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.
In the 1880 census of Lower Town Creek township, Edgecombe County: Albert Oates, 51; wife Bettie, 34; and children Charles, 13, Turner, 11, Adam, 9, and Willie, 3.
In the 1910 census of Cairo, Grady County, Georgia: city drayman Adams Oates, 37, and wife Emma, 35.
In the 1920 census of Cairo, Grady County, Georgia: sawmill laborer Adams Oates, 57, and wife Emma, 46.
Adam Oates died 7 February 1928 in Cairo, Georgia. Per his death certificate, he was an estimated 47 years old; was born in Wilson, N.C., to Albert Oates and Rebecca [maiden name not known]; worked as a laborer; and was buried in Cairo Cemetery.
In the 1880 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Bryant Bardin, 61, farm worker; wife Annise, 52; and children Francis, 15, William, 10, and Richard, 8.
William Barden died 6 May 1928 at Charity Hospital, Savannah, Georgia. Per his death certificate, he was born 15 June 1872 in Wilson, N.C., to Bryant Barden and an unnamed mother; worked as a farmer; and was buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery.
John Lynch and Noah Lynch (brothers)
In the 1870 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: brick maker Wyatt Lynch, 48, wife Nicey, 35, and children Harriet, 4, and John, 1.
In the 1880 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: on the south side of the Plank Road, widow Nicy Lynch, 40, children Harriot, 13, John, 11, Noah, 9, Sammy, 7, and Mary Wyatt, 3, with mother-in-law Nancy Lynch, 98.
On 12 January 1892, Noah Lynch married Mary A. Horne in Dodge County, Georgia.
In the 1910 census of Rawlings township, Dodge County, Georgia: farmer Noah Lynch, 40, born in North Carolina; wife Mary, 35; and children John, 18, odd jobs laborer, Noah Jr., 15, Hattie, 13, Rachel, 10, and George, 6.
In the 1920 census of Rawlings township, Dodge County, Georgia: farmer Noah Lynch, 50, born in N.C.; wife Mary, 48; son George, 20; daughter-in-law Cary, 16; son John, 25l daughter-in-law Pinkey, 23; and orphan Edgar Thomas, 12.
John Lynch died 5 March 1929 in Eastman, Dodge County, Georgia. Per his death certificate, he was born in 1869 in Wilson, N.C., to Wyatt Lynch and an unnamed mother; was married to Queen Lynch; and worked in farming. He was buried in Pleasant Hill cemetery, Dodge County. Noah Lynch was informant.
In the 1930 census of the Town of Eastman, Dodge County, Georgia: Noah Lynch, 60, born in N.C.; wife Mary, 53; daughters Hattie M., 26, and Rachel, 23; and granddaughter Hattie M. Jones, 7.
In the 1940 census of the Town of Eastman, Dodge County, Georgia: at 520 Sixth Street, Noah Lynch, 67, farmer, born in N.C.; wife Mary, 65, laundress; roomer Hattie M. Jones, 18; and granddaughter Johnnie M. Lynch, 1.
In the 1950 census of the Town of Eastman, Dodge County, Georgia: Noah Lynch, 78, born in N.C.; wife Mary, 76; and granddaughter Johnnie Mae Lynch, 11.
Noah Lynch, 78, died 2 December 1950 in Decatur, Georgia. Daughter Rachel Chatman was appointed temporary administrator.
In the 1920 census of Douglas, Coffee County, Georgia: at 615 Coffee Street, fertilizer factory worker Harvey Williams, 45, born in North Carolina, and wife Susan, 39, born in South Carolina.
Harvey Williams died 22 August 1928 in Douglas, Coffee County, Georgia. Per his death certificate, he was about 50 years old; was born in Wilson, N.C.; did public work; was married to Susan Williams; and was buried in Douglas Cemetery.
In the 1910 census of Militia District 58, Emanuel County, Georgia: on Wadley Southern Railroad, Willie Byrd, 28; wife Victoria, 18, born in South [sic] Carolina; and children Earnest, 6, Wiley Lee, 4, Ethel, 2, and Katie, 2 months.
In the 1920 census of the Town of Aline, Candler County, Georgia: farmer Willie Bird, 35; wife Sugar, 22; and children Ethel, 12, Ernie Lee, 14, Ernest, 16, Katie, 10, Lula, 7, and Willie, 3.
Victoria Bird died 13 March 1920 in Aline, Candler County, Georgia. Per her death certificate, she was 27 years old; was born in Wilson, N.C., to Willie Strickland and Silvie Binon; was married to Will Bird; and worked as a farmer. She was buried in New Life Cemetery. [Hillard Strickland, 21, married Silvia Bynum, 20, on 21 March 1879 in Wilson County.]
In this post adapted from my personal genealogy blog, http://www.scuffalong.com, I tell of my small adventure searching for Jonah Williams’ grave just north of Eureka, in far northeast Wayne County.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to get at it. GPS coordinates and satellite views showed the cemetery on private property way back from the road, without even a path to reach it. I took a chance, though, and pulled up in the driveway of the closest house. A wary, middle-aged white woman was settling an elderly woman into a car as I stepped out. I introduced myself and told her what I was looking for. “Goodness,” she said. “I remember a graveyard back up in the woods when I was child. You should ask my cousin J.”
Following her directions, I knocked on the house of a door perhaps a quarter-mile down Turner Swamp Road. J.S. answered with a quizzical, but friendly, greeting, and I repeated my quest. Minutes later, I was sitting in J.’s back room, waiting for him to change shoes and look for me some gloves and find the keys to his golf cart. We bounced along a farm path for several hundred yards, then followed the edge of the woods along a fallow field. Along the way, J. told me about his family’s long history on the land, and the small house and office, still standing, in which his forebears had lived. As we slowed to a stop, he cautioned me about the briers that we were going to have to fight through and pulled out some hand loppers to ease our path. The cemetery, he said, was there — in that bit of woods bulging out into the plowed-under field.
Google Maps aerial.
The view from the ground.
When they were children, J. and his cousins roamed these woods at play. Though only a few markers were now visible, he recalled dozens of graves on this hillock. Turner Swamp runs just on the other side of the tree line nearby. Without too much difficulty, we cut our way in and angled toward the single incongruity in this overgrown copse — a low iron fence surrounding a clutch of headstones. I made for the tallest one, a stone finger pointing heavenward through the brush. At its base:
ElderJonah Williams 1845-1915
At his side, wife Pleasant Battle Williams, with their children Clarissa, J.W., and Willie Williams nearby.
Pleasant wife of Jonah Williams Born Dec. 23, 1842 Died Apr. 13, 1912. She hath done what she could.
In Glimpses of Wayne County, North Carolina: An Architectural History, authors Pezzoni and Smith note that the largely forgotten graveyard was believed to hold the remains of members of the Reid family. This is quite possibly true as Reids have lived in this area from the early 1800s to the present. As I followed J. through the brush, and my eye grew accustomed to the contours of the ground beneath us, I could see evidence of thirty to forty graves, and there are likely many more. Had this been a church cemetery? Was Turner Swamp Baptist Church (or its predecessor) originally here, closer to the banks of the creek for which it is named? If this were once the Reid family’s graveyard — known 19th and early 20th century burial sites for this huge extended family are notably few — how had Jonah and his family come to be buried there?
Pleasant Williams’ headstone at left, and Jonah Williams’ obelisk at right. The winter woods of eastern North Carolina are quite green well into December.
I am indebted to J.S. for the warmth and generosity shown to a stranger who showed up unannounced at his doorstep on a chilly December day, asking about graveyards. I have been at the receiving end of many acts of kindness in my genealogical sleuthings, but his offer of time and interest and knowledge — and golfcart — are unparalleled.
Vicey Artis, a free woman of color, and Solomon Williams, an enslaved man, had eleven children together – Zilpha Artis Wilson, Adam Toussaint Artis, Jane Artis Artis, Loumiza Artis Artis, Charity Artis, Lewis Artis, Jonah Williams, Jethro Artis, Jesse Artis, Richard Artis, and Delilah Williams Exum — before they were able to marry legally. On 31 August 1866, they registered their 35-year cohabitation in Wayne County. Vicey died soon after, but Solomon lived until 1883. The document above, listing his and Vicey’s six surviving children and heirs of their deceased children, is found among Solomon Williams’ estate papers.
In the antebellum period, Vicey Artis and her children, who were apprenticed to Silas Bryant, lived in the Artis Town area of Bull Head township, Greene County, N.C., just a few miles over the border of Wilson County. Solomon Williams presumably lived relatively close by. Before 1860, the family shifted west into the Eureka area of Wayne County (which may have been their original home territory), and Vicey died around 1868. Descendants of at least five of Vicey and Solomon’s children — most notably son Adam T. Artis — migrated into Wilson County starting around 1900, settling in and around Stantonsburg and Wilson.
We have met Jonah Williams here and here and elsewhere. We’ve also met Loumiza Artis Artis’ husband Thomas Artis. Stay tuned for more about my great-great-great-grandfather Adam T. Artis, Zilpha Artis Wilson, Jesse Artis, and Richard Artis.
[Sidenote: Artis was the most common surname among Wayne County free people of color. In the 1840, 1850 and 1860 censuses, Artis families primarily are found clustered in northern Wayne County, near present-day Eureka and Fremont. Though eastern North Carolina Artises ultimately share common ancestry stretching back to mid-17th century Virginia, the precise relationships between various Wayne County lines — not to mention other Greene and Johnston County Artis lines — is not clear. In other words, though many of today’s Artises in Wilson are descended from Vicey Artis and Solomon Williams (or Vicey’s siblings Sylvania Artis Lane and Daniel Artis), none should assume descent from this line.]
In December 1940, Isaac Williams made his way to Wilson to meet with a Daily Times reporter. Reportedly nearly 110 years old, Williams told of his birth in what is now Wilson County; his enslavement in Nash County; and, most recently, his long voyage to Conroe, Texas, to testify in a massive lawsuit over a $24,000,000 oil fortune due to the rightful descendants of Wilson Strickland. Descendants of 36 different men named Wilson Strickland contested the claim, including Luther E. Williams of Nash County, whose grandfather Guilford H. Williams had been Isaac Williams’ owner and was said to be a close relative of Wilson Strickland.
Wilson Daily Times, 20 December 1940.
In the 1940 census of Bailey township, Nash County, N.C.: Isaac Williams, 109, and wife Jennie, 51. Both were described as unable to work.
In the 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Williams Edgar (c) lab h 213 Spruce; Williams Jane(c) lab h 213 Spruce
In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 213 Spruce Street, Jane Williams, 46, and son Edgar, 24, both tobacco factory workers.
Edgar Williams, 24, of Wilson County, son of Jane Williams, married Anna McKay, 22, of Wilson, on 16 December 1920 in Wilson. Missionary Baptist minister A.L.E. Weeks performed the ceremony in the presence of F.F. Battle, Almer Pouncey, and Annie E. Weeks.
In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 511 Mercer Street, Echo Williams, 33, Imperial Tobacco Company office boy; wife Anna, 28; and roomer Ora Sanders, 26.
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 511 South Mercer, paying $6/month rent, office janitor at retrying plant Edgar Williams, 44, and wife Anna, 39, hanger at reducing plant. The Williamses shared what was likely a double shotgun house with Arthur Dunnington, 39, “lines out hogsheads” at redrying plant, and wife Anna, 42, sweeper and hanger at redrying plant.
Anna Williams died 27 August 1941 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 15 April 1901 in Bennettsville, South Carolina, to Frank Washington and Lula McKay; was married to Edgar Williams; lived at 511 South Mercer; worked as a domestic; and was buried in Rountree cemetery.
Jannie Williams died 25 November 1944 in Wilson. She was 68 years old; was born in Mount Olive to Isaac and Adline Spells; was a widow; lived at 207 Spruce Street; and was buried in Rountree cemetery.
Edgar Williams died 18 January 1949 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 15 June 1896 in Wilson to Jane Spells; worked as a tobacco factory day laborer; lived at 511 Mercer Street; and was buried in Rountree cemetery. Inez Watson, 113 Pender Street, was informant.
Laura Williams Sutton was born in Nash County and died in Farmville, Pitt County, in 1930, but her body was brought to Wilson, where she had lived for decades, for burial in Rountree Cemetery.
On 21 March 1906, William Sutton, 27, of Wilson, son of Providence and Marguret Sutton, married Laura Williams, 24, of Wilson, at the Graded School. Free Will Baptist minister John Steward performed the ceremony.
William Sutton registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County in 1918. Per his registration card, he was born 30 June 1878; lived at 620 Stantonsburg Street; worked as a laborer for Southern Oil Mill; and his nearest relative was wife Laura Sutton.
In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Robinson [Robeson] Street, oil mill laborer Willie Sutton, 41; wife Laura, 37; and daughter Dora, 2; boarders Fannie Brown, 18, private nurse; Willie Taylor, 19, oil mill laborer; Geneva Jones, 20, cook; and Nelson Thompson, 20, oil mill laborer; and roomer Sadie Hardy, 40, tobacco factory laborer.
Laura Sutton died 23 June 1930 in Farmville, Pitt County. Per her death certificate, she was born 15 December 1888 in Nash County to Jake and Kizzie Williams; was married to Willie Sutton; and was buried in “Round Tree” Cemetery, Wilson.
