In midwinter of 1911, Primitive Baptist minister Jonah Williams made his way to the home of Stanford Holmes to preside over the marriage of Peter Barnes and Sinthia Pate. Jonah was the brother of my great-great-great-grandfather, Adam T. Artis. Thirty-three year-old Peter was the son of Calvin and Celia Barnes. Thirteen years previously, Peter’s brother Redmond Barnes had married Jennette Best in Wilson County. Redmond and Jennette Barnes‘ daughter Edith Bell married Theodore Roosevelt Ellis in 1933, and their first son was Theodore Jr., who married my father’s sister in 1960.
More revelations from Ancestry.com’s updated North Carolina marriages database:
No mystery why I didn’t find this earlier. Jonah Wiggins? No, actually, Jonah Williams, brother of my great-great-great-grandfather Adam Artis. And though I knew Pleasant Battle was from the Battleboro area, I don’t think I’d ever searched Edgecombe records for their marriage license.
Here’s the marriage bond:
I don’t know who George Terrell was to Jonah. He and his wife Martha Lindsey, who married a few days before Jonah and Pleasant, appear in the 1870 census of Cokey township, Edgecombe County.
And here’s the marriage license. I am a little surprised that Jonah was married by a Justice of the Peace, rather than a minister of the gospel, but perhaps he was not yet the man he would become:
Napoleon Hagans‘ testimony before a Senate committee was not his last word on the migration of African-American farmers out of North Carolina. Nine months later, he — or someone for him, in any case, as he was unlettered — penned a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, recounting his agricultural success and exhorting his “race” to cast down their buckets where they were. His sentiments were echoed by Jonah Williams, his friend, neighbor, pastor and brother-in-law’s brother. (Jonah, too, was illiterate. Both men, however, were strong believers in the value of education and saw that their children received the best they could afford. See here, here and here.)
Goldsboro Messenger, 30 December 1880.
I’ve blogged often about Jonah Williams, prominent farmer, respected preacher, and brother of my great-great-great-grandfather Adam T. Artis. I was pleased, then, to find copies of the minutes of the early annual sessions of the Turner Swamp Primitive Baptist Association, which oversaw several churches that Jonah helped establish and/or lead. Jonah participated in five sessions before his death in 1915, and the minutes of two survive. I’ve extracted pages from those documents here.
London’s Church was just north of the town of Wilson (in what would now be inside city limits.) The church is most closely associated with London Woodard, an enslaved man who was purchased by his free-born wife, Penny Lassiter. Just after the Civil War, London founded an African-American Baptist church, which seems to have been the precursor to the London’s Church organized under the Primitive Baptist umbrella in 1897.
As shown below, Jonah was involved in the establishment of nearly every church in the Turner Swamp Association, including Turner Swamp (1897), Barnes (1898), Little Union (1899), and Rocky Mount (1908). Turner Swamp still meets at or near its original location just north of Eureka in Wayne County. Barnes is likely Barnes’ Chapel Church, now located at 1004 Railroad Street in Wilson. [CORRECTION: Barnes Chapel was close to Stantonsburg, in southwest Wilson County.] I had never heard of Little Union church, but a Google search turned up a list of churches within 15 miles of “Bel-Air Forest (subdivision), North Carolina,” Little Union among them. (Which is a little spooky because that’s the neighborhood in which I grew up and I didn’t input that reference point.) Unfortunately, the site’s map is blank. However, another search disclosed a recent obituary that referred to the decedent’s efforts to rebuild Little Union Primitive Baptist Church in Town Creek, North Carolina. I have not been able to find current references to Rocky Mount Primitive Baptist Church.
Jonah moved from the Eureka area about 10 miles north to Wilson in the late 1890s. Though I knew of his association with Turner Swamp, I was not aware until finding this document that he had also been pastor at London, much less two other churches.
Romans 7:4 — Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God.
The approximate locations of the churches in Turner Swamp Primitive Baptist Association. Top to bottom: Rocky Mount, Little Union, London’s, Barnes’ and Turner Swamp. As the crow flies, the distance from Rocky Mount to Eureka, where Turner Swamp is located, is about 30 miles.
This news brief probably made reference to baptisms Jonah conducted at London Church, which stood a few miles from the south bank of Contentnea Creek.
Wilson Daily Times, 6 June 1911.
For the better part of a year, the doings of Jonah Williams‘ daughter Clarissa regularly made the society columns of the African-American Raleigh Gazette:
Raleigh Gazette, 30 January 1897.
Raleigh Gazette, 19 June 1897.
Raleigh Gazette, 26 June 1897.
Raleigh Gazette, 18 September 1897.
And then the paper folded.
More than 20 years passed before Clarissa next appeared in print. The “bright lady teacher” had fulfilled her promise and was elected principal of the Colored Graded School. Her tenure was not long, however. Clarissa Williams died of kidney disease on 26 October 1922, at the age of 51.
Wilson Daily Times, 24 September 1918.
The Wilson Daily Times was an afternoon paper in my day. It was lying in the driveway when I arrived home from school, and I could read it first if I put it back like it was — pages squared and neatly folded. (Even today, I shudder at a sloppy newspaper, flipped inside out and pages sprawling.) The Daily Times‘ roots are in Zion’s Landmark, a semi-monthly newsletter begun in 1867 by Pleasant Daniel Gold. Elder Gold (1833-1920), pastor of Wilson Primitive Baptist Church, filled the periodical with sermons and homilies, ads for homeopathic remedies, testimonials, altar calls and, most enduringly, obituaries of Primitive Baptists throughout eastern North Carolina.
African-Americans did not often make it into the pages of the Landmark, but P.D. Gold held Jonah Williams in considerable esteem. Gold preached my great-great-great-great-uncle’s funeral and published in the Landmark a lengthy obituary by Brother Henry S. Reid, clerk at Turner Swamp Primitive Baptist Church:
And what does this piece add to what I already know about Jonah Williams?
- A marriage date for him and Pleasant Battle — 4 January 1867.
- Some confusion about their children. I knew Pleasant had a slew of children from a previous marriage to Blount Battle. However, I had four children for Jonah and Pleasant — Clarissa (the surviving daughter referred to in the obit), Willie F. (1872-1895), Vicey (1874-1890), and J.W., whom I know only from a stone in the Williams’ cemetery plot. I’m thinking now that this is a foot marker, rather than a headstone, and I’ll revise my notes.
- Jonah joined Aycock Primitive Baptist Church, part of the Black Creek Association, around 1875.
- Around 1895, he and others were permitted to leave Aycock and form Turner Swamp Primitive Baptist Church, the first “organized colored” P.B. church in the area. The Black Creek Association ordained Jonah when he was called to serve at Turner Swamp.
- Elder P.D. Gold preached Jonah Williams’ funeral.
Text found at https://archive.org/details/zionslandmarkse4919unse_0
Charlotte News, 11 September 1914.
Jonah Williams rolled into Wilson on opening day and sold the first bale of cotton of the market season. From what I can glean from newspapers, $8.585 was not a good price, and 1914 was a poor cotton year.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to get at it. GPS coordinates and satellite views showed the cemetery way back from the road on private property, without even a path to get to it. I took a chance, though, and pulled up in the driveway of the house closest to it. 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 approached the final stretch, 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.
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 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:
At his side, wife Pleasant Battle Williams. And his children Clarissa, J.W. and Willie nearby.
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?
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. He has invited me back anytime, and I intend to take him up on the offer.
Goldsboro Messenger, 10 March 1884.
Goldsboro Messenger, 11 September 1884.
Solomon Williams‘ son (and estate administrator) Jonah Williams placed these notices in a local newspaper. Solomon’s six acres could not be meaningfully divided among the eight children that survived him. Ruffin Bridge is another name for Peacock’s Bridge, which spans Contentnea Creek on the Wilson-Greene Counties border. It is not at all clear to me, however, which road would have been regarded as the road from Goldsboro to the bridge.
Adam Artis bought and sold hundreds of acres in northeast Wayne County in the last half of the 19th century. Almost 160 years after he filed his first deed, his descendants remain on pockets of his land strung along Highway 222. More enduringly, their family cemeteries cluster east of Eureka toward Stantonsburg — at the heart of his erstwhile empire.
#1 marks the location of Adam Artis’ grave. His many wives and children notwithstanding, until the mid-1980s, his was the only readily identifiable grave in the plot.
#2 is the self-proclaimed “Historic John I. Exum” cemetery. Adam’s kin intermarried considerably with Exums, including his granddaughter Cora Artis, who married John Ed Exum, and his sister Delilah Williams, who married Simon Exum. Delilah and Simon, however, are buried at #3, along with several of their descendants.
Red Hill Road debouches into 222 across from #3. Not a half-mile back up the road, at least two and possibly four of Adam’s sons rest. Noah and June Scott Artis are buried in #4 with several of June’s offspring, as well as their brother Robert‘s wife and their brother Henry J.B.‘s wife and children.
About a half-mile, as the crow flies, south of #3 is #5, which contains the graves of Adam’s son William M. Artis and his descendants, as well a daughter of Adam’s brother Jesse Artis.
The road snaking northwest out of Eureka becomes Turner Swamp Road past the city limits. Just off the edge of this map, perhaps a mile up the road, stands Turner Swamp Baptist Church, once led by Jonah Williams, brother of Adam Artis, Jesse Artis and Delilah Williams Exum. A sizeable cemetery lies behind the church, and it contains the graves of Magnolia Artis Reid, daughter of Loumiza Artis Artis, who was another Artis sibling, as well as descendants of Zilpha Artis Reid and Richard Artis, yet more siblings. Turner Swamp itself appears as a dark green curve bracketing the upper left corner of the photo. It is likely that the original location of the church was north along the banks of the waterway, at the site where the overgrown graves of Jonah Williams and his family lie.
Back in the other direction, east on 222 toward Stantonsburg, lies Watery Branch Road. (The branch itself is the dark green sword piercing more than halfway into the frame from the right.) Perhaps a quarter-mile, if that far, down the road on the right lies the Diggs cemetery, another small family graveyard. Celia Artis, born about 1800, the wealthiest free woman of color in Wayne County, was the Diggs’ matriarch. She and Adam Artis’ kinship, if any, was unknown even to them. Two of Celia’s great-granddaughters married a son and a grandson of Adam Artis. Leslie Artis, his wife Minnie Diggs Artis, and some of their descendants are buried here.