As detailed here, in 1920 Roscoe Briggs moved in earnest to dismantle the African-American neighborhood of Grabneck to make way for the mansions of West Nash Street. On a single day in March 1920, he bought four parcels from members of the Best family, including Frank and Mamie Best, who exchanged their lot for a house to be built in Griffin Hill by John H. Griffin.
Here’s the plat for “Griffins Hill,” surveyed days later and recorded in Plat Book 1, Page 187, at the Wilson County Register of Deeds Office.
At first I thought the Bests got the okey-doke. Connor Street runs five blocks from Kenan to Lee. Cone Street runs parallel to the west. To this day, there’s no Griffin Street or Center Street or Boyette Road in Wilson.
So where did Frank and Mamie Simms Best end up?
Frank Best died in 1922. His Wilson County death certificate describes his residence as “country.” Mamie Best remarried, but second husband Charles Jordan soon died. In the 1930 census of Wilson township, Wilson County, she and her 14 year-old step daughter Mabell Jordan were listed just outside the city limits in New Grabneck, near other former Grabneck families. Mamie Simms Best Jordan died 29 January 1940, and her death certificate lists New Grabneck as her residence.
A list of delinquent property taxes published in the Daily Times on 17 September 1938 included these Griffin Hill residents. All were families who lived in the area otherwise known as New Grabneck.
Though he lived within a few houses of Ed Bobbitt, Emma Lee and Alice Mitchell, Paul Sherrod‘s listing was “New Grab Neck.”
In May 1943, Fred Lucas placed ads for farm animals that suggest that the name Griffin Hill was unfamiliar enough to require location aides. (And emphasize its rural nature.)
Wilson Daily Times, 27 May 1943.
Wilson Daily Times, 31 May 1943.
Finally, in a 21 October 1959 article announcing the construction of low-income housing for whites, the Times noted:
This terrible map accompanied the article, the hashed area depicting the site of the new project at Griffin Hill:
The dark squiggle is the Hominy Swamp Canal. The arc slicing across it is the Norfolk & Southern Railroad. Warren Street (now Elizabeth Road) is the west border; Forrest Street, at bottom. (Parallel to a short road labeled “New Grabneck.”) Griffin Hill was no hill at all. In fact, like Lincoln Heights, it was in a notorious flood plain of Hominy Swamp. And 40 years after it was developed to accommodate the relocation of the Grabneck community, it was gone.
Per Google Map, the public housing built on the former site of Griffin Hill.
[Note: Connor Street indeed runs as described above, but in this map, Forrest Road is labeled “Connor Street.” Presumably, someone realized the inadvisability of having two streets with the same name, and the anchor street of Griffin Hill was renamed.]
By the mid-1920s, Grabneck was gone. A mile and a half away, however, New Grabneck emerged in a clutch of unpaved streets on the far side of Hominy Swamp, a tributary of Contentnea Creek that wends its way, generally unobtrusively (when not sloshing out of its banks), across south Wilson. Per the 1930 Wilson city directory, all of the residents of this new settlement were African-American.
Hill’s Wilson, N.C., City Directory (1930).
Several of New Grabneck’s residents, including Bertha Best Freeman, Mamie [Best] Jordan, Ida Jordan, Jeremiah Scarborough and Frank Mitchell, had lived in Grabneck. Was this coincidence, or were Grabneck’s people deliberately resettled on vacant property on another edge of town?
New Grabneck was short-lived. As noted in this recollection by Marjorie Fulcher Stewart (a Best descendant), the area was cleared about 1960 in an urban renewal project that created moderate-income and public housing for whites.
This undated World War II-era air raid warden district map shows New Grabneck as an unpaved L off unpaved Connor Street, which branches from South Tarboro Street. Connor Street is now Forrest Road, and the New Grabneck lane is Jefferson Street. (See Paul Sherrod’s recollection here.)
Locations of former Grabneck and New Grabneck communities today. Map courtesy of Bing.com.
Air raid district map in private collection of Lisa Y. Henderson.
By Drew C. Wilson, Wilson Daily Times, 1 October 2017.
Paul Sherrod and his nephew spent a day last month cleaning brush off their ancestors’ graves.
“Every time I come here to Wilson I come here to visit this cemetery because it is so special to me,” Sherrod said as he walked up to the resting place for his grandparents, Joseph Tobe Smith, 1871-1956, and Martha Elizabeth Wheeler Smith, 1875-1932.
A massive pine tree stands over the top of the gravesite, which is in the Winstead family cemetery, also referred to as the Parkwood Cemetery, surrounded by the parking lot of the now-closed Wilson Mall.
“I remember as a kid this being farmland,” Sherrod said. “My grandfather was a sharecropper on land owned by the Winstead family. My grandfather was allowed to plant this tallest tree here, we believe, sometime between 1918 and 1922, and he was promised that he could be buried there right along with my grandmother. So proud of this, to know that my grandfather planted that tree.”
Sherrod is not sure who it was in the Winstead family who offered and then kept that promise, but he suspects it might have been Charles Winstead Sr.
“They owned land from here all the way down to Raleigh Road. I had two uncles who sharecropped almost all the way down to the parkway,” Sherrod said.
It is remarkable to Sherrod that early in the 20th century, a black couple would be permitted to have a final resting place in a white cemetery.
“That is really truly amazing because here we are in 1929, in the middle of the Depression and some oppression, you have this act of compassion and courage from this Winstead family to allow this to happen,” Sherrod said. “Looking back on it, I think they must have had, what you call it now, some flack about that, but they were courageous enough to see it through because they made a promise to my grandfather and they held to their promise. And moving forward to the mall being here, as the developers were putting it together, I understand that the Winstead family made a stipulation when they sold them the land that the graves and the bodies will not be exhumed, so here they are. I don’t know which family members it was, but they, again, had the same courage as their forefathers. So that’s remarkable, in 1929, having an African-American buried in a white cemetery.”
