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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

Congressman G. K. Butterfield

On January 24, 2014, we conducted an interview with Congressman G. K. (George Kenneth) Butterfield, Jr. (Democrat, North Carolina, First Congressional District) at his District Office in Wilson, North Carolina, as part of the East Wilson Oral History Project.  This interview was different from other interviews we have conducted in that the question and answer interview approach was not used.  Congressman Butterfield spoke extemporaneously for well over an hour on the history of his family and East Wilson from the end of the Civil War to the present day.  He provided a wealth of information about the black congressmen who represented the area in the U.S. Congress in the late 1800s, Booker T. Washington’s visit to Wilson in 1910 and the subsequent development of Rosenwald schools in the area, education reform in Wilson, and the decades long struggle that began with his father to get an African-American on the Wilson City Council.  He also offered his personal observations on how integration affected the African-American community in East Wilson.  This paper is a detailed synopsis of that interview, with limited research being conducted to support or refute what he said.  Additional research is needed to fully develop Butterfield’s recollections and personal involvement in the history of East Wilson, the city of Wilson, Wilson County, and the state of North Carolina.

Congressman Butterfield’s family has a rich history that can be traced back to the end of the Civil War when Wilson and Wilson County were still new entities on the map.  His maternal great-grandmother, Judah Davis, was a former slave who had a child with a white man (and possible former slave owner), Joe Davis.  Their son, Fred M. Davis, was of mixed race.  He became a prominent minister in Wilson, and later led what became Jackson Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.  His daughter, Addie Lourine Davis, was born in 1901.  She met George Kenneth Butterfield, Sr., an immigrant from Bermuda, in 1927 while attending Shaw University in Raleigh.  He came to Wilson with Addie in 1928, where they soon married and began their careers.  G. K., Sr. became a very prominent dentist in the East Wilson community, while Addie spent her years as a teacher in the Wilson school system.  In 1947 their son, G.K., Jr., was born.

After sharing this brief history of his family, Butterfield next turned to a discussion of the black men who represented the old 2nd Congressional District during Reconstruction until the turn of the 19th Century.  With distinguished names like John Adams Hyman, James Edward O’Hara, Henry Plummer Cheatham, and George Henry White, African-Americans represented the area in Congress until literacy tests and the rise of white supremacy pushed them out of office.  This also ended the practice of black men holding the position of postmaster in this area and throughout the South.  It led to the ouster of Samuel H. Vick as postmaster in Wilson.  According to Butterfield, Vick was replaced as postmaster by a white racist bartender, and this signaled the end of African-Americans holding political positions in Wilson for the next forty years.

As the 20th Century moved forward, the struggle for black equality in Wilson would not be in politics but in education.  As Butterfield explained, when Booker T. Washington visited Wilson as part of his Southern Education Tour across North Carolina in December 1910, education was at the forefront of the East Wilson community.  After attending the groundbreaking of Jackson Chapel at the corner of Nash and Pender Streets, Washington gave a stirring speech calling for conciliation between the black and white races.  He called upon blacks to get an education so that they could take care of themselves.  While in Wilson, Washington asked the citizens of Wilson what they needed the most.  Their response: new schools for their children.  As Butterfield noted, Washington returned to Tuskegee, Alabama, and asked Julian Rosenwald, chairman of the board of the Tuskegee Institute and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, to endow money for new black schools in rural areas of the South.  Rosenwald agreed, and the Rosenwald schools were born.  As part of the Rosenwald Fund, Rosenwald called for participation by the black communities, where the schools were to be located, and also from the local boards of education.  No doubt prompted by Washington’s visit to Wilson and North Carolina, fourteen Rosenwald schools were built in Wilson County, while North Carolina had the most Rosenwald schools of any other Southern state.  These two-room schools gave blacks a better education than the church-sponsored schools.  Even though they were an improvement on the one-room schools that existed before the Rosenwald schools were established, many blacks living in the county claimed they had relatives living in the city so that they could attend the Wilson Graded School.  The Rosenwald schools remained in use until the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Butterfield continued his discussion of education issues in the black community by telling the story of the slapping incident that involved a teacher, a Ms. Norwood, who came to Wilson from the North, and the school superintendent, Charles L. Coon.  This incident is well documented in other sources, but it arose as a dispute between Norwood and Coon over Norwood’s promotion of all her students to the next grade, which more than likely was statistically impossible.  This led to the black community withdrawing their children from the Graded School.  Samuel Vick helped to establish a private school for the children on Green Street.  However, as Butterfield noted, this school was not up to the standards that the state expected from an educational institution, and the state Board of Education asked that the children resume attendance at the Graded School.  In return for sending their children back to the Graded School, black parents wanted a high school for their children to further their education.  The Graded School only went through the sixth grade.  The result was the construction of Wilson High School in 1923, which later became Charles H. Darden High School.

