Have you ever experienced the sensation that comes with unlocking the puzzle pieces of your family’s past? It can be a feeling of pure joy, a blessing, the kind that makes you laugh and cry at the same time. I encountered that stirring of my soul when visiting Beaufort, South Carolina, the resting place of my Great-Great-Grandmother Harriet Ervin Bythewood.
Harriet was the wife of Rev. Renty Fields Bythewood. Both were born slaves yet became important citizens of South Carolina’s Sea Islands after the American Civil War. For 25 years during the Reconstruction era, Renty, a tailor by trade, pastored the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort (famed resting place of Robert Smalls). Renty played a significant role in the organizing of several churches in the Sea Islands and had a considerable ministerial presence as far away as Columbia, South Carolina.
Having seen only a picture of Harriet’s tombstone online, I was excited now to view it in person. In the yard behind the church, I found her grave. I stood there for quite some time back and forth between prayer and awe. A peaceful feeling came over me. Tracing the lineage backward in my head, I wondered what it would have been like to know her. Who was Harriet? How did she come to rest here? Was I like her? I wanted more information relating to Harriet and the part she played in our family.
Returning the following day, I had the pleasure of meeting Tabernacle Baptist’s current Pastor, Rev. Kenneth Hodges. We conversed for a while in the church’s graveyard, and I came to realize he was very much the historian, a former member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, and the owner of an African Antique store not far from the church. Explaining how much it would mean to my family if the church could provide any information regarding the Bythewoods, Rev. Hodges asked if I’d like to tour the church. I jumped at the chance.
A few steps inside the sanctuary, an overwhelming warmth came over me. It was as if I were being embraced physically and spiritually by not just one but many beings all at the same time – kind and welcoming. An indescribable emotion stopped me in my tracks, forcing me to sit down and remain still as Pastor Hodges prayed with me. I listened, tears streaming, while his delightful prayer took my thoughts to the many weddings, births, baptisms, and people that must have been touched in this place during my ancestors’ time here.
Pastor Hodges invited me to walk with him again. Behind the historic sanctuary near several church offices, he stopped and pointed to a large picture on the wall. “This, this is your Great-Great-Grandfather,” he said. Right there before my eyes was the Rev. Renty Fields Bythewood, Harriet’s husband, and my ancestor. I had never seen a photograph of him before. I was speechless, thrilled. This was indeed an unexpected bonus on this trip. Not one, but two more puzzle pieces to lock into the fabric of the heritage of my family. Surely one of the biggest of life’s blessings for me.
*Rev. Renty Fields Bythewood was also the great grandfather of Elise F. Allen, founder, and publisher of the Traveler.