The Rev. Wilbert Lee Ammons, the oldest sitting chief of the Coharie Indian Tribe, left an indelible mark in his 95 years on earth, a true embodiment of his “Strong Spirit” moniker in the Native American community.
Ammons passed away May 11 at the age of 95. Upon news of his passing, N.C. Governor Roy Cooper ordered all United States and North Carolina flags at state facilities to be lowered to half-staff in tribute to the fallen chief.
Born in Sampson County, Ammons served as pastor for over 30 years at Mt. Sinai Holiness Church in Buck Head, preaching at various churches around North Carolina for nearly seven decades. A retiree from Lundy’s Packing Company, Ammons was a longtime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, having served proudly in the U.S. Army during WWII.
In September 2016, just shy of his 94th birthday, Ammons became the oldest elected Coharie chief by far, already bearing the title of oldest Coharie male.
“I wanted to do some good for our Indian people,” Ammons said upon his election as chief. “I’m proud of who I am and what I am. I always go around bragging on my heritage.”
He grew up as the self-described runt of the litter, one of 14 children — 10 girls and four boys — of William and Mildred Simmons Ammons, and spent the majority of his years on this earth ministering to others and counseling younger generations. Assuming leadership of the Coharie Tribe was a fitting role over his last couple years.
Ammons overcame great obstacles in his path to serve his country, his church and his Coharie people. At birth, he weighed just 2 pounds and his parents didn’t think he would live. But he did — and he made the most of it.
It was on May 10, 1951 that Ammons was saved. He immediately began preaching, giving his first sermon on July 5, 1951 at Holly Grove Free Will Baptist Church, as it was named then. He was officially ordained three years later.
For 20-plus years, Ammons served as leader of the Bible Free Will Holiness Conference, headquartered in Clinton, which now includes a few churches but was previously triple that. Other than Holly Grove, Bible FWH also includes East Carolina Holiness on U.S. 421 in Clinton, and Mt. Sinai Holiness in Bolton.
“At one point, I was pastoring three churches at a time, pastoring at a prison camp at Lumberton and preaching on a radio station in Laurinburg,” Ammons recalled. “I preached eight weeks of revival straight in Robeson County and South Carolina. I preached every night, and twice or three times on Sunday. There were 63 people saved in one week.”
A proud Army veteran, he wore pins bearing the logos of POW/MIA and the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs. He always kept a pen and a pocket calendar in his coat pocket — “just in case you are asked to preach you can be ready” — and carried around a business card that offered his many services, including his availability for coffee or a piece of advice.
Along with being willing to lend an ear and pearls of wisdom for those who seek it, he was a fount of knowledge and his memory did not often fail him.
“He knows the history of the church, the history of our conference and the history of our people in this community,” the Rev. Dr. Randy Simmons, a close friend who officiated Ammons’ funeral, once said. “There’s nobody in the Native American community that doesn’t know him and have a high regard for him.”
He received an eagle feather in 2015, the highest honor a Native American can receive. It was his second. Among his many awards, Ammons was also named Indian Elder of the Year in 2008. His name adorns the brick at the Veterans Memorial Park in Clinton and a bronze mold of his hands is on display at the North Carolina Veterans Park in Fayetteville, serving as a representative of all the veterans in Sampson.
He was drafted in the Army on Thanksgiving Day 1942 at the age of 20, serving in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, fighting battles in Northern France, Rheinland (Germany) and Central Europe. He stayed in the Army until being discharged in September 1945. Just a month before, Ammons came home on 30-day leave and got married to wife Alice. The two adopted four children. After WWII, he farmed for a while before going to Lundy’s where he worked until 1980, at which point Alice took over the farming.
Alice preceded Ammons in death by nearly eight years, but she remained everywhere in the pictures inside Ammons’ home, along with other family members and friends, cherished memories so abundant that pictures frames bumped up against each other over nearly every available inch of wall space in his living room.
Simmons, who called Ammons “bishop,” recalled the times he and his brother Steven would imitate Ammons.
“The church was our main place of meeting and the most honored position was pastor. He was the person we always loved and admired and wanted to pattern our life after,” Simmons has said. “He’s a great man. He really cares about other people and puts everyone above himself. He’s helped so many young preachers and gave them their start.”
Simmons now pastors at Holly Grove Holiness Church on Indian Town Road, where Ammons was the first ever pastor. Simmons’ father Jesse David “J.D.” Simmons Jr. was also a preacher at Holly Grove. It was Ammons who saved him, something for which Simmons said he was always thankful. He said his life was made richer because his father was saved.
“He’s an inspiring person. If I get old, I hope I would be old like him,” Simmons said. “He’s a legend in his own time, and after his time he’ll leave a great legacy.”