I live in my head. So I’ve been carrying the seeds of Black Wide-Awake and Lane Street Project a very long time, but only recently stretched out my hands to sow them.
The harvest has been immense.
Among the bounty — Castonoble Hooks, who has championed my work since Dr. Joseph H. Ward. He has become both my student and teacher, and I am immensely grateful for his wisdom, friendship, and support.
On July 28 at 7:00 PM, Mr. Hooks will deliver a lecture on Wilson’s early civil rights history at Our Wilson, 501 Nash Street E. Our Wilson, led by Donta Chestnut, is a non-profit organization focused on providing mentoring and educational resources to young people and families. Fittingly located in the heart of Wilson’s historic Black business district, Our Wilson works to inspire youth across the city’s spectrum with stories of Wilson natives who have accomplished their dreams. In the spirit of sankofa, Mr. Hooks will provide much-needed, always relevant context for the community’s modern success stories. Please support this event if you’re able.
At the end of October, I had the extraordinary good fortune to develop and conduct three workshops for Gentlemen’s Agreement, an achievement program targeting African-American young men attending Wilson County high schools. Both the format and the audience were new for me. I was nervous, but I needn’t have been. The students were attentive and responsive and gratifyingly curious about the history of their hometown and the contributions of African-Americans to Wilson’s development. I am grateful to Gentlemen’s Agreement, Living the Word Ministry/North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Wilson County Public Schools and Freeman Round House and Museum for the opportunity to introduce these young people to the idea of sankofa and to give back to the community that nurtured me.
The Rev. Maurice Barnes, left, and historical blogger Lisa Henderson, right, joined Wilson high school students for a windshield tour of African American history in Wilson. Pictured are some of the students who participated. From left are Barnes, Michael Thomas, Jaden Spruill and Christopher Richardson, all Hunt High School students, and Henderson. (Photo courtesy of Wilson Times.)
Wilson teens from three high schools took windshield tours of places in African American history recently.
“In Our Backyard: Black Genius and the Quest for Racial Equity” is a youth development and leadership program to show participants of The Gentlemen’s Agreement and other youth from Wilson’s three traditional high schools a slice of Wilson history that is often forgotten.
Lisa Henderson, curator of the Black Wide Awake blog about black history in Wilson, led the most recent tour on a bus through Wilson’s streets.
“It was an amazing opportunity for me,” Henderson said. “One of the reasons I do the blog is to create a record that anyone can access going forward and to be able to connect. What is always exciting to me is to be able to find something in the historical record and then picture where it is now or what’s there now. And Wilson has changed so much in good ways and in bad that I wanted to give these students a sense of possibilities, a sense of what has come before and what could be possible going forward.”
Henderson is a Wilson native who was born at Mercy Hospital and educated in Wilson schools.
“To be able to take the windshield tour and go down the 500 block of Nash Street and see some of the sights that we had talked about in the workshop and have them go, ‘Wow, wait, I know that place,’ or ‘Yeah, I get my hair cut there’ or ‘I go to church there’ and to understand the age of these places and the significance of these places in history is really rewarding.”
“It showed us where people stayed and bigger places like the Mercy Hospital,” said Jaden Spruill, a senior at Hunt High School. “A lot of people don’t know these things. I personally didn’t know a lot of these things until I got into Gentlemen’s Agreement. I feel like this is important to know. If you don’t know this about Wilson, you get the history behind Wilson and you take more pride and you get more understanding about what was really going on around here before we were here.”
“I learned a lot of stuff I didn’t know about Wilson about the old places from back in the ’30s I didn’t know,” said Christopher Richardson Jr., a Hunt junior. “We heard is was just a country road past the hospital, and now they have a lot more. It is important for people to know about the past then and what can happen now.”
Michael Thomas, a Hunt sophomore, said it was a good experience. “I just learned about black history in Wilson,” he said. “It is good just to know where you come from and what your background is.”
