Standing in the Gap for the Ancestors: Sankofa and the Why of Black Wide-Awake.

The text of a talk I delivered 19 October 2023 at Barton College, Wilson, North Carolina.


My thanks to Dr. Lydia Walker for the invitation to speak tonight. A special shout-out to the School of Arts and Humanities, as well. I have an undergraduate degree in English and a graduate degree in History. STEM is important, but God bless those intrepid humanities majors! And, of course, thank you to the BB&T endowment that supports the Heritage Lecture series and to Wilson County Historical Association.

I’m a big science fiction/fantasy fan, and I’m currently working through R. Scott Bakker’s Aspect-Emperor quartet. As I was finalizing my remarks for tonight, a bit of dialogue from the second book of the series jumped out at me – “You need to glimpse more to know that you see less.” You need to glimpse more to know that you see less. Less, that is, than there is to see.

I’m intrigued by palimpsests as a metaphor. There is the surface of things, that which we see, the plane in which we exist. For example, the 500 block of East Nash Street as I drove its length today. But below this plane, there are layer upon layer of 500 blocks, each as fully actualized in its own time as this one is in ours. That’s what Black Wide Awake is about. Understanding that what we see is not all there is or was, and peeling back those layers to recover what is missing.

I have not lived in Wilson for more than two-thirds of my life. Nonetheless, wherever I am, however far away I go — Wilson remains my home, and each passing year both reminds me and reveals to me this fundamental truth. For eighteen years, I walked the same dusty streets that my father walked, along paths trod by my grandfather, my aunts and uncles and cousins. My life crossed theirs, in space, if not time, a dozen times a day. When my grandmother told me stories of her youth, I didn’t have to imagine Green Street or Five Points or Export Leaf or Cherry Hotel. I’d seen them. If I didn’t know the men and women that peopled her memories, I knew their children or grandchildren. I knew their homes.

The house on Elba Street that my grandmother grew up in and my father and his siblings were born in.

On dew-bright summer mornings — in swimsuits and flip-flops, towels slung over our heads — my cousin and I would set off for the Reid Street Community Center pool. We’d walk up Carolina Street and cut through a path to Queen Street, where her mother and my father once lived in a row of endway houses – that’s the local name for shotguns. We’d turn up Queen to Reid Street (where they also lived for a time), then turn north. At Green Street, we peered west toward the tiny cottage on Elba Street in which my grandmother had grown up and my father was born. Looking east, through frothy crepe myrtles, we gazed into the portals of Charles H. Darden High School, alma mater of nearly every adult we knew. Skirting Sam Vick Elementary, the all-black school at which two generations of my family had learned to conjugate and multiply, we exchanged our belongings for numbered safety pins and locked our toes over the edge of the pool.

My genealogical and historical research at Black Wide-Awake strengthens and preserves my link to the vast web of connections — floating deeper than memory — that roots me. With it, through it, I remember and pay homage to the Miss Edie Bells and Miz Speights and Mr. Kennys and Ma Keits, men and women who sheltered us in a cocoon spun from folk wisdom, good country sense, and a deep familiarity with the ways of white folks.

This was a liminal space – Old South fading, New South emerging. I was nurtured by the children and grandchildren of the enslaved so as to make my way among the children and grandchildren of enslavers. This, as much as anything, fueled my love of history and genealogy and stoked my quest to know whose shoulders I stand upon.

The blog Black Wide-Awake began as a repository into which I piled all the “extra” I uncovered while digging in archives and databases for my own family’s history. All the court records and photographs and newspaper clippings that did not pertain directly to my people, but captured the lives of those who created or disrupted the community in which my people lived.

My original idea was to create blogs for each of the three counties in which most of my North Carolina ancestors lived. I started with Wilson County, and I’ve never moved beyond it. Somewhere along the way, I realized that though I’m no longer in Wilson, I’ve never been more of her, and my bone-deep familiarity with these people and this place are essential to making the most of the material I uncover. Studying the pentimento that is African-American Wilson, I am able to read both the smudged original text and the layers upon layers inscribed upon it over the last 200 years. Wilson is my wheelhouse, and – to borrow a phrase from Booker T. Washington, one of the city’s most famous visitors – I have determined to cast down my buckets here.

