My earliest memory: I am wrapped in a red blanket, slightly faded, edged in satin. The air is chilly. The light, low and pink-gold. It is morning, and I am being carried across the street to Miss Speight and Mr. Kenny’s house. They lived at 1400, and we lived at 1401, and I cannot be more than two years old.
My mother says that I cannot remember this. It must be an implanted recollection. I don’t think so, but perhaps. There is no question, though, that I retain other vignettes from the brief time that Nina Speight kept me: a canister of Morton salt on a kitchen table; a bag of wooden blocks on a shelf; a Maxwell House can brimming with snuff juice; a thin chenille spread over a four-poster bed; the dimness of the back room shared by the Speights’ teenaged grandsons. We left Carolina Street when I was nine, but my memories of my years at the edge of East Wilson are warm and tinged with gold. Miss Speight and Mister Kenny loved and nurtured me early and rooted me firmly in the traditions of a Southern community in transition. They passed away within months of each other in 1982 — ironically, the year that I, too, left Wilson, for college.
Nina and Kenneth Speight.
Nina Darden Speight was born in 1901 in Black Creek township, Wilson County, to Crawford F. and Mattie Woodard Darden. Her family names indicate deep roots in southeastern Wilson County, which was part of Edgecombe before 1855. Her father, born about 1869, was the youngest of several children born to Howell Darden and Esther (or Easter) Bass, and the only child born free. (Esther’s maiden name also appears as “Jordan” on the marriage license of one of her children.) On 11 August 1866, Howell and Easter registered their cohabitation with a county justice of the peace and thereby legalized their 18-year marriage. Their older children included Warren (born circa 1849, married Louisa Dew), Eliza (born circa 1852, married Henry Dortch), Martin (born circa 1853, married Jane Dew) and Toby Darden (born circa 1858.) Esther Darden died 1870-1880, and Howell Darden between 1880 and 1900.
Evidence that Howell Darden and Esther Bass were both owned by James A. Barnes may be found in the abstract of his will, dated October 14, 1848 and probated at February Court, 1849 in Edgecombe County. Among other property real and personal, Barnes’ wife Sarah received a life interest in several slaves — Mary, Esther and Charles — whose ownership would revert to nephew Theophilus Bass upon her death. To McKinley Darden, Barnes bequeathed “Negro Howell.” [Other enslaved people mentioned in Barnes’ will included Tom, Amos, Babe, Silvia, Ransom, Rose, Dinah, Jack, Jordan, Randy, Abraham, Rody, Alexander, Bob and Gatsey (the only slave to be sold.) Their relationships to Esther and Howell may never be known.]
Nina Speight’s mother Mattie Woodard Darden was born about 1873 in Wayne County to William and Vicey Woodard. She died 7 May 1935 in Wilson County. Crawford Darden died 3 August 1934.
Kenneth Speight was born about 1891 in Speight Bridge township, Greene County, North Carolina, to Callie and Holland Speight. (Some records show a 1899 or 1900 birth year, but he appears in the 1900 census as an 8 year-old.) His father Callie was born about 1855; his mother Holland, about 1860. Callie was the son of Callie (1825) and Allie Speight (1827). In the 1870 census of Greene County, the Callie and Allie Speight’s family is listed next to a wealthy white farmer named Abner Speight, who may have been their former owner.
In 1902, the Charlotte Observer ran an article by C.S. Wooten of LaGrange, North Carolina, “Old Southern Families: Farmers of Wayne and Greene,” a reminiscence about the “old plantations” and “typical Southern gentlemen” of those parts, including Abner Speight:
James Speight, a nephew of Jesse Speight, was Senator for Lenoir and Greene counties for ten years before the war. He married a niece of my father, Maj. Wooten. He was a splendid stump speaker, and I have seen him debate with lawyers on the stump and get the best of the discussion, indeed in those days the best politicians were farmers. His house was a nice place to visit. He always had a special brand of apple brandy made by Col. C.W. Stanton who could make as good brandy as was ever made. Edwin G. Speight, his cousin, was also Senator from Greene and Lenoir counties from 1842-1852. I was a small boy when he was a public man, but I have heard my father say he was a fine speaker and was a natural orator. His second wife was a daughter of Hon. Jake H. Bryan, of Raleigh, and he removed to Alabama where he died a few years ago. Abner Speight, a cousin of the above, was a large farmer, was a noble man and as good a citizen as the State ever had. He had two boys killed in the army, both bright, gallant young men. I have sometimes thought, suppose the South had not been checked in her onward march of prosperity and greatness what would we have been today. I have also thought that the gallant men, the flower of Southern chivalry that were sacrificed in that unhappy struggle were in vain, but I reckon not, for they by their gallantry and valor, have shed unfading justice upon Southern arms and have given her a name that will never be surpassed in the annals of mankind.
Callie and Holland Speight married about 1878, but little else is known of her. After Holland’s death just after 1900, Callie married Minnie Speight (1894-1947), daughter of Stephen and Dillie Woodard Speight, also of Greene County. In addition to Kenneth, Callie Speight’s children included Martha, Mary, Clara, Irwin, Charlie, Callie, Addie, Claud, Mary, Nancy, Flossie, Lewis, Clarence, Effie, Bessie, Pauline, George, Adell, Joe, James and Junius. Callie died after 1940.
Postscript: After I posted this piece, the Speights’ grandson, whom I played with on his childhood visits from New York City, sent me another photograph. Nina Darden is standing at top left, holding a flower. Thanks, Tyrone, for both images!