migration to New York City

Family ties, no. 5: I wish it was so that I could come to you & family.

Wilson’s emergence as a leading tobacco market town drew hundreds of African-American migrants in the decades after the 1890s. Many left family behind in their home counties, perhaps never to be seen again. Others maintained ties the best way they could.

Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver and her husband Jesse A. Jacobs Jr. left Dudley, in southern Wayne County, North Carolina, around 1905. They came to Wilson presumably for better opportunities off the farm. Each remained firmly linked, however, to parents and children and siblings back in Wayne County as well as those who had joined the Great Migration north. This post is the fifth in a series of excerpts from documents and interviews with my grandmother Hattie Henderson Ricks (1910-2001), Jesse and Sarah’s adoptive daughter (and Sarah’s great-niece), revealing the ways her Wilson family stayed connected to their far-flung kin. (Or didn’t.)

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Sarah Silver died of a massive heart attack on a train platform on 8 January 1938 while on her way from Wilson to Greensboro, North Carolina. After receiving the news via a shocking and confusing telegram, my grandmother sent word of Sarah’s death to other relatives. One went to Sarah’s widowed sister-in-law Carrie L. Henderson Borrero, who replied via letter immediately:

Sunday Jan. 9. 38

My Dear Hattie

I received your telegram to-day. 1 P.M. it was certainly a shock to me you & family certainly have my deepest sympathy & also from my family.

I did not know your mother was sick you must write later and let me know about her illness.

It is so strange I have been dreaming of my husband Caswell so much for the past two weeks he always tells me that has something to tell me & that he feels so well so I guess this is what I was going to hear about your mother.

I wish it was so that I could come to you & family but times are so different now seems as if we cannot be prepared to meet emergencies any more but you must know that my heart & love is with you & family.

I am just writing to you a short note now will write you again. Let me hear from you when you get time to write

From

Your Aunt in law

Carrie L. Borrero

322 E. 100th St.  N. Y City

Letter in personal collection of Lisa Y. Henderson.

Family ties, no. 4: I pray for the whole family.

Wilson’s emergence as a leading tobacco market town drew hundreds of African-American migrants in the decades after the 1890s. Many left family behind in their home counties, perhaps never to be seen again. Others maintained ties the best way they could.

Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver and her husband Jesse A. Jacobs Jr. left Dudley, in southern Wayne County, North Carolina, around 1905. They came to Wilson presumably for better opportunities off the farm. Each remained firmly linked, however, to parents and children and siblings back in Wayne County as well as those who had joined the Great Migration north. This post is the fourth in a series of excerpts from interviews with my grandmother Hattie Henderson Ricks (1910-2001), Jesse and Sarah’s adoptive daughter (and Sarah’s great-niece), revealing the ways her Wilson family stayed connected to their far-flung kin. (Or didn’t.)

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A few months after my grandmother passed away in January 2001, my father, mother, sister, and I converged on her little rowhouse at 5549 Wyalusing Avenue, Philadelphia, to clean it out. In a drawer of a large steel desk in the basement, I found a packet of papers. In them, a letter I’d never known existed, from my great-great-grandmother Loudie Henderson‘s brother Caswell C. Henderson to their sister, Sarah H. Jacobs, who reared my grandmother. It is dated 16 August 1926 and was mailed to Sarah in Greensboro, N.C., where she was visiting their niece, Mamie Henderson Holt.

Though he does not say so directly, Caswell Henderson seems to have been responding to the news of the death of Sarah’s husband Jesse A. Jacobs about five weeks earlier. Sarah has asked him to come to North Carolina, for a visit or perhaps permanently, but he cannot, pleading health and finances. (Caswell worked as a messenger for the United States Custom House in lower Manhattan.) He is hopeful, though, that soon they will be together to “help one another.” He expresses the importance of his family by sending greetings to his great-nieces (my grandmother Hattie and her sister Mamie) and inquiring after niece Minnie Simmons Budd, who had migrated to Philadelphia from Mount Olive, North Carolina. Of course, while “prayers are wonderful when said in all sincerity from the heart,” the prayers of his friends could not keep Caswell C. Henderson forever, and he died 16 January 1927.

Family ties, no. 2: starting school.

Wilson’s emergence as a leading tobacco market town drew hundreds of African-American migrants in the decades after the 1890s. Many left family behind in their home counties, perhaps never to be seen again. Others maintained ties the best way they could.

Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver and her husband Jesse A. Jacobs Jr. left Dudley, in southern Wayne County, North Carolina, around 1905. They came to Wilson presumably for better opportunities off the farm. Each remained firmly linked, however, to parents and children and siblings back in Wayne County as well as those who had joined the Great Migration north. This post is the second in a series of excerpts from interviews with my grandmother Hattie Henderson Ricks (1910-2001), Jesse and Sarah’s adoptive daughter (and Sarah’s great-niece), revealing the ways her Wilson family stayed connected to their far-flung kin. (Or didn’t.)

——

Jesse Jacobs found good work in Wilson, first as a hand in Jefferson Farrior‘s livery stable and then as a janitor at a white public school (with side hustles as school superintendent Charles L. Coon‘s yard man and as janitor at First Baptist Church.) However, his wife Sarah had fewer opportunities, working seasonally in tobacco stemmeries and sometimes “taking in washing and ironing,” i.e. doing personal laundry for white families.

Though she seems never to have been seriously tempted to migrate permanently, Sarah H. Jacobs occasionally traveled North for short stretches to supplement her income by hiring out for housekeeping daywork. She generally took little Hattie to New York with her and parked her with her stepdaughter Carrie Jacobs Blackwell while she worked. (Carrie, who was Jesse Jacobs’ elder daughter, and her husband Toney H. Blackwell had migrated from North Carolina circa 1900-1905.)

Hattie Henderson Ricks recalled a visit to New York when she was perhaps six years old in which she grew homesick and lonely while staying with the Blackwells:

“… So I went to crying. I cried and I cried. I wanted to go home. I wanted to go where Mama was, but Mama wasn’t supposed to come over there ‘til the next day or a day or two after that. She was doing day’s work. ‘Cause day’s work was plentiful then.  People would clean up ….  So Mama wanted [to make money, so she] carried me with her …. So, anyway, I cried so, and … she come on over and got me, and I told her I didn’t want to stay there no more, I wanted to go home. I said I wanted to go where she was. She said, ‘Well, you can’t go right now,’ said, ‘I got a job to do.’ She said, ‘Well, I’ll take you over to Frances.’  So that’s when she took me over to Frances’ house, and Edward [her son]. And I stayed over there, and it was the first time I ever went to school.”

Frances Aldridge Cooper, also a Dudley native, was both Sarah and Hattie’s maternal cousin and Hattie’s paternal aunt. Frances and her husband George Cooper, also from Wayne County, married in New Jersey in 1908, then moved on to New York City, where their son, Edward Lee Cooper, was born in 1911.

“It was during school time and whatchamacallem took me and Edward down to the school, wherever it was….  And the first day I ever went to school, Frances took me and her son Edward. And the building — I don’t remember what the building looked like inside — but I know we went in, and they had little benches, at least it was built around in the room. And you could stand there by it and mark on your paper if you wanted to or whatever. I didn’t see no seats in there. You sit on the same thing you were writing on. It seem like, from what I remember, it was down in the basement. You had to go down there, and the benches was all the way ’round the room. And the teacher’s desk — and she had a desk in there. And the children sat on the desk, or you stand there by it, or kneel down if you want to mark on it. First grade, you ain’t know nothing bout no writing no how. And I went in, and I just looked. I just, I didn’t do nothing. I just sit there on top of the desk. And I was crying. I went back to Frances’ house, and I said, well, ‘Frances, I want to go home.’ Go where Mama was. So she said, ‘We’ll go tomorrow.’ I said, ‘How come we can’t go today?’ She said, ‘Well, it’s too far to go now.’ I said, ‘Well, can you call her?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know the phone number, and I don’t know the name it’s in.’ And so that kind of threw me; I finally went on bed. But, anyway, they all took me back to Brooklyn.”

Hattie and Sarah Henderson Jacobs returned to Wilson a few weeks later. When Hattie tried first grade again, it was at the Colored Graded School.

Sidenote: the 1915 New York state census lists George Cooper, 32, moulding mill fireman; wife Frances, 30, laundress; son Edward, 4; and sister-in-law Alberta Artis, 15, in school, at 1504 Prospect Place, Brooklyn (in the heart of the Weeksville neighborhood.) Alberta was the daughter of Adam T. Artis and Amanda Aldridge Artis and was not Frances’ birth sister, but was very close kin. (Her birth siblings, in fact, included Josephine Artis Sherrod, Columbus E. Artis, and June Scott Artis, as well as paternal half-siblings Cain ArtisWilliam M. Artis, Walter S. Artis, and Robert E. Artis.) This is complicated: Amanda Aldridge was the sister of Frances A. Cooper’s father John W. Aldridge. And Adam Artis was the father of Frances’ mother Louvicey Artis Aldridge. Amanda A. Artis died days after giving birth to Alberta in 1899, and Louvicey and John took the infant to rear in their own large family in Dudley. Alberta eventually followed her adopted sister Frances to New York, where she met and married George Cooper’s brother, James W. Cooper. The pair returned to Wilson County after World War I.

