Wilson Daily Times, 5 November 1941.
Colored patrons of the “white” Drake Theatre were seated in the balcony only.
Wilson Daily Times, 5 November 1941.
Colored patrons of the “white” Drake Theatre were seated in the balcony only.
Wilson Daily Times, 31 May 1948.
Wrote Roy Taylor in My City, My Home: “And Negroes congregated en masse on Barnes Street in the block in which P.L. Woodard is located. It wasn’t that they had to gather there, for they had the privilege of meeting at any place in town, just as did the whites. They liked that area, and too, it was in close proximity to several hot dog joints and other eating places. Few white people were seen in that block on Saturday, and few Negroes were seen on Nash Street. It was a matter of the two races choosing to be with their own kind.”
Taylor’s take on the privileges and choices of legally sanctioned and enforced segregation is ridiculous, but this passage does offer context for the location of Gus Gliarmis’ cafe on the southern edge of downtown, far from Wilson’s African-American neighborhoods in the 1940s.
Wayne County native Caswell C. Henderson (1865-1927) migrated to New York City in the 1890s, but returned South to Wilson to visit his sister Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver. Their great-niece Hattie Henderson Ricks recalled the elaborate steps he took to carry out his daily ritual. First, Henderson would leave their house on Elba Street and walk west on Green Street. He crossed the railroad tracks and walked a few more blocks before turning left on a cross street, then left to walk east on Nash Street to the Hotel Cherry. He entered the hotel through its front doors — as any white guest would — bought a newspaper, shot the breeze for a while with other white guests and staff, then exited right to walk back up Nash Street. After a few blocks, he turned right, then right again on Green and crossed the tracks back into the African-American world.
“Uncle Caswell had been home, he’d been to Wilson. He come down there visiting Mama …. He passed for white. He would go and get a paper every morning down there to Cherry Hotel. Walk down there for the exercise and get that paper. And they all thought he was white. He’d go in the hotel there and ask for a paper and come in there and talk to the people. And he’d leave the hotel and walk the other direction, then walk back down Green Street and come on home.”
Cherry Hotel in an undated postcard issued by the Asheville Post Card Company.
Interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.
Raines & Cox shot this photograph of the kitchen staff of the Zam-Zam Club in 1946. Does anyone recognize any of the workers?
Many thanks to John Teel for sharing this image from the Raines & Cox collection of photographs at the North Carolina State Archives. Though it was not taken there, this photograph is found among those shot at the Zam-Zam Club, a night club just north of Wilson city limits. The Zam-Zam, named for an Egyptian ship torpedoed by the Nazis in 1941, opened just after World War II to entertain eastern North Carolina’s white “movers and shakers.” The photo is catalogued as PhC_196_ZZ_8B_Staff.
Carolina General, a private hospital, opened in 1920 at 103 North Pine Street. It closed in 1964 and, for the 44 years of its operation, was a segregated facility. How was it then, in 1943, that Banks Blow, who was African-American, died at Carolina General rather than Mercy Hospital? (Note that he lived only two block from Mercy Hospital, which was at 504 East Green.)
Carolina General Hospital, circa 1964. Image courtesy of digitalnc.org.
This map was produced just past the period of focus of Black Wide-Awake, but I post it for the crystal-clear view it gives of mid-century Wilson’s residential segregation patterns. It appeared in the 14 April 1951 issue of the Wilson Daily Times under the heading “Map Shows Zoning Plans for Future Growth of the City of Wilson.”
Here’s the key:
The dot-and-dash of proposed zone RA 5 Residential not coincidentally was coterminous with the East Wilson and Daniel Hill neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were black, and the “plans for future growth” intended to keep them that way.
In January 1915, members of the Wilson County School Board considered a petition signed by 24 (ostensibly) white men and one white woman. “We the undersigned,” they wrote, “wish to protest against the attendance of any child or children in our school with negro blood in their veins as the law directs and would further ask that this matter be attended to at once.”
This is not a new issue for the Board, having lost a battle in 1909 to keep James and Jane Carter Lamm‘s children out of white schools, but won an effort in late 1914 to bar Josephus and Minnie Taylor Johnson‘s offspring.
