Zion Hall buys a lot.

Deed book 68, page 311, Wilson County Register of Deeds Office. 

On 2 January 1905, Orren and Hancy Best sold Caesar Moses and James Watson, trustees of Zion Hall No. 5952, Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, a 48 by 48-foot lot at the rear of their property “near the corporate limits of the Town of Wilson.” Orren and Hancy Best lived at the heart of Grabneck, and Zion Hall was one of at least eight African-American Odd Fellows lodges active in Wilson County in the early 20th century.

Smooth Jim Watson.

This article is fascinating both for its details of Jim Watson‘s medical condition and the sophisticated operation of his “blind tiger,” or illegal bar. A search of digitized newspapers found a little more about Watson’s exploits in Wilson, but nothing about how he wound up in a Richmond jail.

Wilson Times, 14 November 1911.

Watson first appears in available newspaper records on 24 May 1910, when the Times reported his acquittal on retailing (i.e. unlawfully selling liquor) charges.

Two weeks later, on June 7, the paper reported that Watson had again been charged with retailing.

On 13 September 1910, the Times reported that a hung jury had resulted in a mistrial on Watson’s retailing charges. He was again a free man.

On 30 June 1911, per the paper, Watson was fined $9.50 on a reckless driving charge.

In September 1911, a man (presumably, an informant) entered Watson’s store and asked to buy whiskey. Watson pulled a pistol and said, “This is the strongest thing in the house.” The man reported Watson to the police, who charged him with carrying a concealed weapon. His defense: he was in his own place of business, and the gun was not concealed. Verdict: not guilty.

On October 23, William Anderson, allegedly a trusted friend, went into Watson’s place and put down two quarters for a pint of whiskey. Watson purportedly sold him a half-pint, which Anderson took outside to share with his pals. A police officer swooped in and, after some pressure, Anderson admitted he’d bought the liquor from Watson. 

The Daily Times‘ coverage led with a reference to Jim Watson’s physical condition. While locked up in the Richmond (Virginia, presumably) jail, Watson allegedly had slit his own throat. As a result, he now breathed through a tube inserted in his windpipe, an astonishing example of an effective, long-term tracheotomy in an era in which surgery was still relatively crude, and antibiotics were nonexistent. It was also, apparently, Watson’s super-power.

Then, a description of Jim Watson’s set-up. In Watson’s otherwise legitimate restaurant, he raised a curtain in a corner. A customer would lay down his (maybe occasionally her) money, and a trusted accomplice would disappear behind the curtain and return with the liquor. No one other than Watson’s confederates saw Watson handle the goods, and they were allowed entry only one at a time. 

As Jim Watson’s trial neared, things got busy for him and his “systematic coterie of dispensers of the ardent.” Watson’s wife Cyndia Watson was arrested after slashing at Coot Robbins with a knife. Notwithstanding, Robbins joined Junius Peacock and Mark Sharpe on a visit to the police station to seek her release, unsuccessfully. Later, a mysterious hack appeared at the chief of police’s home, and an unseen man yelled threats and imprecations if his wife were not released. Robbins admitted to the police that he driven a man to the house, but claimed he did not know him and the man had only politely inquired after Chief Glover. 

This incident seems to have exhausted the paper’s patience (and even admiration) for this “touch character.”

Wilson Times, 12 December 1911.

Watson’s day in court came on December 21, and he was finally convicted. The principal witness against him was his former friend Will Anderson, “a notorious negro of Georgia and a murdered who served then years on the chain gang of that state.” For his efforts, Anderson, too, was convicted of retailing. The paper noted with satisfaction that there were several more charges pending against Watson, and his attorney was expected to advise him to throw himself at the mercy of the court.

Wilson Times, 22 December 1911.

However, as the same edition sourly noted, court had adjourned unexpectedly due the judge’s family emergency. “… Jim Watson, … convicted but unsentenced, remains out on bond, and will probably have a good time during the holidays supplying his friends with blind tiger booze.”

The obituary of Pink Watson.

Wilson Daily Times, __ June 1920.


On 18 May 1904, Pink Watson, 26, of Toisnot township, son of Ned and Fannie Watson, married Alice Batts, 20, of Toisnot township, daughter of Gandy and Emily Batts, at Gandy Batts’ in Toisnot.

In the 1910 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: John Watson, 29, tenant farmer; wife Alice, 23; and children Annie, 3, and Festus, 4 months.

In 1918, Pink Watson registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his draft registration card, he was born 15 July 1879; lived at R.F.D. #5, Wilson; was a “cropper farmer” for Pete Batts; and his contact was wife Alice Watson. He signed his card with an X.

In the 1920 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: on Rocky Mount-Wilbanks Road, Pink Watson, 39; wife Alice, 35; and children Annie, 12, Lester, 10, Laura, 7, Annie Lee, 8, Gertie, 6, and Henry, 4.

Pink Watson died 16 June 1920 in Wilson township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was 40 years old; was born in Johnston County, N.C., to Fannie Graham of Elm City, N.C.; was married to Alice Watson; and worked as a farmer. Emily Batts was informant.

The obituary of Annie Grant Watson.

Wilson Daily Times, 6 April 1915.

Though “well known” and “old,” record of Annie Grant Watson‘s life is surprisingly difficult to find.


Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

With his willing strength he bore her gently into the house.

This notice of the events surrounding the death of Eliza Lewis, a hard-working farm wife in Old Fields township, includes details of the actions of her African-American neighbor, Essec C. Watson, to assist the stricken woman and her family. (You will note that, though praised, Watson is not given the honorific “Mr.” and is referred to by his first name later in the piece.)

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Wilson Times, 18 November 1910.


Esec Watson, 21, of Springhill township, son of Mary Stancil, married Mary Ann Locust, 18, of Old Fields township, daughter of John and Millie Locust, on 5 May 1895 at Jno. P. Locust’s residence.

In the 1900 census of Smithfield township, Johnston County: school teacher E.C. Watson, 34; wife Mary, 25; and children Laurena, 8, Pieneta, 5, Rica, 4, and Sister, 5 months.

In the 1910 census of Old Fields township, Wilson County: farmer Esic C. Watson, 34; wife Mary, 32; children Pieneta, 14, Eureka, 12, Ila, 10, Ola, 8, and Edgar, 6; and hired man Cordie Lucas, 26.

On 24 November 1912, Peter Jones, 21, of Nash County, married Nettie Watson, 18, of Old Fields township, Wilson County, in Wilson County.

On 20 December 1914, Miley Bailey, 22, of Old Fields township, son of Will Hart and Polly Bailey, married Ila Watson, 18, of Old Fields, daughter of Essec and Mary Watson at Original Free Will Baptist minister B.H. Boykin’s place.

On 21 March 1915, Edmund Earp, 18, of Old Fields township, son of W.G. and Lucy Earp, married Ricker Watson, 17, of Old Fields, daughter of Essec and Mary Watson at  S.T. Boykin’s place.

On 23 January 1916, Walter Robinson, 21, of Old Fields township, son of Bill and Sissie Robinson, married Ola Watson, 16, of Old Fields, daughter of Essec and Mary Watson at Original Free Will Baptist minister B.H. Boykin’s place.

Pinettie Jones died 19 December 1973 in Norfolk, Virginia. Per her death certificate, she was born 26 July 1895 in North Carolina to Esse Watson and Mary [last name unknown], and was the widow of James P. Jones. Christine Shoulders was informant.


“Is Mama dead? Let me know at once.”

In this interview, Hattie Henderson Ricks (1910-2001) spoke of how she received news of the sudden death of her great-aunt, who was also her adoptive mother:

“Mama didn’t know she had a bad heart until two weeks before she died.  She was always sick, sick all the time.  She’d go to the doctor, and the doctor would tell her it was indigestion and for her not to eat no pork and different things she couldn’t eat.  ‘Cause Mama was fat.  She weighed 200.  She wasn’t too short.  She was just broad.  Well, she was five-feet-four, I think.  Something like that.


Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver, circa 1931.

“And so, but she loved pork, and she’d try to eat some anyhow ‘cause we always had a hog, growing up.  All the time.  So after they said she couldn’t, she tried not to eat no pork, much.  Fish and chicken, we eat it all the time.  But she was so tired of chicken until she didn’t know what to do.  And I was, too. But Papa loved all pork, so he’d always get a whole half a shoulder or a ham or something and cook it, and she’d eat some.  But when she went to the doctor, and her pressure was up so high, and he told her, ‘By all means, don’t you eat no pork.  It’s dangerous to eat pork when your pressure is too high.’ And then that’s when she stopped eating pork.

“Well, it didn’t help none, I don’t reckon. She had that little bag.  A little basket.  A little, old basket ‘bout that tall with a handle on it.  She had all kinds of medicine in there to take. She was going up to Mamie’s, and Mr. Silver told her, said, ‘Well, you just take your medicine bag.’  She’d been married to him a good while.  He said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t go up there by yourself. Since I’m down here—’  See, she’d go up and stay with him a little while, and then he’d come back to Wilson and stay a while.  So he said, ‘You just take your little basket there with your medicine in it.’  So, he said, ‘Well, I’ll go with you up there and then I’ll come back on to Enfield.’  So he went with her down there to the station.  He was picking up the bags to go up there, told her to walk on up to the station and wait for the train.  And he got a cab — C.E. Artis. Not C.E. Artis, not undertaker Artis but a Artis that drove a cab. This was another set of Artises.

“So, she went up there to the station in Wilson and got on the train. And she’d done told me to send her insurance and everything to Greensboro, ‘cause she won’t never coming back to Wilson no more.  Because she’d done seen, the Lord showed her if she stayed in Wilson, she wouldn’t live.  If she went ‘way from there, she could get well.  So she was going to Mamie’s.  And when she got off at Selma to change trains –- she’d just got to the station door.  And she collapsed right there.  And by happen they had a wheelchair, a luggage thing or something.  The guy out there, he got to her, and he called the coroner or somebody, but he was some time getting there.  But anyway, they picked her up and sat her in the wheelchair.  They didn’t want her to be out ‘cause everybody was out looking and carrying on, so they just pushed her ‘round there to the baggage room.

“And so when the coroner got there, he said, ‘This woman’s dead.’  So they called Albert Gay, and he was working for Artis then.  Undertaker Artis.  And Jimbo Barnes.  And called them and told them that she was dead.  So, Mr. Silver couldn’t even tell them who to notify.  He had Mamie living in Thelma, North Carolina, on McCullough Street, but didn’t know what the number of the house was. He was so upset.  So they had to call the police for the police to go find Mamie Holt.  On McCullough Street.  And her mother, they said, her mother died.  Well, she did die.  But they said it was, I think, Thelma.  Not Selma, but Thelma.  ‘Well, where is Thelma?  It can’t be my mother. ‘Cause my mother don’t live in no Thelma.  I never heard of that place.  She live in Wilson.’  But, see, it was Selma.  They got it wrong.

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Selma Union Depot today, Selma, North Carolina

“So then Mamie went down to Smitty’s house and had Miss Smitty send a telegram to me.  On the phone.  Charge it to her bill, and she’d pay her: ‘IS MAMA DEAD LET ME KNOW AT ONCE’  She asked me if Mama was dead.  And when I got that telegram, Annie Miriam and all them, a bunch of kids was out there on the porch, and so at that time, Jimbo or one of ‘em come up.  And when I saw them, I knowed something.  I had just got the telegram.  Hadn’t even really got time to read it. And he said, ‘Well, you done got the news.’  And I said, ‘The news?  Well, I got a old, crazy telegram here from my sister, asking me is Mama dead, let her know at once.’  He said, ‘Yeah, we just, we brought her back from Selma.’  I said, ‘What in the – ‘  Well, I went to crying.  And Albert Gay or some of the children was ‘round there, and they was running. Everybody in the whole street almost was out in the yard – the children got the news and gone!  That Mama had dropped dead in Selma.  So I said, well, by getting that telegram, I said, that’s what threw me, honey.  I wasn’t ready for that. I’d been saying I reckon Mamie’ll think Mama was a ghost when she come walking in there tonight. Not knowing she was dead right at the same time.”


  • Mamie — Mamie Henderson Holt, sister of Hattie Henderson Ricks.
  • Mr. Silver — Rev. Joseph Silver Sr. helped establish the Holiness denomination in eastern North Carolina, founding Plumbline United Holy Church in Halifax County in 1893. Rev. Silver married Sarah Henderson Jacobs, herself an evangelist, in Wilson on 31 August 1933. The couple alternated between his home in Enfield and hers in Wilson.

  • C.E. Artis — Columbus E. Artis.
  • Jimbo Barnes — probably James “Jimbo” Watson Jr., whose 30 November 1974 obituary in the Wilson Daily Times noted that he was a former Artis Funeral Home employee.
  • Albert Gay — Albert S. Gay Jr., son of Albert and Annie Bell Jacobs Gay and grandson of Sarah Silver’s first husband Jesse A. Jacobs.
  • Annie Miriam — Annie Marian Gay, daughter of Albert and Annie Bell Jacobs Gay.

Interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved; photo of Sarah H.J. Silver in personal collection of Lisa Y. Henderson; photo of Rev. Silver courtesy of Ancestry.com user lexxee52.

1008 Carolina Street.

The eighty-second 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 East Wilson Historic District: “circa 1930; 1 story; bungalow with gable roof and double-pile plan.”


In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1008 Carolina Street, paying $20/month rent, widow Ella Barnes, 72; her daughter Lucy Watson, 48, laundress; son-in-law James Watson, 46, farm laborer; grandchildren Sylvester, 23, taxi chauffeur, Margrette, 20, James, 19, dairy laborer, and Pauline Watson, 14; and lodger James H. Barnes, 19, drugstore clerk.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1008 Carolina Street, paying $14/month rent, widow Hattie Winstead, 60, laundress, born in Fayetteville; her son Edward, 19, tobacco factory laborer, born in Nash County; and her daughter Edna Lewis, 18, cook, born in Saratoga. Also, paying $7/month rent, tobacco factory driver Frank J. Ward, 23; wife Louise, 19, tobacco factory stemmer, and daughter Martha, 4.

