Philosopher and Preacher: James Robert Dent

Genatus Dent– more formally known as the Reverend James Robert Dent– was born on June 1, 1870 and made his home in the northeast part of town. Dent’s family worked for Wake Forest College and in the homes of its faculty members. His descendants still live here today.

Museum staff see a lot of old photographs, but few as good as this. It’s obvious from a glance that Dent is a minister–whether it’s his bearing, his expression, or what’s undoubtedly a bible in his hand.

The image made us curious, and that led to a search for clues. The first came from Dent’s great-granddaughter Dianne Laws, treasurer of the Wake Forest Historical Association, who recalls a man every bit as impressive as his picture.

We learned the Dent family home was on North White Street, one of a group of tenant houses owned by Wake Forest College Professor William Gaston Simmons and referred to as Simmons Row.

Finally, while combing the online digital archive of the Wake Forest College newspaper the Old Gold & Black, an article about Genatus Dent popped to the top of the findings list. Published in 1943, it marked the 50th wedding anniversary of Genatus and his wife Betty.

So here’s the difficult part. The story falls far short of today’s cultural standards. Although it lauds the couple for their civic contributions, it uses dialect to stereotype them. It puts mispronunciations in the mouth of the Reverend Dent while calling him “aristocratic” in the very same sentence. It insists on misrepresenting Betty as a person of value only through her work in the white community, but simultaneously acknowledges her achievements in raising her own family. These things are not only offensive, they’re illogical and contradictory.

But that, sadly, is how it was. That is history. The complex relationship–and sometimes friendship–that existed between members of Wake Forest’s white and black communities was a conflicted one. This is why we’re still searching for the full story, hoping to find some semblance of truth and authenticity.

The article is not all bad or all good. It is what it is.

So after receiving permission from the Dents’ great-granddaughter Dianne Laws, we are reprinting it in its entirety.

Old Gold & Black — November 26, 1943

Uncle Genatus Et Ux. Observe Golden Fete

“We’ve stood it these here fifty years, so I guess we didn’t make a mistake,” grinned Aunt Betty. You see, Aunt Betty and Uncle Genatus have just celebrated their golden wedding anniversary and “reklections” have been coming thick and fast.

In their more formal lives they’re known as the Rev. and Mrs. James Robert Dent, but to all their friends it’s just plain Aunt Betty and Uncle Genatus. “We’uz born, raised, and gonna die around here,” explained Uncle Genatus who belittles his 73 years with his aristocratic walk and calm, calculating voice.

Uncle Genatus and Aunt Betty found each other over fifty years ago last Monday, and according to the groom they had a “gorgeous time” at the anniversary party.

It seems that almost everybody in Wake Forest had a hand in giving this party; colored and white alike. Engraved invitations, multitudinous presents, beautiful music, and just plain folks all combined to honor the couple in the best fashion.

Everything was most formal, what with Uncle Genatus and Aunt Betty dressed in Sunday best and all the guests offering their congratulations in a reserved but most sincere manner. For the first time in 25 years, Aunt Betty said, “my hand looks like it did when I was married.” You see her sons gave her a new wedding band which has “initials and all” carved inside.

All this “shindig” wasn’t just to have a big time either, for Uncle Genatus and Aunt Betty have lived one of those lives of service which shows you just how good folks can be. Uncle Genatus is first and foremost a  Baptist preacher who considers it his duty to “spread the gospel to all regardless of nomination.” Then he’s been a “raiser of chillun, philosopher, and all around hard working man.”

Aunt Betty is at her best when she’s fulfilling the role of “mammy” to all of the Patterson children. Mr. Patterson is registrar of the College–that makes Aunt Betty pretty important as she’s “nigh about been a second mammy to all of his chillun.” Then she’s seen to it that all of her boys and girls have been honest hard working Negroes and that’s a “terribul hard job.”

Monday night and golden wedding are memories now. The Rev. and Mrs. James Robert Dent are Uncle Genatus and Aunt Betty once again. Incidentally, he does not know how he acquired the name of Genatus.