The received history of Wilson is anchored in admiring tales of immigrant English younger sons, Mexican War soldiers, county fathers, Civil War generals, and money-minting tobacconists. Though we have been here from the beginning, dragged behind the colonizers, African Americans have largely been omitted from historical records, which inevitably has led to our erasure from both memory and place. Wilson County was built on the backs of black people, but neither we nor our works are remembered or celebrated.

Black History in general is often siloed – boxed into a single month that hyperfocuses on a small set of big names and grand feats. We all know Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and George Washington Carver and Harriet Tubman – as we absolutely should. But what of our own heroes? Our own freedom fighters? Our own revolutionaries? What great minds and deeds sprang from our own sandy soil?

For hundreds of years, the Akan of Ghana and Ivory Coast have used symbols, called adinkra, as visual representations of concepts and aphorisms. Sankofa, which means, literally, “go back and get it,” is often illustrated as a bird looking over its back.  Black Wide Awake exists to snatch back that which was forgotten. I spoke of being born in a liminal age. A dawn. But also a twilight. I grew up accustomed to squinting into half-light, and I am among the last of Wilson’s children who can see both the dim shapes of the past and describe them for the future.

In researching for the blog, I have been astonished by what I’ve uncovered. How did I not know of these people? How have the aspirations and achievements, the trials and triumphs, the resistance and the resilience of so many black people been so quickly rendered invisible? How much taller would we stand if we knew these stories? As singer and social activist Bernice Johnson Reagon has counseled, “when you are in touch with your history, you can see yourself as evidence of the success of your ancestors.”

And how much richer would our whole community be for this knowledge? As historian Andi Cumbo-Floyd assured her white audience: “You will only be enriched by connecting with the black people who built the places you love. You will find people who love these places, too, differently but just as strongly. You will find stories about your home places that help you understand and appreciate them more. You will make friends. You will understand history. You will know – first-hand and real – the way history has been unfair and unkind to people of color, and you will be better people for that.”

Let me tell you just a few stories.

In 1918, Mary C. Euell — my personal hero — and 10 other African-American teachers resigned from Wilson’s Colored Graded School after white superintendent Charles L. Coon slapped Euell. In their wake, black parents pulled their children out of the public school en masse and opened a private alternative school in a building owned by Samuel H. Vick.  Financed with 25¢-a-week tuition payments and elaborate student musical performances, the Wilson Normal & Industrial School operated for nearly ten years. An astonishing act of prolonged resistance that unified Wilson’s black toilers and strivers, the school boycott is largely forgotten in Wilson, and its heroes, African-American women, go unsung.

Speaking of Sam Vick. There’s a whole school named for him, and a contested public cemetery, but who here really knows who this one-man Black Wall Street was? There is no arena of social and civic life in which Vick did not blaze trails, knock down walls, or burst through ceilings. Every day we follow paths he literally mapped across Wilson. He laid out streets; bought, rented, and sold hundreds of houses; and founded or co-founded Presbyterian churches, a hotel, a cemetery, a hospital, a school, an insurance company, a movie theatre, and a bank. He was a founding or early member of the local lodges of the Knights of Labor; the Knights of Pythias; Mount Hebron Lodge #42 of Prince Hall Masons; Hannibal Lodge #1552 of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows; and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. In 1910, when Booker T. Washington scheduled a stop in Wilson during his Educational Tour of the South, Samuel and Annie Vick played host to the guest of honor, sponsoring a reception for Washington’s entourage on their East Green Street lawn.

Sam Vick rose quickly to the upper echelon of eastern North Carolina’s black power brokers, eventually becoming a close ally of future Congressman George H. White. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Vick postmaster of Wilson. Postmaster positions were highly sought after as among the few patronage jobs available in rural North Carolina, and Vick’s appointment was bitterly resented. He held the position until 1894, then was reappointed by President William McKinley in 1898. In 1903, Vick’s fight to keep the postmaster job became national news when Jeter Pritchard, the only Republican Senator from the South and a leader of the so-called Lily White movement, demanded that Teddy Roosevelt replace Vick with a white man. Roosevelt acquiesced. Even after his removal from office, Vick remained active in national politics and, when Vick Elementary was dedicated in 1936, he was alive to receive the honor.

And what of Wilson’s own Rosa Parkses? In 1943, Irene Barron and James Parker were arrested weeks apart for sitting in the white section of Wilson city buses and refusing to move to the back. The driver of Parker’s bus abandoned the route and drove straight to the police station. Parker received a suspended sentence, but Barron was hit with 60 days in jail. Were these acts of protest so close in time a mere coincidence? Or did Barron and Parker plan this assault on Jim Crow together? As a practice, the local press was frustratingly reticent about challenges to the apparatus of segregation – another way of erasing history even as it is made.

I had never heard of teenager Marie Everett until I read Charles W. McKinney’s excellent Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina. I’m not sure how it is possible that her struggle was so quickly forgotten, but the fight for justice for Everett was a small victory that sent a big message to Wilson’s Black community and likely a shudder of premonition through its white one:

On 6 October 1945, 15 year-old Everett took in a movie at downtown Wilson’s Carolina Theatre, which admitted black patrons to its balcony only. As Everett stood beside a friend near the concession stand, a cashier yelled at her to get in line. Everett responded that she was not in line and, on the way back to her seat, stuck out her tongue. The cashier grabbed Everett, slapped her, and began to choke her. Everett fought back. Somebody called the police, and Everett was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The next day in court, Everett’s charge was upgraded to simple assault. Though this misdemeanor carried a maximum thirty-day sentence and fifty-dollar fine, the judge upped Everett’s time to three months in county jail. Wilson’s tiny NAACP chapter swung into action, securing a white lawyer from Tarboro. In the meantime, Everett sat in jail four months awaiting a hearing on her appeal – long past the length of her 30-day original sentence. Wilson County assigned two prosecutors to the matter, and one opened with a statement to the jury that the case would “show the n*ggers that the war is over.” Everett was convicted anew, and this judge, astonishingly, increased her sentence from three to six months to be served — even more astonishingly — at the women’s prison in Raleigh. Hard time. Everett was a minor, though, and the prison refused to admit her.  Wilson’s NAACP jumped in again to send word to Thurgood Marshall, head of the organization’s Legal Defense Fund. Marshall engaged a black lawyer in Durham, who alerted state officials to Wilson’s shenanigans. After intervention by the Commissioner of Paroles and the Governor, Everett walked out of jail on March 18. She had missed nearly five months of her freshman year of high school.

And then there’s Dr. George K. Butterfield Sr., the dentist whose road to election to Wilson’s board of aldermen was a primer in voter suppression.

Here’s the bullet-point version of events:

  • In 1928, Dr. Butterfield was one of only 46 black registered voters in Wilson.
  • In the 1930s and ’40s, several organizations formed to support African-American political engagement, including voter registration.
  • By the early 1950s, about 500 black voters were registered, almost all of whom lived in the city’s Third Ward, a long narrow precinct that crossed Wilson east to west.
  • In early 1953, Dr. Butterfield announced his candidacy for a seat on Wilson’s Board of Aldermen, the precursor to today’s city council. He drew immediate widespread support from unionized tobacco leafhouse workers, churches, and the city’s small African-American professional class.
  • A few days before the election, ward incumbent Herbert Harriss challenged the eligibility of 185 registered voters. Of the 150 voters struck from the rolls, 147 were black.
  • On election night, Dr. Butterfield and Harriss each received 382 votes. Butterfield objected that the registrar had violated rules requiring that votes be counted at the site where ballot boxes are opened. City Attorney W.A. Lucas conceded the count was irregular, but declared the point moot, as there were tie-breaker provisions. Over Dr. Butterfield’s objections, the City Clerk placed the two candidates’ names in a hat, blindfolded a three year-old girl, and asked her to draw a name.
  • Dr. Butterfield won!
  • In 1955, the City of Wilson acted decisively to get in front of Dr. Butterfield’s re-election. First, it threw out all the registration books, ostensibly to clear the rolls of dead or otherwise ineligible voters – STOP ME IF THIS SOUNDS FAMILIAR. Citizens had one month to re-register at their ward registrar’s house on weekdays, a difficult and daunting task for factory workers and domestics working long hours across town. Next, the city expanded Ward 3 on its western end to pull in hundreds more white voters. The Wilson Daily Times stoked fears by publishing running tallies of new registrations by race.
  • Notwithstanding, on election day, 93% of all eligible black voters voted, and Dr. Butterfield won again!
  • In 1957, faced with another Butterfield campaign, the City went for the nuclear option and chucked the whole ward system for “new and fair” city-wide, at-large seats. Further, to thwart bloc voting, voters would not be able to vote for just one candidate. Rather, they had to select six candidates or their ballots would be invalidated. Jim Crow protocols prevented Dr. Butterfield from campaigning directly to white voters, and he was unable to parry when his opponents sneered at his ties to “special interest groups” like the NAACP and cast him as a candidate solely interested in advancing Black issues.
  • Unsurprisingly, Dr. Butterfield placed eighth of 16 candidates and was the sole incumbent to lose his seat.

