Gilfield Baptist observes 150th anniversary

Published 9:58 am Friday, November 8, 2013

Gilfield Baptist Church in Ivor is the oldest African-American church in Southampton County. The congregation is celebrating the church’s 150th anniversary, and plans a service on Sunday, Nov. 17. -- MERLE MONAHAN | TIDEWATER NEWS

Gilfield Baptist Church in Ivor is the oldest African-American church in Southampton County. The congregation is celebrating the church’s 150th anniversary, and plans a service on Sunday, Nov. 17. — MERLE MONAHAN | TIDEWATER NEWS


IVOR—Gilfield Baptist Church, the oldest African-American church in Southampton County, will conclude the celebration of its 150th anniversary at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17, at the church.

The Rev. Ivan Harris of Denbigh Baptist Church in Newport News will bring the message immediately following dinner in the fellowship hall.

Organized just prior to the Civil War in 1863 by several descendants of slaves, the first service was held under a brush harbor, on the site where the current church now stands.

A history of the church states that the first members of Gilfield were members of Tucker Swamp Baptist, but wanted their own place of worship. A parcel of land owned by African-Americans William and Eliza Diggs near Ivor was offered for this purpose and Gilfield was organized.

Members of the new church began to hold prayer meetings at the site, where they eventually built a small church building. On May 9, 1873, William and Eliza Diggs donated this parcel of land to the trustees of Gilfield.

Through the years, the church has had only 10 pastors, starting with the Rev. Jordan Thomas, who served for four years. He was succeeded by the Rev. Ashley Lewis, who served seven years.

The Rev. Holland Powell became the next pastor, serving six years, then the Rev. Henry Madison, who served 12 years.

Madison’s son, the Rev. Collin Madison, succeeded him and served 20 years. The Rev. Ralph Paige became the next pastor, serving three years.

The longest-serving leader of the church succeeded Paige. He was the Rev. George King, who was at the helm of Gilfield for 41 years.

Under King’s guidance, the church continued to grow, according to the history.

From 1947 through 1952, a number of renovations took place, such as adding new floors, new restrooms and new heaters.

Also in 1952, a gift was presented to the congregation – an oil painting of the early church by Walter Cecil Rawls, a native of Ivor. Rawls, founder of Walter Cecil Rawls Library and an artist, said he was inspired to paint the picture because of his first vision of the church as a young boy.

“This church, standing on the hill in this grove of trees, was to me a beautiful place,” Rawls said.

He also left $1,000 to the church at his death.

The Rev. Curtis Harris became the next pastor and served 33 years. He was followed by the Rev. Eustice Mitchell, who resigned after 10 years in 2008.

The church is led by the Rev. Kenneth Ricks, who worked along with Shirley Winnegan-Harris, anniversary chairman and co-chair, Gladys Ruffin in organizing the celebration.

“We had a banquet in May at the Tabernacle Christian Church in Suffolk to kick off the celebration,” said Harris. “Oh, it was a grand occasion.”

She said a plaque has also been hung inside the church naming those who supported the celebration.

“We’re also working on a memorial booklet, like the ones we’ve done for several years before,” Harris added.

Portia McClenny, 91, who attended the banquet, said she loves Gilfield and wouldn’t miss the anniversary service.

“I’ve been a member for 73 years, having joined in 1940, right after my husband, Theodore, and I got married. He was a lifetime member and we were quite active in the church during the early years.

“In fact, all my children were baptized there.”

McClenny added that she and her husband owned a large farm near Ivor, and traveled to Africa as missionaries from the church to teach the people how to farm.

The church mother said she has fond memories of the early days at Gilfield.

“I remember the huge revivals, when members of the church had to feed the preachers.

“I can’t tell you how many meals I’ve cooked just for that purpose,” McClenny said with a smile.

As the church grows, its activities increase. Harris, who is also church clerk, said services are held at Gilfield for the first four Sundays in the month and at one of several other churches on fifth Sunday.

“We have formed a fellowship with St. Luke’s, First Baptist, New Branch and Beulah land. We alternate having services at one of these churches on every fifth Sunday,” she said.

“We’ve had lean times and better times,” Harris revealed. “But we are a dedicated group of people who want to hear God’s word. And because of that, we work hard to keep our church up.

She said they recently borrowed more than $100,000 to make renovations. They expect to pay off the mortgage in December.

Not bad for the little “Church on the Hill at the Turn of the Road,” a phrase used early on to identify Gilfield.