Published in 1990, Linda Flowers’ Throwed Away: Failures of Progress in Eastern North Carolina is not, strictly, on topic for Black Wide-Awake, but is very much BWA- adjacent. Using memory and experience as a framework, Flowers examines the demise of eastern North Carolina tenant farming and the failures of the limited industrialization that took its place. I do not know economics or sociology well enough to assess the merits of Flowers’ thesis, but the book’s glimpses of this disappeared life, rendered quietly, but devastatingly, offer me invaluable insight into the world of so many of the families I chronicle here.
“The ritual of hiring hands was the same as it had always been. A tenant would pull up in the dirt yard of a black family that had worked for him before, or that he had heard was all right help, and blow the horn, and after a while Eloise or Jessie or Dot — always it would be the mama or a grown girl — would come onto the porch or, if the mama, up to the truck door, and the man, after a bit of pointless jocularity a white person always carried on with a Negro, would get down to business.
“‘You gonna hep me on Tuesdays this year, ain’t you?’ The question would have sounded like the answer was perfectly plain. The woman would look off across the yard, her head and body sideways to the truck, hands on her hips, and, when she was ready, offer a reply.
An anonymous letter arrived at the sheriff’s office on 13 January 1922. Miles Pearson had killed his wife, it said, and fled the scene, leaving her lying the yard. The sheriff and several deputies rushed to the scene to find Annie Pearson‘s body, shot through the heart and mutilated by hungry animals.
“Pistol shot wound through the heart. Murdered by husband”
The Daily Times reported on 14 January that the Pearsons were sharecroppers who had been on this farm, owned by Lithuanian Jewish brothers-in-law Morris Barker and Morris Popkin, just weeks. Their animals were found tied up and famished.
… and then Miles Pearson was found in the woods, shot in the back.
Wilson Daily Times, 16 January 1922.
A Black man named Jim McCullen and two white men, prowling about the farm, found Pearson’s body stretched out behind a log with a shotgun nearby. Suddenly, it seems, everyone recalled a man and woman who’d been living with the Pearsons and were nowhere to be found. A week earlier, some said, they had briefly borrowed a horse and buggy from George Barnes, but had not been seen since.
“Pistol shot wound Murdered by unknown parties No Doctor in Attendance”
While director of the University of North Carolina Press, W.T. Couch also worked as a part-time official of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, serving as assistant and associate director for North Carolina (1936-1937) and as director for the southern region (1938-1939). The Federal Writers’ Project Papers are housed at U.N.C.’s Southern Historical Collection and include Couch’s correspondence and life histories of about 1,200 individuals collected by F.W.P. members. At least two African-American residents of Wilson, Georgia Crockett Aiken and William Batts, were memorialized in this way.
Folder 550 contains the transcript of the interview with William Batts, titled “The stake of life.” Batts, a tobacco packer, lived at 804 Stronach Avenue. [The 1940 city directory described Stronach Alley as “(formerly Young’s Line) — from a point east of North Av at Adams, north to Tilghman rd.”]
Batts had worked as a packer for ten seasons and enjoyed the work. He was six feet tall and muscular and had farmed on rented land before working in the warehouse.
Batts’ family were sharecroppers, working to keep half the crop they produced. As he reached adulthood and realized how little money his parents received for their toil, he determined to find different work. Batts had wanted an education, but his father did not believe in the value of schooling needed him to work. “He learned us how to treat white folks and let our education stop at dat.” In response to his father’s view that literacy was for white people, Batts said, “… if de n*gger could do his own figuring de white folks ‘ud have to figure harder, too.” His first job was as a section hand for Norfolk & Southern Railroad, which he quit to drive a dray.
From there, Batts went to work at a wagon company. (Almost certainly Hackney Wagon.) After he was laid off, he got a job at a tobacco warehouse. The work was seasonal — August to November — and he had been paid $11.88 a week for the ten years he had worked there as a packer, unloading tobacco from farmer’s wagons and placing it in baskets in the warehouse. The odor of tobacco sickened him at first, but he could not quit because his wife was not working and the dollar-a-day he made doing farmwork during the summer did not go far.
Batts worked 7 o’clock A.M. to 6 P.M. five days a week and a half-day on Sunday. When the season ended, he hustled to find more work to supplement his wife’s work washing clothes, “cooking when company come to de white folks” and other occasional work. “when the spring opened up,” there was farm work — setting our tobacco plants, chopping cotton, barning tobacco, and picking cotton kept him “in a regular strut.” In winter, he dug ditches, sawed wood in a sawmill, and cleared land.
“I reckon you’d say I ain’t got no regular job, but I work pretty regular, ‘specially all de months besides December and January.” His wife worked stemming tobacco for about $8 a week. Still, they had trouble saving money. “We had to buy some furniture and clothes and keep up our life insurance and our rent and lights.” The couple was fortunate that their water was included in their rent — “We can take a bath every day if we want it …”
Their son and daughter no longer lived with them. Batts missed them, especially for help when his wife felt poorly because of high blood pressure.
He was seldom seriously ill and felt bad for her and tried to help. She would probably have to quit working. “I reckon I can support us ’cause we don’t owe no debts.” They bought their furniture for cash, and paid groceries ($15/month) and rent ($10/month) in cash. They had life insurance and had set aside a “little,” but feared running into bad luck. Batts dreamed of buying a small farm and a mule. “I think dat is the de stake of life.” A farm could provide security, something he had not thought much of until the stock market crash of 1929.
Batts’ wife was a Christian when they married, but it took her five years to convert him. When she “made [him] see the point,” he joined a Disciples Church. It brought him great comfort.
Batts introduced the interviewer to his wife, who was in the kitchen peeling potatoes. The room contained newly painted furniture, a four-burner oil stove, a linoleum rug, and “snowy white” linens. Mrs. Batts explained that Batts had gotten the idea to paint the furniture green from an issue of Better Homes and Gardens. He had wanted to paint the walls after the owner of the house refused, but she counseled him to paint the things they could take with them if they had to leave the house.
Nursey Batts longed for her own house that she could “fix and mess over” and believed the Lord would provide. She came from a large family with hard-working parents who denied their own needs in their struggle to provide for their children. Only six of their 14 lived to adulthood.
Nursey Batts believed few white folks believed in ghosties or witches or conjuring, and black people were “outgrowing” it. She opined on the origins of conjure. She also had this opinion: “Most n*ggers feels like dey is imposed on just ’cause dey is n*ggers, but lemme tell you, a good honest n*gger needn’t be skeered of living. De white folks has always been good to me and [William.]”
While waiting for an iron to heat, Nursey Batts showed the interviewer her parlor, which was neatly furnished and decorated.
“A body never knows when a important person will drop in on him and everything will most likely be like de devil’s had a fit on it. I hate for company to catch me, as de saying is, with my breeches down.” Still, she downplayed the appearance of the room. She had crocheted the bedspread from tobacco twine in a pattern she got from a woman who lived out in the country. She was proud of the chifforobe her husband had bought her for Christmas.
Nursey Batts was hopeful that she and William Batts would get their farm and thought another term for Franklin Roosevelt would be helpful. “I wish dat we could vote for him, but [William] can’t read or write so he can’t vote. I can read a little, but I don’t know nothing ’bout de Constitution of the United States.”
On 7 July 1915, Will Batts, 23, of Wilson, son of Morris and Nancy Batts of Taylor township, married Nurcy Hill, 22, of Wilson, daughter of Robert Hill, at Graham Woodard‘s in Wilson township. Missionary Baptist minister Jeremiah Scarboro performed the ceremony in the presence of Jason Farmer, Bessie Farmer, and Mena Littlejohn.
In 1917, Will Batts registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 15 December 1889 in Wilson County; lived on Vance Street; and was a butler for N.L. Finch.
In the 1920 Wilson, N.C., city directory: Batts Nursey (c) dom 601 Warren; Batts William (c) drayman h 601 Warren
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: a 804 Stronach Alley, Will Batts, 46, public school janitor; wife Nursey, 36, tobacco factory stemmer; and brother-in-law Freeman Hill, 29, tobacco factory office boy.
In 1942, Freeman Hill registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 25 November 1900 in Wilson; lived in 623 East Viola; his contact was Nursey Batts, 722 Stronach Avenue; and worked for Wilson Tobacco Company, South Railroad Street.
Will Batts died 24 February 1947 in Wilson of congestive heart failure. Per his death certificate, he was born 12 December 1890 in Wilson County to Morris Batts and Nancy Bynum; was married to Nursey Batts; was the janitor at Charles L. Coon High; and lived at 722 Stronach Avenue.
This is a copy of the contract between Virgil Bridges W.L. Quarles State of North Carolina Wilson County
Articles of agreement concluded between Virgil Bridges of the one part and W L Quarles of the other part both of the state and county above written. The said Virgil Bridges for the consideration hereinafter mentioned doth hereby covenent and agree to wit
That he the said Virgil have bound him self and three of his children viz. Siah Rachel and Bunny to serve the said W L Quarles the present year (1867) commencing the 1st day of Jany and ending the 31st day of December (inclusive) the said Virgil are to board him self and children to furnish seed to plant of any and every description such as are usually planted in this section of country. The said are to do all manner of work usually done on farms such as fencing putting the fences in good repair raising manures ditching cleaning out ditches clearing of lands &c &c. In consideration of the said Virgil faithfully discharging us duty (and having his children to do same as set forth in this agreement the said Quarles do agree to give unto the said Virgil two thirds of the crop that he may make and save. The said Quarles also agrees to furnish the said Virgil with two plow nags for which the said Virgil do agree to give him for the use of same (that is the two horses, twelve (12) barrels of corn and 2500 lbs of fodder for each horse or mule he the said Virgil shall pay trict attention to the wellfare of the animals that may be placed under his charge the animals are to be used on
the farm only without first obtaining permission from the said Quarles to do otherwise. The said Quarles also agrees to furnish such agricultural implements as may be necessary to carry on the farm for which the said Virgil Bridges are to pay the said Quarles the sum of Ten (10) dollars he the said Virgil further binds him self and the above named children to be governed by the orders and instructions that may be given by the said Quarles the said Virgil also hires unto the said Quarles two other of his children viz Easter & Turner for Easter the said Quarles is to pay at the rate of four (4) dollars per month until the 1st day of Jany next half of which going to the hireling and half to the said Virgil and for Turner five (5) bunches of cotton yarn board and clothes until Jan next.
Now should it appear that from any neglect that either party fails to do his duty as setforth in this agreement he or they shall forfeit the sum of Ten dollars in every instance for such neglect. Given under our hands and seals this the 15th day of May 1867
Witness Z. Johnson Virgil (X) Bridges W.L. Quarles
Wilson NC Septr 5th 1867
Lieut Allison Sir
[Illegible] I herewith transmit you a copy of contract between myself and Virgil Bridges [illegible]. I hope the instructions you gave to impart to him will have a very desirable effect he has gone to work though the crop is badly damaged from his neglect I am yet willing to over look it in a great measure provided he will stick up to his contract for the balance of the year accept my thanks for what you have done in the matter and oblige Yrs very respectfully W.L. Quarles
In the 1870 census of Lower Town Creek, Edgecombe County: farmer Virgil Bridgers, 66; wife Frances, 51; and children Josiah, 22, Turner, 15, Easter, 21, Bunny, 13, Harriet, 11, and Manda, 6.
On 18 July 1872, Simon Pope, 21, of Edgecombe County, married Ester Bridgers, 22, of Edgecombe County, in Wilson County.
On 12 March 1876, Turner Bridgers, 23, of Edgecombe County, married Nelly Horn, 23, of Edgecombe, in Wilson County.
In the 1880 census of Lower Town Creek, Edgecombe County: laborer Virgil Bridgers, 74 laborer; wife Francis, 74; daughters Hannah, 23 and Amanda, 17; and grandchildren Laura, 4, Esther, 3, and Richmond, 12.
On 7 January 1886, Hilliard Barron, 43, married Rachel Bridgers, 35, at Wilson County Courthouse.
In the 1900 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Hilliard Barron, 56; wife Rachel 49; and son Hilliard, 19.
In the 1900 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Turner Bridgers, 52; wife Nellie, 50; sons General, 17, and Isaac, 14; mother-in-law Lany Horne, 97; and boarder Nelson Williams, 40.
In the 1910 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Hilliard Barron, 67, and wife Racheal, 60.
In the 1910 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: odd jobs farm laborer Turner B. Bridgers, 55; wife Nellie, 60; and son Isaac, 17.
Rachel Barron died 31 March 1917 in Wilson township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was married; was about 60 years old; was born in Wilson County to Virgin Bridger and an unknown mother; and worked as a tenant farmer.
In the 1920 Saratoga township, Wilson County: on Stantonsburg Road, Turner Bridgers, 72, farmer; Nellie, 74; grandchildren Willie, 16, Georgeanna, 12, and Nathan, 7; and adopted daughter Hattie Stokes, 13.
Turner Bridges died 16 October 1921 in Saratoga township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was born 1850 in Saratoga; was a farmer; and was married to Nellie Bridgers.
North Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1863-1872, Goldsboro (assistant subassistant commissioner) > Roll 17, Letters received, Jul-Sep 1867, http://www.familysearch.org