Wilson Daily Times, 23 July 1960.
I am maybe 12 or 13. It’s late summer, eastern North Carolina broiling summer, and I am whining to be allowed to hop on a truck at dawn and spend my days “cropping” tobacco. Some of my friends are going to do it, and it sounds like fun? My father laughs this away. No. My friends lasted a day, two days, then toppled from sun or nicotine poisoning or monstrous tobacco worms. I am still thanking him.
East to west, the tobacco industry dominated North Carolina’s economic life for much of the 20th century. Though I honor their memory, there is no way to list everyone in my family who raised tobacco or labored in its fields. They number in the thousands. However, here are some who worked to prepare the Golden Weed for market or manufacture, mostly in the cavernous brick warehouses and factory buildings that stretched for blocks across southeast Wilson:
Eugene Stockton, Statesville NC – husband of Ida Colvert Stockton Stockton; tobacco roller at tobacco factory, circa 1910.
Mary Barnes Jones, Wilson NC – stemmer, tobacco factory, 1910s.
Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver, Wilson NC – occasional tobacco factory worker, 1910s-1920s.
William I. Barnes, Wilson NC – husband of Madie Taylor Barnes; laborer, Export Leaf Tobacco Company, circa 1918.
Watt Kilpatrick, Winston-Salem NC – husband of Lizzie McNeely Kilpatrick Long; shape puller, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, circa 1918.
Sylvester Watson, Wilson NC – tobacco worker, circa 1920.
Elnora Artis, Norfolk VA – stemmer, tobacco factory, circa 1920.
Hattie Artis Johnson, Norfolk VA – stemmer, tobacco factory, circa 1920.
Sylvester Barnes, Wilson NC – tobacco factory worker, circa 1936.
Eliza Taylor Taylor, Wilson NC – tobacco factory worker.
Jordan T. Taylor, Wilson NC – husband of Eliza T. Taylor; tobacco warehouse worker.
James Beasley, Greensboro NC — husband of Doris Holt Beasley; P.J. Lorillard employee, 1950s-1980s.
James W. Cooper, Wilson NC – husband of A. Alberta Artis Cooper; fireman, Jas.I. Miller tobacco company, 1960s.
From the 1913 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of Wilson, North Carolina.
Goldsboro Messenger, 2 April 1877.
Simmons & Aldridge??? I’m fairly certain that the Aldridge in this partnership was Robert Aldridge (though it could have been one of his older sons, George, Matthew and John) but which Simmons? Section 69 imposed penalties on “any manufacturer of tobacco or snuff” who failed to pay proper taxes on their products. Robert was said to have operated a brickyard near Dudley, but I’ve seen nothing else to suggest that he also had an interest in a tobacco cottage industry.
And David John, I don’t know what happened to him. And his wife. Well, now, David John come to Wilson and used to stay with us, and he worked in the factory. So I don’t know whatever become of them folks down there. And the girls that was all down there. ‘Cause we went down there — me and Mamie went down there — and stayed with David John’s sister Estelle and worked in green tobacco. And that’s where a mosquito bit me on my foot, and I scratched it, and, going through the pea vines, and the dew on ‘em, my foot swelled up so big I couldn’t walk on it. And so Uncle ‘Lias, their daddy, brought me back home to Wilson. Mamie stayed on down there, but I didn’t want to go back down there no more.
My grandmother’s reminiscences about Uncle ‘Lias (pronounced something like “LAH-iss”) were one of my early clues about the breadth of the Henderson family. I knew he was not her mother’s brother, or even her grandmother’s brother, and I was determined to find out exactly what the connection was. In fact, Elias Lewis Henderson was not an uncle at all, but a cousin. Born about 1880 in southern Wayne County, he was the oldest son of James Henry Henderson, who was the brother of my great-great-great-grandfather Lewis Henderson. (James Henry also named his youngest son Lewis Henderson after his brother.)
Elias married first Ella Moore. Their children were: David John (1901, married Amelia Artis), Mary Estelle (1903, married Theodore Rowe), twins Anna Bell (married Willie Johnson) and Mae Bell (1905), James Henry (1906, married Bessie Hagans), Myrtie Mae (1907), Olivia (1909, married James Raynor and [unknown] Whitaker), and Ira Junior (1911, married May Bell Bryant and Betty Ellis). With his second wife, Sarah Edmundson, he had a son, Jazell Westly (1924, married Nancy).
Though my grandmother lost contact with David John and Mary Estelle, when she moved to Philadelphia in the late 1950s, she was reunited with their sister Anna Bell’s daughter Eunice Johnson Smith. Here, in the early ’60s, are Eunice’s daughter Wilma Smith, Eunice and my grandmother at a dinner at a Sheraton hotel in Philadelphia:
Interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved; photographs in the collection of Lisa Y. Henderson.