The story didn’t end there, of course. Dr. Butterfield’s defeat coincided with the emergence of new grassroots civil rights organizing efforts to attack segregation and racism in every corner of Wilson life.

In June 1964, James Costen, the young Black pastor of Elm City’s tiny First Presbyterian Church, invited an interracial group of students from Pennsylvania and New York to paint the church. When they arrived in Elm City, Robert Jones, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, told him he could not guarantee their safety if they tried to paint the church alongside Negroes. The students packed up and went home. On the evening of July 9, Grand Dragon Jones called Rev. Costen to tell him that he had gathered about two hundred fifty Klan members from Wilson and Nash Counties who were ready to paint the church. They had forty floodlights and forty gallons of paint and would work all night. Understandably, Rev. Costen passed on the offer, and Jones accused him of “not wanting to get the church painted, but of desiring to make a racial issue by bringing in outsiders.” Jones then threatened that an “integrated brush” would not touch the walls of the church, and another attempt toward that end could get somebody killed. Elm City Mayor George Tyson called the sheriff’s office in Wilson, who contacted the governor’s office, who mobilized the state highway patrol. Authorities broke up the Klan assembly around eleven that evening. “I feel safe in saying,” Rev. Costen later told a reporter, “at this point we will refuse their help.” A few days later, two Rocky Mount men were arrested after fleeing warning shots fired as they splashed gasoline on the church steps. Order restored, painting began on July 14 with an integrated group of workers under the watch of state troopers.

And on and on. I’ve told some of the good stories, but there are so many more – stories of families and foodways and forgotten Wilson neighborhoods like Grabneck, Little Washington, Happy Hill, and Sunshine Alley. I have not shared them tonight, but there are terrible stories, too, of the cruelties of slavery, of lynchings, of racism both casual and deliberate.

I founded Black Wide-Awake in 2015. It turned 8 years old this month and as of today is 5192 posts strong. It birthed Lane Street Project, a multiethnic, multigenerational community collective devoted to the reclamation of three historic African-American cemeteries — including private Odd Fellows, where Barton students cleared brush yesterday morning during their Day of Service, and public Vick, which bears the scars of the City of Wilson’s alternating abuse and misguided attention. The removal of headstones from that cemetery and the complete erasure of its burial records are an object lesson in the critical importance of documenting Black Lives, of calling our people’s names, resurrecting their memory, and ensuring they are never again forgotten.

I have not done this work alone, and I deeply appreciate the many who have shared images and artifacts and access — that’s critical, access — to help me shout these stories. I would build this archive even if no one wanted to read it, but am profoundly grateful that so many do.

Black Wide-Awake is a mission. It’s a ministry. It’s a love letter. It’s the currency with which I repay my debt to the community that made me.

Thank you.

Hat tip to Gig East.

While in Wilson, I needed a “real” work space in which to set up for a panel on which I was speaking via Zoom. I reached out to Gig East, downtown Wilson’s technology and innovation networking center. My thanks to Ashley J. Harris, Gig East’s Community Exchange Coordinator, for setting me up in the perfect location. Consider membership if you have a regular need for coworking space — and check out these nods to historic East Wilson, in the spirit of sankofa, throughout the common areas. (I may have had some curation input ….) 

Samuel H. Vick.

O. Nestus Freeman and Parker Battle and Smith Bennett among a group of blacksmiths.

Sallie B. Howard.

Mercy Hospital.

Mr. Hooks speaks.

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.

“It is good just to know where you came from.”

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.)

Windshield tour a reminder of Wilson’s past.

By Drew C. Wilson, 12 November 2019.

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 it 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.

Sankofa: the Wards come home.

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.