The black residents out in the county also wished to have a high school for their children.  All that they had were the two-room Rosenwald schools.  A lawsuit was filed to get a black high school built in the county.  A settlement was agreed upon wherein two consolidated schools (grades 1-12) were to be built, one in the western part of the county, and one in the east.  There was great difficulty in getting the schools built, as no white landowners would sell their land.  Eventually, a black landowner named Mr. Williamson sold his land for the western school, which became Springfield School.  The school built in the east became Speight School.  Congressman Butterfield can claim relations and long-standing family friendships with those involved in the establishment and administration of the consolidated schools.  One of the parents who helped to finance and litigate the case to get the schools built was Butterfield’s father-in-law, Floyd W. Farmer.  The principal of Springfield School was Robert E. Vick, the son of Samuel Vick.  The principal of Speight School was Arnold G. Walker, a son-in-law of Samuel Vick.

As the discussion with Congressman Butterfield continued, he turned to the struggle of black representation in Wilson city government.  When Butterfield’s father arrived in Wilson, he was welcomed with open arms by the white political establishment.  Many of them noted that they were related to Butterfield’s mother through her grandfather, Joe Davis.  They arranged for G. K., Sr. to become a registered voter in Wilson County.  As Butterfield happily noted, his father was the 40th African-American to be registered to vote in Wilson County.  His father then encouraged other blacks to register, but he was stopped in his tracks by the same white political establishment that had encouraged him to register.  After Butterfield’s parents were married, they lived in her parents’ home for the next 12 to 13 years.  This was probably due to the painful years of the Great Depression.  Butterfield noted how his father was paid with chickens and other animal meat for payment of his services as a dentist.  After becoming successful in his field, Butterfield’s father had a home built in 1942.  However, he was still bothered by the lack of black participation at the voting booth in Wilson and helped to establish the Wilson branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to help register African-Americans to vote in Wilson.

According to Butterfield, the ward system of voting in Wilson was setup to keep any black candidates from winning a seat in city government.  There were six voting wards in the city.  Ward 3, which encompassed most of East Wilson, ran from Dick’s Hot Dog Stand on Nash Street, and went all the way east to U.S. 301.  The ward’s boundaries were only two or three blocks wide in most places, which was an attempt to make sure that whites outnumbered blacks at the polls.  Observing that it was time for an African-American to be in city hall, Butterfield’s father ran for the Ward 3 seat on the Board of Alderman in 1953.  He ran against a white man, Mr. Rountree.  As the votes were tallied on election night, G. K., Sr. had garnered enough votes that the result was a tie with Rountree.  According to established custom at the time, a child must pull a name out of a hat to determine the winner.  A little white girl pulled Butterfield’s father’s name from the hat, and he became the fourth African-American in North Carolina elected in a municipality since Reconstruction as a city alderman.

As the election of 1955 approached, the white candidate for mayor, John D. Wilson, told Butterfield’s father that if he could get the black community to support him for mayor, Wilson would get his white friends in the ward to support Butterfield’s reelection as an alderman.  G. K., Sr. took Wilson up on his offer, and he was reelected that fall.  For his efforts on behalf of getting Wilson elected as mayor, G. K., Sr. was appointed chairman of the city Finance Committee, which prepared the city’s annual budget for submission to the General Assembly in Raleigh (this practice is no longer in effect).  While on the board, he was an advocate for the recreation centers in Wilson, and was instrumental in the expansion of the Reid Street Recreation Center in East Wilson.  However, as the 1957 election approached, the board had new plans for elections in Wilson.  While the Butterfield’s were on vacation in New York City, the board changed the voting system in Wilson from wards to at-large candidates.  This would give black candidates no chance of winning elected office in Wilson.  Butterfield’s father lost the election in 1957, coming in next to last place.  Congressman Butterfield noted that at the age of ten, when his father lost his seat, he decided that he wanted to go into politics and become a lawyer.

Butterfield explained that the black community in Wilson was not going to give up their right to be represented in city government.  The Reverend Talmadge Watkins ran for the seat in 1959 and lost.  Not to be deterred, Wilson’s black leaders sued the city, and in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, T. A. Watkins v. City of Wilson (1962), the NAACP argued that the at-large system of voting was prejudicial to African-Americans.  On a ballot that could have up to twelve candidates, voters had to choose six to be elected to the council.  If six candidates were not chosen on the ballot it was declared invalid.  Blacks in Wilson were most likely only going to vote for a black candidate on the ballot.  This was known as single shot or bullet voting.  Most of their ballots were not going to be included in the final vote count.  Lawyers representing the NAACP, Romallus O. Murphy and John F. Doyle, failed to convince the North Carolina Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in their favor, with the courts stating that the plaintiffs could not prove they lost the election because of at-large voting.

Congressman Butterfield stated that it was another thirteen years until a black candidate was again seriously considered for a seat on the Wilson City Council.  In 1975, a pro-business group, Wilson Forward, was formed to help put a pro-business slate in city hall and throw out the incumbents.  Three white candidates were recruited (two male, one female).  They also wanted to add a black candidate to the group.  They hoped that if an African-American was added to the ballot, the black community would support the white candidates and get them all in city hall.  Apparently the group fielded many African-Americans for the seat.  They finally found a candidate in A. P. (Avant) Coleman.  However, the black community had already recruited their own candidate separate from the Wilson Forward group.  The black community chose Milton Daniels, a retired educator who had been a principal at Elvie Street School.  That fall there were nine candidates on the ballot: the four pro-business Wilson Forward candidates, the four incumbents, and Mr. Daniels.  The Wilson Forward group won all of the seats, changing the course of city government for many years to come.

Congressman Butterfield told us that A. P. Coleman stayed on the council for only one term.  He told Butterfield that he wanted to finish his education and go to graduate school, however, there was another reason he chose not to run for reelection in 1976.  His employer, the county Extension Service, pressured Coleman to not run because they thought that he should not be involved in politics.  Butterfield decided that he would take his chances in running for the seat himself.  He lost the election that fall by about 400 votes.  In 1979, Butterfield was the campaign manager for the next African-American to pursue the city council seat, Milton Fitch, Sr.  Fitch played an important role in the civil rights movement in Wilson and throughout North Carolina.  He ultimately lost the election by a mere nine votes.  Coleman later ran again and reclaimed his seat on the city council, where he continues to serve today.

As mentioned earlier, Butterfield said that “one of the reasons for going to law school was to avenge his father’s defeat” in 1957.  At that time only Butterfield and his then-wife, Jean Farmer-Butterfield, who currently represents Wilson and Pitt counties in the N.C. House of Representatives, knew about his true intentions for going to law school.  His bold plan was to sue the city council and force it to revert back to the ward system instead of at-large elections.  He traveled to New York City to meet with the NAACP legal defense fund to help him with the case.  The NAACP thought there was a better case against the county commissioners, which had been using staggered terms, making it difficult to get an African-American elected to the commission.  They alluded to the fact that the county commission’s decision to use staggered terms had not been pre-cleared by the U.S. Justice Department under the terms listed in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  In 1985 they won the case on summary judgment in U.S. District Court.  The court stipulated that the county must switch from at-large to district voting, and that three districts must be comprised of a majority of African-Americans.

Butterfield again had his sights on the city council.  However, under threat of a lawsuit, the city council changed their method of election from at-large voting to district elections.  The county board of education soon followed suit.  There was one final hurdle to be crossed to enable African-Americans to have a voice in county government.  Butterfield was part of a group that advocated the creation of majority black judicial districts across the state.  He pushed for a plan that allowed for a district to be created that encompassed Wilson and Edgecombe counties.  He lobbied for and was chosen to draw the borders for what became Judicial District 7B.  In total, there were eight judicial districts formed across the state with African-American majorities.

Butterfield thought that since he had led the fight to get a black majority judicial district for Wilson County, he should take the initiative and run for the district judge position.  He was elected as Resident Superior Court Judge in 1988, a seat that he held until 2001.  In 2001, he was appointed by the governor to serve on the North Carolina Supreme Court.  In 2002, he ran for the seat but was defeated.  Governor Mike Easley then appointed Butterfield as a Special Judge for the district in 2003.  His old seat was now occupied by Milton “Toby” Fitch, Jr., where he continues to serve today.  In 2004, after the resignation of Congressman Frank Balance, Governor Easley appointed Butterfield to the First Congressional District seat.  Later that year, Butterfield was elected to the seat, and has been reelected to Congress five times.

 We closed the interview with Congressman Butterfield by asking about his views on how integration has changed East Wilson.  In previous interviews for the East Wilson Oral History Project, we have been told that East Wilson was a more insulated community that took care of itself during the Jim Crow era.  That all changed after integration, as businesses were shuttered and the community took an economic and social downturn that it has never been able to recover from.  In Butterfield’s own words:

Integration has become both a blessing and a curse [for the African-American community].  Prior to integration we had a very cohesive African-American community.  There was a lot of pride, legacy…there was a lot of unity in the African-American community.  There was a lot of energy in the black community before integration.  You began to see a diminution of unity and purpose in the African-American community.  We have never recovered from it.  The white response to that [integration] was private schools and academies.  Black kids still don’t have the benefit of what integration was supposed to be.

The interview with Congressman Butterfield has provided us with a wealth of information about the trials and tribulations of the African-American community in Wilson.  His knowledge of the historical record and his personal experiences in this struggle are a valuable contribution to this project.  It is hoped that current and future generations will take the time to learn about the history of African-Americans in Wilson.  They will learn that the accepted norms of their day have not always been the way things were.  The events that Butterfield spoke about, from the pre-Jim Crow days of the late 19th Century to his successful litigation of voting rights in Wilson, seem like ancient history to many of our youth.  To these young people, African-Americans have always had equal rights and could do whatever they wanted.  This was not so just a few short decades ago.  Just as our youth may think that relations between the white and black races have always been good, many Americans in the early to mid-20th Century thought that blacks had always been segregated from their white neighbors.  It is an invaluable part of the written record to have these oral histories documented for future generations.  Only when we know our “real” past can we truly move forward.