These Roots Run Deep: Reunion Links Black Families to White S.C. Church
(NNPA) - Josiah and Matilda Currence would be proud of their family in 2011 America.Born slaves in the early 19th century, the South Carolina couple’s descendants recently gathered at Bethel Presbyterian Church in Clover, S.C., for the Armstrong-Currence reunion. The high point of the reunion was the unveiling of a plaque acknowledging their forebears’ connection to the historically white church.
“It’s incredible that we’re going to come here and remember Josiah,” said Dee Walker of Charlotte, great-great-great granddaughter of Josiah (1811-1877) and Matilda. “I guess the most he hoped for his kids was that they would be great blacksmiths or masons or they would be great farmers. Now we have medical doctors, engineers. My daughter’s an architect. People from all walks of life.”
They’ll remember Josiah, his wife Matilda and generations that followed at Bethel Presbyterian, founded in 1764 by Scotch-Irish settlers. The current structure near Lake Wylie was dedicated in 1873 and slaves were members, although they worshipped in the segregated balcony. Avril Price, a white descendant of S.C. slave owner William Currence, is also a reunion guest. Walker said the two families are interested in confirming whether there is a genetic relationship between clans.
“This is by all means a historical occasion,” said Cary Grant, Bethel Presbyterian’s historian. “You’ve got descendants of the slaves coming back, and these slaves were members of the church.”
The Armstrong clan descended from Abner and Mary Armstrong, who had three children marry into the Currence family after emancipation. Several of their children are buried in Green Pond Church Cemetery, the first cemetery for Blacks in Clover.
Bethel Presbyterian admitted slaves as members when many southern white congregations prohibited it. The church’s membership rolls, which date back to 1817, recorded births and inductions of slaves by their first names. After emancipation at the end of the Civil War, the remaining Black members were recorded by first and last name.
The congregation was “very progressive,” Grant said. “I would say having them as members, I think that’s remarkable. I can’t speak for any other churches, but during that time I would say that would be a rare occasion.”
Josiah and Matilda, who was born in 1812, were Bethel Presbyterian members in 1866. Josiah remained a member until his death, but it’s unknown whether any Blacks were buried at the church cemetery. A survey of the site was inconclusive, but Grant said there is some evidence of unmarked graves adjacent to the church, which would likely be of Black members.
“Probably, just on sheer guessing, if there are graves there, they’d be slave,” he said. “The only bad thing is we’re not going to know who. There’s not a record and there’s no marker, so unfortunately, if we do find them, we’re not going to know who the graves belong to.”
The Armstrong-Currence reunion, which dates to the 1950s, is expected to be larger this year because of the historic significance of Bethel. Walker, one of the reunion organizers, anticipates at least 200 relatives making the event, primarily from the Carolinas.
“They’re coming from coast to coast,” she said. “They’ve all said this is a calling. People who’ve never been to Clover period …are calling in. We’re saying 200, but we’re telling our caterer to prepare for 250 people because a lot of locals will come.”
As more African American families trace their roots, the Armstrong-Currence clan is a step ahead through painstaking research of records and interviews. What they’ve discovered will become a permanent part of Clover’s history, too.
“We’re very proud of that,” Walker said. “The fact that we can go back so far is very moving. When I send out information asking everyone to come, I tell them to bring their camera and their handkerchief. …That is a lot to be proud of.”
Said Grant: “It’s a great story. It’s a heart-warming story. It’s very touching.”
Ray Armstrong (from left), Marjorie Currence Smith, Dee Walker, Zeb Armstrong and Alex Walker at the commemorative marker at Bethel Presbyterian Church in Clover, S.C. Their forebears, slaves Josiah and Matilda Walker, were members at the predominantly white church when membership was customarily denied to Blacks. PHOTO/DANIEL COSTON