Oral History

The stake of life.

While director of the University of North Carolina Press, W.T. Couch also worked as a part-time official of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, serving as assistant and associate director for North Carolina (1936-1937) and as director for the southern region (1938-1939). The Federal Writers’ Project Papers are housed at U.N.C.’s Southern Historical Collection and include Couch’s correspondence and life histories of about 1,200 individuals collected by F.W.P. members. At least two African-American residents of Wilson, Georgia Crockett Aiken and William Batts, were memorialized in this way. 

Folder 550 contains the transcript of the interview with William Batts, titled “The stake of life.” Batts, a tobacco packer, lived at 804 Stronach Avenue. [The 1940 city directory described Stronach Alley as “(formerly Young’s Line) — from a point east of North Av at Adams, north to Tilghman rd.”]

Batts had worked as a packer for ten seasons and enjoyed the work. He was six feet tall and muscular and had farmed on rented land before working in the warehouse.

Batts’ family were sharecroppers, working to keep half the crop they produced. As he reached adulthood and realized how little money his parents received for their toil, he determined to find different work. Batts had wanted an education, but his father did not believe in the value of schooling needed him to work. “He learned us how to treat white folks and let our education stop at dat.” In response to his father’s view that literacy was for white people, Batts said, “… if de nigger could do his own figuring de white folks ‘ud have to figure harder, too.” His first job was as a section hand for Norfolk & Southern Railroad, which he quit to drive a dray.

From there, Batts went to work at a wagon company. (Almost certainly Hackney Wagon.) After he was laid off, he got a job at a tobacco warehouse. The work was seasonal — August to November — and he had been paid $11.88 a week for the ten years he had worked there as a packer, unloading tobacco from farmer’s wagons and placing it in baskets in the warehouse. The odor of tobacco sickened him at first, but he could not quit because his wife was not working and the dollar-a-day he made doing farmwork during the summer did not go far.

Batts worked 7 o’clock A.M. to 6 P.M. five days a week and a half-day on Sunday. When the season ended, he hustled to find more work to supplement his wife’s work washing clothes, “cooking when company come to de white folks” and other occasional work. “when the spring opened up,” there was farm work — setting our tobacco plants, chopping cotton, barning tobacco, and picking cotton kept him “in a regular strut.” In winter, he dug ditches, sawed wood in a sawmill, and cleared land.

“I reckon you’d say I ain’t got no regular job, but I work pretty regular, ‘specially all de months besides December and January.” His wife worked stemming tobacco for about $8 a week. Still, they had trouble saving money. “We had to buy some furniture and clothes and keep up our life insurance and our rent and lights.” The couple was fortunate that their water was included in their rent — “We can take a bath every day if we want it …”

Their son and daughter no longer lived with them. Batts missed them, especially for help when his wife felt poorly because of high blood pressure.

He was seldom seriously ill and felt bad for her and tried to help. She would probably have to quit working. “I reckon I can support us ’cause we don’t owe no debts.” They bought their furniture for cash, and paid groceries ($15/month) and rent ($10/month) in cash. They had life insurance and had set aside a “little,” but feared running into bad luck. Batts dreamed of buying a small farm and a mule. “I think dat is the de stake of life.” A farm could provide security, something he had not thought much of until the stock market crash of 1929.

Batts’ wife was a Christian when they married, but it took her five years to convert him. When she “made [him] see the point,” he joined a Disciples Church. It brought him great comfort.

Batts introduced the interviewer to his wife, who was in the kitchen peeling potatoes. The room contained newly painted furniture, a four-burner oil stove, a linoleum rug, and “snowy white” linens. Mrs. Batts explained that Batts had gotten the idea to paint the furniture green from an issue of Better Homes and Gardens. He had wanted to paint the walls after the owner of the house refused, but she counseled him to paint the things they could take with them if they had to leave the house.

Nursey Batts longed for her own house that she could “fix and mess over” and believed the Lord would provide. She came from a large family with hard-working parents who denied their own needs in their struggle to provide for their children. Only six of their 14 lived to adulthood.

Nursey Batts believed few white folks believed in ghosties or witches or conjuring, and black people were “outgrowing” it. She opined on the origins of conjure. She also had this opinion: “Most niggers feels like dey is imposed on just ’cause dey is niggers, but lemme tell you, a good honest nigger needn’t be skeered of living. De white folks has always been good to me and [William.]”

While waiting for an  iron to heat, Nursey Batts showed the interviewer her parlor, which was neatly furnished and decorated.

“A body never knows when a important person will drop in on him and everything will most likely be like de devil’s had a fit on it. I hate for company to catch me, as de saying is, with my breeches down.” Still, she downplayed the appearance of the room. She had crocheted the bedspread from tobacco twine in a pattern she got from a woman who lived out in the country. She was proud of the chifforobe her husband had bought her for Christmas.

