The life and times of Wilton M. Bethel, part 1.

Black Wide-Awake benefits from the largesse of so many, and J. Robert Boykin III is at the forefront of its benefactors. Recently, Bobby shared a box of photographs left in a sidewalk trash pile after the death of Wilton Maxwell Bethel in 1986. A native of the Bahamas, Bethel was a long-time salesman for North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, son-in-law of John H. Clark, and a devoted Episcopalian.

I pulled from the box several sleeves of loose sepia snapshots, several formal portraits mounted in cardboard folders, several large group photos, and a photo album. At first glance, no faces seemed familiar, but as I continue to sit with the box, it’s giving up its secrets. I’ll share them in groups, starting with the photo album.

Wilton M. Bethel’s photo album.

Five year-old Wilton M. Bethel arrived in the United States on 6 April 1911 with his mother Phillis E. Bethel, 33, described as a widowed washwoman; his eight year-old brother Alfred M. Bethel; and his four year-old niece Flosie L. Bethel. The family’s last residence was Eleuthera, Bahamas, and their “nationality” was British West Indies. Their nearest relative in their home country was Phillis Bethel’s sister Sarah J. Gardner, Cat Island, Bahamas. The Bethels’ final destination was listed as Eleuthera, which suggests a return trip home, but the family appears to have remained permanently in Miami, Florida. Phillis Bethel reported being in possession of ten U.S. dollars and stated that the family had not visited the country before. They were headed to visit her son George Bethel in Miami.

Detail of List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States Immigration Officer at Port of Arrival.

In the 1920 census of Miami, Florida: at 630 2nd Street, Philis E. Bethel, 57; sons Arvis, 20, hotel bellman, Alfred, 18, aviation camp laborer, and Wilton, 15, jewelry store porter; and daughter Jessie, 19. All reported arriving in the U.S. in 1911 from the Bahamas and were “aliens.”

This photo broke the code. On the reverse:

It’s the young Wilton M. Bethel, “a pal indeed,” in January 1924, when he was 18. His mother ordered four copies, it appears.

Speaking of Phillis E. Bethel, this may be her image. The shotgun houses at rear, as the palm tree at right discloses, are not in Wilson. Rather, they are the type built by early Bahamian immigrants in Miami neighborhoods such as Coconut Grove.

Wilton Bethel at right at the beach with a man, a child, and a woman in a cloche, pearls, stockings, and high-heeled mary janes.

In 1924, Bethel arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina, to enroll in the high school division of Saint Augustine’s College’s, which did not yet offer baccalaureate degrees. (Bethel was already 19 years old, but older students were not uncommon in an era in which childhood illness, family finances, and the scarcity of public high schools for Black students often delayed completion of secondary education.) He is listed in school catalogs from 1924-25 through 1928-29 as he progressed through four years of high school and a year in the College Department. His first two years, his hometown is listed as Miami; the latter three, as New York, N.Y.

Bethel’s scrapbook seems to span his late teens and early twenties, with most of the photos snapped at Saint Aug. The nearly one hundred pictures do not appear to be in chronological order, and none are labeled. Several, though, are stamped “Finished by Siddell Studio, Raleigh, N.C.,” and a handful bear inscriptions on the reverse. Bethel himself appears to have been the photographer for many.

Wilton Bethel sitting on a stump, holding a 3A Folding Pocket Kodak.

On the reverse: “With love Al.” Is this Bethel’s elder brother Alfred Bethel?

Bethel, top left, with pals, probably at Saint Augustine’s College in the late 1920s.

Unidentified woman.

Unidentified man skiing in tie and newsboy cap.

On the reverse: “Will arrives in Raleigh 5 40 Thurs after meet Train”

Around 1929, Bethel took a position as an insurance salesman with North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company and moved to Wilson, where he first lodged with the Noah Tate family.

In the 1930 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Bethel Wilton M (c) slsmn N C Mut Life Ins Co h 307 Pender.

Flora Clark Bethel.

On 18 June 1930, Wilton M. Bethel, 21 [sic], of Wilson, son of Ernest and Phillis Bethel, married Flora Ruth Clark, 21 [sic], of Wilson, daughter of John H. and Ida R. Clark, in Wilson. Protestant Episcopal minister Eugene Leon Henderson performed the ceremony at Saint Mark’s in the presence of the Clarks and Percy Young. [Actually, Wilton Bethel was 24. Flora Clark Bethel was about 7 years older than her husband. She had also attended Saint Augustine’s College, graduating in 1924, when it was a junior college.]

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: John Clark, 76; wife Ida, 65; son-in-law Wilton Bethel, 33, insurance agent for N.C. Mutual, and daughter Flora, 30, teacher at Darden High School.

Wilton Maxwell Bethel registered for the World War II draft in 1940 in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 5 September 1906 in Miami, Florida; was an American citizen; lived at 706 East Nash Street, Wilson; his nearest relative was wife Flora C. Bethel; and he worked for N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company, Goldsboro, N.C.

Wilton M. Bethel died 14 January 1986 in Wilson.

Florida, Arriving and Departing Passenger and Crew Lists, 1898-1963, database on-line at http://www.ancestry.com.

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