This massive volume, dense with charts and tables and lists, illuminates the fierce struggle over political appointment/patronage jobs in the late 19th century and the intense sense of envy and entitlement that shaped attitudes toward award of such jobs to African-Americans. Essentially, this book lists all military officers and federal government employees on the payroll in 1891.
Here is Alfred Robinson, railway postal clerk on the Rocky Mount, N.C., to Norfolk, Virginia, line, earning $1000 per year.
Measured in 2016 dollars, the relative economic status value of a $1000/year salary is $239,000. A $1500/year salary is valued at $358,000. (Economic status value measures the relative “prestige value” of an amount of income or wealth measured between two periods using the income index of the per capita gross domestic product.) This kind of wealth awarded to African-Americans set blood boiling.
“Official Register of the United States, Containing a List of the Officers and Employees in the Civil, Military, and Naval Service,” Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, digitized by Oregon State Library, Salem, Oregon; available online at http://www.ancestry.com.
On 17 February 1882, the Wilson Advance ran a brief piece announcing that the colored people would begin publishing the Wilson News in March of that year, and S.N. Hill would be an editor of this for-the-people-by-the-people paper. (No editions are known to survive.) Two months later, Samuel Hill was well-enough established in local politics to be appointed a poll holder in Wilson.
Wilson Advance, 14 April 1882.
The Advance was the first foray of notorious, but much celebrated, Josephus Daniels into the newspaper business, and the white supremacist world view he later honed to a fine point at Raleigh’s News & Observer was on naked display in its pages. Local and regional Republican politics, which were dominated by African-Americans, were not spared. That the Advance‘s presses printed Hill’s paper did not shield him either. The Advance printed the satirical letter below (and a similar one a few weeks later) purportedly written by “Jedekiah Judkins” to George W. Stanton, a die-hard Unionist and Republican.
Wilson Advance, 20 October 1882.
Snide commentary in the white press notwithstanding, Hill networked and exchanged ideas with other black journalists and political figures in eastern North Carolina the following summer. [Was the Independent yet another newspaper?]
Wilmington Daily Review, 5 July 1883.
His statewide networking secured his designation as a marshal for the state colored fair.
The Banner-Enterprise (Raleigh), 27 October 1883.
The News apparently was still in publication in December 1883 when the Advance printed a small blurb suggesting that Hill was angling for postmaster appointment under the auspices of James E. O’Hara, who had been elected in 1882 as a Republican to the United States House of Representatives from North Carolina’s “Black Second” district.
Wilson Advance, 21 December 1883.
Months later, however, the paper seems to have faltered, and Hill had to relaunch the publication.
Wilson Advance, 25 April 1884.
On 22 January 1885, the Advance printed a brief note that a Samuel Hill referred to in a recent article as having been chaged with perjury in Toisnot township was not the “Samuel N. Hill that all our people know.” The known Hill had stopped by the Advance‘s offices and informed them that “he is now traveling for a newspaper at New Bern.”
By the late 1880s, Hill was living in Wilmington, where newspaper reports note that he was active in efforts to encourage African-American investment in local railroad companies.
Not quite five years later, the Advance reported that Hill, an “irrepressible” “coon,” had received a patronage position in Washington. There is no evidence that he returned to Wilson.
Wilson Advance, 29 August 1889.
Within the next few years, however, Hill withdrew from active politics and began to espouse an accommodationist philosophy. On 27 November 1898, New Bern Daily Journal published a letter by Hill lashing out at “unscrupulous white Republicans” and “scheming politicians” and praising the good white folks who had always shown “the best sympathy” to colored people. “Make friends with the best white people among whom you live,” he exhorted. “Their interests are greater than yours and the maintenance of happiness depends upon their efforts.” A few weeks later, on 10 December, the Wilmington Morning Star cited Hill’s “sensible and calm utterances” in the wake of the Wilmington Insurrection as a positive contrast to the stridency of Congressman George E. White, a “bumptious strutter.” For his part, Hill had pshawed agitation against “fancied evils which do not exist” and counseled “[t]he best public meeting for the negro to attend is his church, where he may commune with his God, and where he may be influenced for good.”
