Wake Forest Historical Museum Open Tuesday through Friday 9:30am-noon and 1:30-4:30pm; Closed Sundays in Dec/Jan

LOCATION: 414 N. Main Street Wake Forest, NC 27587 CONTACT: 919-556-2911

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 part of town now called the East End. 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.)


7 comments on “Philosopher and Preacher: James Robert Dent

  1. Jim Mackie
    June 2, 2018

    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.

    • wakeforestmuseum
      June 3, 2018

      Hi Jim– I’m not sure if Alfred Dent is of the same family, but it would seem likely. I’ll forward your comment to Dianne Laws. Certainly she will know.

      • wakeforestmuseum
        June 10, 2018

        And having checked with Dianne, I’ve learned Alfred Dent was a son of James Robert’s.

  2. Rosa Lake
    June 3, 2018

    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

    • wakeforestmuseum
      June 5, 2018

      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!

  3. Ben Aycock
    June 10, 2018

    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.

    • wakeforestmuseum
      June 10, 2018

      Will look into it. It seems the Dent family was quite well known around town!

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This entry was posted on June 1, 2018 by in East End.

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