George Henry White and Ebenezer Presbyterian Church: Honoring Found Elders

September 1, 2013

In the fall of 2013, New Bern’s historic Ebenezer Presbyterian Church plans to honor one of its founding elders with a weekend of special events, including a lecture and the showing of the 2012 documentary film, George Henry White: American Phoenix.  The plans are being coordinated by the Rev. Robert Johnson and his congregation as a tribute to the life and legacy of the distinguished public servant and U.S. congressman, who lived in New Bern from 1877 until 1894.

 

George Henry White’s devotion to his community can perhaps best be symbolized by his active church life—and particularly his ties to Ebenezer Presbyterian Church.  At the time of his arrival in New Bern in the spring of 1877, the city’s black Presbyterians were still served by the city’s First Presbyterian Church, whose veteran minister, the Rev. Lachlan C. Vass, chronicled its history in an 1886 book.

 

By the spring of 1878, White and 10 other black members of First Presbyterian—including John Randolph, Sr., soon to become’s White’s father-in-law—began planning for the new church with encouragement and assistance of First Presbyterian leadership.  The first three elders elected to serve the new mission were White, Randolph, and Junius Willis.

 

Ebenezer Presbyterian was formally organized by the Orange Presbytery in November 1878. Until the first building was constructed, the new congregation held its services in the Congregational School House, where White served as principal of First Presbyterian’s black parochial school, in addition to his primary role as principal of the city’s black public school.  The first interim pastor was Benjamin Boswell Painter, a licentiate who served until early 1879; he was succeeded in May 1879 by the Rev. Allen Scott, the first permanent pastor.

 

White was married in February 1879 to Fannie B. Randolph, a young New Bern schoolteacher; the couple exchanged vows at First Presbyterian before the Rev. Daniel J. Sanders, later the president of Biddle University (now Johnson C. Smith University) in Charlotte, N.C.

 

The Whites’ daughter Della, born in January 1880, was among the first children born in the new congregation.  In September 1880, two months before Ebenezer’s dedication, Fannie White died of natural causes; her funeral was held at First Presbyterian Church.

 

Ebenezer’s imposing white wooden structure, with its distinctive design, was dedicated in November 1880.  The wooden church, depicted in Rev. Vass’s book, served its congregation until 1922, when it was destroyed by fire.  Its replacement, a modern brick building constructed in 1924 at 720 Bern Street, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

 

In 1880, George White was elected to the N.C. General Assembly from Craven County. During the legislature’s 1881 session, Rep. White sponsored a bill incorporating the new church; according to that bill, he was a member of the Ebenezer Board of Trustees, along with the Rev. Allen Scott.

 

In early 1882, George White married his second wife, local schoolteacher Nancy J. Scott, sister of the Ebenezer pastor.  She died of natural causes just 10 months later; her funeral services were conducted at Ebenezer.  Both Fannie White and Nancy White are buried at Greenwood Cemetery.

 

In 1887, George White married his third wife, Cora Lena Cherry of Tarboro, who bore him three children: Mary, Beatrice, and George, Jr.  The growing family attended Ebenezer Presbyterian until moving to Tarboro in 1894.  After Cora White’s death in 1905, she was returned for burial at Greenwood Cemetery, next to her infant daughter Beatrice, who died in 1892.

 

-- Benjamin R. Justesen

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