Kenneth Bembry Gets Too Big for His Britches

Kenneth Bembry, youngest son of Miles Bembry and Ann Bryan, was one of the richest Bembrys there ever was. Born in 1798, he must have been considered a likely boy, because Miles paid tuition to the Albin Plantation to have him educated along with the owner’s children.

In 1822, Kenneth married Mary Mayo, daughter of Micajah Mayo and member of a prominent planter family. 

By 1830 Kenneth had moved from Edgecombe County, NC, to then-Leon County, FL, near the river town of Magnolia, and already owned 24 slaves.  Mary Mayo had died, but he remarried, this time to Mahala Hall, from another well-off family of the area.

Florida society at that time was sharply divided between the “planters” who usually came from wealthy Virginia and North Carolina families and were Whigs, and the “yeomen” who were not from that class, and were usually Democrats.

Kenneth, as the son of a plantation overseer was considered one of the latter. (It probably didn’t help that his brother was a wanted man.)  He was, however, both educated and the richest member of the Pisgah United Methodist Church. In 1839, he was nominated by the Whigs as a token “yeoman” candidate for the state legislature. The Whigs were at the time attempting to overcome the bad blood from a real estate/banking scandal that was greatly resented by the yeomen of Leon County. The author of “Creating an Old South: Middle Florida’s Plantation Frontier before the Civil War”  speculates that the Whigs offered Kenneth “social acceptance” among the Virginia and North Carolina-bred planter class.

Kenneth lost the election in a landslide. A very ugly series of open letters ensued in the Tallahassee Floridian and Advocate newspaper in which he was branded a traitor by the Democrats. He then tried to unseat the winner of the election by making a nuisance of himself in the legislature, and demanding a re-election, at which point the newspaper turned solidly against him and in a scathing editorial, strongly implied that he had run as a Whig to climb the social ladder. From the Floridian and Advocate, September 19, 1840:

“Mr. Bembry does us an injustice.  We never could be so cruel as to attempt to prevent his advancement in society. We know not his position in society, either as to how far he has advanced, or as to the height to which ambition prompts him to climb. We shall not raise a finger or have a wish to stop him. He may climb to the topmost round of the ladder and we shall not interfere to prevent him. If, however, by “advancement in society” he means his election to the Legislature, there is something so superlatively ridiculous in it that we are astonished that should expose himself by making such a complaint.”

Alas, once an overseer’s son, always an overseer’s son.

By 1850, Kenneth had moved to Centreville, near Tallahassee, had acquired more land and property, listed a net worth of $10,000, owned 40 slaves, and listed his occupation as “planter.” He passed away in 1854, and is buried in the cemetery at Pisgah Methodist Church as “Kenneth Bembry, Esq’r.”  His obituary in the Floridian and Advocate, which reveals his position as a leader, at least in the Methodist community, is transcribed below.

Mr KENNETH BEMBRY of Centreville, Leon county is dead, and yet not dead, but sleepeth. All that was **** of that valuable and estimable man, was laid to rest on the 4th of October 1854 at Pisgah Church, but his spirit fled in triumph from its crumbling tenement of earth to his princely heritage above. He was born in Martin county NC, May 11 1800. At an early age, he married Miss Mary M Mayo of that State, but death soon severed them and removed in ’20 to Leon county FLa, while it was yet a wilderness. Here, he married the eldest daughter Maj W. and Jane Hall, with whom he lived in harmony and love until ’49, when his heart was again sorrow stricken by death’s relentless hand, removing her to the spirit world. In ’39 he embraced religion and united himself to the M.E. Church in which communion he spent the remnant of his days. His remains were followed to their last resting place by an impsing and beautiful procession, consisting of Masons, Sons of Temperance, in Badges of mourning his Christian friends and neighbors, Sabbath School Children with mourning Badges, his bereaved and only daughter, and lastly his servants. He was interred with the honors of Masonry and the Sons of Temperance.

To say that he was Master of Centreville Lodge, Worthy Patriarch of Centreville Division, Sons of Temperance, Class leader in the Methodist E. Church, Superintendent of Pisgah Sabbath School for the last ten years, and President of the Life Insurance and Trust Company Bank, will be saying much in his favor, in a social and moral point of view, perhaps enough to those who are aware of the arduous task of sustaining one’s character as he did in all these several positions, but not much more can be said without presenting all the points for a just appreciate of our loss in the demise of our friends, and although we cannot say he was faultless, yet these things speak well for him. His bearing was dignified and tho’ he had position in society he was in none of his feelings or habits exclusive. Vice met with his abhorrence, but, virtue received his commendation and support. He would risk any man’s displeasure by contending for the triumph of the truth. He was a fearless defender of all principles, warm in their discussion, uncompromising in sustaining his position, and no man was firmer in his attachments or more faithful to his friends whether they were wise or unwise.

As regards his temporal affairs he witnessed decided vicissitudes of fortune. But with Spartan valor battled with reverses , and however gloomy the prospect held up to him in life, he looked steadily at the bright side of the picture. The company of the pious and devout was his delight at home and abroad. The way-worm Ambassador of Christ found a bright welcome and happy sojourn around the board and at his fire-side. Orphans now bless his memory while their hearts are shrouded in mourning for their loss. The large Sabbath School at Pisgah will deeply feel the loss of an affectionate and faithful Superintendent. His absence has left a void that is hard to fill. A large circle of friends will feel this providence to be a bereavement indeed. The M.E. Church hereby sustains the loss of an ornamental pillar which will be mournfully evident in her future conferences.

He has left an only daughter to feel that loneliness (tho’ surrounded by friends) which from the loss of such a father, seems an utter desolation. Having no brother or sister, to share her affections they clustered closer around her noble father and death has town him from them. But the hope of the gospel brings it’s healing influences to the fair mourner’s heart , and her faith smiles at the storms over the rains of which the rainbow of covenant mercy flings its heavenly tints. He endured a painful and protracted illness with calm resignation and unwavering faith in the gospel. Seeing the bright side of things even in the winding up of life’s dreams, he left a bright testimony to the sure mercies of David.

J.B. Elliott

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