Church

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.

Fiftieth anniversary of First Baptist Church.

Wilson Daily Times, 18 September 1922. 

Was a memorial drinking fountain ever installed in front of the church? I do not recall ever seeing one. 

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  • “the late Rev. Jackson” — Rev. Andrew J. Jackson was founder of First Baptist Church, now known as Jackson Chapel First Missionary Baptist Church. 
  • Rev. J.A. Mebane — John Alexander Mebane, a native of Bertie County, lived in Wilson only briefly. In the 1922 Hill’s directory of the city: Mebane John A Rev (c) 308 Hackney

Rev. J.A. Mebane (1885-1974).

  • M.E. Rogers — Mary Elizabeth Rogers
  • John Battle — probably, John Parker Battle.
  • Henrietta Foster — Foster, who was listed as living at the rear of 308 Hackney Street in 1922, later married Rev. Mebane. Henrietta Foster Mebane died in 1950 and, though the Mebanes spent most of their married life in Tarboro, N.C., both are buried in Wilson’s Rest Haven Cemetery. Their daughter Grace Mebane, who died in Tarboro in 1940 at age 14, is also buried in Wilson.

Photo courtesy of Ancestry.com user Satwun.

Saint Mark’s Parochial School opening.

Wilson Daily Times, 26 September 1925.

In 1925, Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, and its school, were on Lodge Street at the corner of South Street. The school offered kindergarten through elementary instruction. (This likely meant through fourth grade, as the Colored High School covered grades five and up.) The night school classes were aimed at adults or working children who had left regular school.

Per Patrick M. Valentine’s The Episcopalians of Wilson County (1996), “John Herbert Jones became minister in charge [of Saint Mark’s] on Sunday, October 12, 1924. Born in Sanford, Florida, and educated with private tutors in theology, he had married Bessie Bell in 1915. Together they had five sons and two daughters — all with biblical names. In 1921, Bishop E. Thomas Demby of Arkansas ordained Jones a deacon. When he was preparing for the priesthood under Bishop Cheshire, his committee “found him quite well prepared in all subjects, and unusually proficient in the Bible.

“One reason for the long delay in bringing in a new clergyman was that St. Mark’s lacked a rectory. Jones found all the records carefully kept in correct order and no indebtedness, ‘to the praise of our faithful Lay Reader & clerk [John H. Clark],’ but that membership was ‘greatly scattered some having become members of sectarian bodies, and otherwise.’ Starting from a ‘few standing true to the faith,’ Jones canvassed former members to return to St. Mark’s. ‘Although some refused to come back[,] a goodly number returned.’

“Reverend Jones reorganized a number of activities and services in Rocky Mount and Wilson. St. Mark’s Sunday School was put under the care of long term member Walter A. Mitchell. ‘A marked improvement has been registered in our church school life[,] the same showing continued growth.’ With the permission of the suffragan bishop [Henry B. Delany], he and Robert A. Jackson of St. Augustine’s Church in Camden, Maryland, held a public mission in March 1925. ‘This was a success of no small propor[t]ions to say the least.’ Jones was also active in the Convocation. In 1928 he left for St. Stephen’s Mission, Winston-Salem.”

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  • Rev. J.H. Jones — John H. Jones.

In the 1925 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Jones Jno H Rev (c) pastor St Mark’s Episcopal Church h 201 N Vick. [As noted, Saint Mark’s had no rectory. The house at 201 North Vick Street was rented from Lydia Grissom Coley, who does not appear to have been an Episcopalian.]

Rev. Jones and family appear in Winston-Salem, N.C., in the 1930 federal census. All their children indeed bore biblical monikers, but the most remarkable thing is that they were Mary E., John H. Jr., John L., Mary L., John D., John R., and John B. Jones. John R. Jones was the only child born during the family’s brief stay in Wilson.

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

Lodge members gather at Saint John.

This beautifully crisp photo depicts a gathering of Prince Hall Masons in front of Saint John A.M.E. Zion‘s distinctive Gothic arches during the church’s construction. Dated 1914-1915, I do not know the specific occasion for the photograph, or whether it features only members of Mount Hebron Lodge No. 42, whose lodge was just across Smith Street. I do know that it is fantastic in every detail.

Though my focus is on the men assembled at center, the edges of the image are rich  with detail as well — the boy in a newsboy cap perched on the scaffolding; the boys peering over the heads of the suited men; the few girls clustered at right, with a woman in a magnificent hat just behind them; another woman at extreme left, visible only as an eye under the wide brim of her hat.

Of the 36 men depicted, as of now, I have only been able to identify only eleven certain and a few possibles. Do you recognize any others?

And a question to any Prince Hall Masons, do the medallions, swords, aprons, or other regalia disclose anything public about the wearer’s status or office within the lodge?