So where did Sam Hill come from? And where did he go?
Most likely, he was the Samuel Nelson Hill who opened two accounts at the Freedmen’s Bank’s New Bern branch. The first time, on 9 August 1871, Hill was 12 years old. His account registration card notes that he resided in Bragg’s Alley; was light-complected; was the son of Moses M. and Adeline Hill; had brothers named Benjamin Starkey (dead), Moses Hill and Thomas Hancock; and sisters named Carolina and Holland Hill. The boy signed his own name.
Hill opened another account on 8 June 1874. Per that account registration, he was born and “brought up” in New Bern; resided in Windsors Brickyard, Virginia; worked for Dr. Windsor; was 15 years old; was of yellow complexion; and had a brother named Noah Harper, also of New Bern. Samuel signed his name with a mature version of his earlier signature and with a confident, curlicued firmness that connotes deep literacy.
In the 1880 census of New Bern, North Carolina: on Elm Street, shoemaker Moses Hill, 49, wife Adelaine, 43, son Samuel, 20, a shoemaker, and daughter Susan, 1. Moses reported that he suffered from rheumatism and Susan from whooping cough.
Hill probably arrived in Wilson in 1881. His star there burned bright and brief, and by about 1885, he had moved on. His whereabouts the decade of the 1890s are unclear, but just after the turn of the century Hill is found in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, performing manual labor.
On 19 November 1904, Samuel Nelson Hill, 45, of 288 North Street, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, married Georgeanna Treadwell Vanderburgh, 43, of 6 Cole Avenue, Pittsfield. Hill reported that he was the son of Moses Hill and Adeline Hancock and was born in New Bern, North Carolina. He worked as a laborer, and this was his first marriage.
In the 1910 census of Pittsfield, Berkshire County, Massachusetts: electrical works janitor Samuel N. Hill, 50, and wife Georgeanna, 49.
Samuel Nelson Hill of 164 Linden died 21 March 1918 in Pittsfield, age 58 years, five months, five days.
In the 1870 census of Wilmington, New Hanover County, North Carolina: Becky Robinson, 44, huckster; her children Athalia, 24, Polly, 21, and George W., 22; and Sophie Newhoff, 14. Athalia and Polly were dressmakers; George, a shoemaker; and Sophie, a seamstress. Becky reported owning $900 in real estate. She was described as black, and her children as mulatto.
In the 1870 census of Washington, D.C., Alfred Robinson, 19, student, is listed in “Dormitory Howard University.”
Catalogue of Howard University for the Years 1869-1870.
After completing his studies, Alfred returned to Wilmington. In 1878, he married Lucy A. Leary, who had been educated at Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute. (Lucy was a native of Fayetteville and the daughter of Lewis Sheridan Leary, Harper’s Ferry revolutionary.)
(Notably, the couple’s marriage license listed no parents for Lucy and only Alfred’s mother. His brother George W. Robinson was the official witness.)
The couple initially boarded with Alfred’s sister Athalia’s family. In the 1880 census of Wilmington, New Hanover County, North Carolina: Benjamin F. Scott, 37, wife Athalia M., 34, and children Warren F., 9, Armon W., 7, and Benj. F., Jr., 4, and Thos. A., 2; Alfred Robinson, 27, barber, brother-in-law, and Lucy Robinson, 25, sister-in-law; John Howard, 21, boarder, a porter; James S. Robinson, 1, nephew; and Eliza Carrel, 13, servant.
They’re also found in the 1880 census of Monroe, Union County, North Carolina: Alfred Robinson, 29, barber, wife Lucy, 24, and son James S.A., 1, plus boarder Samuel Pride, 23, barber.
A second child, Mariah, was born in 1880.
By 1884, the Robinsons had relocated to Wilson, where Alfred opened a barbershop on Tarboro Street catering to white clientele.
Wilson Advance, 17 October 1884.
He quickly joined the leadership of the town’s African-American community and was elected president of the Wilson County Industrial Association. Samuel H. Vick, with whom Alfred would become a friendly rival for federal patronage positions, was elected secretary.
Wilson Advance, 3 November 1887.
Weekly State Chronicle (Raleigh), 29 December 1887.
The job required frequent travel along his postal rail route, and Alfred sold his barbershop in Wilson.
Wilson Advance, 2 May 1889.
Wilson Advance, 8 August 1889.
The Robinson family apparently kept its home in Wilson at least part-time, though, as Lucy Leary Robinson died there on 30 April 1896.
Wilmington Messenger, 1 May 1896.
Raleigh Gazette, 17 July 1897.
Less than two years after his wife passed, Alfred Robinson lost his mother. She died in Raleigh while visiting Alfred’s sister, Mary Robinson King. The ever-flattering Gazette mentioned her “clever” son Alfred’s postal route between Norfolk and Wilmington.
Raleigh Gazette, 12 February 1898.
Though he is elusive in census records, Alfred Robinson seems to have made a home base in Norfolk by the mid-1890s. In the 1894 Norfolk city directory, he is listed as a clerk living at 28 Lee Av. In the 1904 Norfolk city directory, he is listed as a “Carrier P O” living at 393 Bank. In the 1910 Norfolk city directory, he is a “clerk R M S” [railroad mail service] living at 446 Bute.
James S.A. Robinson married Emma Mossom in Phoebus (now Hampton), Virginia, on 22 December 1903.
In the 1920 census of Norfolk, Virginia: Alfred Robinson, 67, divorced, United States post office mail clerk; James A. Byers, 39, physician; and Maria Byers, 36. The Byerses were renting from Robinson. [From whom was he divorced?]
Within a few months, Maria Robinson Byers was dead of a stroke. Per her death certificate, she died 25 July 1920 at her home at 314 East Bute, Norfolk. She had been born in North Carolina on 2 July 1880 to Alfred Robinson and Lucy Leary, and her body was returned to Wilmington for burial.
Before the year was out, Alfred retired from government service, having served the postal service for 31 years.
Twin City Daily Sentinel (Winston-Salem NC), 26 November 1920.
Alfred Robinson made out a will on 16 July 1926. Reflecting, perhaps, his peripatetic lifestyle, his city of residence is omitted from the document. Golden Robinson, son of his brother George, was the principal legatee with a $2000 bequest, but he also set aside $500 to bury his “mentally afflicted” son James S.A. Robinson; $1000 to be divided among the children of his deceased nephew Benjamin Scott; and $800 to be divided among nieces Parthenia Blakeley, Annie Sadgwar, Rebecca Robinson, and Mrs. Vincent Waters. After bequests to pay for a headstone and the upkeep of his grave, Alfred earmarked the remainder of his estate to be divided among the children of nephews Warren Scott, Thomas A. Scott and Benjamin Scott.
In the 1928 and 1930 city directories of Wilson, Alfred Robinson is listed living at 622 East Green Street. (In other words, he lived in Samuel H. Vick’s household.)
Alfred’s son James S.A. Robinson died 22 July 1930. That year Alfred was involved in an imbroglio with Dr. Lovelace B. Capehart, grand master of the Ancient Free & Accepted Masons, whom he blamed for causing him to lose his position as treasurer of the organization. A Wilson Superior Court judge agreed and awarded Alfred $400 in damages.
Pittsburgh Courier, 22 November 1930.
Pittsburgh Courier, 30 November 1930.
On 6 November 1936, Alfred remarried in Wilson. His wife, Julia Winstead, was a Nash County native. He was about 85 years old, and nearly 40 years his wife’s senior.
On 29 November 1938, Alfred Robinson executed a new will devising an entire estate to his nephew Robert H. Scott, with whom he was living. His property consisted of two lots in Norfolk; a house and lot at 207 North Tenth Street, Wilmington; and two lots in Raleigh. He specifically made no provision for his wife Julia, asserting that he had already made her a property settlement. Nor did he mention his many other nieces and nephews.
Alfred Robinson died 26 June 1939 in Wilmington.
On 27 July 1939, Alfred’s nephew Golden Robinson, son of his brother George, filed his 1926 will in Wilson County Superior Court, asserting that he had found the document “in a small satchel in [Alfred’s] home.” On November 1939, his other nephew, Robert H. Scott the 1938 will in New Hanover Superior Court.