The Local History Room of Wilson County Public Library’s Main Branch holds a copy of Daisy Hendley Gold’s typewritten manuscript, “A Town Named Wilson,” published in 1949. It doesn’t have anything to say about African-Americans except this:
“Evidence of prosperity and the possession of cash money was found in the large number of slave owners in Wilson town and county. This was the period when this area was one of the great ‘black’ sections of the state.
“In 1855 William Daniel was prosperous enough to pay Amos Horne the following substantial sums for slaves: $875 for slave Harry, 19 years; $875 for Alfred, 18; $800 for Oney, 17; $675 for Gray, 14.
“In the same year John Harper who lived near Wilson left three slaves, Jason, Lettice and Martha, in trust with General Joshua Barnes for the ‘sole and separate use and benefit of Mary Harper.'”
These are the opening paragraphs of a statement issued a few days ago by Kelly King, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Truist Bank, acknowledging the institution’s ties to slavery. Truist was formed in December 2019 from the merger of banking giants SunTrust and BB&T. BB&T — Branch Banking and Trust — was born in Wilson in 1872.
The tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and too many others before them have caused our nation to come face-to-face with its history of systemic racism. The structural racial injustices that have been levied against African Americans were born from a terrible national legacy – slavery. We’ll never be able to adequately right the wrongs of the past, but it’s our obligation as leaders in the business community to publicly and passionately condemn these injustices with greater commitment, focus and energy.
This national discussion also has created a great deal of introspection here at Truist. As we work toward building a more equitable society, we must consider our own past and acknowledge the role our heritage companies played over 100 years ago to perpetuate the atrocity of slavery and the repression of enslaved people, leading to systemic disadvantages their descendants have endured for generations. This includes our early institutions, which had close ties to industries of that era that profited from slavery. We deeply regret and denounce these shameful aspects of our history, both known and unknown.
King’s gesture on behalf of Truist is nice one but, in focusing on the bank’s actions “over 100 years ago,” he stops short of laying bare and claiming ownership of the role BB&T played throughout the whole of the twentieth century in creating and supporting “systemic disadvantages” for African-Americans. In other words, profiting on the backs of black people and shutting them out of places and positions of power started with slavery, but did not end there.
Instead, the mea culpa moves on to back-patting:
While this acknowledgement of our early history is difficult, our organization has also demonstrated a sincere commitment through the years to affect positive change and stand for equity in the communities where we live and work.
Cue bullet points.
King’s memo is light on what he is actually apologizing for. BB&T corporate publication “Our account: A history of BB&T” — last updated in 2012 and in desperate need of a hard, new look — offers clues to the company’s official framing of its roots: “when hostilities ended in 1865 and the South was forced to accept defeat, the farmers-turned-soldiers returned home and found their property destroyed, livestock gone, tools and equipment either ruined or lost, and their money worthless.” “The world that they had left their homes to defend existed no longer. The world to which they returned was chaotic and was to remain so for several years.” “… [T]he state faced a broken economy with corruption in government, and when help seemed to come from no quarter, North Carolinians turned to each other for aid.” Into the breach of Radical Reconstruction, the story goes, stepped Alpheus Branch and Thomas J. Hadley, both Confederate veterans and the sons of wealthy former slaveowners.
You can read the rest of “Our Account” for yourself, but don’t expect to find anything in it about structural racism. Branch and Hadley lent money to struggling farmers and merchants in Wilson County. Able to borrow money at reasonable interest rates, farmers moved into the cash economy, planting cotton and, beginning in the 1880s, bright-leaf tobacco, a crop that would pour money into pockets across the county. An acknowledgment — beyond the performative — of the “shameful aspects” of BB&T’s history would require an admission that “farmers and merchants” did not include African-Americans, and an examination of the ways that BB&T served, or did not serve, this group embodied and perpetuated injustice. However, per the 3 July 2020 Charlotte Observer, Chairman “King said … a full inquiry of the bank’s past was unlikely.”
Alpheus P. Branch (1843-1893) — Branch’s father Samuel W. Branch listed 38 enslaved African-Americans in the 1860 slave schedule of Halifax County, North Carolina. Branch fought for the Confederacy as a member of the Scotland Neck Mounted Riflemen, 3rd N.C. Cavalry. In 1865, Branch married Nannie Barnes, daughter of Joshua Barnes (who would become a charter member of an early iteration of BB&T.) Barnes is styled the “Father of Wilson County.” He was also a committed owner of one of the largest groups of enslaved African-Americans in Wilson County.
Thomas J. Hadley (1838-1917) — Hadley’s father Thomas Hadley listed 37 enslaved African-Americans in the 1860 slave schedule of Wilson County. Hadley rose to captain in Company A, 55th N.C. Infantry.
Many thanks to Brian D. Dalton and Linda Clark Parks for bringing Truist’s statement to my attention.
We traveled this weekend to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit Equal Justice Initiative’s recently opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum. The Memorial is “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”
“The memorial structure on the center of the site is constructed of over 800 corten steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns.”
I wandered beneath the monuments, which hang from the rafters like the broken bodies of the men and women whose deaths they commemorate, searching for Wilson County. I turned each corner with a rising sense of anxiety until there, among the final stelae:
However, “the memorial is more than a static monument. In the six-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.”
Wilson County, here is yours. Come get it.
For more about the Memorial and Museum, please click here and here. And until such time as you can make your way to Alabama, please consider a donation to support EJI’s work “to challenge poverty and racial injustice, advocate for equal treatment in the criminal justice system, and create hope for marginalized communities.”
“… and O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck, put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs you got to love them. The dark, dark liver — love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts. Hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”
Martha Tyson Dixon‘s husband Luke D. Dixon consented to a Federal Writers Project interview, too. His story, starting with his Africa-born grandparents, is electric.
“My father’s owner was Jim Dixon in Elmo County, Virginia. That is where I was born. I am 81 years old. Jim Dixon had several boys — Baldwin and Joe. Joe took some of the slaves his pa gave him, and went to New Mexico to shun the war. Uncle and Pa went in the war as waiters. They went in at the ending up. We lived on the big road that run to the Atlantic Ocean. Not far from Richmond. Ma lived three or four miles from Pa. She lived across big creek — now they call it Farrohs Run. Ma belonged to Harper Williams. Pa’s folks was very good but Ma’s folks was unpleasant.
“Ma lived to be 103 years old. Pa died in 1905 and was 105 years old. I used to set on Grandma’s lap and she told me about how they used to catch people in Africa. They herded them up like cattle and put them in stalls and brought them on the ship and sold them. She said some they captured they left bound till they come back and sometimes they never went back to get them. They died. They had room in the stalls on the boat to set down or lie down. They put several together. Put the men to themselves and the women to themselves. When they sold Grandma and Grandpa at a fishing dock called New Port, Va., they had their feet bound down and their hands bound crossed, up on a platform. They sold Grandma’s daughter to somebody in
“Texas. She cried and she begged to let them be together. They didn’t pay no ‘tension to her. She couldn’t talk but she made them know she didn’t want to be parted. Six years after slavery they got together. When a boat was to come in people come and wait to buy slaves. They had several days of selling. I never seen this but that is the way it was told to me.
“The white folks had a iron clip that fastened the thumbs together and they would swing the man or woman up in a tree and whoop them. I seen that done in Virginia across from where I lived. I don’t know what the folks had done. They pulled the man up with block and tackle.
“Another thing I seen done was put three or four chinquapin switches together green, twist them and dry them. They would dry like a leather whip. They whooped the slaves with them.
“Grandpa was named Sam Abraham and Phillis Abraham was his mate. They was sold twice. Once she was sold away from her husband to a speculator. Well, it was hard on the Africans to be treated like animals. I never heard of the Nat Turner rebellion. I have heard of slaves buying their own freedom. I don’t know how it was done. I have heard of folks being helped to run off. Grandma on mother’s side had a brother run off from Dalton, Mississippi to the North. After the war he come to Virginia.
“When freedom was declared we left and went to Wilmington and Wilson, North Carolina. Dixon never told us we was free but at the end of the year he gave my father a gray mule he had ploughed for a long time and part of the crop. My mother jes
“picked us up and left her folks now. She was cooking then I recollect. Folks jes went wild when they got turned loose.
“My parents was first married under a twenty five cents license law in Virginia. After freedom they was remarried under a new law and the license cost more but I forgot how much. They had fourteen children to my knowing. After the war you could register under any name you give yourself. My father went by the name of Right Dixon and my mother Jilly Dixon.
“The Ku Klux was bad. They was a band of land owners what took the law in hand. I was a boy. I scared to be caught out. They took the place of pattyrollers before freedom.
“I never went to public school but two days in my life. I went to night school and paid Mr. J.C. Price and Mr. S.H. Vick to teach me. My father got his leg shot off and I had to work. It kept me out of meanness. Work and that woman has kept me right. I come to Arkansas, brought my wife and one child, April 5, 1889. We come from Wilson, North Carolina. Her people come from North Carolina and Moultrie, Georgia.
“I do vote. I sell eggs or a little something and keep my taxes paid up. It look like I’m the kind of folks the government would help — them that works and tries hard to have something — but seems like they don’t get no help. They wouldn’t help me if I was bout to starve. I vote a Republican ticket.”
