Genealogist’s library lecture to explore east Wilson history

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During Black History Month, the attention is often focused on national figures, but a Wilson native is looking to shine the spotlight on folks from east Wilson and the fights they forged to better themselves and the community.

“Ordinary people lived in the same rigidly segregated times that famous people did and had to negotiate those conditions, that system and find a way to live, too,” said Lisa Henderson. “I am interested in uncovering the stories of how people in east Wilson made their way.”

Henderson will speak on this topic and more during her free presentation at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Wilson County Public Library. Even though she now lives and works in Atlanta, Henderson’s family has been in Wilson for generations and she was among the last births at Mercy Hospital before the medical center for Wilson’s black population shuttered in 1964.

“This is what I can give back to a community that nurtured me,” she said. “I grew up in a difficult period in American history, but I had a wonderful upbringing in a wonderful place.”

The 53-year-old attorney launched a blog — Black Wide-Awake at afamwilsonnc.com/ — a few years back to share stories, photographs and other information collected during her research on east Wilson. One such story is about Little Richmond that was populated by transplants brought by a Virginia tobacco stemmery company.

“One thing that always knocks me out is that there was once a community called Little Richmond, but no one has heard of it,” she said. “It was a mill village that grew up around the tobacco stemmeries built along the railroads. ...It sprang up overnight and immediately developed a terrible reputation for violence and crime, but then it disappeared.”

She said the city’s first black cemetery was on the aptly named Cemetery Street, but “no one quite knows if the bodies were exhumed or what.” Henderson works to piece together east Wilson’s history on her blog and on Thursday, she said she hopes to share those stories with a broad audience.

“Black Wilson before World War II was a really well-developed commercial center. There were more men who grew up in Wilson and went on to become doctors in the early 1900s than 50 or 60 years later,” Henderson said. “People saw the opportunities. It was a place in which people could advance economically, but it also was a place with terrible, terrible living conditions.”

Henderson said she hopes to shine a light on the various neighborhoods, talking about how and why they developed along with the people who called these communities home.

“These stories are not entirely lost,” she said. “There are people who remember, but the history is endangered.”