Betts

Gustavious Adolphus Betts, Sr. (March 17, 1900 - November 13, 1988) was one of the better known members of the Betts family, which was prominent in the history of Almagro, a predominantly African-American section of Danville.

The first of the Betts family to arrive in the Danville area was Henry Betts, who at the time of the 1870 census was living in the Hyco Township of Halifax County with Janie, his wife, and six children: Rufus, age 14, Elizabeth, age 12, Henry, age 10, Rachel, age 8, Mary, age 6, and Robert, age 9 months. Henry, Sr. was listed as a “farmer” with assets of $100. Henry Betts’s will, found on page 419 of Pittsylvania County Will Book 5, indicates that Jane, or Janie, was Henry’s second wife because the will awards $10 each to “four children by his first wife: Rufus, Lizzie, Henry and Ella.” The will mentions a house and gardens on the west side of Betts Alley and also daughters: Nannie J. Washington, Annie B. McKee and Loula Young. Curiously, in the 1870 census, the adults were classified as "mulatto" because their complexion was relatively light but the children were all listed as “black.”

Prior to the Civil War, this Betts family was probably associated with the white descandents of William Betts who lived at Snow Hill in Halifax County and from whom they probably derived their surname. It is not known at this time when, where or how the family became mulatto. When the 1880 census was compiled, Henry, age 49, living in the Tunstall District of Pittsylvania County, was working in a tobacco factory. He and his wife Jane had three more children living with them who were born after 18870: Eliza, age 8, William, age 6, and Lulu, age 3. Everyone in the family was listed as “mulatto.”

By the time of the 1900 census (the 1890 census was destroyed by fire), William M. Betts (April 1874 - April 1957), married to his wife Charity for five years, had two sons: Robert W., age 2, and Thomas H., age 1. Census records on the birthplace of William and his parents are inconsistent with the 1900 and 1920 census records that indicate they were born in North Carolina, but the 1910 census states that they were born in Virginia. Since the 1870 and 1880 census records indicate that Henry, William’s father, was born in Virginia, the North Carolina birth references may be in error.

The 1900 census has Henry and William, listed as black, living close to each other in Almagro, with Henry listed as a shoemaker and his wife, Jane, and daughter, Nannie, listed as laundresses. William was listed as a merchant. In the 1910 census, William is listed as a mulatto grocery merchant, but in the 1920 census, he is listed as being both a merchant and a farmer. His oldest son, Robert W., is listed as being a salesman in a grocery store and two younger sons, Thomas H., age 19, and Gustavious A., age 17, are listed as being laborers on a home farm. All of these references and those from other sources indicate that the Betts family operated both a farm and a store in Almagro during the early Twentieth Century.

The village of Almagro, which was not incorporated into the City of Danville until the annexations of 1932, was a predominantly black community “on the other side of the tracks,” separated from the rest of the city by the Southern (now Norfolk-Southern) Railroad. A number of explanations have been given for the community’s name. One is that it is a misspelling of “all negro.” Another is that it is a Spanish name. Almagro is a fairly common Spanish surname; a number of cities and towns in Spain and South America bear the name, but there isn’t any obvious Spanish connection to the village. An interesting, but unexplained, mystery is that a white man named Lloyd Bateman and his wife, with no known connection to Spanish Almagros or the village of Almagro, named one of their sons Almagro in the 1850's. We may never know with absolute certainty how the village of Almagro got its name.

In the late nineteenth century, the area may have been known as Jacksonville. Today, there is a Jackson’s Branch which runs near the northern border of the village. Before it was annexed into the city, Almagro was the largest incorporated black community in the state with its own post office, town council and police force. The Betts family ran a general store and had a large orchard on their property. Many other families had large gardens, fruit trees, grape arbors, and flower gardens, making the area a garden spot.

Almagro was a very cohesive neighborhood--a very close-knit community with close relationships between the families. Most of the people who lived in the township worked in tobacco warehouses or in the Dan River textile mills or owned their own businesses. Many of the streets still bear the names of families such as Epps, Mabin, Vassar, Tilden and Broadnax. The area also contains streets which appear to be derived from the alphabet, namely Aye, Seay and Dee Streets. Many former residents are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, a city cemetery founded in 1901 adjacent to the village of Almagro.

The Betts family was prominent in Almagro for a number of generations. William operated a general store on the corner of what are now Mabin and Betts Streets and was also the village postmaster. His son, Gustavious (Gus) rose to great prominence in the neighborhood. He, like his dad, ran the general store and was also a Western Union delivery man, a Worshipful Master of Prince Hall Almagro Lodge No. 217, and a caner of chairs. His store, like so many small general stores in small neighborhoods, became a gathering place in the community for conversation and fellowship. When he died in a house fire, the materials he had accumulated as the village historian perished with him, but the site was later converted into a small park where citizens of Almagro still meet.

Betts Street runs east and west through the center of Almagro, and Broadnax, Walters, Smith, Mabin, Epps, Winslow, Grace and Aye Streets all intersect with it. It was formerly known as High Street and Main Street prior to being annexed by Danville. Danville already had a High Street and a Main Street as well as North Main, South Main and West Main Streets, and at one time an East Main Street, so the street was given the Betts name in honor of the family which had been so prominent. The main focal points of life in Almagro, Shiloh Baptist Church, Betts’ Store, Winslow Hospital, Almagro Masonic Lodge, the Post Office and the public school were all clustered on or near this street. In 2005, Betts Street contained two businesses and 29 residences.