Nursey Batts was hopeful that she and William Batts would get their farm and thought another term for Franklin Roosevelt would be helpful. “I wish dat we could vote for him, but [William] can’t read or write so he can’t vote. I can read a little, but I don’t know nothing ’bout de Constitution of the United States.”

——

On 7 July 1915, Will Batts, 23, of Wilson, son of Morris and Nancy Batts of Taylor township, married Nurcy Hill, 22, of Wilson, daughter of Robert Hill, at Graham Woodard‘s in Wilson township. Missionary Baptist minister Jeremiah Scarboro performed the ceremony in the presence of Jason Farmer, Bessie Farmer, and Mena Littlejohn.

In 1917, Will Batts registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 15 December 1889 in Wilson County; lived on Vance Street; and was a butler for N.L. Finch.

In the 1920 Wilson, N.C., city directory: Batts Nursey (c) dom 601 Warren; Batts William (c) drayman h 601 Warren

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: a 804 Stronach Alley, Will Batts, 46, public school janitor; wife Nursey, 36, tobacco factory stemmer; and brother-in-law Freeman Hill, 29, tobacco factory office boy.

In 1942, Freeman Hill registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 25 November 1900 in Wilson; lived in 623 East Viola; his contact was Nursey Batts, 722 Stronach Avenue; and worked for Wilson Tobacco Company, South Railroad Street.

Will Batts died 24 February 1947 in Wilson of congestive heart failure. Per his death certificate, he was born 12 December 1890 in Wilson County to Morris Batts and Nancy Bynum; was married to Nursey Batts; was the janitor at Charles L. Coon High; and lived at 722 Stronach Avenue.

Women are best.

While director of the University of North Carolina Press, W. T. Couch also worked as a part-time official of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, serving as assistant and associate director for North Carolina (1936-1937) and as director for the southern region (1938-1939). The Federal Writers’ Project Papers are housed at U.N.C.’s Southern Historical Collection and include Couch’s correspondence and life histories of about 1,200 individuals collected by F.W.P. members. At least two African-American residents of Wilson, Georgia Crockett Aiken and William Batts, were memorialized in this way. 

Folder 324 contains the transcript of the interview with Georgia Crockett Aiken, titled “Women are best.”

The first page is a key to the pseudonyms used in the transcript.

Georgia Aiken is mistakenly described as white. She lived at 120 Pender Street in Wilson. When her interview began, she was in her kitchen directing the work of two children who were cleaning the house. She was born in 1872 into a family of ten children, all of whom were dead except her. [The family had lived in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and Georgia’s brothers included Alexander and James Crockett.]

Georgia Aiken grew up near a school and, because both her parents were wage-earners, was able to attend through the ninth grade. She obtained a teaching certificate and started teaching in 1889 a one-room school “out in the country.” She made $25 a month for teaching seven grades and reminisced on the hardships — and reward — of serving the children of the community.

In 1908, Georgia Aiken arrived in Wilson. She started high school coursework [where? the Colored High School did not open until 1924] and received a big raise when she completed it. She taught for 48 years, all told.

She dated John Aiken for two years before they married. Aiken owned a prosperous livery stable, and the couple saved their money to build a house. When they bought the Pender Street lot, a widow lived with her children in a small house there. [A 1905 plat map shows John Aiken already owned a lot on Pender Street. Was it a different one?] John Aiken died before the house was completed [in 1914] and Georgia Aiken took over the business.

Though worried about finances, Georgia Aiken went ahead with plans to build. The livery business did well until “automobiles came in.” She sold the business at a loss and turned her attention to teaching and caring for her house.

The writer described Aiken’s kitchen in deep detail.

Her “cook stove … finished in blue porcelain” was probably much like this one, found in an on-line ad:

Aiken continued, speaking of training her helper, her standards for housekeeping and food preparation, and her preference for paying cash.

And then: “I might as well say that I voted in the last city elections and have voted ever since woman’s suffrage has come in, and I expect to as long as I can get to the polls. I would like to see some women run for some of the town offices. I think they’re just as capable as the men who set themselves up so high and mighty. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if women didn’t get more and more of the high positions in the near future. …”

And: churches and government are run by rings, and “if you don’t stand in well with these, you don’t stand a chance.”

“I believe the women do more in church work than men.”

Georgia Aiken took in boarders at her home on Pender Street and always tried to make her “guests feel at home.” “When times are good and business is stirring” — likely, she meant during tobacco market season — “I always have my house full.” In slow times, though, it was hard to meet expenses. Taxes were due and though she knew she would make the money to pay them in the fall, she hated to incur fees.

