TO SAY PASTOR D.N. BENFORD has seen Galveston County grow would be a gross error in misjudgement. Instead, Benford has helped turn the county from its oppressive Jim Crow ways into an area where African-Americans have contributed mightily to its current success.
“I’ll keep going until I drop,” said the 90-year-old Benford, who celebrates 70 years at Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in Texas City. “I have done what I could, but I feel like there is more for me to continue doing.”
Ninety cars — far more than the 70 the parade committee had expected — participated in a drive-by thank you parade on Saturday. It was the first of a three-week celebration that will culminate in a Jubilee Celebration on November 8 beginning at 10:30am.
The celebration will also include a full-color documentary detailing the life and times of Benford.
Benford delivered his first sermon at the age of 14 and built his name before arriving at Rising Star in 1950. Since then, he has preached the gospel through 13 United States Presidents, most of the Cold War and the advancement of entertainment from Jack Benny to Jay-Z. He has also been a powerful influence in the process of erasing segregation from Galveston County while playing a pivotal role in the integration of both Texas City and La Marque High Schools.
“When I first arrived here, there wasn’t an organization for blacks,” he said. “The church was, and always has been, the leader when it comes to helping our people. If someone had a problem, they would come to me, and I would meet with the authorities to see how we can get things resolved.
“At that time, we weren’t in a position to demand anything, but we began to fight for our full citizenship. Back then, we were still regarded as 3/5s of a person in the eyes of so many.”
Through time, Benford helped carry Rising Star and the black communities of Texas City and a then-young La Marque into the tumultuous fight for civil rights. “I was young, crazy and didn’t care about anything but making sure we had a seat at the table,” he said.
Rising Star was the home base for how blacks planned to gain their well-deserved freedom. The church was the site of every meeting during that period, one that saw numerous state and federal government officials come down to help contribute to the process.
Perhaps the biggest breakthrough was when Benford and his supporters helped get George K. Drake on the La Marque ISD board, making Drake the first black to serve as a member.
“We shook it up,” he said. “Once we got George onto the school board, we began to develop a deeper thirst for freedom. We started asking, ‘how about letting us do more just cutting grass, serving as maids or doing custodial work?’”
Through persistence and an unyielding support for labor, by the late-1960s, blacks were able to receive the chance to go beyond menial tasks. Local plants began to slowly open its doors to qualified candidates, whose work showed the white supervisors that they were missing out on a treasure trove of talent.
The efforts of Benford helped increase the number of black middle and upper class citizens in Galveston County. As the decades have come and gone, those numbers have been handed down to generations of blacks who have helped make the county a welcomed place to live.
“There were positive things that happened in Galveston County for blacks that didn’t happen across the country,” he said.
One of the challenging, yet satisfying, achievements Benford contributed to was the integration of Texas City and La Marque High Schools. It was through the work of Benford and his fellow committee members that allowed the transitions to go through without any major confrontations, especially at a time responding to racism went from the peaceful mindset of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the more aggressive nature of the Black Panthers.
Unlike instances of violence and intimidation that defined school integration throughout the country in the 1970s, the melding together of black and white in Texas City and La Marque was mostly peaceful.
“There was very little friction when that happened,” Benford said. “We were able to keep the lid on the pot and were able to solve issues when it appeared things could get bad.”
He is modest when it comes to the celebration of his 70 years at Rising Star. At 90, Benford still has the energy of a younger man, evidenced by the fact he is often seen driving the church bus throughout the area and always willing to listen to someone’s issues while offering to pray for them.
Covid-19 has been perhaps the one thing that has slowed Benford down. Rising Star now holds just one service on Sundays after years of holding two services.
Still, there is work to be done.
“This has been a really rewarding experience,” he said. “I haven’t just preached here. No, we have gone out and made great strides, and I want to make sure we’re able to build upon the gains we have made. There are still those who want to keep us from equality, but we won’t be defeated by their ways.
“I have a little more to do. Even though I know my time to slow down is coming, I want to keep on doing what I can.”