SUBMITTED BY: Stephen Pope (transcribed by Cheri Told Molter)
The following is an excerpt from the church history, as written on their web site [The full story can be read here: https://www.firstbaptistfairmontnorth.org/weve_come_this_far_by_faith]:
“Pleasant Hill, the first Black Missionary Baptist Church in Robeson County, was organized in 1869 by 62 former slaves who once worshipped from the balcony of the Ashpole Baptist Church, now First Baptist, South Main Street, in Fairmont, North Carolina (formerly named Ashpole, North Carolina). In 1864, there were 134 Blacks who were still members of the Ashpole Church, and as late as 1879, 91 remained members.
Jack Walters, an unskilled laborer who served as a leader in the formation of this church, and Carrie Walters, a laundry woman, were slaves owned by William Walters in Ashpole, North Carolina until they were freed in 1865. They had been members of the white First Baptist Church and had sat in the balcony for slaves during services.
B. J. Williamson, a sharecropper in Columbus County before he moved to Robeson County to farm who along with his wife, Tena Williamson, also a sharecropper, were freed shortly before 1865. W. M. Williamson, the son of Tena and B. J. Williamson who was born in 1886, attended Thompson Institute where he studied under W. H. Knuckles and graduated in 1912. During that year, he was also ordained by Lumber River Association. W. M. Williamson and Carrie G. Whitted married in 1913. During that year, W. M. Williamson served as Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church before moving to South Carolina.
Henry Flowers, a sharecropper and carpenter, and his wife, Nancy Flowers, had been members of the white First Baptist Church and had sat in the balcony for slaves during services. They were slaves owned by the Flowers family until they were freed in 1865. They had eleven children and one of their daughters, Tena Flowers, married B. J. Williamson who was a founder of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church.
Edmond Powell and his wife, Harriett Ashley Powell, were unskilled farmers on various farms and served as leaders in the formation and membership growth of the church. They were slaves owned by the Ashley family near Atkinson’s Mill until they were freed in 1865. They were members of the white First Baptist Church and sat in the balcony for slaves during services when services were not held for slaves on the Ashley Plantation.
Rev. Franklin Pierce Powell, a slave preacher, unskilled farmer, and blacksmith, and his wife Susie, were members of the white First Baptist Church and sat in the balcony for slaves during services when services were not held for slaves on the Ashley Plantation where he occasionally preached. They were slaves owned by the Ashley family near Atkinson’s Mill until [they] were freed in 1865. [Rev. Franklin Powell worked] closely with Rev. A. A. Thompson of Lumberton and Rev. Denis Powell, later a pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, to secure land to build additional churches for blacks in Robeson County. Together, they founded First Baptist Church, Lumberton; Greenville Baptist Church; Hilly Branch Baptist Church; and Sandy Grove Baptist Church. Latta Hillard Powell, one of Franklin and Susie Powell’s sons, was born in 1886. He graduated from the Thompson Institute in 1906 and Shaw University in 1912. He served as Principal of the Burgaw Normal and Industrial School and pastured the following churches: Mt. Level Baptist Church, Durham, NC; First Baptist Church, Lumberton; St. Mary’s Baptist Church, Evergreen, NC; and Mt. Olive Baptist Church, Mt. Olive, NC.
THE EARLY YEARS
The very first worshipping place was a Brush Arbor, a shelter made of limbs, vines, and branches, located on Iona Street, was very small and quite dilapidated. The first pastor was Rev. Church L. Reeves.
After constructing the first worshipping place, it was not long before bitter racial strife occurred over the location of the Negro church on Iona Street. The members of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church were forced to move from Iona Street to the second site “across the branch,” near Marietta, North Carolina. There, the members built and worshipped until the early 1900s.
Then, the present location on North Main Street was purchased from Sandy Thompson, a white male. (Note: The street in front of the present church is named after him, Sandy Street.) In the early 1900s, under the pastorate of Rev. J. D. Harrell, the third wooden church was erected where the church parsonage is today, along with the help of the deacons who were masons of the former Stanley Lodge No. 146 of the Old Field Community, which merged with the present Gaza Lodge No. 427. Those deacons were: Henry Floyd, J. C. Inman, Joseph Worley, Quincy Stephens, Charley Jones, and N.W. Floyd, W.M. [Their] names are engraved on the first cornerstone on the front left side of the church today. Of course, whites tried to buy this property, but the membership refused to sell.
