Slavery links descendants of congregation

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 6, 2011

CLOVER, S.C. — As the covering came off the monument, descendants of slaves and slaveholders pressed closer, smiling and singing “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”
The monument’s rock closely matched the fieldstone in the wall surrounding the historic cemetery.
The bronze plaque imbedded in its center memorialized names such as Josiah, Matilda, Henry, Viney “and all our other slave ancestors who were members of Bethel Presbyterian Church.”
Out of Bethel they came.
Gwen Plummer stood in the throng almost unbelieving. Historian for the Armstrong-Currence family, she can trace her lineage directly to slaves who were members of this same church — before and after emancipation.
Those ancestors were baptized at Bethel Presbyterian Church, the meeting house of their owners. Their names appear on some of the 247-year-old church’s old rolls. But they worshipped Sundays from the balcony, and they were never buried inside the cemetery’s walls.
Forgotten history
The slave members were a part of the church’s history long forgotten and ignored, until Plummer, a Salisbury resident showed up at Bethel one day and asked if she could have help with some family research.
Several years later, the church provided the backdrop for the annual Armstrong-Currence Reunion on Saturday, which attracted more than 200 family members and ended near twilight with the unveiling of a monument paying tribute to slaves who once were members here.
The stone, paid for by the family, is located in a prominent place near the gate, across from another stone listing the members of Bethel who fought in the Revolutionary War.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Plummer said. “Such an amazing thing that the church has done. It shows the spirit of Bethel, doesn’t it?”
The Rev. John Gess, pastor at Bethel Presbyterian Church since 1986, said the reunion brought the Armstrong and Currence family descendants back home.
“Hopefully, they can feel that this is their church, too,” he said. “It’s certainly a fitting tribute.”
Members of the Armstrong-Currence families also have been invited to worship at Bethel this morning.
Emotional day
Saturday’s reunion at Bethel held strong meaning for Plummer; her three surviving sisters, Mary Adams and Sarah Stowe, both of Salisbury, and Wilma Walker of Charlotte; nieces Dee Walker of Charlotte and the Rev. Priscilla Bloodsworth and Mary Bryson, both of Delaware; the Rev. Mary Hardin of Salisbury; and nephew Norris Currence of Salisbury.
The sisters’ father, George, was a son of Alexander and Amanda Currence, who were youngsters when slavery ended. Their grandmother Amanda was a daughter of Mary Currence Armstrong, who was a daughter of Josiah and Matilda Currence, born in 1811 and 1812, respectively.
Plummer has chosen to fill in the Armstrong and Currence family trees starting with her great-grandparents, Henry and Viney Currence (Adams) and Absher and Mary Currence Armstrong.
The Currence slaves — they took the names of their owners — were once the property of John Currence, who fought in the Revolutionary War, then William and Robert Currence. All were members of Bethel Presbyterian.
Arvil Price, directly descended from John Currence, met with Plummer in helping her research along with church historian Cary Grant. The names of several of Plummer’s kin were listed in the wills of his ancestors as they handed down slaves, Price noted.
He acknowledged that he usually thought of his ancestors in terms of their being Revolutionary War soldiers and patriots. He had conveniently failed to recognize them as slaveholders, too, Price said.
Grant said 1832 records from the church showed a membership of 500, with about 100 being slaves.
Plummer says the white and black Armstrongs and Currences were quite dependent on each other on their cotton plantations and farms.
“These people (the slaveholders in the Bethel community) were not like they were out shopping for slaves,” Plummer says. “It was all about the families.”
The attitude toward slavery in the upper reaches of South Carolina was different than, say, Charleston, Plummer said.
The white slaveholders around Bethel Church had small families, whose numbers were dwindling, meaning they had to depend even more on the slave families connected to them.
Dependence on slaves
That dependence heightened even more after the Civil War, when the former slaveholders were wrecked.
“We were used to having nothing,” Plummer said.
Josiah Currence stayed a member of Bethel until his death in 1877. His son-in-law Abner Armstrong also died as a Bethel member in 1870.
Viney Currence, Plummer’s great-grandmother, lived in the same house and worked for the pastor of Bethel, the Rev. Samuel L. Watson, after the Civil War. Viney had three children who lived in the pastor’s house, too.
As a young man, Alexander Currence left Bethel at the 1870 founding of Green Pond Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1903, he bought more than 100 acres in York County from Elizabeth Currence, daughter of Robert Currence, once the slaveholder. Alexander paid $1,000 for the land, and son George Currence would end up putting his home on part of that property.
His six daughters, including Plummer, Adams, Stowe and Walker, grew up on that land.
Every time they passed Bethel Presbyterian as children and adults, the girls repeated stories they had heard all their lives — that their ancestors had gone to Bethel Presbyterian, a white church.
“I see this as a spiritual thing, that God is connecting us for some reason, like he has called us out,” said Hardin, who is associate minister at Soldiers Memorial AME Zion church in Salisbury.
Hardin, a cousin once removed from Plummer and her sisters, said the Armstrong-Currence family members took to heart modern-day Bethel Church’s words of love, appreciation and reconciliation.
“We are returning to Bethel,” she said. “God has called us back to where our slave ancestors called on the Lord. We have come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord.”
Gess, the Bethel pastor, said the church is not proud of its connection to slavery and it is something for which “we constantly repent.”
Willing participants
But one good thing was that the Armstrong-Currence ancestors worshipped at Bethel because they wanted to, Gess said. Even though the church members failed to obey the word of God by having slaves, at least the slaves heard the word of God and did not allow themselves to be held back by anger and resentment.
Armstrongs and Currences have spread across the country. Annual reunions taken place at locations up and down the East Coast. Next year, the reunion will be in Myrtle Beach.
Hardin added the family is one full of laughter, jokes and stories — “and this is a praying family.” It also has produced many ministers, musicians, educators and storytellers. “If you came out of Clover, you’re a storyteller,” Hardin said.
For one day Saturday, “We have returned to Bethel,” said Dee Walker, who provided Plummer significant help in her family research. “… I’m just speechless. It means everything that people who had forgotten these stories now remember them.”
Mary Adams said the day was fantastic, and that she hoped members of Bethel will embrace this history “so we can be more like brothers and sisters.”
“Now we’re where we need to be,” Gess said. “One people.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or