In the 1941 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Graham Henry (c; Alice) cook County Tuberculosis Sanatorium h 1008 Carolina

In the 1947 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Graham Henry (c; Alice) h 1008 Carolina

Photograph by Lisa Y. Henderson, October 2018.




Studio shots, no. 72: Virginia Sharp Pendergrass.

Virginia Sharp Pendergrass (1915-1948).

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 417 Railroad Street, widowed tobacco factory worker Mary Watson, 36, and children Willie, 12, Virginia, 6, Charlie, 4, and Martha, 16.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1113 Woodard Street, tobacco factory stemmer Mary Watson 34, divorced; with children Willie, 18, tobacco factory laborer, Virginia, 17, Charlie, 14, and granddaughter Dorothy, 22 months.

On 17 February 1934, Virginia Watson, 21, of Wilson, daughter of Herbert Watson and Mary Pool, married Leland Pendergrass, 24, of Lake City, South Carolina, son of Rodis Pendergrass and Ella Fulton, in Greensville County, Virginia.

In the 1940 census of Sharpsburg, Rocky Mount township, Nash County: on ACL railroad, Leland Pendergrass, 24, section laborer for railroad company; wife Virginia, 27, hand stemmer at tobacco factory; and children Dorothy, 11, and Robert, 2.

In 1940, Leland Pendergrass registered for the World War II draft in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Per his registration card, he was born 127 March 1905 in Kingstree, South Carolina; was married to Virginia Pendergrass; lived in Sharpsburg; and worked at the Atlantic Coastline Shops, Sharpsburg.

Virginia Sharp Pendergrass died 5 November 1948 in Rocky Mount, Nash County. Per her death certificate, she was born 13 June 1915 in Wilson to Walter Sharp and Mary Poole of Wilson County; was married to Leland Pendergrass; and was buried in Rountree cemetery, Wilson.

Photograph courtesy of Ancestry.com user scottywms60.

Studio shots, no. 71: Mary Poole Watson.

Mary Poole Watson (ca. 1888-1973).

Dempsey Pool married Gracie Bynum on 24 December 1874 in Edgecombe County.

In the 1880 census of Lower Town Creek township, Edgecombe County: laborer Dempsy Pool, 30; wife Gracy, 25; and children James, 30, Easter, 2, and Dempsey, 1.

In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: farmer Dempsey Poole, 50; wife Gracy, 45; and children Easter, 22, Elizebeth, 20, Dempsey Jr., 18, Charlie, 17, Annie, 14, Ella, 13, Mary, 11, Alice, 9, Haly, 8, Minnie, 5, and Richard, 2.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 417 Railroad Street, widowed tobacco factory worker Mary Watson, 36, and children Willie, 12, Virginia, 6, Charlie, 4, and Martha, 16.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1113 Woodard Street, tobacco factory stemmer Mary Watson 34, divorced; with children Willie, 18, tobacco factory laborer, Virginia, 17, Charlie, 14, and granddaughter Dorothy, 22 months.

Gracie Poole died 4 March 1939 in Wilson township. Per her death certificate, she was a widow; was 69 years old; was born in Edgecombe County to James Bynum and Rhodia Bynum; and was a farmer. Annie Knight, Route 1, Wilson, was informant.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Mary Watson, 42, tobacco factory laborer, and children Charlie, 21, Robert (adopted), 2, and Willie, 23, tobacco factory laborer.

In 1940, Charlie Watson registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he lived at 413 Murray [Maury] Street; was born 8 November 1914 in Wilson; his contact was mother Mary Watson, 413 Murray [Maury]; and he worked for his mother as a cook.

Mary Poole Watson died 4 June 1973 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 10 May 1892 to Grace Poole; was a widow; resided at 413 Maury Street; and was a tobacco worker. Informant was Charlie Watson, 411 Maury.

Photograph courtesy of Ancestry.com user scottywms60.

A systemic coterie of dispensers of the ardent; or, his dive is a tough place.

Another blind tiger makes the news:


Wilson Daily Times, 12 December 1911.

  • Jim Watson
  • Cyndia Watson
  • Coot Robbins — on 18 March 1912, Coot Robbins, 29, married Hennie Harris, 27, in Wilson.
  • Junius Peacock — in the 1912 Wilson city directory: Peacock Junius cook h[ome] Chestnut
  • Mark Sharpe — likely, in the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Nash Road, tobacco factory laborer Mack Sharpe, 43, wife Katie, 29, and children Harvey, 12, Willard C., 10, Earnest, 8, Samson, 6, Nellie B., 3, and Elexander, 1. In the 1912 Wilson city directory: Savage Mack butler h[ome w Nash ne Lucas av