THE INFLUENCE OF PLEASANT HILL BAPTIST CHURCH ON EDUCATION FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS IN ROBESON COUNTY
The Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Fairmont, North Carolina has had a long historical influence on the education of African Americans in Robeson County. The first school for African Americans in Robeson County was the Whitin School, founded in 1876 by a young African American teacher, David P. Allen. The Whitin School was located on what is now the Fairmont Road in Lumberton and was named after James Whitin of Boston, Massachusetts, a wealthy white benefactor who funded the school’s first building. The Hon. George Henry White was one of the first graduates of the Whitin School. George White, 1851-1901, served in the United States Congressman from 1897-1901 and one of the last African Americans in Congress before the Jim Crow Era. President Barack Obama referenced George Henry White as one of his role models during his inauguration speech. The Whitin School faculty held classes during the summer in Fairmont, Maxton and St. Pauls from 1889-1894. Some of these classes were held in Pleasant Hill to African Americans, regardless of age to learn to read and write. During the same time, from 1896-1898, Pleasant Hill Baptist Church and St. John Methodist Church held meetings educating and training African Americans after a race riot occurred downtown Fairmont in early 1896. The riot occurred when Rev. W. C. Pope and David P. Allen tried to put their names on the ballot for the Board of Education. Even though African Americans did not have the right to vote at the time, in 1898, an African American farmer and teacher, William Cobb was added to the ballot and served on the Board of Education; however he was only allowed to vote on issues that dealt with African Americans. As a result, Pleasant Hill Baptist Church made political and educational history by negotiating with local white politicians to gain a seat on the Board of Education.
On March 14, 1914 and December 13, 1915, The Colored Teacher’s Association held its meeting at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. According to the March 19, 1915 edition of the Robesonian, “Both the town courthouse and the local library in Fairmont banned citizens of the colored race from meeting in their facilities.” Both meetings were led by Prof. David P. Allen, founder of the Whitin School and Prof. J. H. Isley, member of Pleasant Hill and teacher at the Fairmont Training School. During the latter meeting, Prof. Isley addressed the audience of 54 African American teachers from around Robeson County on the topic of, “The Teacher’s Estimation of the Association.”
The Whitin School remained open until the Dunbar School opens in 1918 in Lumberton led by principal, Rev. W. C. Pope, one of the first Moderators of the Lumber River Baptist Association. When the Dunbar School burned down on August 26, 1935, Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, along with Sandy Grove Baptist Church donated money and furniture for the school to continue classes in temporary quarters. Always to assist, Pleasant Hill raised money to help Redstone Academy, a parochial Presbyterian School for African Americans after a fire in 1912 destroyed its original buildings.
Redstone Academy was founded in 1903 as a mission school by Dr. John Henry Hayswood who changed the name to the Bethany School in 1906. It was later renamed Redstone Academy in 1911 by a northern white Presbyterian Women’s Group who began funding the school. In 1949, Redstone Academy was closed and replaced by the newly built J.H. Hayswood High School. The 1912 Presbyterian Women’s Bulletin “Honors the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church for its Christian work in helping our brethren at Redstone.”
From its inception, Pleasant Hill has help to fund the formation and preservation of schools for African Americans. Thompson Institute, a boarding school that offered a teaching certificate in Lumberton, N. C., took its name from the oldest minister of the Lumber River Association at the time of its establishment, Rev. A. H. Thompson. Pleasant Hill contributed an annual amount of $95.00 to help fund Thompson Institute from 1900-1918 and still provided increased amounts thereafter. In addition, Pleasant Hill Baptist Church covered expenses for two church members to attend Thompson Institute. Rev. Church L. Reaves and Rev. J.D. Harrell also served on the school’s trustee board and were partly responsible for bringing Prof. W. H. Knuckles, from the Theological Department of Shaw University to succeed Rev. D. J. Avera as Principal. Rev. Knuckles’ increased the size of the campus from one building to three buildings, a faculty of five and a student enrollment of over 70. As early as 1905 most of the teachers from the three surrounding counties, Robeson, Bladen and Columbus, were supplied from Thompson Institute, and with the preparation were able to do splendid work in the public schools.
In addition, Rev. J. D. Harrell, Moderator of the Lumber River Association, served as Financial Agent of the Thompson Institute. The 1908 Baptist Recorder stated that, “This school is another monument to the thrift and energy of the Negro Baptists of North Carolina. Thompson Institute was of the greatest necessity in the section in which it was located. In the April 15, 1920 edition of the Robesonian, both Rev. J.D. Harrell and Dr. W.C. Pope were instrumental as serving as the first chairmen of the first Colored Fair held in Lumberton. Along with committee members, J.H. Hayswood of Lumber and Richard Bradshaw of Fairmont, also a member of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, a colored fair was funded for the children of Robeson County that not only included amusement rides and games but educational programs in agriculture, spelling, and history.
By 1912, a need for a formal school for African Americans in Fairmont had grown. That same year, Prof. Isley began to offer small classes in reading, mathematics, and music in the sanctuary of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. A year later in 1913, funding was made available through the generosity of the church and local African American citizens to purchase four acres of land from the Beaufort Lumber Company. In 1914, the Fairmont Training School opened and consisted of several wood buildings on the current Rosenwald site. The school offered traditional classes in reading, writing, mathematics, history, and music but also over some vocational training in agriculture for boys and home domestics for girls.
… NOTE: Special thanks for historical compilations to the late Sis. Janie Floyd Thompson, to the late Sis. C. B. Moore, to the late Sis. Mattie Haggins, to the late Cora Pittman, to the late Beulah G. Arnette, and for the oral history accounts of the early years by the late Bro. Robert Walters, Sr.; early historical compilations were also done by the late Rev. Wendell Thompson and Sis. Mae Hazel Ringgold; history and educational influences by Dr. Paul Keith Baker”