by Bruce Whitaker
James “Jim” Aiken was born in Transylvania County, NC on March 1, 1861. He was the son of Jane Aiken Hall (1839-1933) and her owner Benjamin Aiken. Jim’s mother married James B. Hall on June 22, 1876. Jane Aiken had been forced to support herself and her two sons up until that point. Jim Hall took part of the weight of supporting her family from Jane’s shoulders and improved conditions for Jim Aiken and his brother Pinkney.
Jim Aiken was apparently married at least twice. The 1900 Census for Transylvania County lists Jim Aiken’s household with a daughter named Jeannie born April 1883 and Willie Aiken born April 1891. Some sources say his first wife was Dafney Bailey Keyth or Keith (1865-1891). She was said to be mother of these two children. Jim Aiken married Mary Smith on May 1, 1891. Mary was the daughter of Pinkney Smith and Emmaline Hunt. Mary was born in Transylvania County, November 1875.
Jim Aiken got started in business selling apple cider and gingerbread made by his mother. He then opened the first barber shop in Brevard for white people, on Main Street. Aiken then opened the first café in Brevard. The café had a brisk business, especially during court week. The café’s customers were almost all white because of the tiny black population in the county. After around five years in business Jim constructed a combination store, café, and barber shop building. Aiken then opened the town’s first bakery, which sold bread, cakes, pies and cookies.
He also opened a dry goods and general store. Jim started a drayage service which transferred mail between the railroad depot and the Brevard post office. His wagons also hauled whatever goods and materials the people in Brevard needed transporting. Jim Aiken even got in the coffin business. He was also a member of the Brevard fire department. He kept a ladder at his store in case it was needed for fighting a fire. Aiken also kept boarders at his house and owned a number of rental houses.
The Brevard chapter of the Order of the Odd Fellows was started in 1898. It was a secret black society and Jim Aiken was a Noble Grand in the organization. The group met upstairs over Aiken’s store. In 1905 the Mountain Lily Chapter of the Masons was started in Brevard. Jim Aiken was a charter member of the Mason group and was a member of the committee of men who governed Brevard’s first black school.
In the early morning of August 25, 1909, a fire broke out at the home of Jim Axum on the hill north of the courthouse. The chemical fire engine was rushed to the scene of the fire. Just as the hose was being put in readiness to spray on the fire, a terrific explosion occurred. Aiken was behind the engine unwinding the hose when the cylinder blew off. Jim Aiken was thrown and killed instantly.
When the other firemen reached Jim, they found his neck broken and one arm nearly severed from his body. The rest of his body was badly mangled as well. Fire Chief Galloway was knocked down and run over by the machine and injured on the hip and leg. C. B. Wilson was injured in the face, chest and leg. And J. W. Smith was badly cut on the face. J. W. Chapman suffered a broken leg. The other fire fighters were knocked to the ground.
At the funeral for this son of a slave and a slave owner, every store and government building in Brevard
James P. Aiken’s funeral was held at the white Brevard First Baptist Church because it was the largest church in Transylvania County. The church was packed. The windows of the church were opened to allow hundreds of people left standing outside to hear. Since the black population of Transylvania County was small, the mourners were mostly white. Every store in Brevard closed for the funeral as well as all government buildings.
Mary Smith Aiken, Jim’s wife, put the following notice in the Brevard paper: “Card of Thanks—To the many friends, both white and colored, who so kindly came to our assistance after the calamity which deprived us of husband and father, J.P. Aiken, we would express our thanks. May our Heavenly Father bless and comfort them in all earthly afflictions is the prayer of Mary Aiken and family.”
See the February issue of the Town Crier for part 2.
Local historian Bruce Whitaker documents genealogy in the Fairview area. You can reach him at 628-1089 or email him at [email protected].