In 1881, Rufus Wright Edmundson ran an ad in the Wilson Advance for the lease of a house on a seven-acre lot on the east corner of Vance and Pender Streets. Wilson’s segregated residential patterns had not yet set, and Edmundson was able to extol the virtues of the parcel to white potential renters. East Wilson’s rapid development is hinted at in the notice — “all nearly new as premises were in original forest seven years ago.” Soon, Vance Street would become the southern edge of white settlement in East Wilson, and Edmundson’s property would be developed for the town’s newly emerging African-American middle class.
The sentiment prevailing in 1924, as expressed in the Wilson Daily Times, bears repeating:
“The history of this Grab Neck property is interesting. Four years ago there were in this locality a number of small houses, that stood in the way of the progress of the city, and Mr. Roscoe Briggs put up the money in order to remove this obstacle.”
The 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson’s West Nash Street corridor makes this obstacle plain:
At the end of the 19th century and through World War II, Wilson’s tobacco barons and other wealthy businessmen and professionals lined blocks of Nash west of downtown with fine homes in a variety of architectural styles. By 1920, several blocks away, just beyond city limits, developers laid out West End Park in a tidy grid of new streets, including West End, Kincaid and Clyde Avenues. Between these neighborhoods, like a foot wedged in a door, was a large uncharted expanse whose few tiny clapboard houses clustered in the 1100 block of Nash. Who owned this land?
The Bests and their small houses were standing in the way of Wilson’s westward progress, and Briggs bought them out. On 27 March 1920, he did business with four sets of Bests:
from Clinton and Minnie Best [who preferred the spelling “Bess”] for $4250, Briggs bought three lots in Grabneck adjoining other Bests, Leah Holloway, U.H. Cozart, Tobe Barnes and Henry Barnes. (Deed book 125, page 62)
from Orren and Hancy Best, for $5000, Briggs bought “all of the land owned by Orren Best in Grabneck,” two lots on Nash Road adjoining Jeff Holloway and Frank and Noah Best (Deed book 125, page 64)
from Frank and Mamie Best, in exchange for a house to be built in Griffin Hill by John H. Griffin, Briggs purchased one lot. (Deed book 125, page 65)
from Noah Best, for $8250, Briggs bought four lots. (Deed book 125, page 65)
These sales set the stage for the auction described in the Times article, but there were still some holdouts. The red arrow on the Sanborn map indicates this one-story dwelling at 1105 Nash:
It was the home of Wilson and Ada Best. In October 1925, they finally relented, accepting $4000 from H.W. and Margaret Abbitt for their 66 by 200-foot lot on Nash Street.
The Abbitts quickly tore down the Bests’ little frame house, and in 1926 erected an impressive Colonial Revival residence. The 1930 Sanborn fire insurance map shows how quickly developers moved into the area vacated by the Bests. On the northeast side of West Nash Street, a sinuous extension of Vance Street was cut through, and houses sprang up along West Cone and West Gold.
On the southeast side, all of the Bests’ houses were razed to make room for the muscular brick showplaces of white Wilson’s elite.
In the late 1940s, the Wilson Daily Times regularly ran classified ads for housing restricted to African-American tenants and buyers. The realty companies that placed the advertisements below were white-owned.
Realtor George A. Barfoot sought to unload houses to both homeowners and investors.
Wilson Daily Times, 19 August 1947.
J.E Miles offered building lots across East Wilson. (Where was Stronach Avenue?)
Wilson Daily Times, 9 December 1948.
George A. Barfoot, who was the major player in East Wilson real estate sales in this period, advertised what appears to be the short sale of 706 East Viola. Realtor Hugh S. Sheppard showcased a more modest offering, a two-room house near Export Leaf Tobacco Company, which was at 601 South Goldsboro Street.
In March 1913, the Indianapolis Recorder, a nationally focused African-American newspaper, ran a front-page feature on William Hines, a “native of [Wilson] and a forceful character for the intellectual, moral, spiritual, social and economic development of young North Carolinians.”
Citing Samuel H. Vick and Biddle University as Hines’ influences, the article detailed his entry into the real estate business after establishing a successful barber shop. In just five years, Hines had accumulated 11 houses and “a number of very desirable lots.”
Abram B. Simms — in the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Abram Simms, 32, bricklayer, wife Mollie, 25, and children Annie, 7, and William, 4. On 31 December 1902, Abram B. Simms, 39, married Sue Wilkins, 37, in Wilson at Sue Wilkins’. Missionary Baptist minister W.M. Baker performed the ceremony.
Gilbert Stallings — in the 1908 Wilson city directory, Gilbert Stallings is listed as a farmer residing at 153 Suggs Street. In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: farmer Gilbert Stallings, 56, wife Annie, 50, and children Gilbert G., 19, Leonard, 16, and Georgia, 7. Gilbert Stallings died 13 August 1918 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 8 February 1854 in Franklin County to John Stallings and Hannah Ufferman; was married; and was a farmer. G.W. Stallings was informant.
Nazareth Pierce — in the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 445 Goldsboro Street, Nazareth A. Pierce, 35, laborer, wife Ella, 34, laundress, and children Eugene, 9, Almada, 7, Leroy, 4, and Louis, 2. Nazareth Pierce died 16 February 1941 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born about 1877 in Franklin County, North Carolina, to Adam W. Pierce; lived at 415 East Green Street; was married to Ada A. Pierce; and worked as an insurance agent. He was buried in Rountree cemetery. Joseph L. Pierce was informant. An index of Social Security death claims lists his full name as Nazareth Andrew Pierce and his birth date as 15 June 1876.
This Deed Made this the 11th day of February, 1896, by George D. Green, and wife, Ella M. Green, parties of the first part, and Mike Taylor, party of the second part, all of the town of Wilson, County and State aforesaid, Witnesseth: —
That the said parties of the first part for an in consideration of the Sun of Five Hundred And Fifty Dollars to them in hand (the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged) have bargained and Sold, and do by these presents bargain, Sell and convey unto the Said party of the Second part, his heirs and assigns, that lot or parcel of land lying and being Situate in the town of Wilson, on the corner of Pine and Lee Streets, County and State aforesaid fronting on Pine Street about 143 feet and Lee Street about 83 feet, it being the lot purchased from Warren Woodard and wife by George D. Green, To Have And To Hold Said lot of land unto the Said party of the Second part, his heirs and assigns, forever. And the said George W. Green for himself and his heirs doth covenant to and with the Said Mike Taylor that he will forever warrant and defend the title to said land against the lawful claimer claims of all other persons whatsoever.
In Testimony whereof the Said parties of the first part have hereunto Set their hands and Seals, the day and year first above written.
Witness: Geo. D. Green, Ella M. Green
The lot George Green sold Mike Taylor was situated on the corner of Pine and Lee, out toward Maplewood cemetery on what was then Wilson’s western edge. In the 1900 census of the town of Wilson, Wilson County, neither streets nor house numbers are listed, but it’s reasonable to assume that the Taylors — Mike, a drayman; his wife Rachel, who did washing; and their children Rodgrick [Roderick],Maggie, Mattie, Madie, Bertha E., and Hennie G. — were living on the lot, and the 1908-1909 Wilson city directory lists Taylor, a driver, at 114 West Lee.
The 1910 census of Wilson paints a clearer picture of the little enclave in which the Taylors lived. Though he did not note house numbers, the censustaker inked “Lee St” along the edge of Sheet 27A of his survey of Enumeration District 116. The page records 50 residents, of whom 30, living in five consecutive households, were black. With the Taylors were the families of Jim and Annie Parrott, John and Cora Norfleet, John and Pattie Lassiter, Sam and Maggie Ennicks [Ennis], and Frank and Lizzie Bullock. The men worked a variety of jobs: a blacksmith, two odd jobs laborers, a gardener, a drayman. The women were cooks or laundresses.
The censustaker’s path is not clear. The Taylors were on the corner at 114 West Lee. According to the 1908-09 directory, the Bullocks were in the next block at 202 West Lee. The Ennises — Maggie was Mike and Rachel’s daughter — lived in the small house built on the back of the Taylor lot at 409 North Pine. In the 1912-13 city directory, Pattie Lassiter is listed at 200 West Lee, but John Norfleet was at 306 E. Barnes, on the other side of downtown. The Parrotts are found in neither directory. In any case, it is clear that these families formed a tiny cluster, and this cluster was unique in its surroundings. On the enumeration sheets before and after that listing the Taylors and their neighbors, the residents are overwhelmingly white.
Prior to Samuel H. Vick’s 1906 division of Rountree Place into the neighborhood now seen as the heart of East Wilson (more on that later), African-Americans lived dispersed across the southern half of town. For most of the 20th century, however, Wilson maintained a well-defined residential segregation pattern, with black neighborhoods confined to the south and east side of the Atlantic Coast Line (later Seaboard Coast Line, now CSX) railroad. The Daniel Hill community, a mile or so west of downtown, was the well-known exception. For first quarter of the century, however, African-Americans claimed another tiny toehold, now forgotten, just west of the tracks at Pine and Lee.
The 1913 Sanborn map, the earliest detailing the neighborhood, reveals a relatively large one-story frame house with an L-shaped porch wrapping around its west front corner. By time the 1922 Sanborn map was drawn, the city’s street numbering system had changed, and the address was now 108 West Lee. The Taylors had also added a small porch to the back of the house.