Skip to Main Content

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

Frank Jones

On April 23, 2014, we conducted an interview with Frank Jones at the Oliver Nestus Freeman Roundhouse Museum of African American History in Wilson, North Carolina, as part of the East Wilson Oral History Project.  He provided us with an invaluable insight into the problems with integration in Wilson in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and how the Wilson police department handled violence within the schools, in particular at Fike High School.  He also spoke at length about the decline of East Wilson after the closing of Darden High School in the 1970s, his participation in the “Moral Mondays” marches throughout North Carolina, and his unsuccessful bid for county sheriff in 1974.

Jones was raised in rural Wilson County in the 1940s and 1950s.  As a child, he lived in the Sims area, and attended a Rosenwald school located there.  His father was a farmer, and they had a very large family to help run the farm.  Jones graduated from Springfield High School in the late 1950s, and eventually went to New York City to find a job.  He secured employment at Western Electric, where he worked for several years.  On a trip back to Wilson he was told by a friend that the Wilson police department was looking to hire some new officers.  He took the police officer exam, but returned to New York City not thinking he would hear anything else about the job.  Sure enough, a few weeks later he received a phone call from Wilson stating that he had passed the test and that they wanted to hire him.  He returned to Wilson, becoming the first African-American hired by the Wilson police department since the 1950s.

When Jones became a police officer in Wilson, the nation was going through some tumultuous times.  The civil rights movement was in its latter years, and the Vietnam War was also causing mass protests around the nation.  The city of Wilson was also going through its own changes, as the last vestiges of Jim Crow were being swept away.  The integration of the city schools were not going smoothly and Jones was assigned with another officer to help maintain order at Fike High School.  On many occasions Jones was there to help quell violence between students, caught in the middle of being an enforcer and a peacemaker.  Integration was successful, but it was a long hard road, as Jones attested.

Black police officers in Wilson were originally allowed to only patrol areas east of the railroad tracks.  Nothing was said about where black officers could eat on their breaks.  Jones began to tackle these norms by eating at establishments on the west side of the railroad tracks, and soon enough the rules were changed about where officers could patrol.  Jones challenged the status quo and was successful in changing it.  However, disputes between Jones and the chief of police over how things should be handled at Fike High School led to Jones resigning from the police department.  However, his law enforcement days were not over yet.

In 1974, Jones decided that he was going to run for sheriff of Wilson County.  He had a lot of support, including many whites.  However, some of the white support was behind closed doors, and many of those supporters wished that it would stay that way.  In the election he ran against three other candidates, coming in second place.  None of the candidates received a majority of the vote, and the election was thrown into a run-off.  Jones was defeated in the run-off, and it would be another thirty-six years for an African-American to win election as the sheriff of Wilson County.

In the remainder of the interview Jones discussed how he believed that the East Wilson community has been on a rapid decline since the closing of Darden High School in the 1970s.  He has been a member of the Wilson NAACP for many years, and he now accompanies Reverend William Barber of Goldsboro on many marches across the state and nation, most notably the “Moral Monday” marches protesting the Republican-led General Assembly in Raleigh.  Jones continues to be an advocate for civil rights, trying to find that middle ground between being an enforcer and a peacemaker.