Aiken paid her helper in board and clothes only, though she wished she could pay wages. If she stayed long enough, Aiken would consider leaving her some interest in the property after her death, though her niece in New York might object. She lamented a long delay in repainting the exterior of the house, but had plans to do so.

The writer described the house’s rooms and furnishings, mentioning their wear and age. Aiken indicated her preference for “clean decent folks” as tenants. She had two baths in the house and hot water from the stove for both. She could not afford to install steam heat when the house was being built and rued the dustiness of coal.

“Helping anyone in need is being nice to anyone, and the one that helps me most during the few years that I’ve left in this life is the one I hope to remember with the most of what I leave when I’m called to the life to come.”

A summary:

Georgia Crockett Aikens died 17 August 1939 in Wilson, apparently just a few months after giving this interview. Per her death certificate, she was 67 years old, born in Wayne County to William Crockett and Rachel Powell, resided at 120 Pender Street in Wilson, and was married to John Aikens.

“Federal Writers’ Project Papers, 1936-1940, Collection No. 03709.” The Southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

#FamilyPicturesUSA

Tonight I’m getting my whole entire life watching Family Pictures USA, which explores North Carolina stories in Episode 1. (Shout out to Jaki Shelton Green, fellow Taller Portobelo ’06 alum!) Many of my favorite posts in Black Wide Awake feature snapshots and studio portraits of African-American men and women in or of Wilson, and I so often wish I knew more about their lives than the bare bones of census records and vital statistics. Family Pictures USA, airing on PBS, amplifies this impulse in ways that made me laugh and caught in my throat.

“Family Pictures USA is a documentary-style magazine show, filmed before a live studio audience, that journeys through a rapidly changing landscape where the foundations of a familiar and idealized “AMERICA” are being transformed. As ordinary Americans begin to discover their hidden family histories, stashed in boxes in dusty attics or on old floppy disks and new smartphones, they will unpack more than artifacts and ephemera. They will re-meet their relatives and old friends —fascinating characters, brought back to life by images and stories —giving them a new home in our collective consciousness, and introducing us to a more nuanced and diverse story of our common history, shared present and evolving future. Family Pictures USA will mine this rich treasure trove of personal narratives to reveal roots, connections, and provocative parallels that will surprise us and illuminate the path toward a new America for a 21st Century.

“Like StoryCorps, Family Pictures USA guides participants through a personal narrative in a short interaction with a host/producer, but using photographs and images as the primary medium of the story. Like Antiques Roadshow, Family Pictures USA travels to different locations within a given community, town or region and the surprise is in uncovering little known and unusual personal stories and connecting them to a larger narrative that better contextualizes a particular locale. The value revealed is in how these images inform our larger understanding of the culture, beyond mere family memoir.

“Each episode [of FamilyPictures USA] will illuminate connections among and between individual family narratives to create an inclusive new Digital American Family Album, exposing threads of history that enrich and enlarge our understanding of our nation and its diverse people and expanding our ideas of who we are as a people. It continues the work of the series’ award-winning Executive Producer, Thomas Allen Harris, to bridge inter-generational and cross-cultural differences and bring communities closer together by transforming strangers into family.”

Tune in!

An afternoon with Mr. Lathan.

Samuel Caswell Lathan sat in the front row during my presentation at Wilson County Public Library last week, making me a little nervous. This extraordinary musician, who once played drums for James Brown, was especially interested in the topic — he grew up on the 500 block of East Nash Street in the 1930s and ’40s. I visited with Mr. Lathan the next afternoon, soaking up his memories of the people and businesses of the block, whom he credits for setting him on his path as a drummer. He urged me to continue my documentation of East Wilson and expressed appreciation for and satisfaction with my work thus far.

Mr. Lathan also shared with me some extraordinary photographs of pre-World War II East Nash Street. Here he is as a toddler, circa 1931.

This stunning image depicts Neal’s Barbershop, with three of its barbers, circa 1935. Mr. Lathan is the boy leaning against the window, and Walter Sanders is seated in the chair awaiting a cut. “Billy Jr.” stands to his left in the photo, and an unidentified boy to the right.

African-American photographer John H. Baker took this family portrait of an adolescent Sam Lathan with his mother Christine Barnes Collins, grandmother Jeanette Barnes Plummer, and aunt Irene Plummer Dew in the late 1930s.

And this Baker portrait depicts Mr. Lathan’s beloved late wife, Mary Magdelene Knight Lathan.

Sam Lathan has graciously agreed to meet with me again to further explore his recollection of Black Wilson. I thank him for his interest, his time, and his generosity.

