passing

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.

They are entitled to attend the white schools.

In November 1909, James Lamm sued Wilson’s Black Creek school district, claiming his children had been barred from admission “without just cause.” They were listed on pupil censuses as white children, said Lamm, and were entitled to attend white schools as they always had.

LAMM -- Lamm v Bd of Educ 1909_Page_1

LAMM -- Lamm v Bd of Educ 1909_Page_2

The suit prompted a detailed examination of the ancestry of Lamm’s wife, Jane Carter (also known as Jane Locus.) In due course, Wilson County Superior Court issued a short decision finding that Lamm was a “pure blooded white man” with six children; that the children’s maternal great-grandmother was 5/8 white and had a white father; that the great-grandmother had a daughter (the children’s grandmother) who had a white father; and that the children’s mother also had a white father. The children being white enough, judgment for the plaintiff. The children must be enrolled.

LAMM -- Lamm v Bd of Educ 1909_Page_5

The case file in the matter still includes notes from the testimony of two witnesses concerning the children’s lineage. Their grandmother was Equit Locus, whose father was believed to be white. (Her surname places her as a member of one of the largest free families of color in antebellum eastern North Carolina, the Locus/Locusts.) With Dallas Taylor, a white man, Ezrit had Wealthy Locus, who was described as “practically white.” Wealthy, in turn, gave birth to Jane — James Lamm’s wife — whose father was “said to be Van B. Carter,” a white man.LAMM -- Lamm v Bd of Educ 1909_Page_3

LAMM -- Lamm v Bd of Educ 1909_Page_4

Records related to “bastardy” actions in Wilson County support Joe Horne’s identification of Jane’s father. In September 1870, Wealthy Locus was summoned to court to answer charges that she “is with child whitch child when Bornd will Be a Basterd.” Wealthy named Van Carter as the father of the child, but he could not be found within county limits. It is not clear whether he ever posted a bond or otherwise supported the child. (Van Buren Carter, born about 1850, was a Nash County native. He died in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in 1933.)

Weltha Locus Bastardy Papers_Page_2

Weltha Locus Bastardy Papers_Page_3

In the 1860 census of Bailey township, Nash County: John Locus, 60, wife Nancy, 51, and children and grandchildren Thomas, 30, Equitta, 28, Jno., 21, Neverson, 19, Cytha, 15, Sparling, 13, Nancy E., 12, Wealtha, 9, James S., 4, Polly, 2, and Eliza Locus, 2 months. All were classified as mulatto. (If John and Nancy Locus were Equitta’s parents, witnesses were incorrect in their testimony that Wealthy’s mother, too, had a white father.)

In the 1870 census of Springfield township, Nash County: John Locus, 65, with Sparling, 20 and  James Locus, 17, plus Equit, 35, Murnivia, 10, Elizia, 12, Wethia, 20, Malinda, 2 months, and Dotsey, 14; all mulatto.

Wealthy Locust, 23 [she was actually closer to 30], appeared in the 1880 census of Black Creek, Wilson County, in the household of farmer J.C. Rice. She had five children — Jane, 9, Mary, 5, James G., 3, and Bryant, 7 months — and her mother Equit lived with them. All are described as mulatto. Wealthy worked as a cook, and the relationship to her of each of her family members is oddly phrased in this context — “daughter of cook,” “mother of cook,” etc. (As we will see below, this is not an entirely accurate description of the familial ties within this household.)

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The 1880 census was the last time Wealthy’s family as a whole is classified as  mulatto. (And the last time but one that her older children bear the name Locus.) Though they remained in the community in which everyone knew them and their mother, all of Wealthy’s children transitioned to white identities as they entered adulthood.

On 15 December 1889, James Lamm, 27, married Jane Carter, 20, at Amos Hays’ in Black Creek township. Both were described as white.

Daughter Mary Locus, 18, married Robert Barnes, 23, in Black Creek on 27 July 1893. Robert is described as white; the space for Mary’s race was left blank.

Wealthy’s daughter Bettie married James Bass in 1897, and her marriage license sheds new light on that census entry. Bettie’s last name was Rice and, at 16, she was a minor. “J.C. Rice & Weltha Locas the Father & Mother” of Bettie Rice had to give written permission for her to marry. Bettie was described as white, and her sister Jane Lamm was an official witness to the ceremony.

The 1900 census of Black Creek, however, shows that the family’s social identity remained fluid, at least in the eyes of the community. At household #106, [Wealthy’s son] James G. Rice, 23, wife Lou, 21, and son Lee, 1, all white. At #108, Wealthy Locus, 50, son Zacariah, 13, and daughter Fannie, 10, all black. At #109, Pennsylvania-born James C. Rice, 55, white [father of Wealthy’s younger children.] At #113, James Lamm, 42, wife Jane, 30, and children Robert L., 9, James C., 7, Mamie, 4, and Leona, 2, all white.

In December 1909, just after he filed suit against the school board, James Lamm filed for a marriage license on behalf of Lester Lucas, 21, and his sister-in-law Fannie Rice, 19. Fannie, now white, gave her parents as J.C. Rice and Wealthy Joyner.

James C. Rice died about 1917. Under the terms of his will, executed 23 October 1915, James left (1) Welthy Joyner six five-hundred dollar promissory notes in trust, with her to have use of the interest at her discretion and to be distributed after her death to J.G. Rice, Zack Rice, Mary Barnes, Bettie Bass and Fannie Lucas, and (2) a $1000 note to be divided among the same five. (The will does not refer to them as his children.)

In the 1920 census of Black Creek: James G. Rice, 43, wife Louetta, 42, sons Lee, 21, Henry, 19, and Frank, 11, widowed mother Welthy Joyner, 70, and his in-laws. All were white.

Wealthy Locus died 18 June 1922. Her surname was recorded as “Joyner,” and her son James provided information about her life. She was again described as a widow (no marriage license has been found), William Joyner was listed as her father (James Rice supposedly had no information about his grandmother, Ezrit Locus), and she was white. (That Thomas Yelverton & Company handled her burial signals community acceptance of that identity. Undertakers were segregated in that era.)

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Zack Rice, Wealthy’s youngest son, died 8 March 1934 in Black Creek. His death certificate lists his parents as Jim Rice and Wilthy Rice. James Gaston Rice died 25 February 1940. His death certificate lists his parents as James C. Rice, born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Welthy Joyner. Jane Carter Lamm died 21 February 1945 in Wilson, Wilson County.  Her death certificate lists her parents as Van Carter and Wealthy Joyner, and she is classified as white.

School Records (1909), Miscellaneous Records, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives; Bastardy Bonds, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives.