tenant farmer

Dew children perish in fire.

Wilson Daily Times, 19 December 1911.

It is difficult to know what to take away from this erratum. Unfortunately, the previous day’s paper is not available for details of the Dew children’s tragedy.


  • Oscar Dew — in the 1910 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: farmer Oscar Dew, 32; wife Annie, 24, farm laborer; children George F., 2, and Bettie M., 5 months; sister-in-law Fannie Strickland, 26, widow, farm laborer; and “sister-in-law son” Sydney Woodard, 10, farm laborer. In the 1920 census, Oscar and Annie Dew’s children were George F., 12, Annie Bell, 5, Rita Bell, 2, and James Arthur, 5 months. Presumably, the children killed in the fire were Bettie and a child born after the 1910 census was taken.
  • Nora Woodard — most likely: in the 1900 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: farmer Alfred Woodard, 69; wife Sarah, 59; daughters Nora, 21, and Francis, 17; and servant Bessa Foard, 19. [It appears that Alfred Woodard died 1900-10 — did Nora inherit farmland from him?] In the 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Woodard Norah (c) h s of Cemetery rd nr A C L Ry

Typical tenant farm house.

This early twentieth-century photo shows a typical tenant farm house with one or two rooms and a shed-roofed extension. Most African-American farmers in Wilson County were tenant farmers or sharecroppers and would have lived in a house similar to this one.

Photo courtesy of Stantonsburg Historical Society’s A History of Stantonsburg Circa 1780 to 1980 (1981).

Recommended reading, no. 7.

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. 

A sample:

“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.

Coley v. Artis: an introduction.

Though Coley v. Artis arose just over the county line in Wayne County’s Nahunta township, many of the men and women caught up in its scope had close links to Wilson County. The transcript of the trial proceeding is fascinating not only for its glimpses into their lives, but for the portrait it paints of a rural farming community that would have been immediately recognizable by anyone living just north of the line in Wilson County.

Detail, 1904 topographic map of Wilson Quadrangle, which includes northern Wayne County.

At the heart of Wayne County Superior Court proceedings stemming from the suit in J.F. Coley v. Tom Artis (1908) was a dispute over 30 acres of land. Thomas “Tom Pig” Artis began renting the property in 1881 from William J. Exum, a wealthy white farmer. In 1892, Exum’s widow Mary sold the land to Napoleon Hagans. In 1896, after Napoleon’s death, the land passed to his sons Henry and William S. Hagans and, in 1899, Henry sold his interest to his brother. In 1908, William S. Hagans sold the 30 acres to J. Frank Coley, a young white farmer. Tom Artis laid claim to the property, arguing that Napoleon Hagans had sold it to him. Tom claimed that the 800 pounds of cotton he yearly tendered to Napoleon Hagans (and later, his son William) was interest on a mortgage, but William Hagans and other witnesses maintained that the payment was rent. J.F. Coley filed suit and, after hearing the testimony of more than a dozen witnesses, the court decided in his favor.

The trial transcript is replete with testimony revealing the social and familial relationships among witnesses. Tom Artis testified that he rented the “Adam Artis place.” William Hagans testified that his father was in feeble health in 1896 when he called him and Henry together “under the cart shelter” to tell them he would not live long and did not know to whom the land would fall. William testified that Pole asked them to let “Pig” stay on as long as he paid rent, and they promised to do so. Tom Franks testified that “Pole was a first-rate business man.” Jonah Williams, Adam Artis’ brother, testified that he borrowed money from Napoleon to open a brickyard in the spring of 1893 and had preached his funeral. He also noted that “Tom married my sister [Loumiza Williams Artis].  He is not a member of my church. I turned him out. He is a Primitive Baptist. I preached Napoleon Hagans’ funeral.” Jesse Artis, another of Adam Artis’ brothers, testified that he had worked on Hagans’ property as a carpenter for 18 years and noted, “I don’t know that Tom and I are any kin, just by marriage.”  John Rountree testified that he was a tenant renting from Hagans on thirds. Simon Exum testified: “I am no kin to Tom [Artis] as far as I know, except by Adam.  His first wife was my wife [Delilah Artis Exum]’s sister.”  H.S. Reid testified that he was Tom Artis’ son-in-law.

Thomas Artis was a son of a free woman of color, Celia Artis, and her enslaved husband, Simon Pig. Though nearly all free colored Artises were descended from a common ancestor in southside Virginia, by the late 1800s clear understanding of their remote kinship links had faded. There were dozens of Artis families in Wayne County during the antebellum period, and the relationships between them are unknown. Celia Artis was a close neighbor of Adam Artis, but the families apparently did not regard themselves as kin. Still, they were inextricably intertwined. The Artises were also closely linked to other free families of color, including the Haganses and Reids, who had been neighbors in the Eureka area for generations. Celia Artis and Rhoda Reid — grandmother of Elijah L. Reid, J.D. Reid, and other Wilson residents — were the wealthiest free women of color in Wayne County. Adam Artis married Napoleon Hagans’ half-sister Frances Seaberry, whose father hailed from another free family of color. Another of Rhoda Reid’s grandsons, Henry S. Reid, married Tom Artis’ daughter. Henry’s first cousin Henry Reid married Adam Artis’ daughter Georgianna Artis. Adam Artis’ son William Marshall Artis and grandson Leslie Artis married Tom Artis’ nieces, Etta and Minnie Diggs. And on and on.

Documents found in file of the Estate of Thomas Artis (1911), Wayne County, North Carolina Estate Files, 1663-1979, familysearch.org


The death of Ben Summerlin.

Wilson Daily Times, 7 November 1932.

Ben Summerlin was 13 years old.

How that fact escaped the person who wrote this article, the person who described a boy as a “negro tenant farmer,” is inconceivable. Per his death certificate, Benjamin Summerlin was born 24 May 1919 in Wilson County to Benjamin Summerlin and Addaliza Rice. He died 5 November 1932. 


In the 1920 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Benjamin Sumerlin, 24; wife Pearl, 22; and sons Harvey, 4, and Benjamin, 6 months.

In the 1930 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: Analiza Sumerlin, 52, farmer, widow, and children Emma L., 18, Martha J., 15, Harry L., 16, and Bengiman, 10, all farm laborers. [It appears that Ben Summerlin’s death certificate contains a reporting error. Benjamin Summerlin was his father, but his mother was named Pearl. Annaliza Rice Summerlin was his (and Harvey Summerlin’s) grandmother.]

The death of John Henry Evans.

The cause of death on John Henry Evans‘ death certificate is fairly laconic: “brain injury due to auto accident.”

Newspaper accounts detail a more complicated story. About eight o’clock on the evening of April 11, Evans and J.D. O’Neal, on whose land he lived, were driving wagons to fertilizer to O’Neal’s farm near Lamm’s School [today, near the intersection of Interstate 95 and U.S. 264.] The men stopped on the shoulder of the road to talk to O’Neal’s brother. Both wagons were lit with lanterns. Erwin Stewart of Durham smashed into other wagons in a Graham truck and flipped over in a ditch. According to witnesses, Stewart’s truck had only one headlight working and had drifted partly on the shoulder of the road. The wagons were demolished, one mule was badly injured, and John Henry Evans was first thought dead. He was rushed to the “colored hospital.” As his death certificate notes, Evans lingered for five days before succumbing to injuries to his head.

Wilson Daily Times, 12 April 1929.

For all the carelessness hinted at in the initial report, a month later, Stewart was acquitted of a manslaughter charge in Evans’ death.

Wilson Daily Times, 17 May 1929.

Auction of the estate of Wiley Williams.

Wilson Daily Times, 30 June 1919.

Wiley Williams‘ wife Carrie died of post-influenza pneumonia when the flu pandemic swept through Wilson County in late 1918. Perhaps overwhelmed by grief, Williams took his own life seven months later. Nicodemus Patterson, from whom Williams had rented farmland, stepped in to arrange the sale of Williams’ belongings for the benefit of his three teenaged children.


On 8 March 1899, Wiley Williams, 21, of Wilson County, son of Harriett Williams, married Carrie Sessoms, 22, of Wilson County, daughter of Claude Sessoms, in Gardners township, Wilson County.

In the 1910 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: farmer Wiley Williams, 30; wife Carrie, 40; and children Arthur, 10, Ivor M., 7, and Lizzie, 4.

Wiley Williams registered for the World War I draft in 1918. Per his draft registration card, he was born 28 October 1878; lived at R.F.D. 4, Elm City; was a tenant farmer for Nick Patterson; and his nearest relative was wife Carrie Williams. He signed his name with an X.

Carrie Williams died 3 November 1918 in Toisnot township, Wilson County. Per her birth certificate, she was about 47 years old; was born to Claude and Betsy Sessoms; was married to Wiley Williams and was a farm laborer for N.D. Patterson. G.W. Williams was informant.

Wiley Williams died 11 June 1919 in Wilson township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was about 41 years old; was a widower; was born in Wilson County to Duck Barnes and Harritt Williams; and was a tenant farmer. G.W. Williams was informant.

On 16 June 1919, N.D. Patterson filed for letters of administration in Wiley Williams’ estate, identifying his heirs as Arthur V., Lizzie, and Ivah Williams, all minors, and valuing his estate at about $500.

Arthur Williams died 28 January 1928 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Per his death certificate, he was born 25 February 1900 in North Carolina to Wylie Williams and Carrie Session; was married to Della Williams; and worked as a laborer. Daughter Clementine Wormsley was informant.

Tornado blows off porch.

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Wilson Daily Times, 14 July 1911.

  • Reubin Ellis — probably, in the 1910 census of Stantonsburg township, Wilson County: on Stantonsburg Road, farmer Rheubin Ellis, 76; wife Clarkie Ellis, 72; daughters Henrietta, 23, Joemima, 22, and Cherrie Ellis, 19; and grandchildren Annie, 14, Ashley, 12, Rheubin, 11, and Lucy, 11 months. [Actually, grandchildren Ashley and Reuben’s surname was Simms.]