Columbus Estell “C.E.” Artis was born in 1886 near Eureka, Wayne County, North Carolina, to Adam T. Artis and his fourth wife, Amanda Aldridge Artis. Artis tried his hand at a number of businesses, including grocery stores and “eating houses,” before establishing what was arguably the #2 black funeral home (after Darden & Sons) in Wilson at mid-century.
In the 1900 census of Nahunta township, Wayne County, North Carolina: Adam Artice, a widowed farmer, appears with children Louetta, Robert, Columbus, Josephfene, June S., Lillie B., Henry B., Annie, Walter and William Artis.
In the 1910 census of Stantonsburg township, Wilson County: Columbus Artis, grocery storekeeper, 30, with brothers June Scott, 24, and Henry J. Artis, 16, box factory laborers, and two boarders, John Newson, 30, and Eliga Diggs, 16.
As filed with the Wilson County Register of Deeds, on 7 February 1912, W.S. Harriss filed a deed for the sale of property to Columbus E. Artis, for $225, i.e. one lot in Wilson township about 1/2 mile from the Town of Wilson, beginning at Julius Freeman‘s corner east to Plank Road and measuring 50 feet by 100 feet and another lot on Plank Road measuring the same.
As filed with the Wilson County Register of Deeds, on 27 September 1913, Wilson Insurance & Realty Company filed a deed for sale of property to Columbus E. Artis, for $350, at the corner of Vick and Nash Streets, known as Lot no. 8 in block A of the plat of the Rountree Tract.
The 1912-13 Wilson city directory listed “Artis Columbus E eating house 214 Goldsboro h 304 Jones.”
On 23 January 1914, E.T. Moore and wife Pearl filed a deed for sale of property to C.E. Artis, for $300, in the eastern suburbs of Wilson, adjoining the lands of C.E. Artis and W.P. Singletary, beginning on East Nash Street at the corner of Lot No. 6, 50 feet by 112 feet, designated Lot No. 7 of the division of the Rountree lands.
The following year the 1915 directory of the town of Wilson described Artis as an undertaker, with a home at 308 Pender Street and business at 571 East Nash. This was the long-term address of his funeral home, but it is not clear that he owned a business at that point. Artis spent several years in Washington D.C. during and after World War I, and on 4 July 1918, he married Diana A. Adams at 403 4th Street, N.W., in the city. Four months later, on 12 September 1918, he registered for the draft there. His card: Columbus Estell Artis. Born 28 Aug 1885. Resides 623 – 8th Street, N.E., Washington DC. Letter carrier, Federal Government. U.S. City Post Office, N. C[illegible] Mass. Ave. Nearest relative, Ada L. Artis. Medium height and build. Blue eyes, black hair.
C.E. Artis seems to have been missed in the 1920 census, but death certificates and a 1922 newspaper article make references to Batts Brothers and Artis as local undertakers.
Further, he passed the state embalmer’s licensing exam in the spring of 1921:
Concord Daily Tribune, 24 May 1921.
However, in the 1922-23 Wilson city directory, there is: Artis Columbus E propr[ietor] The Delicatessen h 308 Pender. The 1925 Wilson city directory carries this entry: ARTIS & FLANAGAN (C.E. Artis, W.E. Flanagan) funeral directors 563 E Nash phone 1183, and in the 1928 Wilson city directory, the multiple hats C.E. wore are clear: Artis Columbus E (c; Ada D), undtkr 571 E Nash and prop[rietor] Smith’s Filling Sta h 308 Pender.
In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Columbus Artis, a merchant/undertaker, wife Ida, and niece Gladys Adams. Artis owned the house at 308 Pender Street, valued at $4000.
Over the next decade, at least twice Artis Funeral Home appeared in bizarre stories published in the Pittsburgh Courier:
Pittsburgh Courier, 23 February 1935.
Pittsburgh Courier, 1 August 1936.
(Interestingly, in that Jim Crow era, the Burnett family was white. In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: farmer Alex Burnett, 58, wife Lula, 51, son Festas, 20, and nephew Columbus Dawson, 16, all white.)
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: embalmer Columbus Artis, 55, and wife Ada D. Artis, 48.
Carolina Times, 19 September 1942.
Artis also maintained a mutual burial association. Under state law, among other things, the purpose of mutual burial associations was to provide a funeral benefit for each member in merchandise and services, not cash. Services were always to be provided by the official funeral director of the burial association of which the decedent was a member.
Wilson Daily Times, 20 February 1951.
C.E.’s wife Ada D. Artis died 31 December 1950 at their home at 611 East Green Street. Her death certificate notes that she had been born 18 June 1891 in Brooks County, Georgia, to William and Elizabeth Troup Adams. She was buried in Rest Haven cemetery.
Columbus Estelle Artis died 18 March 1973 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 28 August 1886 to Adam T. Artis and Manda Aldridge; was a retired undertaker; and was married to Ruby Barber. He was buried 22 March 1973, Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson, and the informant was Ruby B. Artis, 611 East Green Street, Wilson.
Here is C.E. Artis’ business described in 1979 in the National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form for “East Wilson Business Area,” Wilson Central Business and Tobacco Warehouse Historic District:
One of only two black funeral directors in Wilson, Columbus Estelle Artis (1886-1973) had this modest, one-story, three-storefront building [at 567-571 East Nash Street] erected in 1922. His funeral business occupied the 571 store until the mid 1950s when he retired and closed his business; the other two stores have always been used for rental purposes, except for a brief period from ca 1945 until ca 1951 when Artis expanded his funeral home into the 569 store. The stuccoed brick structure has narrow stores at 567 and 569 that contain a simple door and a large adjacent display window, both of which have transoms of clear glass. The store at 571 East Nash Street has a central door with flanking display windows, also with transoms. Unfortunately, all of the windows and three of the window transoms have been boarded up. The blind northwest elevation originally abutted the drug store occupied by Darcey C. Yancy during the 1940s and 1950s; this building was razed in the mid 1960s. The rear elevation of the Artis building has a one central door per store. The southeast elevation wall is adjacent to the Jackson Chapel First Missionary Baptist Church, which has maintained offices in the Artis building since 1980.
Historic designation notwithstanding, Jackson Chapel tore down the buildings in the 1990s to make way for a church expansion and parking lot.
[Sidenote: In his capacity as an undertaker, C.E. Artis’ distinctive wide-nibbed, angular cursive, sharp slashes marking his r’s, appears on hundreds of Wilson and surrounding County death certificates. Though his funeral home is largely forgotten, Artis has — quite literally — left a lasting imprint in Wilson County.
An early example, when his style was still emerging:
A sample from 1945, when it was in full flower: