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Willis N. Hackney Library

Crossing the Tracks: An Oral History of East and West Wilson, North Carolina

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” James Baldwin

Charles E. Davis

On June 2, 2014, we conducted an interview with Charles Davis at his home in Wilson, North Carolina, as part of the East Wilson Oral History Project.  Davis was born and raised in Wilson, spending his early years in the area once known as “Daniel Hill,” which was a two block area between Daniel Street, Warren Street, Hines Street, and the Carolina Coastal Railway tracks.  This area was inhabited entirely by black families, with a white community completely surrounding it.  Davis was one of twelve children, with four of them, including Davis, born as albinos.  He spent his early years not only enduring name-calling and prejudice from whites, but also from other blacks.  Davis’s family originally hailed from the Fremont area of Wayne County.  His father, who died when Davis was six years old, worked at the Central Brick Warehouse.  His mother spent three to four months out of the year working at the Export tobacco warehouse, spending the remainder of the year as a domestic in white homes.

Davis’s family grew up poor, but they were not the poorest in their neighborhood.  He said that others in the neighborhood had much less than his family.  With his father dying when he was just a small child, his mother had to work to provide for twelve children.  Their home was a small wood house, with just a couple of rooms for the entire family.  Davis was old enough to remember when they first got electricity and plumbing in their home, which was a great improvement over not having either.  When the children were old enough they worked to help provide for the family, and they eventually were able to move to another home on Carolina Street in 1958.

Davis shared a story of how the city of Wilson had plans to redevelop the Daniel Hill neighborhood in the late 1950s.  The plan was to move out all of the black families, raze all of their homes, and redevelop the land for a new white community.  Bess (sp.) Stewart, a local grocer, owned a considerable amount of acreage in the Daniel Hill neighborhood.  He refused to sell his land, and went to court to fight for his property.  He was forced to sell the land through eminent domain, which he was paid for.  He was given the right of first refusal to buy a lot, and he convinced Louis Neal to purchase the second lot.  Because Stewart and Neal were both black, no whites even considered buying lots on the redeveloped land, and most of the black families who were forced to move bought lots there and built new houses.  The area formerly known as Daniel Hill remains a black community to this day.

In terms of what the city went through during the struggle for integration, Davis said that Wilson was “a practical city” that did not like extremes.  Just as North Carolina was considered a progressive state during the 1950s and 1960s, Davis said that Wilson was “middle of the road.”  The white community might have more than the black community, but white leaders made sure to give something back to blacks also.  An example of this is when the recreation center, known to many in the black community as the “white” rec, was built on Sunset Drive, just blocks from Daniel Hill.  Blacks could not use this recreation center, so city leaders made improvements at the Reid Street recreation center for the black community.  Also, when Fike High School was built in the early 1960s, improvements were made at Darden High School, including an auditorium that could seat over 1000 people.

After the lunch counter sit-ins that began in Greensboro in February 1960, young blacks in Wilson were moved to bring changes to their community, including Davis.  Managed by Reverend T. A. Watkins and Milton Fitch, Sr., the black youth of Wilson took to the streets every weekend to protest the injustices that they and the rest of the black community had endured for too long.  On Saturdays they sat-in at local lunch counters and the local drive-ins.  On Sundays they protested at white movie theatres and even white churches.  Davis said that even though they protested to have access to the same public and private facilities that whites had, in the end many blacks never went to these white-owned establishments after Jim Crow fell.  Davis felt that if he was not given permission to be a customer at these establishments during Jim Crow, he was not going to go to these places once it became illegal to bar blacks from them.  Just because the laws changed did not mean that white attitudes had changed.

Davis believes that integration has not come full circle in Wilson after all these years.  There might be integration in many neighborhoods in the city, but one need only look at the membership of many private clubs in Wilson to see that blacks are still not accepted.  Integration may never be complete in Wilson or other parts of the South, while racism will never fully be erased.  However, the marches that Davis took part in over 50 years ago show what happens when a community is fed up with the way it has been treated and demands a change.  Wilson is not a backwater Southern town, it just takes its time to change things.  Then again, if no one is demanding change then change will not occur.