Detail from enumeration of inhabitants of Block No. 6, Election District No. 19, City of New York, Assembly District No. 23, Kings County, state census of New York, 1915. 

Adapted from interviews of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, 1996 and 1998. All rights reserved. 

Gordon’s Glory Hair Dressing.

Just when I thought I could not be further surprised about Black Wilson came this glorious ad for Gordon’s Glory Hair Dressing Parlor. 

Wilson Daily Times, 10 August 1920.

Yes, for a while, Wilson had its own entrant in the early 20th-century battle for Black hair care supremacy.

Before Wilson, Oscar Gordon was in Winston-Salem, N.C. It’s not clear when he developed his hair care formula or when he opened his laboratory, but in September 1916, there was this: 

Twin-City Daily Sentinel, 12 September 1916.

Gordon registered for the World War I draft in Winston-Salem in 1917. His card notes that he was born 29 June 1888 in Kittrell Springs, N.C.; lived at 209 Fogle; was single; and worked as a self-employed laborer. Later that year, he placed this modest ad for for his Glory Hair grower.

Winston-Salem Journal, 27 October 1917.

By 1918, Gordon had relocated to Wilson and was placing ads in newspapers across the country touting his “course in hair dressing” (which included a certificate of qualification and a “hair dresser’s outfit” of tools and creams) and various products developed by “O.C. Gordon’s Laboratory” and for order from his manufacturing company at 512 East Nash Street. 

The illustration shows the “Hair Dressers’ Oil Stoves for heating two combs.” Birmingham Reporter, 17 August 1918. 

Gordon placed this testimonial ad close to home:

Gordon’s Glory in its tin box. Wilson Daily Times, 25 June 1919.

Gordon also placed an ad for a “lady bookkeeper”:

Wilson Daily Times, 3 October 1919.

The 1920 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory lists O.C. Gordon Manufacturing Company, a maker of toilet preparations, at 512 East Nash Street. Oscar C. Gordon, its proprietor, lived at 521 East Nash. 

By late 1920, Gordon had expanded his product line to include face powders (in “good brown,” pink and white) and hair pullers (“unnecessary to wrap rags around the handle” — something like a flat iron?)

Birmingham Reporter, 11 December 1920.

As first seen in 1917 in Winston-Salem advertising, a la Madam C.J. Walker, Gordon occasionally intensified his branding to include a photograph of himself in a tie and high detachable collar — and a magnificent head of flowing hair. 

He has restored hair on thousands of bald heads. Wilson Daily Times, 1 July 1921.

In the 1922 directory, Gordon is listed as a hairdresser at 511 East Nash. His factory is not listed. The 1922 Sanborn map of Wilson shows a hairdresser at 513, and at 511 a presser, which generally meant a clothes presser.  The site is now a parking lot.

1922 Sanborn fire insurance map, Wilson, N.C.

Soon after, Oscar Gordon took his talents to New York City, where he set up shop in Harlem at 267 West 144th Street.

“Use Gordon’s Glory Hair Grower for that bald spot and be convinced.” Wilson Daily Times, 21 January 1926.

He was still in business in 1930, advertising face bleach and black hair dye in addition to creams and combs. An ad placed in 1933 in the New York Age shows Gordon weathered the early years of the Great Depression.

Wilson Daily Times, 29 March 1930.

In 1942, Oscar Caroline Gordon registered for the World War II draft in New York City. Per his registration card, he was born 29 June 1888 in Kittrell Springs, N.C.; lived at 147 West 143rd Street, Apartment 1; his contact was Mrs. Brown at the same address; and he was a hairdresser with his own business at that location. 

It’s not entirely clear, but it appears that Oscar C. Gordon died in New York City in 1983.

I’ve found much less about Gordon’s assistants. Madame Bell Malone left no trace in Wilson at all.  Madame Alma Pouncey’s time there is also difficult to trace. An Alma Pouncey, 24, married Will Hemmingway in Wilson in 1915 (well before Gordon’s ad called her by her maiden name). Their marriage license provides no other personal details. Lucin Hemingway was born 31 August 1918 in Tanner Creek district, Norfolk County, Virginia, to Wm. Hemingway, 41, laborer, of South Carolina and Alma Pouncey, 20, laundress, of South Carolina. Alexander Dudley Hemingway was born (and died) 12 August 1919 in Bennettsville, Marlboro County, South Carolina, to William Hemingway of Richmond, Virginia, and Alma Pouncey of Marlboro County. In the 1920 census, Will and Alma Hemmingway and their son Will Jr. were working as farm laborers in Clio, Marlboro County, South Carolina. (Did the Hemingways move to Wilson later that year?) On an unknown date, Alma Holmes applied for a delayed birth certificate in Marlboro County, S.C. Per the application, she was born Alma Pouncey on 17 November 1900 in Bennettsville, S.C., to Lucien Pouncey and Ida Swinney, both now dead, and resided in New York City. Alma P. Holmes died 16 June 1952 in Bennettsville, S.C. Per her death certificate, she was about 52 years old; was born in Marlboro County, S.C., to Lucious Pouncey and Ida Swiney; was the widow of Roudalph Holmes; and worked as a seamstress. Ethel L. Grace was informant.

Billy Kaye comes home.

In 2018, North Carolina welcomed home a native son, renowned jazz drummer Billy Kaye. Born Willie King Seaberry in Wilson in 1932, Kaye performed with Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and other luminaries, but had never played in Wilson. Not long after his June performance at Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, Sandra Davidson interviewed Kaye for North Carolina Arts Council’s “50 for 50: Artists Celebrate North Carolina.”

Below, an excerpt from the interview.

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S.D.: Tell me what you remember about growing up in Wilson.

Kaye: I was born in ‘32 a couple blocks from the train station near the Cherry Hotel, one of the top hotels in Wilson. My grandparents’ home was 517 Church Street which was something like a two-block walk to the train station. It was a block off Nash Street. Most of the employment was done there. Nash Street had [a] drug store, dentist, doctor. There was a Ritz Theater on Nash Street. There were three churches in that area. That was basically it. I grew up running around the yard playing the Lone Ranger with a broomstick between my legs. I used to enjoy coming home in the summers when I was a youngster to play in the dirt, climb the trees, play under the house. That kind of stuff.

S.D.: … What is it like to for you to play your first hometown show?

Kaye: It’s hard to explain. It’s the biggest thing that ever happened. Playing at home was something I wasn’t even about when I left here. I had no history. I was just a guy that moved up [North]. I played in Greensboro some years back. It was okay. It was North Carolina, but it wasn’t Wilson. Goldsboro—that was great, but it still wasn’t Wilson. Home is where I was born. So, this thing here, it’s hard to explain. I’m playing at home. I’m seeing things that I didn’t see and appreciating things. I see these trees, the most magnificent things. There’s nothing there but trees. Man, they are the greatest trees I’ve ever seen. It’s like home.

Billy Kaye performs at Whirligig Park. (Photo: Astrid Rieckien for the Washington Post.) 

For the full transcript of Kaye’s interview and to watch videos of his performance in Wilson’s Whirligig Park, see here.

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Georgia Burke cheered on Broadway.

Jet magazine, 10 April 1952.

Though a native of Georgia, Georgia Burke spent at least ten years in Wilson, teaching third and fourth grade (and coaching basketball and tennis) to the children of the Colored Graded School and the Wilson Normal and Industrial Institute. She was one of the eleven teachers who walked off the job in support of Mary C. Euell in 1918 and, in 1921, was involved in another incident in which “a race riot was narrowly averted.” Burke auditioned for a Broadway on a lark in 1928, got the role, and never returned to teaching.

Other suns: New York.

I recently revisited Isabel Wilkerson’s epic The Warmth of Other Suns and, if you haven’t basked in this brilliance, please do. Others have said it better than I can. Toni Morrison called the book “profound, necessary, and a delight to read”; Tom Brokaw praised it as “an epic for all Americans who want to understand the making of our modern nation”; The New York Times Book Review” proclaimed a massive and masterly account”; The New Yorker, “a deeply affecting, finely crafted and heroic book.”

Black Wide-Awake is largely about people who cast down their buckets where they were, but also shines light on those whose paths carried them away from Wilson County. I can say with confidence that nobody I knew growing up did not have relatives in Harlem or Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx. Every summer, our little pack swelled with migrants’ grandchildren sent down South and inevitably one of our own went North for two weeks and came back “talking proper.” (Disclosure: I spent two years living in New York. I was in graduate school at Columbia and lived on West 121st Street in Morningside Heights. From the park at the end of my street, I could look out over the expanse of pre-gentrified Harlem, and 125th Street served up any Southernness I was homesick for.)

