Samuel H. Vick

Lane Street Project: Volunteers recover Wilson’s lost history — Group scours neglected cemeteries for missing graves.

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. 

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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.

The obituary of Samuel H. Vick, postmaster, educator, banker, real estate dealer, theatre owner and businessman.

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.

The obituary of Braswell R. Winstead, esteemed teacher.

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.

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Thanks to J. Robert Boykin III for sharing the clipping.

Lane Street Project: the 1913 deed for Vick cemetery.

It’s hard to understand how Wilson ever thought to deny its responsibility for Vick cemetery. Here’s the deed for its $700 purchase of the 7.84 acre tract, whose description notes its adjacency to “the colored Odd Fellows Cemetery tract.” (As a reminder: the Vick cemetery is so-called because Samuel H. and Annie M. Vick sold it to the city of Wilson, not because they were buried there. The Vick family plot is, in fact, in Odd Fellows cemetery.)

Deed book 97, page 85, Register of Deeds Office, Wilson.

In justice to them, they should be entitled to this consideration.

I’m joining a long line of appeals to city officials to do something about conditions in and around the Negro cemetery.

On 10 February 1925, a Wilson Daily Times‘ report on proceedings at a board of aldermen’s meeting, Samuel H. Vick “brought up the matter of the colored cemetery” and requested that an awning be placed (?) and that roads into and out of the cemetery be repaired. A Mr. Grantham, chairman of the cemetery commission said it was difficult to get the cemetery into a correct shape and “lay it out” as graves had been placed “everywhere and without regard to lines or streets.” Further, some of the cemetery’s land was “worthless for the purpose, as it was in a bottom” [i.e. water-logged and prone to flooding.] Grantham also mused about the “old cemetery” — the one near Cemetery Street — “which if the graves were removed would be worth considerable money.” (The graves were in fact moved to Rest Haven in 1940.) In the end, Grantham agreed to come up with a plan and report back.

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Wilson Daily Times, 10 February 1925.

Twelve years later, the roads were still a problem. On 24 September 1937, the Daily Times printed this enlightened, but unattributed, op-ed piece under the headline “City Should Pave the Road to the Negro Cemetery.” A paved road was not merely a convenience to family members paying respects. The previous winter, “when after the successive rains, the ground was so soft that it was impossible to conduct funerals in the cemetery, the negro undertakers were compelled to hold out their bodies until the spring, when the road was in a condition to move over it with vehicles and conduct the interments.” This was city property, the writer pointed out, and money from the sale of burial plots went into the city treasury, and “the colored people are taxpayers,” and justice should be done accordingly.

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Wilson Daily Times, 24 September 1937.

Camillus L. Darden followed up a week later with a letter to the newspaper described a disastrous, but apt, attempt to expose an alderman to conditions on the roads leading to the graveyard. The “main road” seems to be what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway (and was East Nash Street/N.C. Highway 264 in my childhood.) My best guess is that this road was paved in the 1940s or early ’50s, but Lane Street, onto which one makes a right turn from the main road to reach Rountree, Odd Fellows and Vick cemeteries, was dirt and gravel into the 1980s.

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Wilson Daily Times, 30 September 1937.

A great question affecting their welfare.

On 1 September 1887, John H. Williamson of the North Carolina Industrial Association wrote Samuel H. Vick seeking his assistance. Vick was head of the Wilson County chapter of the association, and this letter is found at the Freeman Round House and Museum:

My Dear Sir:

I shall be present in your city and address the people Sept. 8, 1887, on the Fair and progress of the race.

Will you please aid in securing a place for speaking and see that a large audience is obtained as I desire to talk to them on what I consider a great question effecting their welfare. I have sent hand bills.

Yours most truly,

Jno. H. Williamson, Sect.

Eating the hog is the thing uppermost in their minds.

In 1924, Samuel H. Vick, far removed from political activity, clapped back at a Greensboro, North Carolina, newspaper’s op-ed piece about African-Americans and the state Republican Party.

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Wilson Daily Times, 23 September 1924.

Editor Daily Times:

In regard to the editorial appearing [on] the Negro and the Republican party in this state, we wish to state that the “Hog Combine” has no desire to carry North Carolina for the Republican party.

Eating the hog is the thing uppermost in their minds, and they eat so much until they have nightmares.

Control of national Republican patronage is their sole ambition.

The party who wrote the editorial in the Greensboro Daily News is evidently a member of the “Hog Combine.”

If this is not true it is rather strange that he should dictate the policy of the Republican party in North Carolina in regard to the Negro.

The Negro has been politically asleep for the past twenty years, but he is arousing now and will be heard from.

We have no desires or ambitions politically, but we have an interest in our people politically as well as otherwise.

This explains our activity in the matter if the little part we have taken in such things can be called by that name.

Since we were mentioned personally in the editorial, we wish to make this statement: If I have incurred “a legacy of everlasting race rancor and hatred by a temporary (ten years) tenure of a Wilson Post Office” it has never been shown or demonstrated by the people of Wilson. They were my friends then and have shown their friendship ever since. Whatever I may have or possess is due largely to their friendship which this editor calls race rancor and hatred.

In regard to being invited into the party we wish to say that the Anglo-African does not have to be invited into the Republican party. He has no doubt been too loyal. It was the Anglo-Saxon who was invited into the ranks of the party. He came in and took possession and shut the door on the Anglo-African, but the original Republicans are coming back in spite of the “Hog Combine,” believing what is good for the white man is good for the negro with equal intelligence.

Respectfully, S.H. VICK