Charley Wilson

Dec 10, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When a person starts out by saying, "I ain't got no story to tell," you'll want to perk up your ears. You know what's coming is going to be good.

"I ain't got no story to tell," is how Charley Wilson began his interview with John Hauberg in 1914. Hauberg was an amateur Rock Island historian, then in the process of interviewing as many of the early settlers in Rock Island County as he could find. Wilson had been the first black man to live in Rock Island. He had been a slave on a tobacco plantation in Kentucky, where he had been born in a dirt-floored slave shack in 1836—or thereabouts.

"I stayed with my old boss until 1864," Wilson said, "I left home on the Fourth of July. Lincoln hadn't freed the slaves at the time. We just pulled out and went anyway." As the slaves gathered at the train station for the trip north, the minister who had baptized most of them came by and announced he was taking their names off the list of the saved as punishment for escaping. "By jinks," said Charley, "I knew better than that."

Charley Wilson became a soldier in Company E of the 108th U.S. Volunteers, a company of ex-slaves led by white officers. Wilson ended up as a guard at the Confederate prison on Rock Island. He was mustered out of the Army in the spring of 1866 and remained in Rock Island, married, and eventually went to work at the lime kilns in nearby Port Byron.

Wilson's story did not end with his death in 1920. Six generations of descendants, many still living in Rock Island, have kept alive the faith of their ancestor. One daughter, Cynthia Wilson Moore, settled in Rock Island and produced thirteen musical and theatrical children. One of them, Harry Tim Moore, became a professional showman, with his own vaudeville act, a stint on Broadway, and the television role of the Kingfish on the Amos 'n' Andy Show. His brand of black comedy influenced later performers such as Sammy Davis, Jr., and Redd Foxx.

Did your ancestors come over on the Mayflower? Your family gatherings can hardly be richer with stories and songs and memories than the Wilson reunions.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.