Photos courtesy of Samuel C. Lathan, please do not reproduce without permission.

How Dew’s Rest Home got financed.

Naomi Elizabeth Morris (1921–1986), who grew up in Wilson, served on the North Carolina Court of Appeals from 1967 through 1982. She was Chief Judge of that court from 1978 through 1982. In an interview conducted in 1983, Judge Morris recollected her efforts to assist the establishment in the 1950s of Wilson’s first sanctioned nursing home for African-Americans. Though considered progressive for her time and place, Judge Morris’ notions of privilege and segregationist propriety (and that of the interviewer) peek through here.

——

PAT DEVINE: One story that I encountered which struck me with interest as something that I’d love to hear you talk more about was, you alluded to one experience you had in helping to do the legal background work for the founding of the first or only home for indigent blacks in Wilson.

JUDGE NAOMI ELIZABETH MORRIS: Not indigent blacks. No, this was a nursing home for blacks. The office had had this woman as a client for many years. She ran a restaurant at one time. She was quite an aggressive, hardworking woman, and she came to me and said that the director of public welfare, Mr. Monroe Fordham [Fulghum], had asked her to open a nursing home for blacks. She had at that time taken in two or three aged people in her home to take care of, under the auspices of the welfare department, and Monroe Fordham had asked her if she would open a nursing home for blacks. She told him that she would if she could get the money, so she came to me to get the money. We went many places to borrow money, including from the black insurance company in Durham, and they would not let her have the money. Although she had sufficient property to secure the note, they would not let her have the money, and that made me perfectly furious. I came back to Wilson and called the Branch Bank and told them the situation. I said, “You will be missing a very good opportunity if you don’t let this woman have the money,” so they said they would. They required a lot of her that they might not have required of a white person in the same situation — I don’t know — but this was something new and untried. The man who did the electrical work took her note for the electrical work without any security. We worked it out to the point that she had her financing, and she paid everybody back ahead of time. One way she did it, in the summer when the crops would be coming in and the people would have gotten their crops harvested from the field, she would get permission to go out to that field and get what was left [gleaning], the small potatoes that they didn’t pick up, the beans on the bottom part of the vine. She would go get those, and that’s the way she fed her people and was able to feed them cheaper than a lot of people could run a home. Extremely well run.

PAT DEVINE: Is it still there?

JUDGE NAOMI ELIZABETH MORRIS: Oh, yes, it’s still there. About five years after she borrowed the money, the Branch Bank called me and asked me if she would be interested in adding onto her home, that they would be glad to let her have the money. I always wanted to write the insurance company in Durham and say something to them, but I didn’t.

PAT DEVINE: That’s hard to understand.

JUDGE NAOMI ELIZABETH MORRIS: It is hard. It was very difficult for me to understand, because they always talk about looking after their own and the fact that white people don’t do things they ought to for them.

PAT DEVINE: What is this woman’s name?

JUDGE NAOMI ELIZABETH MORRIS: Geneva Dew.

PAT DEVINE: Is she alive?

JUDGE NAOMI ELIZABETH MORRIS: Oh, yes, she’s alive and doing well. I hear from her at least twice a year. She attended my swearing-in ceremony and the party that was given afterward. I’m very fond of her. She’s a very fine person.

——

Nina Aldridge Faison Hardy at Dew’s Rest Home, circa mid 1960s.

In the 1920 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farmer William Winn, 59; wife Jennie, 48; and children Charley, 21, John, 19, Dorch, 13, Pink, 10, and Jeneva, 8.

In the 1930 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: odd jobs laborer Willie Winn, 62; wife Jennie, 60; children Roy, 23, and Pink, 20; and lodger Lula Ward, 45.

On 27 July 1935, Ernest Dew, 26, of Wilson County, son of Frank Dew, married Geneva Dew, 23, of Wilson County, daughter of Willie and Jennie Wynn, in Nashville, Nash County.

Willie Wynn Jr. died 11 February 1940. Per his death certificate, he died 11 February 1940 in Wilson; had been married to Jennie Wynn, but was a widower; resided at 1102 Atlantic Street, Wilson; worked as a laborer; was the son of Willie Wynn and Annie Williams. Geneva Dew, 1102 East Atlantic Street, was informant, and he was buried in Elm City.

In the 1941 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directories: Dew Geneva (c) beer 315 Stantonsburg h 203 Stantonsburg. (In the 1947 city directory, the address has shifted 319 Stantonsburg.) The 1950 city directory also shows Dew as owner of a beer establishment.

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Hill’s Wilson, N.C., City Directory (1960).

Earnest Dew died 15 March 1969 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 18 May 1910 to Frank Dew and Cora Braswell; was married to Geneva Wynn; resided at 501 Spaulding Street, Wilson; and was a rest home operator.

