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The Black History meeting at Macedonia Community Center started with Reverend George Brightharp leading the audience in a wonderful old Negro spiritual, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” which set a good tone for his presentation.
Reverend Brightharp spoke about Alexander Bettis, the most magnetic and effective leader for African Americans in the Southern United States in the 19th Century. He was born in 1836, a slave of mixed color on the Jones plantation in Edgefield. In his youth he was primarily raised by the widow Jones who taught him to read and write at a time when it was unlawful to do so. She recognized in him an abiding sense of honesty and strength of character. While still at a young age she entrusted him with items to take to market to sell and to deposit the money afterwards. Bettis became known around Edgefield County as “Honest Bettis.”
Prior to the end of the Civil War in 1865, blacks did not have, nor were they allowed to have, their own church so they attended services at white churches. Shortly after freedom came to millions of former slaves, Alexander Bettis and seventeen other blacks pulled out of Edgefield’s First Baptist Church in order to establish their own church.
Bettis had been studying the ministry and after he was ordained he went on to establish the first church for blacks in Edgefield County — Mt. Canaan Baptist Church, in 1868. He also established Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in 1869, Jeter Baptist Church in 1870 and Shaws Creek Baptist Church in 1872. Bettis was eventually instrumental in establishing and organizing forty other churches.
With his characteristic sense of humor, Reverend Brightharp said, “He was a very prudent man. He knew when to hold em, he knew when to fold em, he knew when to walk away and he knew when to run!”
At one point in Bettis’ life the Klan was after him. They had made a decision to grab him on a Sunday after services when he rode home on his familiar gray horse. Everyone knew Bettis Alexander’s horse. When Bettis came out of the church he found his horse was lame so a member offered to lend him his red horse. Bettis accepted gratefully and rode home, slowing down to say hello to the Klan on the way.
Another close escape came when the men who had killed Reverend Cease, the pastor at Pleasant Grove, came calling on him. They captured Bettis at his home and allowed him to get down on his knees and pray before they disposed of him. That was a big mistake because the men ended up having supper with the family and giving him all the money in their pockets.
Whenever Bettis heard of a man beating his wife he would go to that man’s house and whip him and threaten him never to do that again and it would always work. Reverend Brightharp added that he had some members in his congregation he wished he could do that to today!!
Another of Alexander Bettis’ great legacies is the school he founded for blacks in 1881; it was named Bettis Academy and Junior College and was based on religious principles and Christian characteristics. Bettis served as the school’s President until his death in 1895. When the Academy closed in 1954 it had 14 major buildings and some 350 acres of land. Today, it houses the Alexander Bettis Library where visitors can find displays, historical documents, pictures and other memorabilia that shed a mental image of the academy’s former glory. It also has Biddle Hall Museum which covers the history of Bettis Academy and its impact on the Edgefield community.
After Reverend Brightharp’s presentation there was a question and answer period followed by a scrumptious luncheon of favorite African American food – black-eyed peas and ham-hock, stewed tomatoes, rice, butterbeans, fried crispy fatback, cornbread and homemade pound cake.
The next meeting is on the history of the African American vote (better described as the non-vote) in Edgefield County being presented by the county Archivist, Tricia Glenn.
Photos by Henry Williams, Jr., for The Advertiser