As a family historian, of course I keep the bits and pieces of memorabilia that my family accumulates. In fact, I’m in the process of digitizing and organizing my family’s photos & documents. Sorting through some old papers that my grandmother kept recently inspired memories of a man that has meant a lot to my family for generations.
Bishop Ithiel Clemmons is a man who somehow seemed larger than life to me. Could it be because I was a child when I knew him, and he towered over me? Could it be because of his status in my mother’s church and that I somehow “felt” his importance even as a young child? Or, could it be that he is a man that knew me, my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother and perhaps I felt the “presence” of his knowledge of my family over so many generations?
Bishop Clemmons was a national leader in the Church of God in Christ religious denomination. This is the church my grandmother attended, my mother grew up in, and I attended as a young child. He spent his life in the church, his father Frank having also been a leader in the denomination. And in 1975, he opened his own church in Greensboro, NC – the church my family attended. He was pastor there until his death in 1999.
So of course, my grandmother, Alice knew Bishop Clemmons from his very early days at First Church in New York and she would remain a member of his congregation for the rest of his life. Her mother, my great-grandmother, would also attend so Bishop Clemmons got to know her also. My mother grew up in New York in his church, so he knew her well! In fact, I find it striking that when my mother and my father decided to move away from New York in 1978 to go to North Carolina to raise a family that they ended up in Greensboro where his church was located. Once my parents moved, my mother joined his Greensboro congregation and it is here that we used to go to services when I was a child.
I vaguely remember Bishop Clemmons, but I have gathered tidbits about him over the years as my mother told stories, such as the fact that she typed his dissertation when he was ready to publish it as a book. How he counseled her and my grandmother over the years, offering his advice and feedback on many topics. And many other snippets here and there.
Given our multigenerational connection with him, it’s no surprise that my grandmother held on to items related to his church activities for so many years. For example, I have a program from a 1954 anniversary service held at the New York Church and in honor of Bishop Clemmons as a youth leader. It even has my grandmother’s handwritten note about the date.
As I was organizing these materials however, I felt as if something was missing. Would future generations even understand why we kept these things, and the significance of this man to our family?
The documents alone would not tell the story and I didn’t feel like I was equipped to write it either.
So, I asked my mother to write the story of Bishop Clemmons and his connection to our family. I wasn’t sure if she would do it, as generally we just talk about our family stories. I did not want to burden her and ask her to write them – but this time I felt it important. And you know what – she did an amazing job!
Within a couple of days, she wrote an overview of our family’s relationship with the bishop and I am excited to have it to add to our archive. Now, I know that future generations will have a more complete picture of who he was and what he meant to our family. His pictures and ephemera will not be not only be labelled but we will now have additional history & context for future generations.
This is why it’s important to tell and share our family stories. Doing so provides depth that can then be passed down to our descendants.
I’ve felt Bishop Clemmons’ presence in my life for a long time – he’s been in my family’s life for a long time. My descendants will know about it now that my mother wrote this story for me.
Memory keeping can often help us carry these shared stories forward in time, in engaging and inspiring ways. With a site like FamilyScrybe™ – one that focuses on the storytelling in family history keeping, Bishop Clemmons’ presence in my family will be around for a long time. And the story of his significance in the life of my family can be easily shared with other family members too!
Childhood photo courtesy of the author