Finding Your Folks: The two Bethel churches at Rocky Mount

Judy Fowler Kilgore's picture

I need to apologize to the good folks in Rocky Mount for an error I made last week in naming one of their cemeteries. I was unaware, as I'm sure some of you were, that there are two Bethel Baptist churches in Rocky Mount: one is Bethel Baptist Church (in Rocky Mount), a white church, established in 1829, and the other is Rocky Mount Bethel Baptist Church, a black church, established in 1867.

In last week's article I stated that Coleman P. Owen's son, Charles C. Owen, and his wife, Nancy Conner, were buried at Rocky Mount Bethel Baptist Church when they are actually at Bethel Baptist Church (in Rocky Mount). Both churches are west of the intersection in Rocky Mount proper (on the road from Rocky Mount to Luthersville) and I visited both cemeteries last week. Both are quite large and nicely kept. And, as one would assume, the surnames are similar in both.

It gives you a strange feeling to wander among these graves after having studied these people in censuses and historical reports of the area. Many of these people attended Coleman Owen's estate sale and all were his neighbors and friends whose names keep popping up on official papers. The first family of Wilkins Stone is here, along with many Almons, Rowes, Fullers, Hopkins, Stricklands, Hardaways, Windoms, Keiths and Clarks, among others.

I also solved another mystery, or at least put a question to rest, on one of the Herndons. Marshall and Annie Kempson Herndon had a baby boy, James Herndon, who appears as a toddler in the 1860 census. By 1870, when Annie is with Wilkins Stone in Illinois, her other two Herndon sons are there but not James. That's because he is here, in Georgia, in a tiny grave at Bethel Baptist. "James, son of M.H. & Annie C. Herndon," the gravestone says, and gives his birth and death dates as 18 Dec. 1859 - 27 Nov. 1861. How painful it must have been for this young girl, only in her twenties, to lose her baby and then her husband, all within just a couple of years.

There's not much written about the two Bethel churches in Regina Pinkston's "Historical Account of Meriwether County." Apparently Rocky Mount, listed as a bustling business community in 1910, had dwindled to a population of only 65 by 1974 when she wrote her book. Many who are listed in earlier censuses as living in Rocky Mount had businesses in nearby Luthersville.

The more recently published "Heritage of Meriwether County"(HMC), compiled and distributed by the Meriwether County Historical Society, has stories about both Bethel churches, but does not give much information on early members.

"Black" Bethel was built on land donated by a white landowner, as stated in HMC, and land for cemetery plots later was "donated by R.H. Hardaway." Since the Hardaway estate seems to take up much of that area as seen in a 1910 map, several complete land lots of 202.5 acres each, I think it is safe to assume that the Hardaways probably donated land for the black church. Names associated with Rocky Mount Bethel in the HMC article (contributor of the article not given) include the Revs. David Harris and Dan Williams who founded the church; Wash Hines, Matt Watson, Hugh Blount, Wash Strickland, Lovett Windom, (early deacons); and the Revs. O.F. Foster, Ira Tigner and Lowinston Jackson who were all called into the ministry from Rocky Mount Bethel. Since its inception in 1867, the church has had only 15 pastors.

According to an article in HMC submitted by Gina Rowe of Luthersville, "white" Bethel's congregation was begun shortly after the county was founded in 1827. By 1829, early settlers had built a log cabin in which to worship and it served the congregation for 74 years. The present building was built in 1902-1903. The only early member mentioned (and she's not really that early) is Mrs. Annie Kee who was baptized at Bethel in 1900. Bethel is certainly a pretty little church, tall and bright white, about a city block off the main road. The cemetery road circles around and rejoins the main road. Gravestones in Bethel's cemetery can be seen from Luthersville-Rocky Mount Road.

Our Owen family was not in the 1830 Meriwether County census so I don't think they could be called Meriwether pioneers … maybe "among the early settlers" would be more accurate. Coleman didn't purchase his first land until 1836 but they were probably in the county before that time. I would not hesitate to assume that they attended Bethel church as soon as they got settled. Their land was very close by.

As I wandered through the cemetery jotting down names and dates, I couldn't help but notice those whose names I had come across often in my research of this Owen family and, although I didn't see a grave for Coleman P. Owen, I may have come across the grave for his wife, Charlotte Allen Owen. Enclosed within an ornate iron fence is a large stone slab on the ground with the following inscription:

"In Memory of Martha C. Allen, Born Dec 18, 1815, Died Oct 7, 1887, Baptized by Elder Brittain into fellowship with Bethel Church (Primitive) on 28th day of Sept. 1873."

I know it's unusual to see a gravestone with what would have been her maiden name but the dates are about right. Could her name have been Martha Charlotte Allen? Is this, indeed, Coleman's wife? I didn't see another stone or marker within the fence but maybe I need to take another look. Perhaps there is something there with "Owen" on it that I missed. Other Owens are close by. I'll let you know next week.

Stories about your families who lived on Atlanta's south side are always welcome. Send stories to or Mail to The Citizen, P.O. Drawer 1719, Fayetteville, GA 30214. All letters and e-mails I receive are subject to being used in the column.

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