NOTE: On the wall in the dining room, used as a sitting room, was framed picture of Booker T. Washington and Teddy Roosevelt sitting at a round-shaped hotel dining table ready to be
“served. Underneath the picture in large print was “Equality.” I didn’t appear to ever see the picture.
This negro is well-fixed for living at home. He is large and very black, but his wife is a light mulatto with curly, nearly straightened hair.
This is the image that Luke Dixon’s interviewer so studiously ignored. The event it depicted, which scandalized white America in 1901, is the subject of Deborah Davis’ recent book, Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Teddy Roosevelt and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation (2012).
I have not found Luke Dixon or his parents in the censuses of Virginia. There is no “Elmo County,” Virginia, but New Port may have been Newport News, which was little more than a fishing village in the antebellum era.
Dixon apparently attended night school at Wilson Academy, but it is not clear when. Joseph C. Price headed the school from 1871 to 1873, when Samuel H. Vick was just a child. Vick assumed the helm at age 21 after graduating from Lincoln University.
N.B.: Wilson County was formed in 1855 from parts of Edgecombe, Johnston, Nash and Wayne Counties. At the time this ad was published, the town of Stantonsburg was in extreme southern Edgecombe County, very close to Wayne.
To the worshipful Court of Pleas & Quarter Sessions of Wilson County January Term A.D. 1864
In obedience to an order of the Worshipful Court of Pleas & Quarter Sessions issuing from October Term A.D. 1863 to us directed me J.M. Taylor Willis Deans & Stephen D. Boykin the commissioners in the said order named have on this the 4th day of January A.D. 1864 proceeded to divide the slaves named in the order between Isaac Williamson & Eli Williamson the petitioner therein named & to allot to each is share in severalty. We have allotted & assigned to Eli Williamson the slaves Reuben, Margaret & her child Riney, Hittie & Elias; and to Isaac Williamson the slaves Harry, Jacob, Priscilla and Wesley and assigned to each of them the said slaves in severalty.
In making the division as above we have allotted to Eli Williamson two hundred dollars in money out of the share of Isaac Williamson to make the division equal.
Eli and Isaac Williamson were the youngest children of Isaac Williamson (1804-1855). The enslaved people subjected to this division probably represented their share of the elder Isaac’s estate, distributed as they reached adulthood.
This household, listed in the 1870 census of Oldfields township, Wilson County, may show some of the people listed above, newly freed. Elias Williamson is probably the boy distributed to Eli Williamson, Margaret Baker may be the Margaret given to Eli, and Priscilla and Wesley Baker may be the children given to Isaac.
Records of Slaves and Free People of Color, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives.
Transcript of the six pages of Jim Ellis Dew‘s Confederate soldier’s pension application:
SOLDIER’S APPLICATION FOR PENSION
STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA, COUNTY OF WILSON
On this 24 day of Sept., A.D. 1932, personally appeared before me, M.D. Owens, C.S.C. in and for the State and County aforesaid, Jim Ellis Dew, col., age 94 years, and a resident at Wilson postoffice, in said County and State, and who, being duly sworn, makes the following declaration in order to obtain the pension under the provisions of an act entitled “An Act to amend and consolidate the pension laws of the State of North Carolina,” ratified March 8, 1821: That he is the identical Body Servant who enlisted in Co. ____, ____ Reg., N.C. State Troops, on or about the ____ day of ____, 1861, to serve in the armies of the late Confederate States, and that whole in said service at Wilmington, in the State of N.C., on or about the ____ day of July 1862, he received a wound or wounds, etc.
He further states that he is, and has been for twelve months immediately preceding this Application for Pension, a bona fide resident of North Carolina;
That he holds no office under the United States, or under any State or County for which he is receiving the sum of three hundred dollars as fees or as salary annually;
That he is not worth in his own right, or the right of his wife, property at its assessed value for taxation to the amount of two thousand dollars ($2,000), nor has he disposed of property of such value by gift or voluntary conveyance since the 11th of March 1885;
And that he is not now receiving any aid from the State of North Carolina or under any other statute providing for the relief of the maimed and blind soldiers of this or any other State.
Sworn and subscribed to before me, this 24 day of Sept., 1932. /s/ Jim X Ellis Dew /s/ M.D. Owens, C.S.C.
Also personally appeared before me N.L. Stott, who resided at Simms N.C. postoffice in said County and State, a person whom I know to be respectable and entitled to credit and being by me duly sworn, says he is acquainted with Jim Ellis Dew, the applicant for pension, and has every reason to believe that he is the identical person he represents himself to be, and that the facts set forth in this affidavit are correct, to the best of his knowledge and belief, and that he has no interest, direct or indirect, in this claim.
Sworn and subscribed to before me, this 29 day of Sept., 1932. /s/ N.L. Stott, Witness /s/ M.D. Owens, C.S.C.
North Carolina, Wilson County
To the Pension Board of Wilson County:
I, N.L. Stott, being duly sworn, deposes and says: I have been a resident a resident of Wilson County for seventy two years, and have known Jim Ellis Dew (col) for twenty five years; that the said Jim Ellis Dew has lived on my farm for the past twelve or thirteen years, and I am satisfied that the said Jim Ellis Dew is the same darkey that served in the Civil War in the stead of Jonathan Dew at Wilmington, NC as stated in his application to the Pension Board; that he served under Captains White, Medlin and Sweetman, and that his wound was received while in service in or near Wilmington, NC. I further certify that in my opinion this old darkey should have been receiving a pension ever since the Penstion Act was created.
This Sept. 29, 1932. /s/ N.L. Stott
Sworn and subscribed to before me, this the 29th Day of September, /s/ M.D. Owens, Clerk of Superior Court, Wilson County
North Carolina, Wilson County
C.G. Davis and J.W. Burnett, each being duly sworn, deposes and says: That he has known Jim Ellis Dew for the last thirteen or fourteen years; that he is a darkey of good character and absolutely reliable and dependable; that he believes that the statements he makes in his application to the Pension Board for a pension are true; and in his opinion should have been receiving a pension ever since the Pension Act was created.
/s/ J.W. Burnett/s/ C.G. Davis
Sworn and subscribed to before me, this the 30 day of September, 1932. /s/ M.D. Owens, Clerk of Superior Court, Wilson County
I, Bruce O. Evans, a Notary Public, in and for the town of Wilson, Wilson County, N.C., do herewith set forth what I believe to be a true story as told to me by an old negro, age, above 90 years, who is known in this town by the names of “Jim Ellis” and “Jim Dew.”
I sent for Jim to come to my house one day this past summer in the hope that he could help me with tracing some old history. I asked him to relate to me his experience during the war and this is about what he told me, and about in the manner it was told:
“It was at the time we were making ‘sorgum’ that I was sent to the war. I belonged to my master Mr. Hickman Ellis who married a Miss Dew. You know missus, the white folks are not as strong as the n*ggers and Mr. Jonathan Dew, brother to my missus, was not very well, and they let him draw a man to go in his place and they drew me. I was sent to Fort Fisher and went to work throwing up breastworks. The Captain was Captain Sweetman. The men who had charge of us were a Mr. Whiting – I don’t know his first name – and a Mr. Afton Loftin. Our white folks were fired into by some Yankees. I was ‘chocking’ the wheel of the gun (meaning the cannon) when one the balls went into the barrel of our gun and burst it. I was thrown with a piece of the lever of the gun and almost fell into the ocean. A piece of the gun went into my leg and I have been a cripple ever since. We stayed on the island for while. After a while, I came home. While I was in the war I was known as Jim Dew, but when I came back from the war I was called by my old name “Jim Ellis” because I belonged to my missus.”
From the knowledge I have of the Dew family history and from questions answered by him, which in every way tallied with records I possessed, I believe this old man’s story. It was told to me without knowledge that I might one day relate this hoping to secure a pension for him, or without the knowledge that my father, who is a newspaper man might use it as a story of Civil War days. He says he is about 95 years and I also believe this.
I unhesitatingly recommend that he be considered as an applicant for a pension and that pension be allowed him.
(Miss) Bruce O. Evans, Notary Public
North Carolina, In the Superior Court. Wilson County Before the Clerk
To the Pension Board of Wilson County:
W.A. Dew, being duly sworn, says: that he is citizen of Wilson County and has been for fifty eight years; that he is a grand-nephew of Jonathan Dew; that a certain negro owned by Hickman Ellis served in the Confederate War in stead of Jonathan Dew.
This 27 day of August, 1932. /s/ W.A. Dew
Sworn and subscribed to before me, this the 27th Day of August,1932. /s/ M.D. Owens Clerk of Superior Court, Wilson Co.
Jim Ellis, age 84, is listed as a lodger in the household of George and Louisa Hasting in the 1930 census of Oldfields township, Wilson County.
Transcribed from North Carolina Confederate Soldiers and Widows Pension Applications, 1885-1953, http://www.familysearch.org. Originals at North Carolina State Archives.
Charles Rountree appears in the 1860 census of Wilson township, Wilson County, as a 27 year-old farmer. He is listed in the 1860 slave schedule as the owner of 8 slaves. There were several Jacob Barneses listed in the 1850 and 1860 censuses, and it is not clear which one was Willis‘ owner.
Document in Slave Records, Miscellaneous Records, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives.