Eartha Sims Watson recounts church’s history during celebration this month
Editor’s note: Retired Volusia County Educator Eartha Sims Watson gave a “glimpse” of Mt. Bethel’s Baptist Institutional Church’s 128 year history on June 23 at the church. Here is an excerpt of her speech. Watson, 67, has been lifelong member of the church. Her father, Levi Sims, Sr. played a major role in the church’s growth. Watson, a deaconess of the church, was chairman of the church’s 128th anniversary committee.
BY EARTHA SIMS WATSON
SPECIAL TO THE DAYTONA TIMES
Mount Bethel Baptist Institutional Church, the “Mother” Church, holds the distinction of being the oldest church for African-Americans in Daytona Beach and represents the first spiritual experience for African-Americans in the city.
In 1885 a group of Christians, who were newly freed slaves under the leadership of Rev. Joseph Brook Hankerson, recognized the need for Black people to have a place to worship in this small community, and on June 22, 1885, Mount Bethel was constructed on the corner of Fremont Avenue and Church Street (now Marion Street) in Silver Hill, the south section of the Black community.
As the Black population increased in Daytona Beach and the north side of town began to flourish, a need for another church became evident. Members on the north side of town were growing tired of walking to the other side of town, especially at night.
Mount Zion Baptist: The ‘daughter’ church
Rev. Hankerson was then asked to organize this new church that had already begun to be formed by members who lived in Midway, the north section of the Black community.
Hankerson and those members of Mt. Bethel who transferred their membership named the new church Mount Zion Baptist Church, our “daughter” church, presently known as New Mount Zion Baptist Church on Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard.
After a few years of growth, the need for a larger church prompted members to once again construct another building. Reverend A.L. James, the second pastor of Mt. Bethel Baptist Church, is credited with erecting Mt. Bethel on the corner of South Street and Church Street (now Marion Street) in Waycross, the east section of the Black community. This was the location of the second site for Mt. Bethel Baptist Institutional Church.
Nearly 92 years at current sanctuary
After outgrowing the second site in Waycross – Daytona, according to the historic photo of the Mt. Bethel congregation photographed on Feb. 23, 1919 – Rev. E.J. Jackson, the fifth pastor of Mt. Bethel chose the current site in New Town, the west section of the Black community.
This sanctuary, in which we now worship, was erected on Nov. 1, 1921, (soon to be 92 years ago) by founder, Rev. Joseph Brook Hankerson, who returned as the sixth pastor of Mt. Bethel.
When Rev. Ingram, our 17th pastor appointed me church historian because of my love for research, documenting history, and telling “the story,” I immediately began to interview Mt. Bethel’s elderly and tape their remembrances.
Well before her demise, Sister Narvella Neal, longtime member of Mt. Bethel told me that behind the cornerstone of this church is a steel box containing all the names of original deacons and trustees and other pertinent information.
A sight to behold on Nov. 1, 1921
Mrs. Neal also reported that when she was a girl, she recalled that Mr. J.E. Sams -Dr. Howard Thurman’s relative – and other men used a machine to make the bricks for this new structure out of the whitest sand she had ever seen.
She said it was a sight to behold when, on Nov. 1, 1921, the membership dressed in white and the choir adorned in white choir robes, marched from Marion Street into this new sanctuary on Campbell Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard), for their first formal worship service.
Florida history documents Rev. Hankerson as having been pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee (founded in 1871) during his 18-year absence from this church.
It is unknown how long Rev. Hankerson remained our pastor during his second term, but research records indicate that he died in 1927 at the age of 69 after contributing greatly to the African-American experience in Daytona Beach in the areas of religion, education and civic affairs.
Early baptisms at river
The interior of Mt. Bethel was completed under seventh pastor, Rev. J.M. Moses. My dad, Brother Levi Sims Sr., stated “there was to be a balcony in the sanctuary, but was never completed, mainly due to finances.’’ He also told me that baptisms were held at the river, and that people were taken there on a horse driven wagon.
These antique stained glass windows bear witness to families’ memorials and church auxiliaries, one of which was the Women’s Home Mission with President Ida E. Jenkins, a relative of our current Deaconess Izora Boswell.
Deacon Carlton Clark, Sr., my late first cousin, recalled that when people became upset with one thing or the other at the church, they moved on and started another church.
Clark said such was the case when Shiloh Baptist Church grew out of members from Mt. Bethel, and is therefore referred to as Mt. Bethel’s “Sister” Church, and Providence Baptist Church was started from members of Shiloh.
Owns parsonage, apartments
Mt. Bethel’s one and only mortgage was burned in November 1944, almost 69 years ago.
Properties adjacent to the church and at the northeast corner of South and Division Streets were acquired.
Know that the pews on which we currently sit were purchased more than 67 years, and that Mt. Bethel continues to operate on the same theme, “A Challenging Church Serving a Challenging Christ” penned 36 years ago.
Mt. Bethel owns two buildings – the church parsonage and Pruden Arms Apartments. Mt. Bethel has had an elevator for 30 plus years.
Dr. Howard Thurman, a national and international theologian and renowned author, grew up right here in Mt. Bethel with my father, Levi Sims, Sr., as his boyhood friend and were friends right up to his death in 1981.
Mt. Bethel’s library was named The Howard Thurman Religious Resource Center by Deaconess Loretta O. Wright. My dad was one of two childhood friends of Thurman who cut the ribbon to the library on Sunday, Jan. 29, 1989.
‘On the move’
For the past four years, Mt. Bethel’s Trustees have been instrumental in making major physical improvements to the church, apartments, and parsonage and bringing them up to code as requested by the City of Daytona Beach.
Laboring tirelessly on countless internal and cosmetic renovations, specific projects undertaken by the Trustees include: renovation of both male and female restrooms to make them handicap-accessible; and the installation of an audio room equipped with a new sound system, the first of its kind for Mt. Bethel; renovating the kitchen and upgrading the industrial stove; and installing new carpet in Matthews Fellowship Hall.
Mt. Bethel has certainly been “on the move”, and was awarded its status as a 5013c organization in 2011. Our Board of Trustees is currently in the process of getting Mt. Bethel Baptist Institutional Church registered as a “historic landmark” in the National Register of Historic Places.