Are civic groups on their way out in Columbus County?

By Ivey Schofield

Much to his friends’ dismay, Morris Pridgen hasn’t joined a historically Black alumni fraternity. 

Pridgen, the director of the Columbus County Public Library System, has three main priorities in life – work, family and church. He says he doesn’t have enough time for much else.

“I have the utmost respect for fraternities,” said Pridgen, 51. “But when it comes to actually joining a fraternity, it’s just not the right direction for me right now.”

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Social groups, often known for their dedication to community service and networking, used to be very popular in Columbus County. A generation ago, it was almost unheard of to not be a member of at least one civic organization. 

But Columbus County now has fewer social associations – groups that bring people together for political, religious, professional or civic reasons – than the statewide average, with 8.2 groups per 10,000 residents. 

The data from County Health Rankings, compiled by the University of Wisconsin Health Population Institute, reflect what some people say is apparent in Columbus County. 

“Our civic groups are dying here in Columbus County,” Pridgen said.

North Carolina has 11.1 social associations per 10,000 residents, according to the data. Bladen County has 13.4. 

Participation in civic groups has been declining for years in the United States, a reality that was likely worsened by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Columbus County saw a 13% drop in population between 2010 and 2020, so there simply aren’t as many people to participate. Many young people have left the area. Those who remain say they are too busy with family and work. 

Yet, there might be hope for local social associations. Some are still active, and new ones are forming in an effort to remain a part of the community they hold so dear.

The Southeastern Oratorio Society, a classical music singing group of about 20 to 30 people, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. 

Chairman Paul Pope said the key to the group’s success was expanding its membership base from Columbus County to also include Bladen and Horry counties. The group has also had the financial backing of the late founder’s family, who pays for one of two concerts each year.

“There’s always been a limited number of people who were interested in classical music,” Pope said. “But I would say for the size of the community we do fairly well.”

The Southeastern Oratorio Society recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Contributed photo

The Oratorio Society is always trying to recruit new members, Pope said. Most of the singers are retirees. 

Dalton Dockery, who started a Columbus County chapter of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity three years ago, said there can be competition among social associations for younger members. 

“For the younger generation, it’s hard,” Dockery said. “Everybody’s trying to get you to join their club.”

Dockery, who is one of the youngest members of his fraternity chapter, said he understands the difficulty with recruitment. 

“Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have had the time with raising a family,” he said. “Now I’m in my 50s, I’m close to retirement and I’ve got my time on my hands.”

Dockery said he is trying to get more Columbus County residents involved in community volunteerism. He invites people to some of the group’s activities, such as voter drives and financial workshops, and tells them about their fundraisers for scholarships awarded to local high school seniors. 

Pridgen said his nephew, who is in his 20s, recently joined Dalton’s fraternity chapter and loves it. 

“It’s good for him, that brotherhood,” Pridgen said. “I do applaud anybody that’s involved.”

Maybe once his children are older, he might join the fraternity as well.

Dalton Dockery (right) helped form the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity chapter in Columbus County three years ago.
Submitted photo from Dalton Dockery