Land, North Carolina, Oral History, Other Documents, Paternal Kin

Where we lived: 114 West Lee Street.

My parents were skeptical.

Me: Well, what about where, up, like, Lee Street.  There were some black people that lived up that way.

My father: Where?

Me: On the other side of the tracks.  Lee Street.

My mother: There were?

My father: I don’t know.

Me: Uh-huh. That’s where your grandparents lived. That’s where their house was.

Him: Lee Street?

Me: Mm-hmm. Right. Like if you come up – what was the name of that restaurant that everybody used to talk about? Golden Leaf? The Golden something –

Him: Okay.

Me: If you take that street, and you cross over the track, and you go left, and then you can — you know how it kind of splits or something?

Him: Yeah. Wont no black folk in there.

Me: Yeah, it was.

Him: Where?

Me: That’s where the Taylors lived. There was a little section.

Him: Oh, that was when — you talking ‘bout way back in the day.

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Back in the day, indeed. On 11 February 1896, for $550, George D. Green and his wife Ella sold Mike Taylor a lot in the town of Wilson. Situated on a corner, the parcel fronted 143 feet on Pine Street and 83 feet on Lee. In the 1900 census of the town of Wilson, Wilson County, neither streets nor house numbers are listed, but it’s reasonable to assume that the Taylors — Mike, a drayman; his wife Rachel, who did washing; and their children “Rodgrick,” Maggie, Mattie, Maddie, Bertha E., and Hennie G. — were living there, and the 1908-1909 Wilson city directory lists Taylor, a driver, at 114 West Lee.

The 1910 census of Wilson paints a clearer picture of the little enclave in which the Taylors lived. Though he did not note house numbers, the censustaker inked “Lee St” along the edge of Sheet 27A of his survey of Enumeration District 116. The page records 50 residents, of whom 30, living in five consecutive households, were black. With the Taylors were the families of Jim and Annie Parrott, John and Cora Norfleet, John and Pattie Lassiter, Sam and Maggie “Ennicks” [Ennis], and Frank and Lizzie Bullock. The men worked a variety of jobs: a blacksmith, two odd jobs laborers, a gardener, a drayman. The women were cooks or laundresses.

The censustaker’s path is not clear. The Taylors were on the corner at 114 West Lee. According to the 1908-09 directory, the Bullocks were in the next block at 202 West Lee. The Ennises — Maggie was Mike and Rachel’s daughter — lived in the small house built on the back of the Taylor lot at 409 North Pine. In the 1912-13 city directory, Pattie Lassiter is listed at 200 West Lee, but John Norfleet was at 306 E. Barnes, on the other side of downtown. The Parrotts are found in neither directory. In any case, it is clear that these families formed a tiny cluster, and this cluster was unique in its surroundings. On the enumeration sheets before and after that listing the Taylors and their neighbors, the residents are overwhelmingly white.

For most of the 20th century, Wilson maintained a well-defined residential segregation pattern, with black neighborhoods confined to the east side of the Atlantic Coast Line (later Seaboard Coast Line, now CSX) railroad. Daniel Hill, a mile or so west of downtown, was the notable exception. For first quarter of the century, however, African-Americans claimed another tiny toehold, now forgotten, just west of the tracks at Pine and Lee.

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Sanborn map of Wilson NC, September 1913.

The 1913 Sanborn map, the earliest detailing the neighborhood, reveals a relatively large one-story frame house with an L-shaped porch wrapping around its west front corner. By time the 1922 Sanborn map was drawn, the city’s street numbering system had changed, and the address was now 108 West Lee.  The Taylors had also added a small porch to the back of the house.

Rachel and Mike Taylor remained at 108 West Lee until their deaths in 1925 and 1927. The address is now a vacant lot.

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Land, North Carolina, Other Documents, Photographs

The death of Green Street.

As my father put it, all the “big dogs” lived on Green Street. The 600 block, which ran between Pender and Elba Streets, two blocks east of the railroad that cleaved town, was home to much of Wilson’s tiny African-American elite. There, real estate developers, clergymen, doctors, undertakers, educators, businessmen, craftsmen — and a veterinarian — built solid, two-story Queen Annes that loomed over the cottages and shotgun houses that otherwise lined East Wilson’s streets.  Booker T. Washington slept there.

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The north side of Green Street as depicted in a 1922 Sanborn map.

During my childhood, a half-century into its reign, Green Street was slipping, home to widowers and dowagers struggling to stay on top of the maintenance and expense imposed by multi-gabled roofs, ranks of single-paned windows, and wooden everything. Still, its historical distinction as black Wilson’s premier residential address held, and a drive down the block elicited a bit of pride and wonder.  In 1988, East Wilson, with Green Street its jewel, was nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Every house on the block depicted above was characterized as “contributing,” and the inventory list contained brief descriptions of the dwellings and their owners. #617, for example, was the Walter Hines house, a two-story “Queen Anne house with hip-roofed central block and projecting cross gables,” and Hines was described as “a prominent barber and property owner.”

Historic status, though, could not keep the wolves from the door. Even as the city’s Historic Properties Commission was wrapping up its work, East Wilson was emerging as an early victim of that defining scourge of the late 1980s — crack cocaine. As vulnerable old residents died off — or were whisked to safer quarters — crackheads and dealers sought refuge and concealment in the empty husks that remained. Squatters soiled their interiors and pried siding from the exteriors to feed fires for warmth. One caught ablaze, and then another, and repair and reclamation seemed fruitless undertakings.

This is the north side of Green Street now. The left edge of the frame is just west of #611. THERE IS NOT ANOTHER HOUSE UNTIL YOU GET TO #623. They are gone. Abandoned. Taken over. Burned down. Torn down. Gone.

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[Sidenote: 623 Green Street was built for Albert Gay, a porter at the Hotel Cherry downtown. Albert married Annie Bell Jacobs, daughter of Jesse A. Jacobs, Jr., and their descendants remain in the house. Charles Gay, next door, was Albert’s brother. And around the corner, in the small ell below Pilgrims Rest Primitive Baptist Church, 303 Elba.]

Photograph taken by Lisa Y. Henderson, October 2013.

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Births Deaths Marriages, Free People of Color, Land, North Carolina, Other Documents, Paternal Kin

Zilpha’s will.

State of North Carolina, Wayne County    }   I, Zilphy Wilson, of the County and State, aforesaid begin of sound mind and memory, but considering the uncertainty of my earthly existence to make and declare this my last Will and Testament in manner and form following, that is to say: — That my Executor hereinafter named shall provide for my body a decent burial, suitable to the wishes of my relations and friends, and pay all funeral expenses together with my just debts out of the first money that may come into his hands as a part or parcel of my estate.

Item 1. I give and bequeath to my daughter Bettie Reid 7 acres of land to be cut off the North East corner of the tract of land on which I now reside for and during her natural life, and after her death to be equally divided between all of her children that she may have now, or may have living at the time of her death, the said Bettie Reid not to have possession of said Land until the debts against my estate are paid.

Item 2. I give devise and bequeath to my son Adam Wilson and my daughter Vicey Wilson, share and share alike all of the tract of Land on which I now live, with the exception of the seven acres given away in Item first of this will, with all the priviledges and appertances thereunto belonging for and during their natural like, should they both have heirs, then they to have their mother & Father part, and should Adam or Vicey only one of them leave heirs, then and in that case I give said land to the surviving heirs of that one to them and their heirs in the fee simple forever.

Item 3. I give and devise unto my son Adam Wilson and Vicy Wilson, share and share alike, all of my Household and Kichen furniture of every description Farming implements of every description, Tools of Mechanics &c &c, Stocks of all kinds, and all the poultry of kind to them and their heirs in fee simple forever.

Item 4. It is my will and I so direct, that my son Adam Wilson to retain possession of the whole of my land at yearly rental of seven hundred lbs. of lint cotton which is to be applied to the payment of the debts against my estate, as soon as said debts are paid, I direct that Bettie Reid be put in possession of the seven acres of land given to her in a former Item of this Will. I also desire that my daughter Bettie Reed become an equal heir in my household and kitchen furniture with my son Adam and daughter Vicey.   Changes made in Zilphia Wilson’s Will Oct[?] 4, 1893

Item 5. I give and devise unto William and Jonah Wilson children of William Wilson Sixty dollars to be paid to them when they arrive at lawful age.

Item 6. I give and devise unto Johney, Lominary, Levy, Laronzo Locus, Children Louisa Locus Sixty dollars to be paid to them as they arrive at lawful age.

Item 7. It is my will and so direct that the Legacies mentioned in Items 5 & 6 of this Will be assessed by my son Adam and my Daughter Vicy Wilson, and I direct that they pay to each one of the above mentioned heirs, as they arrive of lawful age their proportionable part of said Legacies with interest on the same from the time the debts of the estate are settled.

Lastly, I hereby constitute and appoint my brother Jonah Williams and my son Adam Wilson Executors to this my last Will and Testament, hereby revoking all the Wills heretofore made by me.    Zilphy X Wilson

Signed and sealed in the presence of Fred I. Becton and Thomas Artis, who witnessed the same at her request.  /s/ Richard H. Battle, Fred I. Becton

——

Zilpha Artis Wilson was born about 1828, the first known child of Vicey Artis and Solomon Williams. About 1855, she married John “Jack” Wilson, a free man of color of completely unknown origins. That year, Jack bought 55 acres in Wayne County from Zilpha’s brother Adam Artis and settled his family close to the Artises.

Zilpha and Jack Wilson’s children were William Wilson (1856), Louisa Wilson Locus (1858), Elizabeth “Betty” Wilson Reid (1864-1947), John Adam Wilson (1865-1916) and Vicey Wilson (1869).

Zilpha Wilson’s will was proved 17 December 1902 and recorded at page 421 of Will Book 2, Wayne County Superior Court.

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Land, Other Documents, Paternal Kin, Photographs

This deed.

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This is the deed for Jesse Jacobs‘ purchase of 303 Elba Street. He bought the house (in which he was already living) and lot for $725 from E.L. and Ietta R.M. Reid on 4 May 1908. (Elijah Reid, a veterinarian, was born into a free family of color from the opposite end of Wayne County than Jesse and Sarah Jacobs.) The same day, Jacobs gave George W. Connor, Trustee, a mortgage on the property, perhaps to secure a $400 loan he used to buy it.  Jacobs was to repay Connor at the rate of $2.50 per week. 

On 10 April 1917, the Jacobses arranged another mortgage on their Elba Street home, this time promising to repay W.A. Finch, Trustee, $395 at 6% interest. Circumstances intervened. By about 1922 or ’23, Jesse Jacobs was too ill to work. He died in 1926. Sarah and Hattie Jacobs, her great-niece (and my grandmother) paid what they could from their meager earnings as laundresses. When Sarah Jacobs died in early 1938, the house remained encumbered. Finch’s loan was not repaid until September of that year, most likely from the sale of the property.

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North Carolina, Oral History, Paternal Kin

Papa’s sons.

Jesse Jacobs Jr.’s first wife, Sarah “Sally” Bridgers, died shortly after the birth of their youngest child, Annie Bell in 1895.  A year later, he married Sarah Daisy Henderson, who reared Sally’s children alongside her own daughter and her sister’s two children. Jesse’s sons, James Daniel Jacobs (1881-1952), Dock Davis Jacobs (circa1888-1944), and Reddick Jacobs (1889-1921), were grown by time my grandmother came to live with Jesse and Sarah.  They were not her blood kin, but were family nonetheless.

Jim Daniel.  Jim Daniel Jacobs.  He and Roxie lived down in Clinton down there, and he come to Wilson when they got married, before they had a family.  I remember that.  They talked about me coming to visit, but he used to come up to bring tobacco.  I remember, “Why in the world he had to come all the way to Wilson …?” I just do remember him, by him – lots of times they would come by the house, see Papa, wanted to know how he was doing, and whatever.  They didn’t stay no time, had to get back and see what time they was gon sell tobacco.  So, I don’t know whatever became of him.  Now, Mamie went down when Jim Daniel got married.  He married Roxie, a girl named Roxie, and they was still down there in Clinton, wherever, somewhere down …  anyway, I know it wasn’t Mount Olive, and so when Roxie got pregnant, then Jim Daniel wanted Mamie to come down there and stay with his wife.  He said, “I’ll pay for her to look after her, stay with her in the house,” ‘cause he was working down in the field and needed some one to look after her.  So Mamie went down there to stay.  Didn’t stay, but …  I never did go down there.  I never did see ‘em, after Jim Daniel brought up some corn one time to see Papa ‘cause he was sick.

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James D. and Roxie Simmons Jacobs.

Dock, now he married a lady named Nettie.  I met her.  She was brown-skinned, small, brown-skinned lady, and they had about six, seven children.  He met her, they got married up there in New York and had all these children, and I think, I think they had a falling out, and he went to stay with somebody else.  I don’t know.  Yeah.  I went to their house.  Nettie, I saw her one time.  And her hair was ‘bout like that, I reckon.  ‘Cause it looked like it was plaited.  She tucked it under.  But she was very pretty and nice….  Well, she wont pretty to me.  But I remember where she was a very sweet and nice person.

Dock, like his siblings Carrie and Reddick, migrated to New York City. In 1923, Jesse and Sarah H. Jacobs deeded their house at 303 Elba Street, Wilson, to Jesse’s surviving children Carrie, Jim Daniel, Dock and Annie Bell.  On 15 Apr 1938, Dock filed a deed for the sale for $20 of his undivided interest in the house to my grandmother (then called Hattie Jacobs). He used the money to buy a train ticket back to New York, and my grandmother used the deed to claim a share in the sale of the only home she’d ever known.

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Dock Jacobs.

The other brother, the younger one.  Reddick.  He was one that got shot in the café.  He was getting ready to leave, and say him and another fellow got to arguing, and the man shot him.  Well, they brought him home.  Papa was living then.  They brought him home, and they had to bring the body up to the house.  And me and Mamie had to go examine it, you know.  But I didn’t put my hands on him.  I went in there and looked at him, and I said, “Well, where did he get shot?”  After he was all dressed up, laying out there in the casket.  And so Mamie said, she said, “Girl, don’t you see?  They shot him right in his face.  Right there.”  And I said, “I don’t see nothing.”  And then she had to put her finger right in his eye.  And it was in his left eye.  It went right in through there and come out the back of his head.  He was sitting at the restaurant, and a fellow shot him.

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Congregational Church cemetery, Dudley NC

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Photograph of James and Roxie Jacobs courtesy of Carla Carter Jacobs. Original photograph of Dock Jacobs in the collection of Lisa Y. Henderson. Photograph of gravestone taken by Lisa Y. Henderson in March 2013. Interviews of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.

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Land, North Carolina, Oral History, Paternal Kin, Photographs

Where we lived: 303 Elba Street.

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The windows were broken and the front door gaped wide open, and I stood in the middle of Elba Street, uncomprehending. An aged neighbor paused on her porch, and I marched over: “Good morning. ’Scuse me. How long has next door been empty?” “Andrews & Andrews …,” she began, and – wait, she think I want to RENT? – I up my decibels, “No, how long has it been empty?” She shrugged, “A good while. They might gon demolish it.” … Demolish?

This was my grandmother’s house. Sort of. Her great-aunt and -uncle — Sarah and Jesse Jacobs — had bought it nearly new in 1908, and my grandmother arrived as an infant three years later when her mother died. She grew up on Elba Street, and her children were – literally – born there, and there they remained until 1938, when Mama Sarah died, and several truths were revealed. One, in 1923, Papa and Mama Sarah had sold the house to his children. Second, contrary to promise and belief, my grandmother never been formally adopted. Papa’s daughters ruthlessly drove this last point home by ordering her and her children out. My father was a small boy, but remembers moving – his hat blew off as he rode away in the back of a truck. Despite the eviction, my grandmother was not done with Elba. One of Papa’s sons sold her his share in exchange for a train ticket back to New York, and the sisters were forced to pay her from the house’s sale.

This place has been gone from my family for 75 years, and yet, for me, it’s Mother Dear’s house. The stories I recorded cemented its place in my imagination – the mantel clock that struck as she rallied from pneumonia, the chiggers that had to be scalded from the walls, the little stable for Papa’s horse, the hoodoo’d peach tree….

“I’ve always wanted to see inside,” I tell the neighbor. “I’m going in.” A glance up and down to check for unwanted notice, a halloo at the threshold, and I stepped through into a small center hall, which surprised me.  To either side, multi-function front rooms and, behind, a third room, a bath, and a kitchen under a shed roof, all strewn with the detritus of squatters. Of these last three rooms, only the kitchen was there in my grandmother’s day, and the only obviously original features were the mantels in the front rooms and the heart-pine floors under worn linoleum.

Soon this house will go the way of so much of abandoned east Wilson, which has never recovered from the ravages of the crack epidemic that scoured the neighborhood early and hard. There was nothing much left at 303 Elba to speak to me, but I’m glad I peeked in.  It will give shape to my listening to my grandmother’s words, and that’s a gift.

 
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Births Deaths Marriages, North Carolina, Oral History, Paternal Kin

Her story.

Bessie Henderson has died, and her children remain.

Mamie Lee was the first child, and my grandmother was the second. And the second Hattie Mae.  The first was Sarah Henderson Jacobs’ daughter.

That’s who they named me after.  I asked them why they named me Hattie after a dead person.  “What?  You don’t like Hattie?  Well, I just thought ’twas nice.”  And after I looked at her picture, I said, “Well, she was pretty.”  Since Jack knew her, and he wanted her picture, when I come up to Philadelphia, I give him the picture.  ‘Cause they grew up together.  And his children thought she was white, wanted to know what old white girl was that.  Mama never talked about her.  But A’nt Nina, she would tell everything.  Mama got mad with her, said, “You always bringing up something.  You don’t know what you talking ’bout.”  And she never did say – well, if she said, I wouldn’t have known him, but I never did ask her – who Hattie’s daddy was.  I figured he was white.  Because she looked — her hair and features, you know, white.

Jack Henderson told my grandmother that he remembered “when she was got,” that he was nearby when it was happening, that Tom had Bessie over a barrel, literally.  Bookish and soft, James Thomas Aldridge tended his mother and younger sisters and his ailing father’s dry goods store while dreaming of a bigger and better world faraway.  He would have been a nerd if they’d had them then.  Bessie’s pregnancy changed his life:

‘Cause his mama didn’t want her son to get married.  ‘Cause he wanted to be a doctor, and so she was gon help him be one.  And if he got married and started having children, he couldn’t be a doctor.  And down there in a little town like Dudley, you had to go away from there ‘cause it wont no more than ‘bout sixth, seventh grade.  And you had to go to a larger place if you wanted to go to school. 

So the pregnancy stirred him, thrust him out toward his reveries, away from Dudley and the grey-eyed baby whose mother was soon to die.  Tom, already 24 years old but claiming to be much younger, fled to Raleigh, where he entered Shaw University’s preparatory division and exited its college eight years later on his way to Meharry Medical School.  He would become a doctor, indeed, a big-time, money-making, Cadillac-driving Saint Louis doctor, elected president of the National Medical Association in 1961.  But it’s his daughter’s story we’re telling right now, the daughter who never got past sixth grade, who never met her father ‘til she was good and grown.

Let me back up.  Sometime around 1905, Mama Sarah and her husband, a good man named Jesse A. Jacobs Jr., moved 40 miles north of Dudley to Wilson, a tobacco market bursting with new golden-leaf millionaires.  Colored folks from all over coastal Carolina, drawn to the town’s bustling opportunity, built a vibrant community on the southeast side of the railroad that cleaved the town in two. Sarah took in washing and ironing, did seasonal work at tobacco factories, and reared Jesse’s brood, who turned out largely ungrateful.  Her own daughter died in 1908, aged 14, and nobody knows why.

Meanwhile, down in Dudley, Lewis and Mag Henderson faded in their iron bedstead with only their teenaged granddaughter Bessie to manage the household.  Lucian Henderson likely farmed his parents’ reduced acreage with his own, but it was left to Bessie to cook and clean and sew and launder and do all the other relentless drudgery that needed doing.  Her mother was long dead, and there were no other close relatives nearby upon whom to rely.  Did she resent her responsibilities?   Did she chafe under the grind of pot-stirring and water-fetching and skillet-scouring and jar-slopping?  What did she want?  She was a chancey girl, a risk-taker, one who took her pleasure where she found it, even when it clamped the lid tighter on her trap.  She was a beautiful girl, but nearly unmarriageable, as she dragged her heavy belly through the spring of 1910.

Bessie gave birth to my Hattie Mae on June 6, very likely attended by the child’s grandmother, a midwife named Louvicey Artis Aldridge.  Though Vicey had forbidden a marriage between this girl and her special boy Tom, she was not altogether unmoved by her grandbaby, who looked much more Aldridge than Henderson. Vicey and her daughters played small intermittent roles in my grandmother’s early life, but there is no doubt: Sarah Henderson Jacobs was the family’s matriarch and matrix, though no children of her own lived even to adulthood. She reared Bessie’s children and kept them clothed and fed and sheltered, if not exactly loved.

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