 24.
Harper Best, 33, married Rosa England, 18, on 22 September 1882 in Wilson.
Before the decade was out, the Bests migrated to California, and Harper Best appears in San Jose city directories as early as 1890 and at least as late as 1916.
1892 San Jose, California, city directory.
In 1890, he even registered to vote in San Jose:
Copy of the Great Register of Santa Clara County.
This is likely a 1901 Santa Clara death register entry for Best’s son, also named Harper Best and born in North Carolina in about 1882. Presumably, Rosa Best died before her son did:
Record of Deaths, Santa Clara County.
In the 1910 census of San Jose, Santa Clara County, California: 83 South First Street, 59 year-old Harper Best was lived alone. His occupation was porter in a dry goods store, and he was described as single.
The 10 March 1911 newspaper article above is not the only time Harper Best was featured in the Wilson Daily Times. On 7 May 1912, the Times printed a short letter with an accompanying clipping from a San Jose-area newspaper:
HARPER BEST BEST.
A Worthy Colored Man Who Left Wilson and Went West.
The following letter from Mr. J.M. Waterman, private secretary to Harper Best explains itself. Harper lived with Mr. Green for 13 years and is a worthy colored man.
Mr. G.D. Green, Wilson, N.C.
Dear Sir: —
Acting upon the suggestion of your friend, Harper Best, I am sending you a newspaper clipping cut from on of our principal papers, and you will note how popular Harper is out here in the “Wild and Wooly West.”
All matters in the notice are true, regarding his physical condition and [h]is insatiable appetite. He has a regular possum grin on his face at all time.
With best regards from Harper, and hoping to hear from you in the very near future, I am,
Yours respectfully, J.M. Waterman, Private Secretary to H.B.
Harper Best and Hear[t]beats.
Almost everyone in San Jose knows Harper Best, the old and trusted handy-man around the Arcade, who has held his position for about 24 years, and who at the age of 62 can still get around like a youngster. Harper is good-natured at all times, and a few hints to his many friends at this time will not be amiss on how to stay young and be happy. Harper is an epicure. Any time you meet him he begins to talk about something to eat. Chicken, young duck, ‘possum and sweet potatoes and so on. But the ‘possum seems to be his long suit and he claims that if you know how to cook it and put plenty of sweet potatoes in the roaster at the right time you will be able to stay young. If you should happen to pretend to doubt him on the age question he will pull a typewritten statement on you and prove his age to the heart beat. Here follows his age: 62 years, 744 months, 3224 weeks, 22,568 days, 541,632 hours, 32,497,920 minutes, and 1,949,875,200 heart beats. His next expression is this way: “Now, friend, you have the proof and if you want to stay young do what I do. Eat ‘possum and you can’t get old.”
And two years later, on 2 May 1914, the Times published this letter from Best himself:
Tribute from a Colored Man.
April 23, 1914.
Wilson Daily Times, Wilson N.C.
Gentlemen: — Kindly allow me space in your valuable paper to say: “Some years ago along about 1873 I came from Snowhill, Green County, to Wilson, your city. After a couple of years, I went to work with Palmer and Green, a hardware store. I stayed with Mr. Green and worked for him until 1888. Then in January, 1888, I made up my mind to start for California.
Owing to the fact that it was so far away in the West, I had not the money as usual. I was, however, [section missing] and on cold mornings I would build a fire up for him before he got up. One morning I said to him: “I am going to leave, Mr. Green.” He said, “Where are you going?” I replied that I was going to California and he inquired how I would get there. I said, “I will have to borrow the money from yo.” So it was arranged, and I got the money from him and started for California.
Since that time Mr. Green has been a dear friend of mine as well as all the time I was employed by him. It mattered not what come or went I could always depend on him. During the many years that I worked for him, I have seen the time where there were many people in the town and county that would come to Mr. Green for favors large and small. He always did what he could for them and gave them satisfaction. After I had come to California, Mr. Green settled some of my debts for me and sent me the bills. I sent him a check for the same and if there was a friend among whites or colored that upbuild Wilson, it as Mr. Green.
His brains was often required in the courthouse, and men of all classes would come to him for advice.
I find that Mr. Frank Barnes is on my mind at this time. He was on e of the leading men of the county. Also the Woodards, several of whose names I could mention. They were farmers in the country. Also Mr. Joshua Barnes was a well-known man.
After all many of these men that I remember have passed into the world beyond, but their memory will never be forgotten as long as Wilson remains a city.
I have many friends in the section of the country where I live, San Jose, California, and my life has been such that a very large majority of the people know me — and if they don’t know my name they know my face.
Now at this time, I am thinking very strongly of paying another visit to Wilson, during the summer and perhaps I will remain there for a few months. If any of my friends wish to come out to the exposition next year I want to say to them, “California is a very good country for health, but like all countries now, money is plentiful but work for young men is very scarce. With all their education they can’t get a decent job sometime. Gold is not like it used to be, nor is silver. It takes very hard pushing now for a man to get through who hasn’t any money, but if you have plenty of money, it goes very easily. But if you haven’t it, it is very hard pulling.
If any one wish to write me during the next sixty days he can do so. I will give them all the information I can about this community and section of the country. To my many friends in Wilson I will say that Wilson is dear to me. As I meet many North Carolinians from the Western and Eastern portion and I speak of the grand old state it makes me feel very proud of North Carolina. I know that there are men of very great brains and understanding and wisdom that were reared in North Carolina. As far as I can see there are no better educated men, white or colored, in any state in the Union.
I just give this little sketch to your readers. This is from an old friend. HARPER BEST.
Best appears to have returned to Wilson during or just after World War I. By 1920, he had joined his sister’s household at 330 South Spring Street: widowed Nannie Best, 61, her daughter Frank, 30, son Aaron, 21, and daughter-in-law Estelle, 19, and a lodger, nurse Henrietta Colvert, 24 [a Statesville native who was my great-great-aunt.] (N.B.: what appears to be the same 65 year-old Harper Best is also listed as a head of a household at 109 Wiggins Street that included his brothers Morris Best, 50, and Frank Best, 32; sister Estelle Best, 21; and son Orren Best, 19. [The recurrence of given names suggests a relationship to Daniel Best (born circa 1808) of Greene County. Daniel and his wife Jane had sons Orren Best, born about 1848, and Noah Best, born about 1854. Orren Best and his wife Hancey had a daughter Nannie. Noah Best had sons Morris and Frank.]
Here are Harper and extended family in the 1922-23 city directory:
On 22 October 1929, Harper Best dictated a will describing himself as a resident of Wilson and leaving all his property, personal and real, to his sister Nannie Best and nieces Eliza and Frankie Best. He died just under eight months later.
California Voter Registers, 1866-1898 [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com; California Death and Burial Records from Select Counties, 1873-1987 [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com.