Kneeling by his gravestone at the cemetery of Canetuck Missionary Baptist Church in western Pender County, NC, Earnestine Keaton shared her research about her great-great-grandfather, Rev. Richard Keaton. A preacher to enslaved people, in 1865 Rev. Keaton also established some of the first literacy efforts for African Americans in the Middle Cape Fear region of North Carolina. He evangelized tirelessly in Columbus and surrounding counties, and founded the first Missionary Baptist churches in the region.
Earnestine Keaton has traced her great-great-grandfather Rev. Richard Keaton’s path. Her research led her to the realization that Rev. Keaton had an enormous impact on local communities of the formerly enslaved. She seeks to commemorate the impact of this “unsung hero” by erecting a permanent marker at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church (MBC) in Sandyfield, NC because of its ties to his life and work.
Although few details are known about Rev. Keaton’s early life, Ms. Keaton says Rev. Keaton was born a free man in Alabama in 1825. He was African American, but likely also had Native American ancestry. Ms. Keaton says
Richard Keaton was a spiritual leader for the slaves at the Lloyds Alabama plantation on the Mississippi border, and was allowed to do the same at the Lloyds Mississippi plantation, which was where he met Hannah and they were allowed to marry.
When Hannah’s enslaver Salter Lloyd inherited a 3,200 timber plantation with lands in present-day Sandyfield and Canetuck, NC, he moved back East in the late 1850s The 1860 US Federal Census Slave Schedule for Salter Lloyd indicates that in 1860 he enslaved 87 people. Ms. Keaton says Redelia Larkins, whose grandparent was enslaved by Lloyd, was the source of oral history that detailed the 19 day walk from Mississippi.
Ms. Keaton quotes Larkins as saying that "Hannah and their daughter Elizabeth came with the first ones, and Richard Keaton came here with his boys.” Ms. Keaton states further that Hannah and the children were settled in a slave house in Canetuck, and in 1870 US Census Richard Keaton, a Baptist minister, was listed as head of household.
Rev. Keaton would go on to leave an indelible mark on the area. He traveled and evangelized tirelessly. The Sunday schools he formed were gatherings where the formerly enslaved used the Bible in order to learn to read. Out of these groups, the first Missionary Baptist churches in the Cape Fear region were founded.
Interestingly, before Emancipation, there is a Hannah listed as a colored member of Marshall’s meeting house in Canetuck (which became Canetuck Baptist Church). Family lore says that this is the same Hannah who was Rev. Keaton’s wife, while Rev. Keaton was a member of Wells Chapel Baptist in Wallace, NC. According to Ms. Keaton,
After Emancipation, he led former slaves out of white Baptist churches and organized them into a large Sunday school, and in 1867 the first group to come out became the first congregation of Canetuck Missionary Baptist Church. The second was Adoram MBC in Wallace.
As scholar Dr. Walter H. Conser, Jr. notes in his book A Coat of Many Colors: Religion and Society Along the Cape Fear River of North Carolina (2006, The University Press of Kentucky), enslavers exerted tight control of the religious messages they allowed enslaved people to hear. “The message that the masters wanted preached was not ‘proclaim liberty unto the captives’ but rather ‘obey those in authority.’” Wanting to control their own worship, African American communities began forming churches soon after Emancipation.
Rev. Keaton stepped into this historical moment as an evangelist and missionary. He is credited with organizing 18 churches in the region. Even before Emancipation, Rev. Keaton traveled extensively in the region, holding revivals. This allowed him to become a trusted faith leader to many communities. Ms. Keaton says “he had a relationship with all these communities before they were free…they were ready to have their own churches.”
Rev. Keaton’s leadership extended to being instrumental in the founding of the Middle District Missionary Baptist Association (MDMBA) in 1871. He continued to spread the Gospel, and saw the churches he influenced grow and give rise to new Missionary Baptist congregations. His reach was extended considerably by three young evangelists to whom he served as a mentor. Their names were Ransom Royals, William DeVane, and James “Ed” Bell.
Richard T. Newkirk Ed.D., who is an educator, a member of Lakes Chapel Missionary Baptist Church and the MDMBA, and an alumnus of the CF Pope school, summarized Rev. Keaton’s influence as follows:
Born in Alabama, Reverend Richard Keaton came to North Carolina where he started evangelizing, leading revivals and camp meetings. The first Black Missionary Baptist church in Southeastern North Carolina was organized by Rev. Keaton… [he organized] five of the twelve churches that formed the Middle District Missionary Baptist Association that was organized at Ebenezer Baptist church in Wilmington.
After Rev. Keaton’s death in 1885, his influence continued not only in the many churches he helped to establish, but through the leadership of Royals, DeVane and Bell, as well as many lay leaders. According to Ms. Keaton, these leaders were active in the MDMBA and were part of the founding of Burgaw Institute in 1891.
Newkirk reflects that:
Their [the MDMBA] mission, then and now, is to prepare and equip pastors, leaders and members for ministry. To this endeavor they organized Burgaw Institute, originally for the training of ministers only. However, Professor J. A. Fennell, a graduate of Shaw University who grew up in [churches organized by Reverend Richard Keaton], became the first principal. That school eventually became C. F. Pope High School, and is now C. F. Pope Elementary school. That’s impact!
Regarding the marker Ms. Keaton wishes to place for Rev. Keaton, she says:
The marker will be placed at Mt. Zion MBC in Sandyfield because several of the charter members and former Lloyd slaves and their descendants are buried there. In addition- two of his Sons of the Ministry that followed him as pastors at Mt. Zion and other churches they organized are buried there. It is also the home church for Reverend Keaton's son Wesley's descendants in the Sandyfield/Riegelwood area.
Keaton’s extraordinary life ended in 1885, and he is buried at Canetuck Missionary Baptist Church, where his determined witness took shape as some of earliest literacy efforts and the first Missionary Baptist Churches in the Middle Cape Fear region.