Sherrod never knew his grandmother, as she died before Sherrod was born.
“I only know about my grandfather,” Sherrod said. “I remember so much about him because he was actually both a father and a grandfather to me because my father died when I was quite young. He died in 1945. Right after that I started to live with my grandfather, and he mentored me in so, so many ways. He would take me with him as he would take his wagon and his mule and cultivate gardens. He was a farmer, but he was not farming anymore, so he was cultivating people’s gardens, and I learned so much from him about agriculture, how to grow things. I had my own garden. He would help me take care of the tomatoes and the okra. He was a wonderful person.”
They lived together from about 1944 to 1950 when Sherrod was 13 to 18 years old.
“It was a pleasure living with him because I learned so much,” Sherrod said. “He was so patient with me. I understand now, that he could see that I was different. I loved the books, and he wanted to give me the opportunity to do my homework, so he had to always make sure there was enough kerosene in the lamp. A little step up from Lincoln and the candle, but a similar situation.”
“The house was about a mile and half from here, east of here in New Grab Neck,” Sherrod said. “Later it was called Jefferson Street, and now it’s called Forest Hills. They have changed the name a couple of times.”
Sherrod, who is now 84, said growing up in Wilson in the 1940s wasn’t as bad as it might have seemed that it could have been.
“Our neighborhood was partially integrated. About a quarter of a mile up the street from where we lived, there was a white family. As a matter of fact, my grandfather had lived in that very house back in the early ’40s,” Sherrod said. “The only real signs of segregation were more the public places. We had a colored and white drinking fountain in front of the courthouse. Now it is a memorial to veterans, I believe. You could not sit in a restaurant. You had to go back to the back to get your food handed out the back door to you. And when buses came along, we had to ride in the back of the bus. So those were outward signs of the segregation, but there was never really any brutality. You weren’t afraid to walk around. You knew your place. You understood that. It wasn’t really as bad as it could have been because I have heard some real horror stories from other cities around the country later on. Not then. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”
The pine tree that Joseph Smith planted is at least 4 feet thick and the most prominent tree in the graveyard. There is a crack up its middle, perhaps made by a lightning strike many years ago.
When his grandfather died in 1956, Sherrod was overseas serving in the Air Force and could not attend the funeral.
“Before, they just had a simple marker,” Sherrod said.
Family members placed a granite marker at the site several years ago, and Sherrod recently purchased an additional stone marker to note the couple’s birth and death dates.
When Sherrod and his nephew, Bradley Sherrod of Wilson, spent the day clearing the brush around the gravesite, they left one little sapling.
“We toyed with the idea of taking it out, but my nephew and I decided no. Let that grow and see what happens. It’s obviously from the seed of this tree, so we left that one alone, that little baby pine, and over the years I’ll see what happens,” Sherrod said. “I hope the Lord allows me to be on this Earth long enough to see it be a pretty big tree. It’s growing nicely.”
Sherrod, who now resides in California, recently held a large family reunion on the site of the Sherrod family homeplace near Stantonsburg. He had spent the whole summer preparing for the event.
That is from his father’s side of the family. The Smiths are from his mother’s side of the family in Wilson.
“I firmly believe that if more people explored the roots from which they came, there would probably be a better world,” Sherrod said. “There is so much rich history on all sides on all ethnic groups, and if we had that history, we would have an opportunity to have a better understanding. It would be wonderful if people would do that on a large scale.”
In the 1880 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: on Pettigrew Street, farmer James Smith, 34, born in Virginia; wife Adline, 30; and children John, 14, Joseph, 9, Windsor, 12, Kate, 6, Allace, 5, and Julious, 2.
On 19 October 1892, Joe Smith, 21, of Wilson, son of Jim and Adeline Smith, married Martha Wheeler, 19, of Wilson, daughter of Amy Wheeler, at Amy Wheeler’s home. Free Will Baptist minister Crockett Bess performed the ceremony in the presence of Noah Wood, John Wheeler and Jno. Artis.
In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Joseph Smith, 29, farmer; wife Martha, 25; and children Addie, 5, Fenner, 4, and Mark, 2, and widowed mother Amma, 55.
In the 1910 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: Joseph Smith, 39; wife Martha, 36; and children Addie, 15, Fenner, 13, Mark, 11, James, 9, Lillie, 7, Mary F., 5, and Martha, 15 months.
In the 1920 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: Joseph Smith, 49; wife Martha, 41; and children Mark, 21, Lillie, 19, Mary Ford, 13, Martha, 10, Margaret Earls, 4 months, and Josie Brow, newborn.
In the 1930 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Tobe Smith, 59, farmer; wife Martha, 54; and children Frenner, 35, farm laborer, Mark G., 32, farm laborer, James, 30, schoolhouse janitor, Josephine, 14, and Beulah, 11.
Martha Smith died 21 March 1932 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born born in Nash County to Dick Wheeler and Amy Rice; was married to Tobe Smith; and worked as a tenant farmer.
Joseph Tobe Smith died 20 January 1956 at his home at 315 Jefferson Street, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 20 August 1884 in Wilson County to James Smith and Adline Darden; was a retired farmer; resided at 315 Jefferson Street; and was buried in Winstead cemetery. Mrs. Martha Sherrod, 315 Jefferson, was informant.
Aerial view of Winstead cemetery behind Wilson (former Parkwood) Mall, Wilson. Courtesy Google Maps.