Rev. Halley B. Taylor (1879-??), Worshipful Master, Presbyterian minister.

Julius F. Freeman Sr. (1844-1927), carpenter.

Roderick Taylor Sr. (1883-1947), barber.

William Hines (1883-1981), businessman, hospital administrator.

Camillus L. Darden (1884-1956), businessman, funeral director.

Rev. Bryant P. Coward (1864-1940), pastor of Saint John A.M.E. Zion Church.

Short W. Barnes (1860-1943), carpenter.

Samuel H. Vick (1861-1947), educator, businessman.

Charles H. Darden (1854-1931), blacksmith, funeral director.

John H. Clark (1863-1949), postal employee.

John Mack Barnes (1869-1958), Treasurer, brickmason, builder of Saint John A.M.E. Zion.

Either barber Levi H. Jones (1877-1961), Rev. Charles T. Jones (1878-1963), or painter Butler E. Jones (ca. 1879-1961), brothers.

Probably, Arthur N. Darden (1889-1948), mortician.

Probably, Leonard L. Barnes (1888-1952).

Probably, Edgar H. Diggs (1890-1970), barber.

Possibly, Darcy C. Yancey (1883-1957), pharmacist.

[Sidenote: There is something incredibly moving about seeing these men in the early part of what arguably was Black Wilson’s Golden Age in the 1910s and ’20s. Though the photograph was staged, their expressions (other than Sam Vick, who was obviously accustomed to formal portrait-posing) are almost candid. They are a mix of old heads, born in the final days of slavery, and a new generation of young lions. I was surprised by my instant recognition of Charles and Camillus Darden and William Hines. It took me longer to realize my own grandfather stood at far left. My identification of Arthur N. Darden is based in part on his close resemblance to his mother, Dinah Scarborough Darden. Most of the others I was able to name only after reviewing other photos of men I know to have been Masons. Leonard Barnes, astonishingly, I recognized because of his close resemblance to his grandson, who was my childhood playmate.]

Many thanks to J. Robert Boykin III for the copy of this photograph. And a special shout-out to Stanley Horton, Past Worshipful Master, Foundation Lodge #592, Prince Hall Affiliated, for his help in identifying offices and emblems. 

[Updates: Rev. Halley B. Taylor and the Jones brothers added 3 September 2020.]

Praying for rain.

Wilson Daily Times, 30 August 1930.

Late in the summer of 1930, Steven Ray issued a call “to all races, tribes and tongues” to join him at Calvary Presbyterian Church to pray for rain. Ray was not pastor of Calvary, and it is not clear of which church he was minister. 

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In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Washington Street, David Jeffers, 47, laborer; wife Ethel, 43; stepchild Luther Mack, 18, laborer; father-in-law Stephen Ray, 55, widower, laborer. [Also on Washington Street: Jessie Williams, 42, wagon factory laborer; wife Lizzie, 38; sisters-in-law Sarah, 14, Hattie, 12, and Katie Ray, 9; brother-in-law Stephen L. Ray, 7; and sister-in-law Lillian Ray, 5; and daughter Margrett Williams, 13.]

In the 1920 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Ray Stephen (c) lab h Washington av nr Vick

In the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Ray Stephen (c; Emma) 901 Stantonsburg

In the 1930 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Ray Steph (c) porter Miller’s 200 E Nash

Stephen Ray died 24 April 1933 at Mercy Hospital, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 59 years old; was married to Emma Ray; lived at 914 Washington Street; was a preacher; and was born in Cumberland County, N.C., to Phillip Ray and Annie Ray. Informant was Lizzie Williams. 

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

108 years ago this month …

Jackson Chapel First Missionary Baptist Church opened its iconic brick edifice at the corner of East Nash and Pender Streets. First Missionary Baptist’s pastor Rev. Marshall A. Talley welcomed a line-up of mostly local prominent guest speakers.

Wilson Daily Times, 12 August 1913.

John F. Bruton was the keynote speaker on opening day and delivered this strange and eye-poppingly (by today’s standards) offensive homily: “One thing you people cannot afford to stop, it is your native song. When you cut that off, you cut off your right hand. I remember my old mammy as she clasped me to her withered bosom singing ‘These bones shall rise again.’ Then I was taught the meaning of immortality, ‘when I can read my title clear,’ she sang. I knew that she was going to read her title in the skies. I do not know what heaven is, but I know she is there. As for me I’ll be content to spend the first thousand years there, listening to the angels singing, with that old mammy joining in the chorus, with her hand in mine leading me to my mother. That will be heaven for me. You can’t abandon those songs! When you do, you’d just as well turn this church into a moving picture show.”

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Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

Hoo hoo!! Too too!! You you!!

Wilson Daily Times, 30 August 1919.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what World Glory-peace Organization was about other than it appealed to World War I veterans and was organized by businessmen and ministers of several denominations.

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.