migration to New York City

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.


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.


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.


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.

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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.


Wilson Daily Times, 30 August 1995.

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


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.

The obituary of Charles Diggs.

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Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 2 May 1919.

Charles Diggs left Wilson County shortly after Emancipation, and I have found no record of him there. He is remarkably elusive in federal census records as well, but newspaper clippings and other records offer glimpses of his family and the rich life he led in Brooklyn, New York. (Why was he called “Colonel,” though? Was he a veteran of the United States Colored Troops?0


On 25 April 1872, in Brooklyn, New York, Charles Diggs, 25, of Wadesborough, Virginia [sic], son of James Diggs and Lydia Harris, married Carter Corlea Jones, 25, of Lynchburgh, Virginia, daughter of Riley Carter and Polly Reed.

In the 1874 Brooklyn, N.Y., city directory: Diggs Charles well sinker 1191 Atlantic av

A female child was born 14 October 1874 in Brooklyn to Charles Diggs and Carter Carlea Jones.

A male child was born 4 April 1878 in Brooklyn to Charles Diggs and Carter Jones.

Florence R. Diggs was born 20 October 1878 in Brooklyn to Charles Diggs and Carter C. Jones.

A male child was born 2 December 1880 in Brooklyn to Charles Diggs and Carter C. Jones.

In the 1889 Brooklyn, N.Y., city directory: Diggs Charles welldriver 289 Franklin av

Carter Diggs died 25 March 1890 in Brooklyn, New York. Per her death certificate, she was 46 years old, was born in Virginia, and was married.

In 1890, Diggs was initiated into the Brooklyn Literary Union, organized in 1886, and where he would rub elbows with journalist T. Thomas Fortune:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8 May 1890.

In the 1892 state census of Brooklyn, Kings County, New York: Chas. Diggs, 45, well digger, and children Rosa, 19, [illegible], 15, Horace, 10, and Florence, 12.

In the 1895 Brooklyn, N.Y., city directory: Diggs Chas welldigger 485 Waverly av

Horace L. Diggs, age 16, died 9 June 1898 in New York, New York.

A 1901 article noted that Diggs was one of a few Brooklyn residents to have been born into slavery:

From “Brooklyn’s Colored Population: It Is Believed to Number Eighteen Thousand — Progress in Prosperity and In Intellectual Advancement — Paying Taxes on Property Amounting to About One Million Dollars. The Brooklyn Citizen, 8 December 1901.

In the 1905 state census of Brooklyn, Kings County, New York: at 111 DeKalb Avenue, Louis Paultry, 42, laborer; wife Harriett Paultry, 38; well digger Charles Diggs, 59; porter James Teamer, 32; stable man Edward Scoot, 46; and laborer John Harry, 27.

“Colonel” Charles Diggs helped plan the Garnet Republican Club’s Lincoln Dinner in February 1908. During the event, he delivered a speech on “Organization and Unity.”

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 13 February 1908.

Diggs helped plan the Garnet Republican Club’s observance of the 100th anniversary:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 28 November 1908.

In 1911, the Society of the Sons of North Carolina, to which Diggs belonged, planned a “monster mass meeting” and published an appeal for support of its efforts to address “the condition of immorality existing among the young girls of our race in certain sections ….”

New York Age, 6 July 1911.

Of more personal concern, in late 1911, widow Rosa Hardnut signaled her intent to sue Bristol Meyers Chemical Company, where her husband was buried alive while working on a dig for Charles Diggs.

Brooklyn Daily Times, 9 December 1911.

Charles Diggs died 29 April 1919 in Brooklyn, Kings County, New York. Per his death certificate, he was born 1848 to James and Lydia Diggs; was a well digger; was a widower; and was buried in Mount Olivet cemetery.

Florence Varner died 28 April 1928 in Manhattan. Per her death certificate, she was 61 years old; was widowed; was born in 1886 in New York City to Charles Diggs of North Carolina and Carter Jones of North Carolina.

Mae Wilson died 23 July 1941 in the Bronx. Per her death certificate, she was 42 years old; was widowed; and was born 24 October 1880 to Charles Diggs of North Carolina and Carter Jones.

[What was the Society of the Sons of North Carolina?

The Bystander (Des Moines, Iowa), 26 May 1911.

Frank Barnes, seaman.

Frank Barnes applied for a Seaman’s Protection Certificate in August 1917. American seamen carried the document as proof of citizenship in foreign ports. Per his application, Barnes was born 22 January 1895 in Wilson, North Carolina; was not literate; and had been employed since 1915 as a fireman on the S.S. Mauretania en route from New York to France.


Per his description, Barnes was 5’3″, 125 pounds, with brown eyes and black hair and a scar over his right temple. He resided at 1 Doyers Street, New York. [Doyers is a tiny elbow of a lane off The Bowery in Chinatown, and #1 is now home to Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles Inc.]

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Howard Adams, above, and William Smith and Fredrick Woods, below, gave affidavits to establish Barnes’ identification.

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The customs collector testified to Barnes’ citizenship.

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In December 1917, Frank Barnes himself attested that he was born in Wilson in 1894 and that his father Frank Barnes “(probably)” or “believes he was born in” the United States. Barnes had lived in Wilson until 1915 when he began to work in shipping. He had recently worked on three ships: the S.S. Orduna from 1 July to 19 July 1917; the S.S. Carmenia from 26 August to 11 September 1917; and the S.S. Anglo Saxon, 14 November to 14 December 1917.

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Barnes received his identification in December 1917 in Bordeaux, France.

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Detail of the certificate:

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Close-ups of Frank Barnes’ photographs:

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Another photo from Barnes’ 1918 application for a protection certificate:

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U.S. Applications for Seaman’s Protection Certificates, 1916-1940 [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com; original document at Application for Seaman’s Protection Certificates, 1916-1940, Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, 1774-1982, Record Group 41, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Andrew Cotton, seaman.

Andrew Cotton applied for a Seaman’s Protection Certificate in May 1936. American seamen carried the document as proof of citizenship in foreign ports. Per his application, Cotton was born 19 June 1904 in Sharpsburg, North Carolina; resided at 207 West 137th Street, New York City; and had last worked on the S.S. Evangeline as a waiter. He was 5’8″ with dark brown skin, brown eyes and black hair and had no identifying marks.

In the 1910 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: on Levy Edwards Road, Isaac Cotton, 44; wife Flonnie, 34; and children Coloneous, 18, Lucy, 16, Sidney, 13, Mary, 11, Isaac E., 8, Andrew, 6, Levy, 4, and Clarence, 1.

Passenger lists from 1938 to 1954 show Cotton shipping out of ports on both sides of the Atlantic, including New York, New York; Yarmouth, Nova Scotia; Saint Georges and Hamilton, Bermuda; Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; Hamburg, Germany; Gourock, Scotland; Southampton, England; Cobh, Ireland; and Genoa, Italy.

U.S. Applications for Seaman’s Protection Certificates, 1916-1940 [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com; original document at Application for Seaman’s Protection Certificates, 1916-1940, Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, 1774-1982, Record Group 41, National Archives, Washington, D.C; New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com.