Charles L. Coon and the Board refused to hear the petition, but agreed to rule on specific charges against specific families accused of being too black to attend white schools. Immediately, several petitioners pointed fingers at Luke Tedder’s children. The Board directed counsel for the Tedders and for the petitioners to present their cases. Instead, Tedder sent word that he would withdraw his children from Renfrow School. The matter having resolved itself, the Board adjourned.
Tedder no doubt wished to spare his family the ordeal (and humiliation) of a public dissection of his wife’s genealogy. I have written here of the Hawleys, the family into which Sally Ann Hawley Tedder was born. They and the related Rose, Ayers and Taylor families of Springhill township moved back and forth across the color line in the late 1800s. By the turn of the century, most claimed and were accorded a white identity. However, memory was long, and not all in their community were willing to overlook their remote African ancestry.
Renfrow School, circa 1920s.
On 26 June 1867, William Hawley, son of Joseph Hair and Patsey Hawley, married Nancy Rose, daughter of Sarah Rose, at Sarah Rose’s house in Wilson County.
In the 1870 census of Spring Hill township, Wilson County: farmer William Hawley, 28, wife Nancy, 20, son Joseph, 1, and Aquilla Hawley, 17. William, Joseph and Aquilla were classified as mulatto; Nancy, as white.
In the 1880 census of Spring Hill township, Wilson County: farmer William Hawley, 39, wife Nancy, 32, and children Joseph, 10, Sally An, 7, and John, 3; all described as mulatto.
Luke Tedder, 23, son of Stephen and Betsy Tedder, married Sallie Hawley, 18, daughter of William and Nancy Hawley, on Christmas Day 1888 in Springhill township, Wilson County. Both were classified as white. Their children were Joseph S., Victoria, William T., John H., Luke C. Jr., Lizzie, Minnie L., Eddie G., Nancy C., and James F. Tedder.
Copies of minutes in “Education 1910-1919” folder of hanging files, Local History Room, Wilson County Public Library, Wilson; photo of school courtesy of Images of Historic Wilson County, Images of North Carolina, digitalnc.org.
This chart is simultaneously heart-breaking and awe-inspiring.
Three thousand African-American children in Wilson County were enrolled in eight grades during the 1923-1924 school year. They ranged from six to twenty years of age. The 1689 first graders ranged from six to seventeen years old, and nearly two-thirds were classified as “over age.” There were three nineteen year-old second graders, and a full fifth of all third graders were thirteen years old. One was twenty. Only 17 of 269 fourth graders were age-appropriate. The eighth grade class — the highest grade offered to black children — tallied a single pupil.
Why? Pick a reason. Or several, as years passed. “Mama is sick.” “I am sick.” “I need to mind the baby.” “I don’t have school clothes.” “I can’t see the board, and my daddy can’t get me no glasses.” “It’s too far to walk.” “I missed too much time last year.” “I got to work.” “I’m too old.”
My grandmother‘s schooling was repeatedly interrupted. Two life-threatening bouts with pneumonia. Temporary moves to new towns as her guardian great-aunt sought work with better pay than Wilson offered black women. A great-uncle with dementia who’d begun to wander from home and needed to be watched. She left school for good when she was about 13, just before the school year captured in this chart.
“The first day I went down to Graded School, that day it rained. I come back – there was a hole in my shoe, and I slopped in all the water and got my feet wet. That’s what Mama said, anyhow, and I taken with a fever. And I was sick that whole rest of the year. I mean, wasn’t strong enough to go down to Graded School – she wouldn’t let me go down there. So I stayed home, and Mama put all them old rags … that old flannel cloth, and she’d put it in red onions and hog lard.”
“[F]irst of the year I went to school, and [then I got sick and] I didn’t go back no more to the Graded School. They opened the Wilson Training School on Vance Street, with that old long stairway up that old building down there, well, I went over there. Then when Mama … went to Greensboro, then I went to Greensboro to Ashe Street School. Then we moved from over Ashe Street over to Washington Street, over there, then I went to Washington Street School. So then I went over there. And so we come on back [to Wilson], and then they wanted to put me back in the same grade I was in before I left, and I cried. I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to go back to that school anymore. So I just stopped school.”
Imagine teenagers crammed into desks alongside seven year-olds, sounding out words in blue-back spellers, carefully practicing the shapes of letters, and ticking off numbers on their fingers. The perseverance of these children and their families, the determination to get an education, is palpable.