Well into the twentieth century, African-American couples married overwhelmingly at an office of a justice of the peace or the home of a relative. However, on 21 March 1906, as carefully noted a Wilson County marriage register, William Sutton and Laura Williams tied the knot at Wilson’s Colored Graded School. Free Will Baptist minister John Steward performed the ceremony, and Charles Best, CharleyDawson, Minnie Sutton, and Henry Garnett.
In 1950, Wilson hired its first two Black policemen, Rudolph Best and Lee Jackson Williams, to patrol east of the railroad tracks.
Lee Jackson “Hank” Williams
In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 319 Hackney Street, a duplex rented at $12/month per unit, Frank Harris, 35, lumber mill laborer; wife Mamie, 33; son Frank Jr., 2; and nephew McKinley Barnes, 21, farm laborer, and niece-in-law Hagar, 16; and Sam Williams, 28, barber; wife Emma, 28; children Addie M., 9, James, 7, Billie, 3, and Sam Jr., 1; and roomer Earnest Corbitt, 32, oil mill laborer.
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 511 East Green Street, rented for $12/hour, Sam Williams, 42, barber; wife Emma, 38; and children Addie, 19, James, 17, Billie, 13, Samuel Jr., 11, and Dazzarine, 9.
In 1944, Lee Jackson Williams registered for the World War II draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 5 May 1926 in Wilson County; lived at 511 East Green Street; his nearest relative was Emma Williams; and he was “unemployed — going to school.”
In the 1950 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 505 East Green, barber Sam Williams, 50; wife Emma, 48; children Addie M., 28, James, 26, and Lee Williams, 23; and daughter Dazzarine Nicholson, 19, cashier, and her daughter Edrina, 1.
On 27 September 1954, Lee Jackson Williams, 28, of Wilson, son of Sam and Emma Crawford Williams, married Margaret Evangeline Speight, 25, of Wilson, daughter of Theodore and Marie Thomas Speight, at 510 East Green Street, Wilson. Presbyterian minister O.J. Hawkins performed the ceremony in the presence of Beatrice Neal, Emma Williams, and Sarah Bryant.
Lee Jackson Williams died 24 October 1997 in Wilson.
In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 406 East Walnut, ice plant laborer Aaron Best, 31; wife Estell, 31; and children William A., 9, Audry L., 6, Rudolph V., 5, Vera M., 3, and Royce D., 1.
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 406 Walnut, rented for $12/month, Aaron Best, 39; wife Estelle, 39; and children Rudolph, 14, Royce, 10, Harper and Gerald, 8, Eddie, 7, and Nannie Jean, 5.
In 1943, Rudolph Best registered for the World War II draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 17 September 1925 in Wilson; his contact was Aaron Best; he lived at 1009 East Nash Street, Wilson; and he worked part-time at Briggs Hotel.
In the 1950 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1009 East Nash Street, Isaac Williams, 26, plaster helper; wife Delores D., 25, shaking tobacco at tobacco factory; and Larry L., 1; (upstairs) Rudolph Best, 24, plaster helper, and brothers Audrey L., 27, auto mechanic at repair shop, and Eddie E., 17; and (upstairs) Odessa B. Reid, 39, and mother Ietta R.M. Reid, 81, widow.
On 29 December 1954, Rudolph Best, 29, of Wilson, son of Aaron Best and Estelle Burden Best, married Ophelia Atkinson, 30, of Wilson, daughter of Mark Atkinson and Ada Battle Atkinson in Wilson.
Rudolph Best died 19 August 1974 in Durham, North Carolina. Per his death certificate, he was born 17 September 1925 to Aaron Best and Estelle Burton; was married to Ophelia Atkinson; lived at 1009 East Nash Street, Wilson; and had worked as a “policeman (22 years) Wilson Police Dept. Retired.)
To stave off responsibility for caring for poor women and their children, unwed mothers were regularly brought before justices of the peace to answer sharp questions about their circumstances.
On 15 September 1866, Lucy Taylor admitted to Wilson County justice of the peace D.W. Barnes that she was pregnant and unmarried, and Amos Williams was her child’s father. Barnes ordered that Williams be arrested and taken to a justice to answer Taylor’s charge.
Amos Williams appeared with J.G. Williams and M.M. Williams to post a bond for his appearance at the next session of court.
In the 1870 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Benjamin Tillery, 27; wife Cherry; and daughter Jane, 3; Lucy Taylor, 23, and son Columbus, 8 months; and Daniel Sharp, 26, farm laborer. [Columbus Taylor is not the child that was the subject of the above bastardy action.]
Bastardy Bonds, 1866, Miscellaneous Records, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives.