When people ask me where I grew up, I often answer, “Downtown Clement.” Downtown Clement? Yep, between Clement School and Garthie Carroll’s store. That’s downtown Clement.
You won’t find Clement on any state highway map. There’s no town hall, and as far as I know, there’s never been a post office there. (But there is a fire department and civic center.) Clement is not a town, but it is more than just an intersection on Maxwell Road in northern Sampson County, with its name on both sides of a post. Clement is a community. At least it was, when I was growing up.
I thought about that recently when I read a quote by sociologist, Robert Nisbet. He stated that man is “engaged in a continual quest for community.” Community is defined as “a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.” And Nisbet says that there is something in all of us that wants to be a part of such a group. A group or place where we feel like we belong.
To me, growing up in Clement was such a place. Clement School was about a mile east down the road. You went there from the first grade until you graduated from high school. You knew the teachers. Most of them lived right down the road. You knew most of the other students, even the ones who were grades ahead or behind you. Clement School became integrated when I was in the seventh grade. It really didn’t seem like that big of a deal to us because we already knew many of the black students that were now coming to our school. They were our neighbors. They were a part of our community.
About a mile west on Maxwell Road was Garthie Carroll’s store. It was probably the neatest and cleanest country store that you would ever see. Mr. Garthie made sure of that. He might talk to you a minute or two, but then he’d be back sweeping or running the cash register. Many a young teenager earned spending money working at Garthie’s on Saturdays. And they learned that you didn’t just stand around while working for Mr. Garthie. If you weren’t busy, you grabbed a broom and acted like you were sweeping, whether the floor needed it or not.
There was church. There were ballgames. There was farmwork. People looked out for their neighbors. If a neighbor saw you misbehave, they just might go ahead and spank you themselves. Even if they didn’t, you could guarantee that they would let your folks know so that they could take care of it. Life wasn’t always easy back at Clement, and times were often difficult. But you felt like you belonged. You were part of a community.
A place to belong. That’s probably the core of that “quest for community.” And it is evident in our entertainment. My favorite TV show has always been “The Andy Griffith Show.” Andy, Barney and the gang were funny. The writing and actors were great. But maybe one of the things that has made the show so popular for generations is Mayberry. It is the town, the community that draws us in.
You see that in TV shows from later decades. You remember the line from “Cheers.” Set in a bar, it’s a place “where everyone knows your name.” Recently, there has been a comedy TV show that centers around a group of community college students. It is their place to belong. By the way, the show is appropriately named, “Community.”
But it seems like it’s getting harder and harder to find community. People are much more transient today, constantly moving and not setting down roots. It’s difficult to make a commitment to a place, organization, or group, if you don’t plan on being there very long. True community takes commitment. And commitment is a character trait that seems to be in short supply these days. Overall church attendance and membership has declined. So has membership in civic organizations. People are now finding some sort of community on their computers and smart phones. And if being in an “online community” becomes too much of a burden, just hit the delete key.
So the “quest for community” continues. But maybe that place that we all are actually looking for is more than a physical location or group. Maybe it is much more. “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org