Imagine also the children who fell from the ranks each year, who were bright and eager and wanted just as badly to learn, but whose obstacles won the day. In 1924, only one black child who had started the race finished the course.
For statistics from 1913-1914, see here.
Wilson City colored schools educated 1225 children in eleven grades in 1923-1924. Almost 28% were normal age for their grades, a slight improvement over the county schools. The oldest child attending city schools was a 20 year-old eighth grader.
Chart from Coon, Charles L., The Public Schools of Wilson County North Carolina: Ten Years 1913-1914 to 1923-1924, published by Board of Education of Wilson County; interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.
A bit of follow-up on the post about Tobe and Martha Smith, described as having been buried in the cemetery of the white Winstead family. The Winstead graveyard stands in the middle of the parking lot behind the defunct Wilson Mall, a tree-shaded green square protected by a chainlink fence. Within that fence is a low, wrought-iron, bow-and-picket fence that surrounds the Farmer and Winstead graves. Outside the wrought-iron fence are the graves of Joseph “Tobe” and Martha Wheeler Smith, as well as that of Jack Boss, whose identity is not at all clear, but may also have been African-American.
So, arguably in the Winstead cemetery, but certainly not of it.
Photographs by Lisa Y. Henderson, April 2018.
Wilson Daily Times, 12 November 1925.
“This li’l old typewriter hasn’t been reading programs for more than forty years, so it is unable to single out from the more or less confused card of the races that dancin’ colored boy who makes ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ stand out in an uncommonly good road season of uncommonly good road shows. In that jungle of names and numbers, his name is lost. This is regretted, seriously, for the reason that, without regard to color or condition, this keyboard is glad to pound out the fact that he is the most brilliant dancer of his type ever seen on the stage – certainly on the Richmond stage, and, be it remembered, the road sees the good dancers and good actors long before they are “discovered” by reviewers who cover Broadway shows. That statement must be qualified, of course, so as to except imported stars and manufacturer stars – such for example, as Mr. Belasco has fabricated. And, moreover – but this has nothing to do with the case.
“‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is an all-colored show after the general style of ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘Runnin’ Wild,’ but, in so far as the road production is a guide, it is much more pretentious – to use the press agents’ favorite word – than its predecessors. It is slighter in its comedy than either of the others mentioned: but its costuming and setting are more elaborate and handsome than those of both the others put together. A long, gangling colored man named Lew Payton wrote the book and plays the comedy lead. He is so free from exaggeration in his work on the stage and has been so true to life in his comedy writing for the stage that it is quite easy for us down here to understand why this particular play and performance did not turn ‘em away in New York. At any rate, to those who fully realize how good this man is he is the acting star of his own show. That dancin’ colored boy walks away with the performance because his work is spectacular and brilliant and, in its own field just about unapproachable.
“It’s a fact, perfectly clean, amusing show, in which every member of the cast and chorus plays and dances as if for the love of it. The little orchestra carried by the company plays admirably. And the pianist-director, a woman, plays beautifully. One-man opinion is that ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is clinking good entertainment – provided the entertainment is not submerged by the pitiful tragedy of some of the performers, who are white – but colored.
“Why, several of them have well schooled voices, one of the women would make ‘White Cargo’ more realistic than ever it has been – but this is not moralization: it is supposed to be a report of a performance. Therefore, it is repeated that ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is clinking good entertainment – but what a piteous aching thing is this problem of ours! — Douglas Gordon.”
The Wilson Theatre‘s manager reprinted a Richmond critic’s bizarrely incomprehensible review to promote — to an all-white audience — a one-night performance of The Chocolate Dandies, a lavish musical meant to capitalize on the success of Shuffle Along, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake‘s break-out Broadway production. Based on a book by Sissle and Lew Payton and with music by Blake, the stage show played 96 shows the 1200-seat New Colonial Theatre at 1887 Broadway at 62nd Street from 1 September through 22 November 1924. Josephine Baker — a few years away from her Paris debut — had a minor role, but it is not clear whether she took to the road with the traveling show. Douglas Gordon’s piece — which seems to be positive — aside, the critical reception was mixed.
Image courtesy of Maryland Historical Society.