Civil rights history honored with marker at Rock Hill church

dworthington@heraldonline.comApril 3, 2013 

  • Marking Hermon Presbyterian history

    “This church was organized in 1869 with Rev. J.A. Rainey as its first pastor and is one of the oldest black institutions in Rock Hill. With support from Northern Presbyterians, it ran a private school as early as the 1880s and was a mission church until 1912. This Gothic Revival sanctuary, built church members were also brickmasons and carpenters, was built between 1897 and 1903.

    This church features a three-story tower and pointed-arch and quatrefoil stained-glass windows. The congregation was the center of the local Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Hermon Presbyterian Church was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. After the congregation moves to a new church 1 mi SW on Heckle Blvd in 1999 this history church became a community center.”

— Officially it was a dedication of a South Carolina historical marker.

In reality, it was celebration of the message of equality that resonated in the sanctuary of Hermon Presbyterian Church near downtown Rock Hill for years and then resounded through York County, changing it forever.

Like most official ceremonies, elected leaders were invited to speak at Wednesday’s dedication.

Bump Roddey, who represents the 4th District on the York County Council, admitted he grew up a rock’s throw from the church on Dave Lyle Boulevard, but knew little about until recently.

Roddey said if the walls of the church could talk, you could hear the prayers of salvation and freedom. Some of those prayers, he said, have been answered.

The voices, however, were sitting in the pews.

Scattered through the small, 110-year old church were people who came there as children, then as adults. They could tell you where they sat, where their parents and grandparents sat.

John Pharr not only recalled where he sat, but he pointed to the spot before the altar where was he ordained as a minister. He also remembered the day he was called before the congregation to preach. Now retired, he spent more than 40 years preaching.

While he was listed as a guest speaker, Pharr gave a spirited sermon, required at all church celebrations.

He noted that he was a “4B Hermonite – bred, born, baptized and brought up in this church.”

Paraphrasing a World War II slogan about the country’s best men passing through the gates and going off to war, Pharr said of Hermon Presbyterian, “through these doors passed some of the best Christian witnesses.”

Among those were Cecil Ivory. Although he was confined to a wheelchair since a childhood accident, Ivory was a “giant witness to the Bible. moving people to stand up and move forward,” Pharr said.

It was “gallant souls like Ivory,” Pharr said, “that let people in this community to be aware of what it means to be a Christian and an American.”

Ivory taught that all men are indeed created equal, and are endowed by their God with “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Pharr said, quoting the introduction to the Declaration of Independence.

Ivory helped lead Rock Hill’s bus boycott, and he and the Rev. Robert Toatley, who also served as one of Hermon’s pastors, helped counsel the Friendship Nine students who made their stand for civil rights at McCory’s downtown lunch counter.

Among those attending Wednesday’s ceremony was Dub Massey of the Friendship Nine, who said, “I’m part of this.”

Brother David Boone of the Rock Hill Oratory, a contemporary of Ivory, Toatley and other civil rights leaders, was there too, saying he couldn’t miss Wednesday’s celebration.

Sitting in the second pew in the center of the church was Darnell L. Ivory, Cecil’s daughter. When her father preached, she sat in the back of the church with her brothers. When she was allowed up front, she sang either “Love Me Tender” or “Que Sera Sera, Whatever Will Be, Will Be.”

Darnell Ivory was 10 when her father died and said she doesn’t know all her father’s story. But it is visits such as Wednesday’s that continue to fill in the story. “Anytime I return, I get emotional,” she said.

She recounted that crosses were burned in the front yard of the Hermon parsonage. Her father received death threats on the phone. When the Freedom Riders came through Rock Hill, her mother, Beulah, cooked for them and gave them a place to rest before their next stop.

Darnell Ivory also recalled that her father was often in the right place when there was the possibility of trouble. She told one story of a black youth arrested and then released by the police. The youth asked to be taken to a bus stop or well-lighted place. The police, Darnell Ivory said, dropped him off in a dark spot.

Somehow, she said, her dad knew about it and picked up the youth, telling the young person to get in his car and to hide. Cecil Ivory drove off, pushing the car’s accelerator with his cane, his usual method of driving.

“My father didn’t fear,” she said. “I didn’t realize the danger until now ... he sacrificed his life for his beliefs.”

Good church celebrations also require music, and there was plenty of gospel offerings and outright jazz rattling the stained glass windows, some original to the sanctuary which was finished in 1912.

Bobby S. Plair Sr. remembered coming to the church as a child to play his clarinet for his mother and grandmother.

On Wednesday, Plair picked up his clarinet again, playing with his son, Bobby Jr., on trumpet.

They played “My Father Look Up to Me,” the first song Bobby Jr. remembers ever singing at the church. They followed with “I’ll Fly Away” and finished with “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

“I was raised in this church,” Bobby Plair Sr. said. “I love this church.”

His love is so strong that when the Hermon congregation moved to a new sanctuary on Heckle Boulevard, the senior Plair arranged for the purchase of the gothic-style church in 1999 and led in its restoration. The building is still used as a church – the Souls of Christ Church worships there now.

Bobby Plair Jr. said Wednesday’s celebration “validates all the work done here. The people who have come before us. The struggles the people went through.” It is also about, he continued, “seeing my father’s dream come true.”

With the music finished, everyone went outside to unveil the marker, and then in the tradition of all good church celebrations, sat down for pot-luck lunch.

Everyone agreed it was much more than a dedication. Paraphrasing French novelist Victor Hugo, Pharr said the legacy of Hermon Presbyterian Church lies in not only its words, but in the actions of its people.

“An invasion by an army can be stopped,” Pharr said. “but not an idea whose time has come.”

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Don Worthington •  803-329-4066 dworthington@heraldonline.com

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