Tracing their Wilson roots: Towering tree marks African-American couple’s grave in white cemetery

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Paul Sherrod wipes away pine needs from the gravestones for his grandparents at the Winstead Family Cemetery in Wilson on Sept. 19.
Paul Sherrod wipes away pine needs from the gravestones for his grandparents at the Winstead Family Cemetery in Wilson on Sept. 19.
Drew C. Wilson | Times

Paul Sherrod and his nephew spent a day last month cleaning brush off their ancestors’ graves.

“Every time I come here to Wilson I come here to visit this cemetery because it is so special to me,” Sherrod said as he walked up to the resting place for his grandparents, Joseph Tobe Smith, 1871-1956, and Martha Elizabeth Wheeler Smith, 1875-1932.

A massive pine tree stands over the top of the gravesite, which is in the Winstead family cemetery, also referred to as the Parkwood Cemetery, surrounded by the parking lot of the now-closed Wilson Mall.

“I remember as a kid this being farmland,” Sherrod said. “My grandfather was a sharecropper on land owned by the Winstead family. My grandfather was allowed to plant this tallest tree here, we believe, sometime between 1918 and 1922, and he was promised that he could be buried there right along with my grandmother. So proud of this, to know that my grandfather planted that tree.”

Sherrod is not sure who it was in the Winstead family who offered and then kept that promise, but he suspects it might have been Charles Winstead Sr.

“They owned land from here all the way down to Raleigh Road. I had two uncles who sharecropped almost all the way down to the parkway,” Sherrod said.

It is remarkable to Sherrod that early in the 20th century, a black couple would be permitted to have a final resting place in a white cemetery.

“That is really truly amazing because here we are in 1929, in the middle of the Depression and some oppression, you have this act of compassion and courage from this Winstead family to allow this to happen,” Sherrod said. “Looking back on it, I think they must have had, what you call it now, some flack about that, but they were courageous enough to see it through because they made a promise to my grandfather and they held to their promise. And moving forward to the mall being here, as the developers were putting it together, I understand that the Winstead family made a stipulation when they sold them the land that the graves and the bodies will not be exhumed, so here they are. I don’t know which family members it was, but they, again, had the same courage as their forefathers. So that’s remarkable, in 1929, having an African-American buried in a white cemetery.”

Sherrod never knew his grandmother, as she died before Sherrod was born.

“I only know about my grandfather,” Sherrod said. “I remember so much about him because he was actually both a father and a grandfather to me because my father died when I was quite young. He died in 1945. Right after that I started to live with my grandfather, and he mentored me in so, so many ways. He would take me with him as he would take his wagon and his mule and cultivate gardens. He was a farmer, but he was not farming anymore, so he was cultivating people’s gardens, and I learned so much from him about agriculture, how to grow things. I had my own garden. He would help me take care of the tomatoes and the okra. He was a wonderful person.”

They lived together from about 1944 to 1950 when Sherrod was 13 to 18 years old.

“It was a pleasure living with him because I learned so much,” Sherrod said. “He was so patient with me. I understand now, that he could see that I was different. I loved the books, and he wanted to give me the opportunity to do my homework, so he had to always make sure there was enough kerosene in the lamp. A little step up from Lincoln and the candle, but a similar situation.”

Sherrod laughed.

“The house was about a mile and half from here, east of here in New Grab Neck,” Sherrod said. “Later it was called Jefferson Street, and now it’s called Forest Hills. They have changed the name a couple of times.”

Sherrod, who is now 84, said growing up in Wilson in the 1940s wasn’t as bad as it might have seemed that it could have been.

“Our neighborhood was partially integrated. About a quarter of a mile up the street from where we lived, there was a white family. As a matter of fact, my grandfather had lived in that very house back in the early ’40s,” Sherrod said. “The only real signs of segregation were more the public places. We had a colored and white drinking fountain in front of the courthouse. Now it is a memorial to veterans, I believe. You could not sit in a restaurant. You had to go back to the back to get your food handed out the back door to you. And when buses came along, we had to ride in the back of the bus. So those were outward signs of the segregation, but there was never really any brutality. You weren’t afraid to walk around. You knew your place. You understood that. It wasn’t really as bad as it could have been because I have heard some real horror stories from other cities around the country later on. Not then. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”

The pine tree that Joseph Smith planted is at least 4 feet thick and the most prominent tree in the graveyard. There is a crack up its middle, perhaps made by a lightning strike many years ago.

When his grandfather died in 1956, Sherrod was overseas serving in the Air Force and could not attend the funeral.

“Before, they just had a simple marker,” Sherrod said.

Family members placed a granite marker at the site several years ago, and Sherrod recently purchased an additional stone marker to note the couple’s birth and death dates.

When Sherrod and his nephew, Bradley Sherrod of Wilson, spent the day clearing the brush around the gravesite, they left one little sapling.

“We toyed with the idea of taking it out, but my nephew and I decided no. Let that grow and see what happens. It’s obviously from the seed of this tree, so we left that one alone, that little baby pine, and over the years I’ll see what happens,” Sherrod said. “I hope the Lord allows me to be on this Earth long enough to see it be a pretty big tree. It’s growing nicely.”

Sherrod, who now resides in California, recently held a large family reunion on the site of the Sherrod family homeplace near Stantonsburg. He had spent the whole summer preparing for the event.

That is from his father’s side of the family. The Smiths are from his mother’s side of the family in Wilson.

“I firmly believe that if more people explored the roots from which they came, there would probably be a better world,” Sherrod said. “There is so much rich history on all sides on all ethnic groups, and if we had that history, we would have an opportunity to have a better understanding. It would be wonderful if people would do that on a large scale.”