Geneva Wynn Dew died 6 November 1984 in Wilson.

Dew’s celebrates a move to new quarters. Wilson Daily Times, 20 June 1964. 

Excerpt from oral history interview with Naomi Elizabeth Morris, November 11 and 16, 1982, and March 29, 1983. Interview B-0050. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; photo of N. Hardy in personal collection of Lisa Y. Henderson. Many thanks to Bob Martin for the correction of Monroe Fulghum’s surname.

Cherry Hotel and the color line.

Wayne County native Caswell C. Henderson (1865-1927) migrated to New York City in the 1890s, but returned South to Wilson to visit his sister Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver. Their great-niece Hattie Henderson Ricks recalled the elaborate steps he took to carry out his daily ritual. First, Henderson would leave their house on Elba Street and walk west on Green Street. He crossed the railroad tracks and walked a few more blocks before turning left on a cross street, then left to walk east on Nash Street to the Hotel Cherry. He entered the hotel through its front doors — as any white guest would — bought a newspaper, shot the breeze for a while with other white guests and staff, then exited right to walk back up Nash Street. After a few blocks, he turned right, then right again on Green and crossed the tracks back into the African-American world.

——

“Uncle Caswell had been home, he’d been to Wilson.  He come down there visiting Mama …. He passed for white.  He would go and get a paper every morning down there to Cherry Hotel.  Walk down there for the exercise and get that paper.  And they all thought he was white.  He’d go in the hotel there and ask for a paper and come in there and talk to the people.  And he’d leave the hotel and walk the other direction, then walk back down Green Street and come on home.”

Cherry Hotel in an undated postcard issued by the Asheville Post Card Company.

Interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.

It’s got a little twang to it.

Jesse A. Jacobs Jr. worked as a janitor at Five Points (later Winstead) School and did gardening odd jobs at the home of school superintendent Charles L. Coon. His great-niece Hattie Henderson Ricks, whom he adopted, told this story:

“Papa was up there cutting grass. ‘Go in the house, and ask ‘em for some water, a pitcher.’  Talking ‘bout my daddy wanted some water. And the first time I ever seen a grapefruit was there.  I said I’d never forget that.  ‘Cause I went in that house and asked for some water, and I said ‘Daddy said’ – I called him Papa.  Anyway, ‘he wanted to know if he could have some water.’  And the lady said, ‘Yeah,’ and she got a pitcher and a glass.  And I took it on out there, and then I just sit on the steps.  So Papa stopped and drinked him some water. But I was just standing there while they was fixing the water, and I looked on that table, and all ‘round the table there by the plate they had a salt cellar and half a grapefruit and a cherry sitting in the middle.  And that thing just looked so pretty, looked so good.  And I said, ‘Unh, that’s a big orange!’ I said, ‘Well, next time I go to the store I’m gon get me one, too.’  And sho’ nuff, I asked Papa, when we left – I don’t remember whether it was, it wont that particular time, but we come out and were on our way to Edmundson’s store in Five Points, and he wanted me to go in and get a plug of tobacco. Part of a plug.  And tell Old Man Edmundson to put it on the bill. So he waited, he was out there on a wagon, he had a little horse, and I went in and told Mr. Edmundson Papa wanted a, whatever amount it was, he didn’t get a whole plug, ‘cause I think it was three or four sections to a plug of tobacco, and for him to put it on the bill, and I said, ‘He said I could have a orange.  And put that on the bill.’  And it was boxes sitting up – I’ll never forget it – the boxes sitting up with all the oranges sitting up in there.  And I got the biggest one out of the group.  The one that wasn’t even orange.  I made sure I was gon get me a big orange!  I got that and come on back out there and got on the wagon and coming from Five Points to almost home, I was peeling that thing and peeling it ‘til I got it off, and it was sour, ‘Ugh, that’s a sour orange!’  I never seen a orange that sour. And I said, ‘Now, that didn’t look like, that’s a light-complected … yellow.’ But it was still like a orange, and it was so big.

“From then on I didn’t want no big orange. Now I always get little oranges. Today I don’t buy no big orange.  ‘Cause the little ones is sweeter than the big ones.  But, honey, that was a grapefruit, and that was the first I’d ever known it was a grapefruit.  We ain’t never had no grapefruit.  And so, I told Mama that was a, ugh, sour orange.  And I told her ‘bout what the Coons had on their table when I went up there.  And she said, ‘Well, that was a grapefruit.’  ‘A grapefruit?,’  I said, ‘well, what’s a grapefruit?’  And she said, ‘It’s like a big orange.  But you have to put sugar on it most time.  It’s a little sour.  It’s got a little twang to it.’  She said, ‘But your daddy didn’t never like none, so I don’t care that much about it.’  And I said, ‘A grapefruit?  I got myself a grapefruit.’  I said, ‘The cherries, where they get the cherries?,’ I said. ‘That little red thing where was on there.’  She said, ‘Well, you buy ‘em in bottles from the store.’ But, anyway, it was sour, but I learned the taste, you put a little sugar on it, makes a little bit sweeter.  I swear, Lord, I think about those things that I did when I was little.”

——

The house with the grapefruit was at 109 North Rountree Street in Wilson’s College Park neighborhood. Charles L. Coon’s house has been demolished, but was catalogued in Bainbridge and Ohno’s Wilson, North Carolina: Historic Buildings Survey (1980):

“This house was built c.1915 for Wilson’s foremost educator, Charles L. Coon. He served as superintendent of the Wilson Graded School from 1907 until his death in 1927 and was County School superintendent for the last fifteen years of this period. Coon, credited with the creation of a model school system in Wilson, also served on the North Carolina Child Labor Committee, the State Teachers Assembly, the editorial board of the North Carolina Historical Review and was the author of North Carolina Schools and Academies 1790-1840 and Public Schools of Wilson County. His house is sturdy and simple. The tile roof is unusual in a house of this vintage, and it enriches the texture of the facade. The front porch was constructed in typical Bungalow style, with square flared columns supporting the overhanging hipped roof.”

——

Hattie H. Ricks, circa 1920, probably a few years after she first tasted grapefruit.

Hill’s Wilson, N.C., City Directory (1916).

  • Plug tobacco is made by pressing cured tobacco in a sweet (often molasses-based) syrup. The resulting sheet of pressed tobacco was cut into “plugs.” Edmundson likely carried locally manufactured product.

Adapted from interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.

Marvin Jones: “We were just making the day.”

As noted in NCPedia.org, “[h]istorian David Cecelski wrote a popular oral history series called “Listening to History” for the Raleigh News & Observer from 1998 to 2008. With the support of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cecelski traveled across the state listening to, recording and preserving stories that spoke to the state’s history throughout the 20th century. ‘Listening to History’ appeared monthly in the newspaper’s ‘Sunday Journal,’ a special section of the Sunday edition of the newspaper that focused on the state’s cultural life.”

In 2004, as part of his series, Dr. Cecelski interviewed Marvin Jones, who began working for the Export Leaf Tobacco Company in Wilson in 1946. An excerpt from that interview, in which Jones “recalled the strong, and sometimes irreverent, camaraderie that enlivened tobacco factory life and laid a foundation for” the historic tobacco workers’ labor movement, is found here.

Marvin Jones died ten years after his “Listening to History” interview. Per his obituary:

“Mr. Marvin Jones, age 90, of 1020 SE Hines Street, Wilson, NC died Sunday, June 1, 2014 at his residence. Funeral arrangements are scheduled for Saturday, June 7, 2014 at 1:00 pm at Tabernacle of Prayer, 1601 Lane Street, SE, Wilson, North Carolina.

“Mr. Jones was preceded in death by: his wife, Johnnie Mae Brevard Jones; his parents, Rufus Haney and Gladys Jones Barnes; two sons, Bobby Julian Batts, Sr. and Tony Lewis; six sisters, Jessie Haney Locus, Thelma Roundtree, Annie Mae Barnes, Bessie Lee Davis, Rosa Barnes and Louise B. Johnson; four brothers, Rufus Haney, Jr., Joe Bonnie Haney, Issac Barnes and Jasper Barnes.

“He leaves cherished memories to one son, Walter Jones Jr. of the home; three daughters, Evelyn Wade (Donald) of the home, Gale Artis (James) of Wilson and Gwendolyn Fisher of Wilson; twelve grandchildren; thirty-one great grandchildren and nineteen great-great-grandchildren; one sister, Louise Reynolds of Philadelphia, PA; one sister-in-law, Ruth Barnes of Wilson; two special care givers, his great granddaughter, Tamara Richardson and Hattie Batts; and  a host of nieces, nephews, cousins, other relatives and friends.

“A public viewing will be held on Friday, June 6, 2014 from 3:00 pm until 8:00 pm with the family receiving friends from 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm at Stevens Funeral Home, 1820 Martin Luther King Jr., Parkway, Wilson, North Carolina.”

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——

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: in Happy Hill, road construction laborer Jesse Barnes, 41; wife Gladys A., 38; and children Marvin J., 16, Mary, 18, Rosa, 15, Isaac, 11, Bessie, 10, and Jasper Lee, 7.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 912 East Vance Street, South Carolina-born tobacco factory cooper Rufus Haney, 38, and children Rufus Jr., 13, and Jiosa Lee, 10, and mother Minder, 74.