(The museum came across the image of Genatus Dent while scanning photographs to celebrate the 100th birthday of his granddaughter, Hazel Watkins. Watkins is equally well known in Wake Forest. For many years she served on the DuBois School Parent-Teacher Association and worked in the nursery at Wake Forest Baptist Church. Her daughter Theresa Watkins helped integrate Wake Forest High School in 1966 while daughter Dianne Watkins Laws advanced the cause of civil rights while working for the federal government.)


  1. There was a gentleman named Alfred Dent who I believe worked for Dr. & Mrs. Gill at the end of North Main Street. Alfred served as a butler, and houseman for the Gills. Alfred later left Wake Forest and went north , I believe to New York. He would return to WF and visit our family and others. I am not sure if Alfred is part of the Dent family mentioned in the article.

  2. Uncle Genatus and Aunt Betty were our FAMILY. He worked my grandfather’s garden, and she tended to all of us “grands.” Both were humble Christians. My grandfather was Prof. James Lake. Oftentimes, Genatus would could to the door to have a “session” w/my grandfather while Aunt Betty swung us on the porch. I was blessed to love them both.

    Rosa (Rose) Lake Lake

    1. Thank you for sharing these memories. The descendants of Reverend Dent are still very active and prominent members of the Wake Forest community. Please send along any more stories you may have about the Dent family!

    2. Thank you so much for sharing this. This insight into thier lives is so invaluable! Do you happen to have photos of them? I’m thier great granddaughter.

  3. I believe the person who cooked meals at the home of my mother and father was named Sula Dent (not sure of the spelling). I don’t know if she is related or not.

    1. I’m also a descendant and it was interesting to read about my grandmother’s father and mother ! I’d never met my great grandfather but I do remember my great grandmother Betty!

      1. NML, thank you so much for commenting! It’s been interesting for us to hear from the Dent descendants. Also, finding this article in the Old Gold & Black was such an exciting moment for us. The photograph, which Dianne Watkins Laws allowed us to scan, is an important addition to our collection. Such a beautiful and moving image, clearly a man of dignity and of God– you see it plainly the instant you see the pic.

  4. OMG, I have seen this picture in albums. This is my great, great grandfather!! My great grandmother was Juanita Dent, later Juanita Dent Hopkins, the seventh of 16 children. She lived on East Pine Ave at the top of “Happy Hill”. She was born on Oct 22, 1903 and I was with her when she passed away on July 6, 2013 here in NYC (lived to be 109). Her only daughter, my grandmother, was born as Annette Core AKA “Kitty” on July 12, 1927 and she passed away Feb 12, 2017 – I am writing this on anniversary of her passing!

    1. What an absolutely special coincidence! Of course I’ve heard much about your great-grandmother. Juanita Dent Hopkins is famous in Wake Forest. In fact, while researching the Dent family (largely as part of Hazel Watkins’ 100th birthday celebration last year) it became clear that many of the Dents were well known and highly respected community leaders throughout the past century. So happy you saw this wonderful photo and took time to comment!

      1. Do you have any other records of the Dents prior to James Robert and Betty. We are putting our family tree together. Or can you point us in a direction?

    2. I keep seeing references to “Happy Hill”, but when I Google it it keeps bringing up a cemetery in Winston Salem. Would love to know why the area around E Pine st. Is called Happy Hill. Thanks for your help

  5. This is my Great Grandfather, my Grandfather was David Dent married to Sula one of the 16 siblings, my mother was Doris Dent married to George Wyche. My Grandma Dent was a very important part of my life. So happy to share these happy memories.

      1. Denise Wyche– Thank you so much for commenting and I’m so very happy you chimed in! It’s wonderful that this post brought back happy memories. Dianne Laws and I have worked on a number of committees together, and she’s mentioned your family to me. The Wyche name is one that comes up frequently, and we’d like to do some research to find out more. Any stories you have would be most appreciated!

  6. This is great! Hazel Watkins is my great-grandmother, Linda Winston(my grandmother) is her daughter, while Pamela Winston-Curbeam (my mother) is her daughter. I never knew that there was such great history with our family! I’m putting together a family tree, could I receive this information?

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