by Mark H. Hunter
The first time the Rev. Dr. Jesse Bernard Bilberry, Jr., senior pastor of Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, asked Verta Lee Hamilton to go out with him she refused.
One of Baton Rouge’s more prominent Christian couples, they celebrated 63 years of marriage on Dec. 23, 2015. He is still preaching at 86, and involved in local, state and national issues of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. She is 83, and only recently, due to health issues, retired from decades of playing the piano for church children’s programs and teaching music at the Louisiana State School for the Blind.
It was 1948. He was a sophomore and she was a freshman at Southern University. They’d seen each other in high school but never met.
He played basketball for Farmerville high, which used the court at her high school in Monroe, 29 miles away. Later they rode the train – but not together – from Monroe to Vicksburg, Miss., to Baton Rouge and back.
They were introduced by a friend of hers who encouraged Verta Lee to date him. After all, he was tall and athletic and was a popular actor in the River Bend Players drama club.
“When I found out he was from Farmerville, I told him, ‘No, I don’t want to go with no country boy!’” she says with a laugh during a visit to their comfortable home in the Glen Oaks neighborhood. “I was a city girl. No indeed! No country boy for me!”
In between classes he worked at the School for the Deaf and she was a music major who practiced piano in a building he often walked past.
“So, I’d speak to him nice, and he’d say ‘hello’ and ‘how are you doin?,’ and I’d say, ‘Okay – but I got to practice now and I can’t do any talkin’,” she says with another laugh.
She even gave him a false name neither can now remember. Maybe it was Doris, she says.
Finally they went on a Friday night date to the movie theater.
“I don’t know if we paid too much attention to the movie,” he says with a big smile and she laughs.
They both became Christians at an early age and regularly attended church.
“I told him when we first started courting that if he was going to be a preacher like his daddy we can cut this off right now ‘cause I don’t want no preacher. I loved dancing!,” she says. “I never smoked, didn’t drink, none of that – but dancing? I do that all day and all night!”
He never planned to be a pastor, he told her. He graduated from Southern in 1951, with a degree in social studies and English.
They got engaged, she was a junior, and he got drafted into the Army. His unit went to Korea but he was assigned to Germany. “They all said, ‘Bilberry – you lucky stiff!’” he says with a big grin.
Upon his honorable discharge and return to the states, he picked her up in his car at school, drove to Monroe, and they got married Dec. 23, 1953.
“I didn’t want a big fancy wedding, that wasn’t my thing,” she says. They had a simple service in her parent’s house performed by his father with relatives as witnesses.
For awhile they worked in different school systems and had to live apart. She taught music at Jonesborough and he was principal at Tensas Rosenwald High School, a segregated school in St. Joseph, 140 miles away. “That was a rough time,” he said. When a music position opened in his district they got back together.
“She was a good teacher and didn’t interfere with my administration – it was a beautiful thing,” he said. I didn’t know the Lord was getting us ready for another experience.”
He attended LSU for two summers, earning his master’s degree in education in 1957. He was the only black male student on the still-segregated campus.
Daughter Cassandra was born in 1958, and she now runs Mt. Pilgrim’s children’s programs.
They moved to Baton Rouge when he was hired at Southern University as director of the Freshman Complex, then promoted to the High School Relations Office, and then to director of the Admissions Office. She taught music at the School for the Blind, retiring in the 1990s.
They began attending Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church in 1975, and he was voted a deacon. In the early 1980s, while driving to Natchez, Miss., they survived a head-on collision that, he says, clarified God’s call on his life.
“People who saw that station wagon said, ‘Nobody got out of there alive,’” he said, “and I’m standin’ there lookin’ at that station wagon sayin’ how in the world did we come out of that still alive?”
He told Verta Lee that God was calling him to preach and she didn’t like it. “If I’d wanted to marry a preacher I would have,” she said.
“I started talkin’ to the Lord,” he says, ‘If you called me to preach and you hear my wife how she’s carryin’ on if I start preachin’ – He told me and made it plain, ‘you do what I called you to do and leave your wife in my hands.’”
Six months later, while on a SU recruiting trip to Florida, Verta Lee purchased a book for him, “Why the Church Must Teach,” a signal of her acceptance.
“I started reading that book and said, ‘Lord have mercy,’” he says with a big smile.
He was ordained as an associate minister at Mount Pilgrim and was elected by the congregation to the pulpit on Jan. 16, 1984.
“She is an excellent pastor’s wife,” he said. “The congregation loves her more than me!”
When she was asked about it, she sat back and waved both her hands in praise. “Ooooohhh Lord! I didn’t think I wanted to be one but – really – the Lord has really blessed me.”
“He is the pastor and I pray for him every day for the Lord to give him wisdom and the understanding he needs to be able to teach all of us the Bible,” she said.
SO WHAT’S THEIR SECRET?
“In marriage some things will happen that you don’t like but you have to be strong enough to understand that there are gonna be some times that everything’s not gonna be peaches and cream all the time,” she said. “We are together so we must do things together. If you make a mistake I have to forgive you and if I make a mistake you have to forgive me and let’s go right ahead.”
“You got to have a third person. You got to have the Lord in your marriage – you can’t do it without Him,” he adds. “Marriage belongs to God. He has already defined marriage. I just go by the book.”