On March 10, 2014, we conducted an interview with Patricia M. Fitch at the Oliver Nestus Freeman Roundhouse Museum of African American History in Wilson, North Carolina, as part of the East Wilson Oral History Project. The interview focused on the history of Fitch’s family in Wilson and Connecticut, from the exploits of her paternal great-great grandfather escaping slavery in the antebellum South; and to her father, who fought for civil rights for African Americans in Wilson and other parts of North Carolina. She also discussed her own involvement in the civil rights movement in Wilson as one of the first black students to attend an all-white high school in the city.
Fitch was born in Wilson and grew up on Lodge Street, an area that she described as industrial, with factories, tobacco warehouses, an iron works, and even a Coca-Cola bottling plant. She did not say that her family was well-to-do, though she said that they were the first family in their neighborhood to have a television set. She said that her family was probably poor, but they made do with what they had. Her father, Milton Fitch, Sr., who hailed from New Haven, Connecticut, brought his young family to Wilson after World War II, where he took part in the “Red Bull Express,” which was a truck convoy system in France in the months after the D-Day landing in June 1944. Milton Fitch held various jobs after arriving in Wilson, including running a cab company and owning a fuel oil delivery business. He eventually became a mail carrier, the first black man in Wilson to hold this post since Reconstruction. It literally took an act of Congress for him to get the job. The Wilson postmaster refused to hire Fitch, even though he had scored very high on the exam. A family connection to Congressman Adam Clayton Powell of New York helped him to secure the job. The postmaster who refused to hire him was transferred and a new postmaster was brought to Wilson. This new postmaster hired Fitch without hesitation.
Fitch’s mother, Cora Whitted, met her father during a summer off from Bennett College in Durham, North Carolina. She spent that summer in Bridgeport, Connecticut, as a nanny for a local family. Cora was from Wilson, where her family had lived since at least the 1870s. Cora’s grandparents settled on a quarter of an acre of land on Lodge Street. Her grandmother, Cora Beckwith, was one of the founders of Jackson Chapel in Wilson. Fitch told us that Cora Beckwith spent many years washing clothes for well-to-do white clientele, while her husband, Haywood Beckwith, worked as a drayman around the city and surrounding area. Their daughter, Helen (known as Dezi [?]), was a school teacher at Sallie Barbour, the Graded School, and later at Charles H. Darden High School. Dezi received her college education at Shaw University in Raleigh. While in college, she met Walter Whitted, who was attending Hampton Institute in Virginia. He began his career teaching at a Rosenwald school, but he later became a self-taught tailor and carpenter.
Fitch also told us the story about her paternal great-great grandfather, who escaped from slavery as a child. His name was William Henry Singleton, and in the 1920s he penned a narrative of his days as a slave in the South. He was originally a slave on a plantation near New Bern, North Carolina, sold to someone in Georgia, and escaped from his bondage as a young child, eventually making his way to Connecticut. He served in the Civil War as a Union soldier, and later he became an A.M.E. minister. His slave narrative was lost for many years until discovered in a public library by a history researcher.
Fitch described her childhood as a happy one. Every year her family took vacations to Connecticut to visit family, making stops along the way in Richmond, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. Richmond was a crucial first stop during their travels. They had family in Richmond, but it was also where they took their first restroom break on their trips. Her father did not want his family to have to relieve themselves on the side of the road or use segregated restrooms at restaurants or gas stations. Her father made a very good effort at making sure that his children were not subjected to the ways of Jim Crow.
Another way that her father shielded the family from Jim Crow was not allowing Fitch and her sisters to go shopping at stores in Wilson. She said that she never went to a store to shop until she was in the ninth grade. Her father did not want them to be told that they could not try on clothes by the employees at these white-owned stores. Her grandmother purchased material from Leder’s in Wilson to make clothes for Fitch and her sisters to alleviate this problem.
Church and school were very central to growing up in the Fitch family. Fitch and her siblings attended Jackson Chapel while growing up. Fitch attended Elvie School and later Adams School as a child. She also described what it was like to have her mother as her sixth grade teacher. Her mother was a schoolteacher in Wilson for many years.
Fitch was part of the original group of African American students to integrate Fike High School in Wilson. In the 1965-66 school year, Fitch and her sister, Ernestine, exercised their “freedom of choice” to leave Darden High School in their senior and junior years, respectively, to attend Fike. Fitch gave up a lot by leaving Darden. She said that she felt she “lost her voice” when she went to Fike. Many black students wondered what was different by attending a white school. She said that the black schools always received used textbooks that came from white schools. She also said that there was difference academically at the white schools, but she ultimately chose to attend a historically black college for her undergraduate studies, spending four years at Hampton University in Virginia.
After college, Fitch went to law school to become a lawyer, spending several years as a general counsel for the port authority in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She returned to Wilson so her daughter could attend school, while she worked with Fannie Corbett in helping to rehabilitate the old Mercy Hospital building, and later with Howard Jones at the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) of Wilson.
The interview with Patricia Fitch opened up a window into what it was like to grow up in East Wilson during the latter years of Jim Crow. Her family persevered, continuing the tradition started by her great-great grandfather as he escaped slavery to make a name for himself. Fitch and her family have made a name for themselves in Wilson and wherever they have gone to live, helping to defeat Jim Crow and rise to the highest levels of their professions.