Published 6:41 pm Tuesday, November 12, 2019

I’m Betty Foster, originally from Hallsboro, a small, Zuni-type town in southeastern North Carolina. I stand before you from 51 years of life with Clarence; from the pages of that Gilfield history book, so tirelessly assembled and professionally presented; from Clarence’s memories and historic perspective and at the urging of my sorority sister, Martha [McClenny].

The Rev. [Elizabeth] Jones, church leaders, the Gilfield Baptist family, we take a bow today, having stood tall through these 156 years. This precious place got its formal start in 1863, in the hearts and minds of enslaved people, tossed about in a war-torn south.

We would build a church. It would build us. We would fill armies and serve heroically. We now know that 200,000 black soldiers and 20,000 sailors fought on the Union side. A necessity, considering the high rate of Union desertions, as the war ran on into years, casualties and death. We were here in those days. We were here during World War I and II, supplementing the Allied forces overseas (including north Africa). Many enlistees from Southampton County.

We were here during post-Civil War reconstruction and post-reconstruction and Jim Crow, and during the Civil Rights Movement. Our own Rev. Curtis Harris, a civil rights notable, has been heard to say that Gilfield sent him all over. We younger folks suspect that this gracious remark may have been a bit generous. Still, we’ve stood for something, and stood tall.

Now, in life’s ironies, old customs of broad appeal have narrowed and faded, as our lives have grown easier, faster, longer. Our glorious successes: The cars, trucks, modern homes, computers, academic degrees, professional careers, elaborate vacations, international travels, medical care, social security, retirement and self-esteem speak for us. The new world, the new ways and means, overwhelm and diminish the old pageantries of childhood, curtailing ceremonies and routines — as our numbers grow old and few.

You remember when the Masons assembled here, the Eastern Stars, the 4-H Club.

You remember when we welcomed native-born African students into our homes: Bernard Benson with the McClennys and Willie Niami with Mrs. Wyche.

It is said that the third president of the African country of Liberia was from Southampton County. That notable Liberian venture: American President Monroe’s half-hearted gesture into the repatriation of a few over-populated slaves. The venture, their return, stayed on in our hearts.

We applauded Theodore McClenny’s and Ms. Porcha’s 1960s Liberian trips of benevolence and fellowship.

We welcomed Dr. Summerville and the Liberian emissaries into our sanctuary. We would give an annual donation for their Lott Carey Institute.

Long before the term African-American took root, we were here, engaged in the planting … a now global extended family. Gilfield took root way back in our most desperate times — and here we are.

Now, with considerable pleasure, indeed love, we take a bow for a fifth year into the engagement of our most recent success: The Rev. Elizabeth Jones. Good fortune and special blessing walks and talks among us.

Perhaps a moment for the ages, that she should stand before us, a 21st century living monument of the Gilfield woman, indeed the legendary church woman, throughout history. May the saints be proud!

One-hundred-fifty-six years onward, on the march, blessed with a full complement of limbs and senses, fully equipped to move forward. Dare we go soft, shallow, lazy, defeated, after all?

May this family, this village, this Gilfield, live on in testament to the grace of God and the faithful diligence of one and all.

Blessed be the tie.

Betty Foster


P.S. Clarence had a chance meeting of a former Lott Carey student at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in the early ’90s. Such coincidences are more common than you think.

BETTY FOSTER is a resident of Ivor and member of Gilfield Baptist Church. Contact her at 859-6467.