The shoe shine contest.

This photograph posted yesterday to the Instagram account, and my inbox blew up. Here’s the back story.

Back in September 2013, a couple of years before Black Wide-Awake launched, Will Robinson posted this to Wilson County Public Library’s local history and genealogy blog:

I jumped on it:


… which led to an email exchange:

… which led to Will Robinson finding this 23 February 1952 Daily Times article about the event, which took place at Reid Street Community Center:

… which led to this September 2014 WUNC article that includes a dozen contest photos and short video featuring contest winner Curtis Phillips (and my cousin Otis Sherrod talking about his brother Earnest Sherrod, who’s the boy at far left.) 

Wilson County Public Library later exhibited the prints Linda Zimmerman donated, and she graciously extended me the opportunity to purchase a print of the photo posted yesterday. Almost exactly ten years after I first saw John Zimmerman’s work, I’m delighted to these priceless images find a wider audience. 

The Wilson diaspora.

As I was about to board the elevator in my office building, the shirt pocket of the gentleman next to me caught my eye. In large letters on his gold name tag: SHERROD.

“I grew up in a place where there are lots of Sherrods,” I said suddenly. “Eastern North Carolina.”

He turned into face me fully. “I’m from eastern North Carolina, too,” he responded. “Wilson.”

I screamed a little. “What?!?! Get out of here. I’m from Wilson, too!”

He asked my surname, and when I answered, he said, “… Reggie Henderson?”

“That’s my dad!”

“Coach Hen, we called him.”

“That’s my dad!”

He told me he had been sorry to hear of my father’s passing and asked after my mother, then mentioned our next-door neighbor Herbert Woodard, who also recently passed. We talked about a few people we knew in common, and I asked if he’d graduated from Darden, “Yes,” he said, “class of 1970.”

“The last class!,” I exclaimed, and he nodded.

He didn’t know if he is related to my Viola Street cousins, but I claim John Sherrod anyway. Black Wide-Awake!

Recommended reading, no. 9.

I know I have a romantic view of old East Wilson (old, as in before it was ravaged by disinvestment and the crack trade), attributable to my very safe and happy childhood there. Still, I am sometimes reminded how shallow my rosy recollection can be and how it may serve to erase or obscure less happy stories.

One of my cousins, 20 years older than I, published a memoir a few years ago. The early pages of Sherrod Village are set on streets I’ve walked and peopled by folks I knew in East Wilson. Barbara Williams Lewis’ grandmother Josephine Artis Sherrod was my great-great-grandmother’s sister; they were two of the “innumerable” children of Adam T. Artis. (Barbara’s mother, in fact, is who described them to me that way.) I thought I would recognize so much in Barbara’s book. And I did. But I didn’t.

Children are shielded from so much ugliness — if they’re lucky, as I was — and understand so little of what they see. The ragged past of sweet old people is not always apparent in their mild present. Nonetheless, though my own family’s story involved poverty and insecurity and pain, I have believed that my recollected truth was true. I have, perhaps, counted on it.

I’ve spoken often about viewing East Wilson as a palimpsest. However, for too long I processed little beneath the surface of my own Polaroid-tinted memories of crepe myrtles, corner stores, and swimming lessons at Reid Street Community Center. I knew the history of the place, but not the often bitter stories of its people. Fifteen pages into Sherrod Village, I wrote to Barbara that I was “staggered.” I finished the book in the same state of astonishment.

I thank Barbara for her honesty and bravery. I thank her also for pushing me toward deeper and more empathic consideration as I continue to build space for our community’s stories.

The death of Mildred Lassiter Sherrod.

Mildred Sherrod and son Earnest, circa 1942.

Wilson Daily Times, 5 February 1943.


Mildred Sherrod was only 20 years old at her death. She was buried in Rountree Cemetery.

[Note: her surname was spelled two different ways in this death notice — Sherard and Shearard — and the family now uses the spelling “Sherrod.”]

Photo courtesy of Angelia M. Sherrod.


802 Viola Street.

The one hundred thirty-third in a series of posts highlighting buildings in East Wilson Historic District, a national historic district located in Wilson, North Carolina. As originally approved, the district encompasses 858 contributing buildings and two contributing structures in a historically African-American section of Wilson. (A significant number have since been lost.) The district was developed between about 1890 to 1940 and includes notable examples of Queen Anne, Bungalow/American Craftsman, and Shotgun-style architecture. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

As described in the nomination form for the East Wilson Historic District, this house is: “ca. 1908; 1 story; L-plan cottage with turned-post porch and brackets.”

Jesse Ward registered for the World War I draft in Wilson in 1918. Per the registration card, he was born 15 June 1881; lived at 703 Viola Street; worked as a carpenter for Boyle-Roberson Construction, Newport News, Virginia; and his contact was Mary E. Ward

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 703 Viola Street [Wilson city house numbering was changed about 1921], house carpenter Jessie Ward, 36; wife Mary, 34; and children Mabel, 17, Gertrude, 12, Kerfus, 7, Malachi, 5, Dempsey, 3, Virginia, 2, and Sara, 1 month. 

Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson, N.C., 1922.

Jessie Ward died 13 June 1923 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 38 years old; married to Mary Etta Ward; lived at 802 Viola Street; worked as a janitor and carpenter at graded school; and was born in Wilson County to Jessie Ward and Classy Burney.

Virginia Dare Ward died 15 June 1923 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 14 February 1919 in Wilson to Jessie Ward and Mary Sherrod and lived at 802 Viola. Like her father, she died of arsenic poisoning. 

Mary Etta Ward died 12 June 1925 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 41 years old; was the widow of Jessie Ward; lived at 802 Viola; was born in Wayne County to Dempsey Shearard and Harriet Hill; and was buried in Rountree cemetery. Informant was Solomon Shearard. 

Wilson Daily Times, 4 August 1925.

In the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Hodges James (c; Gertrude) driver h 802 Viola; Hodges Joseph (c; Pearl) lab h 802 Viola

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 802 Viola, rents at $16/month, laundress Anna R. Parker, 65, widow; grandchildren Gurtrude, 7, Emma M., 5, Matthews, 4, and Dorthy, 2; and daughters Ellen Gay, 27, laundress, and Minnie Knight, 29.

In the 1930 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Parker Minnie (c) lndrs h 802 Viola; Parker Roxie A (c) lndrs h 802 Viola

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 802 Viola Street, Solomon Shearard, 60; wife Josephine, 52; and children Flora, 15, Beulah, 13, Elmer, 11, and Solomon, 21; plus “son’s wife” Mildred, 18, and grandson Ernest E., 8 months. [Solomon Sherrod (also known as Shearard) was the brother of Mary Shearard Ward, above.]

In 1947, Elmer Lee Sherrod registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 30 March 1929 in Wilson County; lived at 802 East Viola; worked for BPOE Elks Home, East Nash Street, Wilson; and his contact was Solomon Sherrod, 802 East Viola.

Solomon Shearard died 6 February 1948 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 21 October 1878 in Wayne County, N.C., to Dempsey Shearard and Harriett Hill; was married to Josephine Shearard; lived at 802 East Viola Street; worked as a common laborer; and was buried in Rest Haven cemetery.

Photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, December 2020.

Scrapbook chronicles: the return.

I knew we were related somehow to the Sherrods, but I was in college before I figured out how. Of course, I then wanted to visit Josephine Artis Sherrod, who, it turned out, was both my great-great-grandmother’s half-sister and my great-great-grandfather’s niece. (Yes, it was complicated.) My father took me by the house on Viola Street one evening when I was home over the Christmas holidays. We knocked, the door opened, and I stared into baby-blue eyes set in a caramel-brown face. This was Solomon C. Sherrod Jr., who, though just a few years younger than my grandmother, was my great-grandfather’s first cousin. He ushered us into the front room, and I spent a delightful hour or so with Aunt Josephine.

I was in Wilson this past week. Before I left, I knocked on another door on Viola Street. Cousin Solomon’s youngest son answered, and I placed in his hands the scrapbook Rita Elsner found on a Maryland street three weeks ago. As promised, the Sherrod family’s legacy has returned home.

Here are more gems from Alliner Sherrod Davis Randall‘s scrapbook. If you can help me identify the men and women depicted, I’d be grateful.

Alliner and Henry Randall, probably not long after their marriage in 1946. They made their home in Durham, N.C.

Elmer Lee Sherrod (1929-2002), Josephine and Solomon Sherrod’s youngest son. On the reverse: “To Mr. & Mrs. Randall with Love, Elmer Sherrod, 1401 N. 18th St., Phila 21, Pa.”

Minnie Sherrod Parker (1916-1996). [Thank you, Barbara Williams Lewis!]

Studio portrait of unidentified young woman.

Alliner Randall (1908-1992) and dog.

Unidentified snapshot of older man and young girl. Is this Solomon Sherrod Sr. (ca.1880-1948)?

Betty Cooper Sherrod, who married Solomon Sherrod’s eldest son Earnest E. Sherrod. [Thank you, Bonita Sherrod!]

Scene at a graveside funeral service, possibly in the 1950s.

Solomon Sherrod Sr., probably 1940s. [Thank you, Bonita Sherrod!]

Scrapbook chronicles: the matriarch Josephine A. Sherrod.

Alliner Sherrod Davis Randall‘s scrapbook contained two photos of her mother, Josephine Artis Sherrod (1887-1988). Though not taken on the same day, they were clearly taken within a short span of time and in the same place. They appear to date from the 1950s. (Was the occasion Mother’s Day? Her birthday? Both were in May.) I have not yet identified the two-story house in the background.

Handwritten in pencil on the back of this image: “To my baby, Love Mother.”

The suitcase held one photo album.

It was the afternoon on Sunday before I noticed the shared post in a Wayne County, North Carolina, Facebook group:

By then, there were thousands of comments and further shares to genealogy groups — did anyone know this family? could anyone help? The finder had attached several photos from the scrapbook, and I gasped. “Josephine” was Josephine Artis Sherrod, who was both my grandmother’s great-aunt and cousin, and who presided until nearly her 101st birthday over a block of Viola Street called Sherrod Village. “Allister” was Alliner Sherrod Davis Randall, her eldest daughter.

The next few hours were an anxious scramble to contact the finder. Finally, we connected through intermediaries and, long story short, Cousin Alliner’s scrapbook has begun its journey home. I plan to scan all its photos and documents, upload them to cloud storage so they’re available to all family members, and return the original items to one of Aunt Josephine Sherrod’s direct descendants in Wilson. (And, of course, share the highlights with you!)

Josephine Artis Sherrod (1887-1988), probably 1950s.

My deep gratitude goes to Rita Elsner, who followed her gut to save these priceless documents and then to track down someone connected to them and preserve them from further damage by drying them carefully and placing them in archival sleeves. Her stewardship is exemplary.

She look at a hog.

My mother’s first job after she married and moved to Wilson was as a teacher at North Greene Elementary, a small segregated school fifteen miles southeast in tiny Walstonburg. She carpooled to and from Wilson with several other teachers who worked in Greene County, and in the spring of 1964 was pregnant with me, her firstborn. My mother generally rode in the backseat and, on this particular day, Dora Dickerson was back there with her. As they passed a farm, my mother, a city girl, exclaimed, “Ohhh! Look over there at those pigs!” Ms. Dickerson slapped her hand across my mother’s eyes. “Girl! Don’t look at that! You can’t look at pigs when you’re expecting!”

I have been hearing this story since I was a little girl, and my mother and I never fail to get a good laugh from it. The danger she faced, however, was real to many, as shown on this 1921 death certificate. Though baby John Moore was stillborn in Nahunta township, Wayne County, his parents James and Mamie Moore were from neighboring Wilson County. Midwife Cassie Exum Sherrod, who spent her life in Wayne and Wilson Counties in the Watery Branch area, attended the delivery. Though not a doctor, Sherrod completed the newborn’s Medical Certificate of Death. In her opinion, Mamie Moore’s own carelessness had caused her baby’s death: “She look at a hog an had not of look at him he might of been living to day.”

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“She look at a hog an had not of look at him he might of been living to day.”

Hat tip to Suzannah McCuen.