Photo in the collection of Lisa Y. Henderson.
… Self life that might hender and draw you to earthly thing it inpels you on in to Godlines Paul sed I die dailey to the things of this world yeal your life dailey and hold your life in submision to the will of God and live by his word that you may grow unto the fulles measure of the staturs of Chris the one that lives wright is the ones who will a bide bide with him the day of his coming and stand when he a …
… Come by your God like impression God will take care of you no matter where you are cax aside all fear and put your trust in God and you are save. Then when your pulgrimage is over and you are call from labor to reward you will be greeted with that holy welcome that is delivered to all true missionaries come in the blessed of my father …
My grandmother had a large, dusty black Bible that had belonged to her “mama,” Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver. (The Bible’s original owner was Carolina Vick, a midwife in east Wilson — her family’s birth and death dates are inscribed in its leaves.) When I first thumbed through the Book in the early 1990s, I found two scraps of paper stuck deep in its chapters. Pencilled in a square, unsophisticated hand were these bits of Sarah’s sermons. She had left the Congregationalism of her upbringing and joined the Holiness movement sweeping the country in the early 1900s. My grandmother was not impressed:
I was just thinking ‘bout that today, ‘bout how we used to do. Mama’d make us go to Holiness Church and stay down there and run a revival two weeks. And we’d go down there every night and lay back down there on the bench and go to sleep. Then they’d get us up, and then we didn’t have sense enough to do nothing but go to sleep and get up.
Mama’d go every night. And they’d be shouting, holy and sanctified, jumping and shouting. I don’t know, that put me out with the Holiness church. And sanctified people. I know Mama wont doing right.
Evangelist Sarah spent night after night jumping and shouting, leaving my adolescent grandmother to wash and iron the endless loads of laundry they took in from white customers. Sarah apparently met her second husband, Rev. Joseph Silver, founder of one of the earliest Holiness churches in eastern North Carolina, on the revival circuit. They married in 1933 and divided the five years before her death between Wilson and his home in Halifax County.
Sarah H. Jacobs and her Bible, with my uncle Lucian J. Henderson in the background, taken in Wilson NC circa 1930. (I have the Bible, but some time between when I first saw — and transcribed — the sermon scraps and when I took possession after my grandmother’s death in 2001, the pieces of paper were lost.)
Photo of Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver in the collection of Lisa Y. Henderson. Interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.
Loudie was the youngest of Lewis and Mag Henderson’s children, the one who never left home, the one who scarcely had time to do so, for she died at 19, but not before making her mark in the form of her children Bessie and Jesse. Loudie died in childbirth and, had circumstances been different, her children’s father might have reared them, but that was not to happen in that place and time. Their father was a white man, a lifelong bachelor farmer named Joseph Buckner Martin and called Buck. If his love for his second set of children, also by a colored woman, is any indication, he felt for Loudie and her two, but there was a long way between loving one’s yellow babies and taking them in, and so Lewis and Mag and their daughter Sarah (who would have a child of her own by a white man) reared them.
Jesse Henderson, then called Buddy, followed his aunt Sarah and her husband Jesse Jacobs to Wilson. They and Jesse’s younger children by his first wife settled into a L-shaped, three-roomed bungalow on Elba Street, a block off black Wilson’s best residential address and a few blocks over from the main business drag, East Nash Street. Jesse found work at Jefferson Farrior’s livery stable on Barnes Street, perhaps through a Dudley connection who worked as Farrior’s maid. When Big Jesse brought his wife’s nephew Jesse into the livery, Farrior christened the younger man “Jack” to cut down confusion. (The name stuck so well that some of his children never knew anything different, and a rumor grew that Farrior was Jack’s real daddy.)
Jack I almost knew. Our lives overlapped, and we could have met, but I was a child when he was a sick old man, and before my sixth birthday, he was gone. I know his children, and I have his few photographs, and I will have to be content with that. He is below, with open collar and cheroot.
Photograph of Jack Henderson, friend and dog in the collection of Lisa Y. Henderson.
And Papa was sick, and somebody had to watch him. He wasn’t down in the bed, but his mind was kind of off. Now he’d listen to you, you’d talk to him, and anything he wanted, had to tell you about it. “Naw, you can’t go there. I got to go home. I got to go home.” Said he had to go home. I said, “We are home.” Said, “Naw, we’re not.” That’s the way his mind worked. Like that.
So after Mamie got married in Greensboro, I come on back to Wilson, and then, after I come back, I hated I’d come back ‘cause I had to – Papa’s mind was bad, and I had to stay home. To keep him. He’d go ‘way from the house and couldn’t find his way back. And he was ruptured from the time I can remember. And so at that time Mama was working in the factory, and school wasn’t open, but when school opened, I had to stay home and look out for him. And then, so finally, when he died. He was supposed to have an operation. He was ruptured, and Carrie, she claimed she didn’t know it. And I said, now, I was the youngest child was there, and I knowed that all that stuff that was down ‘tween his legs was something wrong with him. He went up to Mercy Hospital for something, probably his rupture – I know he had to go to the hospital for treatments or something. Anyway, the last time, Carrie came down and she was fussing about if she’d known Papa had to have an operation, she’d have come down and he’d have had it. Instead of waiting until it was too late. Now the last week they wasn’t expecting him to live. But, no bigger than I was, I knew he had it. And she was grown, old enough for my mother, and then she talking ‘bout she didn’t know he was ruptured? Well, all his tubes was, ah – And he always had to wear a truss to hold hisself up. And when he’d be down, I’d be down there sweeping at the school, and he’d be out there plowing a field he rented out there, and he’d come up, lay down on the floor and take a chair and he’d put his legs up over the chair like that, and I’d wet the cloths from the bowl where was in the hall, some of the old dust cloths, and hand them to him, and he’d put them down on his side, and you could hear it ‘bluckup’ and that thing would go back there. But see it had got, his intestines, that tissue between there had bursted, and the doctor told him he needed an operation. So he was gon get it, but he didn’t have money enough to get it. Didn’t save up money enough to have the operation. So none of the children – all of them know, as large as his – but leastways he couldn’t hide himself, ‘cause even from a little child, I could see that for years, and I wondered what it was. ‘Cause I know everybody didn’t have it, at least didn’t have all that in their britches …. And Carrie come down there, and she fuss Mama out about him not having the operation and this kind of stuff. And she said, “Well, we never had the money to get the operation.” We tried to go and get it, and we’d pay on it by time. But, naw, he wanted, he was gon make something off the crop, and he’d pay. Pay it and have it then. But he never got the chance. So when they put him in the hospital and operated on him, say when they cut him, he had over a quart of pus in him. I think it was on a Thursday, and he lived ‘til that Tuesday.
Oh, this breaks my heart. (And she was absolutely right. July 6, 1926, was a Tuesday.)
Excerpts from interviews of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.
My father’s mother said:
Every day she needed, had to eat some fish. ‘Cause she couldn’t eat pork. Good as she loved ham and stuff, and Papa always raised a pig every year. She had a bad heart. And so she wasn’t supposed to eat no pork. And so that’s what she had, fish. Fish and beef. Fish and beef. … Well, she raised chickens. But she got to put the chicken in a coop. Even if it was running ‘round out there in a bigger pen. She put it one of them little coop places where was built up like that, and let it stay a week, cleaning it out. That’s what she said to do. I reckon you let ‘em run ‘round in the yard eating dirt, so she was gon clean ‘em out. She would get her about five or six biddies out the bunch, and she just put them in that coop, and by them being out there in the back yard fenced in that part, picking up all the gravel and everything else they want … Put ‘em in that coop, let ‘em stay a week, clean ‘em out. So, I said to Mama, “Why you got to take ‘em out the yard and put ‘em in a pen? And then feed ‘em nothing but corn in there?” She said that cleans ‘em out. At the time, when she was telling me, I didn’t know what cleaning ‘em out was. Wonder, “Why she talking ‘bout cleaning ‘em out?” I wanted to ask her again, but she would scold at you. She done called herself telling you what to do. But she didn’t tell you the whole thing. So I’d just hush. And then go and try to get it out of somebody else.
She weighed 200 pounds. She was fat. But she wore dresses longer than what they’re wearing now. Just like, that one up there, that skirt she had on, she made that. And she, it was blue silk. And then she made a ruffle, that ruffle that was ‘round that skirt, she took and sewed all ‘round it…. Her hair was shoulder-length, but she always rolled it, always turned it up and pinned it back there and had this part that come around. She didn’t never cut it real short. And it didn’t, I don’t never remember seeing it when it was real long. But she was always tucking it in and trying to make a ball back there.
She didn’t have but one child. But she raised 13. Papa’s children, and then my mama Bessie and Jack, and me and Mamie. Her own child was named Hattie Mae, too.
Sarah Daisy Henderson Jacobs Silver was my great-great-grandmother’s sister.
Photo of Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver in the collection of Lisa Y. Henderson. Interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.
Bessie died when I was eight months old. And Mama Sarah took me as a baby and brought me to Wilson. And her husband was the only papa I knew. His daughters all disliked me being there, but I loved him and he loved me. But they all just said he loved me better than he did them, and I wont nothing no kin to him. But when you take a child that’s with you all the time, and every Sunday you send to the store to get you some oil to wash your feet … just nobody but me there. Nobody but Mama, Papa, and me. Mamie wasn’t even there then. She was down in Dudley with Grandma Mag. And so, I guess he just learned to love me. And he told me, if I wanted to stay with him, I could stay, and if he didn’t have but one biscuit, he’d divide it and give me one half and he’d have the other half. And that way I wanted to go with him ‘cause Mama’d fuss all the time. She was always talking, got to be doing something. And so I wanted to follow him. And so I went with him everywhere.
In late 1895, the freshly widowed Jesse Adams Jacobs Jr. married Sarah Daisy Henderson in Dudley, Wayne County. He brought children as young as a year old to the marriage, and she brought a daughter, a niece and a nephew. Around 1905, Jesse, Sarah, his youngest children and her nephew Jesse Henderson joined the flow of farm dwellers to Wilson, then entering into its golden era as the World’s Largest Tobacco Market. A couple of years later, when Sarah’s niece, Bessie Henderson, died, Jesse and Sarah took in her small children, the younger of which was my grandmother.
Jesse was born in 1856 in Sampson County to Jesse Jacobs Sr., a prosperous free colored farmer, and his wife Abigail. Many of Jesse and Abigail’s modern descendants are members of the Coharie Native American tribe. Others, like Jesse Jr.’s descendants, identify as African-American.
Jesse A. Jacobs bought a small house at 303 Elba Street in 1908. Over the years, he worked as a hostler and a janitor and for extra cash farmed small plots of land he rented on the edge of town. My grandmother was his constant companion.
And so I wanted to follow him. And so I went with him. Up there to First Baptist Church, help him dust the seats, and he’d run the sweeper and all that kind of stuff. And when he was over to another school up there, the college. He used to be janitor to the college. And then he had the school out there at Five Points. Winstead School out there at Five Points. And I would be the one at all those places. Go cut Professor Coon’s grass, I’d be right with him. And then, out to Five Points. I went out there – I was in school ‘cause I run all the way from up the school, came by the house, get me a bite to eat and run from there to clean to Five Points School where was out there – white folks. And sweep up that whole building by myself. Papa’s down there in the field, up there by – uh, what is the people be putting them … they had chains on their legs and had the white stripes – convicts. It was a place up there. And I’d go ‘round there and sweep that whole building up by myself. Papa was gon get me a bicycle so I could ride over there. ‘Cause, see, he had the horse and wagon, and so he was already over there, and he had been there by where the pigpen was down by that little stream, that little ditch. And I’d come back on the wagon at night with him. But while he was plowing, ‘cross the street over there where he had a acre of cotton. And while he was working, plowing that garden where was on the side, Professor Coon let him have whatever he put in it. He would buy all the stuff to go in the ground, if Papa would just work it. So he’d plant that, and then me and Mamie had to get up two o’clock in the morning, go down there and pick up potatoes. Light night. It’d be so bright you could see ‘em. He’d plow it up, turn that ground over, and all them old potatoes down there, put ’em in baskets, and what we couldn’t see ‘fore it got real daylight, we had to go out there and pick ‘em up when it got day.
My grandmother’s young life was difficult, and she carried scars of hurt and disappointment even into the years that I knew her. But her voice always softened when she spoke of her adored Papa, the single source of unconditional love in her childhood.
I used to brush Papa’s hair. He didn’t have much. Take one of them soft brushes, hand brushes. Two of ‘em, he brought ‘em from New York. He brought the brushes home, and I was always messing with his hair. And I’d get the brush and hold it on one side and part it off and brush it down. It was real soft. And near ‘bout all of it come off where was on top. And I was always asking a nickel, a penny: “What, ain’t you got some change in your pocket? I want to go the store.” So I was feeling his legs, feeling for pennies or nickels up there. So I said, want to know if he’d give me a nickel, or give me a penny, or whatever it is. So he run his hand in his pocket, a penny or a nickel or whatever, he’d give it to me. I’d go on to the store, and he said, “Wait. Wait a minute.” He had to have tobacco. So then he’d give me a dollar. And he told me to go down to the store down, right down there from our house. Old Man Bell’s store, the white man that run the store. “Get me a quarter. Don’t spend it all.” It’s three sections or four sections on a plug of tobacco. And they cut into it where the cracks is, and it sells for so much. And so I’d go down there to the store and get it and come back and give it to him.
Original photo of Jesse and Sarah H. Jacobs on their wedding day in the collection of Lisa Y. Henderson. Edited excerpts from interviews of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.
The hospital was on East Green Street, right around the corner from Jackson Chapel and Saint John AMEZ and Calvary Presbyterian. That last Sunday in June, two days after her first delivery, my mother lay perspiring in an iron bed, smiling uncomfortably as she accepted congratulations from church ladies making their post-service rounds. (The first reports went out: the Hendersons had a jowly yellow girl with a slick cap of black hair, a “Chink” baby, as one later indelicately put it.) She was desperate to be discharged, but had to wait for an all-clear from the pediatrician. It was not as if he were right down the ward. Dr. Pope was white, and as his black patients were forbidden to come to him, making his rounds meant driving across the tracks to them, laid up in sweltering Mercy Hospital. He arrived Sunday evening, turned me this way and that, pronounced himself satisfied, and granted us a release for the next morning. A few months later, when federal law mandated that Wilson’s new hospital open as an integrated facility, Mercy closed.
Founded in 1913 as the Wilson Hospital and Tubercular Home, Mercy was one of a handful early African-American hospitals in North Carolina and the only one in the northeast quadrant of the state. Though it struggled financially throughout its 50 years of operation, the hospital provided critical care to thousands who otherwise lacked access to treatment. A small cadre of black nurses assisted the attendant physician. One was Henrietta Colvert, shown below at far left, my great-grandfather’s sister. Henrietta was born in 1893 in Statesville, Iredell County, and received training at Saint Agnes School of Nursing in Raleigh. How she came to Wilson is unknown. This photograph suggests that she cared for Mercy’s patients in its earliest days. (The man seated in the middle is Dr. Frank S. Hargrave, a founder of the hospital, and he left for New Jersey in the early 1920s.) My father’s mother recalled that Henrietta also worked as a visiting nurse for Metropolitan Insurance Company in the 1930s and attended her children for two weeks after they were born. My great-great-aunt was still at Mercy in the 1940s, but had left Wilson by time my mother married my father and moved there in 1961, and my family had long lost contact with her when she died in 1980 in Roanoke, Virginia.
Photograph of Mercy Hospital taken in June 2013 by Lisa Y. Henderson. Photo of Mercy’s staff courtesy of the Freeman Round House Museum, Wilson NC.