Pittsburgh Courier, 3 July 1937.
Wilson Daily Times, 14 June 1920.
The Republican Party’s 1920 convention in Chicago nominated Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge for president and vice-president. Samuel H. Vick, long active in Republican politics and well-known from the battles over his appointment as Wilson’s postmaster, formerly registered his protest against North Carolina’s exclusion of African-Americans from its deliberations.
This house is not within the bounds of East Wilson Historic District. However, the blocks of Mercer Street southwest of the Norfolk & Southern Railroad lines have been an African-American residential area since the early twentieth century.
Now numbered 919, it appears that this house was numbered 915 Mercer Street until the late 1930’s.
The 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory lists laborer Thomas Hatcher and wife Estelle at 915 Mercer, as well as James Hatcher.
The 1930 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory lists farmer James Richardson and wife Henrietta at 915 Mercer.
In April 1935, Samuel and Annie M. Vick lost 915 Mercer Street and more than one hundred other houses and lots at auction.
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 919 Mercer, paying $8.50/month in rent, James Watson, 29, ditcher on a sewage project; wife Golden, 30, worker on stemmer machine at redrying plant; and children Earnestine, 11, Bessie Jean, 4, and Lucy Gray, 1. The family had lived in Kenly, N.C., in 1935.
In 1940, James Watson registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 26 December 1909 in Johnston County; lived at 919 Mercer Street; his contact was wife Golden Watson; and he worked for Imperial Tobacco, Barnes Street.
In 1941, Johnnie Clay Jones registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 23 April 1920 in Kenly, N.C.; lived at 117 South Pettigrew Street; his contact was Golden Watson, 119 [sic] Mercer Street; and he worked as a laborer for Williams Lumber Company.
The 1941 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory lists laborer James Watson, wife Golden, and four unnamed others at 919 Mercer.
On 19 April 1941, the Wilson Daily Times listed Willie Brown of 919 Mercer Street as a recipient of a questionnaire from the local draft board.
In 1944, Rev. Chester B. Beamon, pastor of nearby Trinity A.M.E. Zion church, lived at 919 Mercer Street, where he lead an adult education night school and a leadership training organization. The Beamons were likely renters, as Beamon and wife Louise were listed at 904 Mercer in the 1947 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory, and shortly after left Wilson for a new pastorate.
Wilson Daily Times, 20 March 1944.
Tobacco worker Frank Lassiter and his wife Settie are listed at 919 Mercer in the 1947 directory. The Lassiter family remained in the house through Frank Lassiter’s death in 1972 and Settie Sanders Lassiter‘s in 1981.
Photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, April 2021.
Wilson Daily Times, 31 December 1921.
A house owned by Samuel H. Vick and occupied by Agnes Barnes caught fire and sustained minor roof damage in late December 1921. The address of the house is not mentioned, but the fire was reported from the callbox at Nash and Pender Streets.
“Winona, a suburb of Wilson, N.C.” Deed book 68, page 457, Wilson County Register of Deeds.
In 1905, Samuel H. Vick filed a plat map for the subdivision of a parcel of land he owned along Mercer Street. Assuming Mercer Street follows its present course (the street was outside city limits until the mid-1920s), this appears to be the stretch west of Hominy Swamp. There’s no Daniels Mill Road in the area though, and the parallel Wells Alley and unnamed street do not match up with modern features. However, if you flip the map upside down to view it per the compass designation at top center, the landscape falls into place. Daniels Mill Road, then, is modern-day Fairview Avenue.
Below, on an inverted Google Maps image, I’ve traced modern Mercer Street and Fairview Avenue in red. In dotted yellow, the probable course of Wells Alley, which seems to track a line of trees that runs along the back edge of the lots facing Mercer, and the short crooked unnamed street that apparently never was cut through.
The cursive note added at upper left of the plat map says: “See Book 72 pp 527 et seq perfecting title to these lots.” At bottom left: “Lots 100 ft in debth [sic] & 50 ft in width except lots 23, 24, 25, 33, 61, 57, 58, 59, 60, & lots 1 and 2.”
A few of the 85 lots are inscribed with surnames, presumably of their purchasers: #46 Bynum, #48 Johnson, #53 Melton. In addition, lots 17, 19, 20 and 22 appear to be inscribed with the initials J.H. The 1908 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory lists the home of William A. Johnson, an African-American cook, as “Mercer St w of N & S Ry.” Though imprecise, this is broadly describes the street on the map. No Melton or Bynum is similarly listed.
The 1910 census settles the matter. On “Winona Road,” restaurant cook William Johnson, 40; wife Pollie, 35, laundress; and children Mary E., 13, Willie C., 11, Winona, 4, and Henry W., 2, and dozens of African-American neighbors, mostly laborers and servants who owned their homes (subject to mortgage).
In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Mercer Street next door to Smith Bennett and wife Mary, restaurant proprietor William Johnson, 39; wife Polly, 38; and children Wyona, 14, Margaret, 8, James, 11, and Millie, 19. Herbert and Ella Bynum owned the house on the other side, and Mollie Melton was up the street, and may have been related to the Bynum and Melton noted on the plat map.
The 1930 census reveals the house number: 910 Mercer Street, valued at the astonishing figure of $18,000. (This may well be a matter of an errant extra zero, as the 1922 Sanborn map shows a small one-story cottage at the location, which would not have commanded that sum.) Will A. Johnson, 60, worked as a cafe cook, and wife Pollie, 55, was a cook. The household included daughter Margrette Futrell, 18; infant grandson Wilbert R. Hawkins, born in Pennsylvania; widowed daughter Mary J. Thomas, 33 (noted as absent); and niece Jannie Winstead, 7.
When Sam Vick’s real estate empire collapsed in 1935, he lost three lots and houses on Mercer Street — 903, 907 and 915 — perhaps the last property he held in Winona subdivision.
Lane Street Project is preparing the announcement of its 2021 kick-off clean-up of Odd Fellows and Rountree cemeteries on January 16 and 18 to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and National Day of Service. Stay tuned and, in the meantime, here’s an article by Drew C. Wilson that ran 16 December 2020 in the Wilson Times.
About 45 minutes into an effort to clear vines and overgrowth from African American graves, volunteers fulfilled one of their major objectives Tuesday, locating Samuel H. Vick’s resting place.
The prominent Wilsonian is Vick Elementary School’s namesake.
“He was born enslaved in Nash County and came to Wilson at an early age,” said Lisa Henderson, a historian and organizer of the Lane Street Project to locate missing graves in Wilson’s Rountree and Odd Fellows cemeteries. “He was an educator, was a businessman, was one of the founders of Calvary Presbyterian Church, was postmaster of Wilson, very politically involved and arguably, in the first half of the 20th century, was the most prominent African American citizen of Wilson.”
It was Vick who famously brought Booker T. Washington to Wilson on Nov. 3, 1910.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Henderson said. “It’s really what the Lane Street project is all about. It’s not only raising awareness of the condition of these cemeteries, but also bringing back graves that have been lost for 50, 60, 70 years.”
Armed with loppers, pruners and picks, volunteers chopped and cut their way through inches-thick, decades-old vines.
“This grave that we just found is a Pender,” Henderson said as grime was smoothed away from the tannin-stained face of Gray Pender’s marble marker.
“Honestly, that is a Wilson family name. This person may have relatives right here in Wilson right now,” Henderson said. “It is indescribable to me. It’s really what it’s about.”
Henderson said she hopes individuals and groups will get involved in recovering this lost history.
“Pick a Saturday, come out here with some loppers, some hand pruners and just knock back some weeds,” Henderson said. “Hopefully, maybe by spring we will be able to see that there is a cemetery again, and that will help us decide what the best course is going forward. Obviously, I would ask anybody who comes out here to be respectful. This is hallowed ground, even if it is abandoned. But other than that, this belongs to everybody.”
Henderson said more than 1,500 graves are in the 11 acres of cemetery land at the east Wilson site.
“There are three cemeteries. We are now standing in Rountree Cemetery. East of Rountree is Odd Fellows and beyond that is a big open field that’s actually a cemetery, that’s Vick. African Americans were buried in these three cemeteries,” Henderson said.
Henderson said African American history is Wilson’s history.
“It is all of our history. It is something that we all can be proud of. It is something that contributed to the city as a whole and the same with these cemeteries,” Henderson said.
Castonoble Hooks, one of the volunteers, said he had mixed emotions about the effort.
“First of all, I am honored to be restoring honor to people who have been overlooked for so long, understanding as I do the sacrifices these people made,” Hooks said. “I am appalled by the fact that they have been allowed to come to this point of desecration and to be allowed to stay that way for so long. I am delighted to discovered the ones we are discovering, but then when I looked across the field at the thousands of slaves and regular citizens whose tombstones and markers and indicators were removed under and agreement to be placed back and a promise never kept, that saddens me tremendously. I am going to do whatever I can in my lifetime to restore some dignity to these people’s names and memories.”
Hooks was referring to the nearby Vick Cemetery.
Henderson said the city of Wilson basically desecrated the graveyard.
“They leveled it. They removed all the tombstones, put them somewhere and have now lost them. We have no idea, no record of who was buried in that cemetery,” Henderson said. “Obviously, there are two streams of responsibility. There is the responsibility of our own community for stepping into the breach and doing something about this. There is also the responsibility of the city of Wilson, which denied its ownership of that cemetery of Vick for decades and then, when they stepped in to do something, they destroyed it and made it impossible for people to find out who was there.”
Henderson said it’s not clear what path forward the project will take.
“All we are out here to do today is to try to make it easier for people to get in here,” Henderson said. “There is long-term goal and there is a role for the city of Wilson to play in terms of making this situation right. There is a role for all of the owners of these cemeteries to play, a role for all of us.”
For native Wilson families, Henderson said there’s likely a connection to the people buried here.
“If you are here and you have roots in Wilson, you’ve got somebody in these cemeteries,” Henderson said. “You’ve got lots of somebodies in these cemeteries. I can’t stand and wait for the city to do something when we can do something. It just takes a little bit of effort and commitment and a decision to honor who’s here to get some amazing things done, so we will be out here Thursday.”
Volunteers plan to meet from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday to continue clearing around any graves they locate.
Charlie Farris, chairman of the Wilson Cemetery Commission, said he’s heartened that the group cares for Wilson’s departed.
“I’m glad that there are people wanting to locate the graves of people buried 70 or 80 years ago, and I wish the city of Wilson would come out with its equipment and clear this whole area,” Farris said. “There are graves 100 feet deep inside that haven’t been seen in years. I am just thrilled that there are concerned citizens that can come out and help clean it. These are cemeteries within the city, and something needs to be done.”
For more information, visit Henderson’s website, “Black Wide-Awake,” at https://afamwilsonnc.com. The site details a broad range of African American history in Wilson.
Photo by Drew C. Wilson, courtesy of Wilson Times.
Wilson Daily Times, 10 July 1946.
Samuel H. Vick‘s grave marker was unearthed last month by Lane Street Project volunteers. Though “Rountree” was already the name used collectively for the three cemeteries at the east end of Lane Street, Vick was in fact buried in Odd Fellows.
Samuel H. Vick penned this memorial to his friend Braswell R. Winstead, his schoolmate at Wilson Academy and Lincoln University, his assistant postmaster, his fellow teacher and Mason, and his co-founder of Calvary Presbyterian.
Wilson Daily Times, 24 August 1928.
Thanks to J. Robert Boykin III for sharing the clipping.
Wilson Daily Times, 30 July 1929.
Samuel H. Vick had his finger in many pots, including tobacco farming. In a three-week span in July 1929, under circumstances that certainly strike a modern reader as suspicious, he lost to fire three barns filled with his tobacco.