“There was a lot that I didn’t know,” Michael added. “That strip of downtown, the 500 block of Nash Street, before you get to the railroads, there were a lot of stores there, but now it’s just empty. I could picture those roads there being jam-packed with people, and it was a good sight to see. You’ve got to know where you come from. If you are going to live here in Wilson and have an impact, you have got to know where you come from.”
Henderson had given talks here about African American history in Wilson when the Rev. Maurice Barnes approached her to ask if she could lead a series of workshops for The Gentlemen’s Agreement program.
“I jumped on the opportunity,” Henderson said. “The more I understood about the organization and what it is trying to do with promising young men in our school systems, any way I could help, I wanted to do it. It is important for young people to understand the past and the history of their community and have a pride in that community. Any way that I can contribute to another generation of Wilsonians knowing their past, I am happy to do it.”
“All told, for all three days, we had about 55 kids, from all three of the high schools to participate in this three-day workshop,” Barnes said.
Similar workshops held in January and March and the windshield tours were paid for by a collaborative grant from Living the Word Ministry and the Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House Museum.
The cut-off date for Black Wide-Awake‘s content is 1949. I chose a badge logo as a vintage style. The hand-lettering similarly reflects the era, bringing to mind signs that might have adorned the storefronts of businesses along the 500 block of East Nash Street.
The name. In 1919, city leaders established the Wide-Awake Wilson Commission to spearhead efforts to build a monument to World War veterans, a new courthouse, and other civic projects. In 1962, the Chamber of Commerce dusted off the alliterative moniker and adopted it as the city’s business slogan. To put it mildly, the campaign took off.
All roads lead to Wide-Awake Wilson. This logo, with its crowing rooster, was ubiquitous in local advertising in the early 1960s. Wilson Daily Times, 26 September 1962.
That summer, the city surprised its citizenry with the stealth installation of an enormous plywood rooster atop a downtown water tower. Outlined by white marquee-style lights, this landmark loomed over all the years of my life in Wilson.
It’s a little hard to see here, but that’s a rooster. Wilson Daily Times, 28 July 1962.
Long after the city abandoned its slogan, the rooster insured that “Wide-Awake” stuck. And by time it was hauled down in the late 1980s, the association was indelible. I drafted the subtitle of this blog first: “Documents of Historical and Genealogical Interest to Researchers of Wilson, North Carolina’s African-American Past.” When I was searching for a title … “Black Wide-Awake”? Well, of course.
The colors. Simple. Black for the culture. Red, for the blood, for family.
The icon. The fist upon which the rooster perches, shaped vaguely like the water tower, evokes unity and power. Unlike the city’s bird, the Black Wide-Awake rooster is looking backward. It is sankofa. We have returned to claim that which was forgotten. We have come for the ancestors.
Joseph Henry Ward left Wilson in the late 1880s on a journey that would lead him to a trail-blazing career as a physician in Indiana and Alabama. It does not appear that he ever returned to his birthplace. Yesterday, however, his granddaughter and great-granddaughter, both born and reared in the Midwest, came home. Zella Palmer FaceTimed me as she and her mother Alice Roberts Palmer stood outside David G.W. Ward‘s house near Stantonsburg, the house in which Joseph Ward’s mother Mittie Ward and grandmother Sarah Ward toiled while enslaved. David Ward was the father of at least three of Sarah Ward’s children, including Mittie.
Cousin Alice is an accomplished educator and politician, a former member of the Illinois state senate. Zella is chair of the Dillard University Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture in New Orleans. One hundred and thirty years after Joseph Ward left Wilson County, in the spirit of sankofa, they returned to claim their ancestors. There was laughter — Zella said she felt like she was in a scene from The Color Purple — and tears, as Cousin Alice, standing in her people’s footsteps, recalled the teachers who told her that black people did not have any history. The pilgrimage to North Carolina included time in Robeson County at a Lumbee pow-wow in honor of Dr. Ward’s wife, Zella’s namesake, Zella Locklear Ward. It was “magical, spiritual and sobering,” Cousin Alice said.
I’m so thankful to have been able to share, even if remotely, this incredible homecoming with you, cousins!
Zella’s photo of the house in which her great-great-great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother were enslaved by her great-great-great-grandfather.