A definitive listing of these many thousands of migrants is impossible, but a try seems well worth it. In a slight expansion of the general timeline of the blog, these running lists will focus on documented migration prior to 1960. Arguably, New York was the lodestar for North Carolinians during the Great Migration, and I’ll start there.

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Pointed towards the sun.

I recently stumbled across Pointed Towards the Sun, a collection of stories about the immigrant experience published in 2018 by students and faculty of Brookdale Community College, Montclair, New Jersey. The section “Historical Research and Ancestry Studies” includes Nathalie Darden’s memoir about the triumphs and struggles of her grandparents, a French woman and an African-American man who met in Paris in the 1950s.

Nathalie Darden’s father’s name caught my eye — Charles A. Darden. And then she mentioned her great-uncle Walter T. Darden and great-grandfather Charles H. Darden. Which of C.H. Darden’s sons was Charles A. Darden’s father? Arthur N. Darden.

——

On 2 July 1925, Arthur Darden, 35, of Wilson, son of Charlie and Dianah Darden, married Olive Blanks, 21, of Wilson, daughter of J.B. and Susan Blanks, in Wilson. C.L. Darden applied for the license, and A.M.E. Zion minister J.E. Kennedy performed the ceremony in the presence of L.A. Moore, C.L. Darden, and V.L. Moore.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 109 Stantonsburg Street, Arthur Darden, 38, proprietor of undertaking environment; wife Olive, 21, public school teacher, born in South Carolina; son Charles R., 3; and roomer Estella Williamson, 17.

In the 1940 census of Bronx, New York: at 1324 Prospect Street, Olive Darden, 32, and son Charles, 13, both born in North Carolina.

In 1945, Charles Arthur Darden registered for the World War II draft in Queens, New York. Per his registration card, he was born 11 February 1927 in Wilson, N.C.; he lived at 167-08 111th Avenue, Jamaica, Queens, N.Y.; his contact was mother Olive Darden Edinboro; he was unemployed; and had a scar under his right eye.

Moore-Mitchell marriage.

2 23 1920.png

Wilson Daily Times, 23 February 1919.

  • Ernest Moore

In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: merchant Lee Moore, 36, wife Louisa, 32, and son Ernest, 12.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Nash Street, life insurance agent Lee Moore, 40; wife Mary, 36; and son Earnest, 19.

In 1917, Ernest Andrew Moore registered for the World War I draft in New York, New York. Per his registration card, he was born 8 March 1888 in Wilson, N.C.; lived at 257 West 111th Street; worked as an elevator operator for Frank Mull, 257 West 111th; and was single.

Ernest Moore, 31, of Wilson married Esther Mitchell, 21, of Wilson on 18 July 1919 in Wilson. A.M.E. Zion minister B.P. Coward performed the ceremony, and Dudley Bynum and Oleonia Bynum witnessed.

On 17 November 1927, Louise and Thelma Moore, children of Ernest and Ethel Mitchell Moore, were baptized at Riverside Hospital. Louise was born 28 October 1924, and Thelma, 15 July 1926. New York, Episcopal Diocese of New York Church Records, 1767-1970, [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com.

  • Ethel Mitchell — actually, Esther Mitchell.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Atlantic Street, barber Douglas [Dudley] Bynum, 29; wife Ora, 28; and roomer Ester Mitchell, 21.

Florence Williams Maryland’s 103rd birthday.

201907181741495615.png

Wilson Daily Times, 30 August 1995.

Mrs. Maryland passed away on 4 September 1995, less than a week after this news photo was published.

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Jonas Maryland, 23, of Toisnot, married Florence Williams, 19, of Toisnot, on 4 October 1911 at Town Creek School house. Missionary Baptist minister J.J. Thompson performed the ceremony.

In 1918, Jonas Maryland registered for the World War I draft in Edgecombe County. Per his registration card, he was born 4 April 1878; resided at R.F.D. 1, Sharpsburg; was a farm laborer for Jessie Williams; and his nearest relative was Florence Maryland.

In the 1920 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: on the Wilson and Rocky Mount Road, farmer Jonah Maryland, 40; wife Vinie, 22; and children Clarence, 8, Willis, 5, Allie, 4, Fannie, 3, and Annie, 7 months.

In the 1930 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: on the Rocky Mount and Town Creek Road, Janos Maryland, 53, widower, house carpenter; and children Clarence, 19, Ernest, 17, Fannie, 15, Addie B., 13, Ruth, 11, and Essie, 8.

In the 1940 census of Bronx, New York: Elizabeth Hayes, 33, domestic for private family; daughter Ethel Hayes, 6; and partner Florence Maryland, 44, domestic for private family. The women were born in North Carolina; Ethel, in New York.