Honoring those who went first

Group remembers iconic black leaders in Vance County
Feb. 24, 2014 @ 09:54 PM

The brothers and sisters of Beacon Light Masonic Lodge sought to remember and give tribute to past and present black leaders in Vance County.

So the group put together the first in what it hopes will become an annual event profiling African-Americans whose lives had an impact here and who called the area home.

“We’d like to take this opportunity to share some of the information on prominent African-Americans of Vance County,” Valerie Noel said. “Hopefully, this will enlighten you.”

Among those honored were many who broke ground: Dr. Samuel McDougal Beckford, the first black licensed surgeon in Vance County; Dr. John Earl Baxter, the first black doctor to come to Henderson; Charles Williamson, the first registered black attorney and civil rights advocate in the county.

“For over 40 years, attorney Charles W. Williamson was the only black lawyer in Vance County,” said William Rogers, who gave the presentation. “A portrait of Williamson now hangs in the Vance County Superior Courtroom.”

The local black bar association also renamed itself the Charles W. Williamson Bar Association.

Current Sheriff Peter White, a retired State Highway Patrol major and former U.S. Marine, and George Walker — the first African-American elected to the Vance County Board of Education — were also honored, as were several people whose day-to-day struggles helped bring about greater change.

Vance County native Betty Harrison Gregory, for example, worked at a local store.

“She was employed at Roses Stores, which Roses was a large conglomerate at the time; they had stores, I think, in eight states,” Robert Gregory said. “She was the first black clerk to serve in those stores. … If you went in Roses Stores, you would never see her because they always had her in the back.”

Sarah Burwell Solomon, for her part, was the first African-American hired at People’s Bank in Vance County.

“It’s an honor you all invited me to come tonight,” she said. “The 41 years and four months at the bank was not easy. It was a time when segregation and all this occurred. They were determined to try to deter me from what I needed to do. They kept sending me from one place to another trying to get me to give up. I got it in my head that they weren’t going to take it from me.”

Robert Gregory said this year’s program only touched the tip of the iceberg for black leaders in Vance County, but those that were mentioned help illustrate the struggle people endured — even if they didn’t get to see the end result themselves.

“I live in the ’60s as a teenager, and it wasn’t easy,” he said. “I think about the suffering that our forefathers done, and it’s almost impossible to relate to it because I don’t know how they survived.”

Contact the writer at vshortley@hendersondispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter at @herding_stets.