In 1942, Marvin Jones registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 18 November 1923 in Wilson; resided at 612 Wiggins Street; his contact was Mrs. Julia Barnes, Wainright [sic], Wilson; and he worked for N.L. Baker, Route 1, Wilson.

Grocery shopping in East Wilson.

From an interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks (1910-2001) by her granddaughter Lisa Y. Henderson, in which she responds to the question, “Where did y’all shop for groceries?”

“I went down on Nash Street down there to the A&P store when it first come about. Up there in back of Dickerson Grocery. Right up there on Pender Street. By First Baptist Church. That was the first A&P store. And then when they opened up the store up there on Nash Street. We had to go, like, living on Queen Street, we’d go out there to, there was two stores out there. Yeah, one right where the Elks Club is, and then the one down there where was in between there and a lady name Hattie something, she had a beauty parlor on the corner of East Street. East and Nash.

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“The one by the Elks Club,” formerly Cain’s Grocery, 911 East Nash Street.

“But when I was a little girl, the only place you could get milk was from the Vicks. It was a quarter. That was the only place we had to get the milk, if you got any. Unless you used canned milk. She had a back porch. Closed-in back porch. Screened in. Anyway, glass in it all around, there on the back porch, and tables out there. One of them things you churn, what I mean, a great, old big urn out there where the milk get too old, and then she’d have buttermilk. And she had a ‘frigerator sitting out there, where she’d taken the shelves out, look like where she’d made a big thing to put it in there. But she would get fresh milk everyday. The cows was somewhere out there, I don’t know where, I didn’t see ‘em in the yard. They wont nowhere up there. But somebody was working for them would go out and get the milk and bring it in these cans where you have, where got the churn in the top of it. And she would put them out there on the porch. Miz Annie [Vick] seemed to be pretty clean, and the house was clean. Didn’t nobody get sick.

“And there was a store down, right down the hill from the house. There was a store right down there. Old Man Bell, a white guy, had a store down there. And that’s where, we could go down there and get flour and everything, like meal and stuff, like, you know, just stock, but it was a small place.

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Old Man Bell’s store down the hill from the house at 303 Elba Street, 1922 Sanborn insurance map.

“They had a store right there on Green Street up there, on Green Street. That brick store right cross, like leaving Elba Street, and it’s on the right-hand side, going up. Well, that was open, doing pretty good. A white person built the building, and then he stocked it, and we went up there to buy stuff.

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Former Boyette & Holford’s Grocery and Mercer’s Grocery, 513 East Green Street.

“And sometimes Old Man Langley, up there, the colored fellow on Viola Street. We went up there sometimes…. But they were mostly white. ‘Cause there wont no, black folks didn’t have no stores.

“The stores would do their own butchering. They’d have pork chops, they’d cut the whole thing. They had a nice size freezer.

“But the stores didn’t stay in place too long. And you had to get another one, go to another place. So we just followed ‘em until the A&P opened up there on Nash Street. That’s when you had to carry all the stuff. Mama’d have a bag, I’d have a bag. Bring ‘em from down there, and then she’d send us sometime to the store during the week. So we wouldn’t have so much to bring. ‘Cause they wouldn’t deliver. The A&P store won’t. But down the bottom, you were right there [near neighborhood corner stores.] But you had to pay so much more for it. So Papa, ‘fore he died, he had a place, say go down there and tell Old Man Bell to send me a plug of tobacco. And I’d go down there and tell him, and he’d let him have it. And put it on the bill. And I asked if I could get something. And he’d say, ‘Yeah,’ and he’d put it on the bill.”

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  • Per the nomination form for the Wilson Central Business District-Tobacco Warehouse Historic District, A&P was located at 561 East Nash Street in a commercial building erected by Camillus L. Darden in the 1920s. It operated until the 1940s.
  • As described in the East Wilson Historic District nomination report, Dickerson Grocery, 622 East Nash Street, was a parapet-roofed grocery with one-bay facade and metal veneer. The building was demolished in the 1990s.
  • As described in the East Wilson Historic District nomination report, Cain’s Grocery, a brick-veneered structure with parapet front built about 1930, was the district’s largest grocery. It now houses a church.
  • Marshall Lodge #297 of the International Protective Order of Elks occupied a lodge hall at the corner of Nash and Vick Streets erected in 1921. In 1954, it was replaced by a two-story cinder block building that was in use until about 1980.
  • Samuel H. and Annie Washington Vick lived at 622 East Green Street. Alongside her husband’s many business ventures, Annie Vick sold her neighbors farm-fresh milk.
  • I have not been able to identify “Old Man Bell,” though Gus A. Bell operated a grocery at Pine and Lee Streets in the 1920s, per city directories. The 1922 Wilson city directory lists Zadock D. Mumfort as the operator of a grocery at 317 Elba Street.
  • As described in the East Wilson Historic District nomination report, Mercer’s Grocery, a brick, parapet-fronted building built about 1908, was one of the major groceries in the neighborhood. The building still stands at the corner of Green and Pender Streets and was active as a grocery into the 1990s.
  • “Old Man Langley” — in the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 901 Viola Street, Jarette J. Langley, 51, grocery store merchant; wife Mary, 49; and children Ivary, 21, Esmond, 19, Ruttena, 16, Alcesta, 14, and Eunice, 8.

Oral interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved; photographs taken by Lisa Y. Henderson, February 2017.

 

Something just went all over her.

From an interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks (1910-2001) by her granddaughter Lisa Y. Henderson in which she explains the method Jesse A. Jacobs Jr. used to bring his estranged wife Sarah Henderson Jacobs back home to Wilson, and the aftermath:

“The one I heard about at that time was Doctor Buzzard. And he was in the country. And you had to go to him. He didn’t come to you. You go to him. And you had to take some kind of clothes that you wear next to you, if you and your boyfriend or your husband falls out and had a misunderstanding, well, he could take the clothes you wear next to you and put something on it. It looked like, the thing what I opened where came out that tree looked like little roots, just little stems from a tree, and it was on a white piece of cloth, and it was just wrapped up in it and where Papa bored that hole in the tree, and it had a bottle stopper, it was a half-a-gallon stopper. It come in a jug, one of them little cork stoppers. Well, when he bored that hole in the tree, he took that little piece of rag or clothes or whatever. Mama was – I reckon it was Mama’s. He didn’t know whether it was her clothes or whose. But he got some rags and put in there, and he wet on it for nine mornings. He’d go wet on that tree. And he corked it up with the stopper. But I reckon he must have taked the stopper out when he wet in it.

“And so Mama claimed she got sick. So she was talking to some old witchcraft person or something, he’d know what to do for her, and I think she got somebody to take her. And he told her a whole lot of junk and mess, and that’s when he said, “You look in any – you got any trees in the yard?” And she said, yes, she had a apple tree and a peach tree. So when she come home was telling it, Mama said something, and Papa said it was one of them trees out there. He had put some stuff in it, not to kill her but to make her sick. And so I said, “Well, if it’s out there, I’m gon find it.” And sho ‘nough, I went out there and saw that cork and stuff sticking up in that tree, the peach tree. I went back in the house and got the ice pick. And I prised the stopper out and sho ‘nough it was some rags and a little piece of cloth was wrapped around this little sticks and things was in there. And I was scared then after that. I said, “Lord, this here mess! What is this stuff?” And Mama claimed that when I taken the cork stopper outn that tree, she said seem like something just went all over her. That could have been a tale, but that’s what she said – seem like something fell off her. So she got better. And so, she outlived him.”

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  • Doctor Buzzard — I have not been able to identify a local Doctor Buzzard. The original, apparently, was in South Carolina, and many practitioners adopted the name.
  • Sarah Henderson Jacobs — in the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Jesse Jacob,  53, deliveryman for stable; wife Sarah, 35; daughter Annie Belle, 15; and boarders Jesse Henderson, 17, Herbert Jones, 23, both stable laborers, and Nina Fasin, 32, a housemaid. In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 606 Elmo [Elba] Street: school janitor Jessie Jacobs, 60, wife Sara, 52, and daughters [great-nieces] Mamie, 12, and Hattie May, 10. In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 303 Elba, laundress Sarah Jacobs, 49, and daughter [great-niece] Hattie, 19, a servant for a private family. Sarah Henderson Jacobs died 8 January 1938 in Selma, Johnston County, North Carolina. Per her death certificate, she was 55 years old, married to Joseph Silver, and was born in Wayne County to Lewis Henderson and Margaret Carter, both of Wayne County. Informant was Hattie Jacobs of 303 Elba Street.
  • Jesse A. Jacobs Jr. — in the 1908 Wilson city directory, Jesse Jacobs is listed as a laborer living at 106 Elba Street. Jessie Adam Jacobs died 6 July 1926 at the “colored hospital” in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 25 December 1862 in Sampson County, North Carolina, to Jesse A. and Abbie Jacobs; was married to Sarah Jacobs; resided at 303 Elba Street; and worked as a janitor in city schools.

Interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson adapted and edited for clarity. Copyright 1994, 1996. All rights reserved.