A Black Church's Dilemma: Preserve A Building, Or Our Identity? Centennial Baptist Church in Helena, Ark., has deep roots in the African-American community. But poverty and other concerns in this Delta town have made raising restoration funds difficult.
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A Black Church's Dilemma: Preserve A Building, Or Our Identity?

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A Black Church's Dilemma: Preserve A Building, Or Our Identity?


In the South, taking a pilgrimage to a civil rights site is a growing industry. One of the most popular destinations is the restored Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. It's called Heritage Tourism. But in smaller towns, it's often a challenge to find the resources to save lesser-known landmarks. NPR's Debbie Elliott has this story of efforts to save an historic African-American church in a place called Helena, Arkansas.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The towers framing the majestic roof of Centennial Baptist Church reach for the heavens near downtown Helena. The elaborate red brick church stands out in a neighborhood that's seen better days given the boarded-up homes and businesses nearby. A closer look reveals the century-old church has seen better days as well. Bricks are breaking apart and falling away. And a huge metal structure abuts the back wall.

PHYLLIS HAMMONDS: OK. This is actually holding up the building. This iron railing or scaffolding is holding up the rear end of the building.

ELLIOTT: That's Phyllis Hammonds, executive director of the foundation that owns Centennial. She was baptized and married in this church and is now carrying on her late mother's mission to save it. We walk along the side wall where pigeons have torn through netting intended to keep them out of a window.

HAMMONDS: Oh my God. It is broken out. Is it? Yeah.

ELLIOTT: Inside, pigeons roost along the hardwood floors and pews where parishioners once worshipped. Beer and whiskey bottles litter a corner. And more scaffolding holds up the high-pitched roof. This isn't just an endangered beautiful building from the turn of the last century. Centennial Baptist Church is a National Historic Landmark.

HAMMONDS: The history is so rich. Two former slaves collaborated and built this structure.

ELLIOTT: Those men were a Baptist pastor, the Reverend Elias Camp Morris, and Henry James Price, a self-taught architect. Price's grandson, Harold Jefferson, says he was a skilled woodworker by trade.

HAROLD JEFFERSON: He was a furniture maker.

ELLIOTT: Jefferson is a longtime member of Centennial Baptist and is now a member of the foundation preserving its history. He says the congregation met in a house in the late 1800s until Reverend Morris asked Price to build a new, more regal house of worship in 1905.

JEFFERSON: And Dr. Morris went to Europe and he wanted to find a picture, he wanted to see about a building that he wanted to bring back to Helena, Arkansas. Grandmother told me he brought it back and showed it to Price and said can you fix this like this picture?

ELLIOTT: He did, and Centennial became a source of pride for the African-American community in segregated Helena, once a bustling port on the Mississippi River. Historian Bobby Roberts, director of the Central Arkansas Library System, says Centennial is a prime candidate for preservation.

BOBBY ROBERTS: One, it is a monumental building, just in terms of size. Two, it's a major piece of African-American history. So it really is a unique structure I think not only in the Delta, but in Arkansas and the South to see something like that.

ELLIOTT: Reverend EC Morris rose to national prominence as the first president of the National Baptist Convention, the largest historically black denomination. Centennial had 1,000 members when he died in 1922, but by turn of this century, the active membership had dwindled to double-digits. Roberts, a Helena native, says that reflects the hard times in the Delta as people left the region to find work. Maintaining the church was an uphill battle.

ROBERTS: The congregation couldn't keep it up, and it was too big for them. And so they turned it over to a foundation with the idea that the foundation would be able to save the church.

ELLIOTT: The EC Morris foundation got started with state funding to shore up Centennial in the 1990s. Little Rock architect Tommy Jamison drew up the plan, and recalls when he first stepped inside.

TOMMY JAMISON: It was somewhat frightening from a structural standpoint. But it was magnificent. I mean, the architecture's incredible - the soaring spaces. It's forty feet up to the ceiling. It's a wonderful space and incredibility intact, unchanged substantially.

ELLIOTT: Jamison estimates it will take more than $2 million to restore the church. And the foundation would need even more to operate the cultural center they envision. That's proven to be a daunting amount of money to raise. And in Helena, Arkansas, Phyllis Hammonds says it's hard to garner support when issues like education, violence and poverty are more pressing.

HAMMONDS: People are about surviving. Many folks don't understand the significance of restoring this facility because they're so busy trying to survive. And I can understand that.

ELLIOTT: But the restoration project has also faltered because of a clash of personalities and age-old racial mistrust. In 2006, the foundation teamed with local preservationists to win a $300,000 Save America's Treasures grant. But the partnership soured before the required matching funds were met. Phyllis Hammonds accuses white preservationists of trying to co-opt Centennial's history.

HAMMONDS: I view as plantation mentality. You give me the information and we'll tell your story.

ELLIOTT: She objected when a community development bank put conditions on the foundation that she feared would take Centennial out of the hands of black church members.

HAMMONDS: But I would rather see it fall and say put up a sign: Here Centennial Stood. At least we would still be in control.

ELLIOTT: Her group lost the federal grant, and the preservation effort stalled.

CATHY CUNNINGHAM: Sometimes you have to share a dream to make it a reality.

ELLIOTT: Cathy Cunningham is an historical development consultant who once worked with the Centennial Foundation.

CUNNINGHAM: I don't know of anyone that's trying to take church away. I would hate to think that the church will fall down. But, you know, I don't know.

ELLIOTT: The apparent power struggle is frustrating for former church members. Retired educator JJ Lacey, Jr. was a member of Centennial in the 1960s. He says the foundation needs to mend relationships with the local preservationists who have been successful restoring Helena's Civil War-era landmarks.

JJ LACEY, JR.: They're in the catbird seat, you know, just being blunt about it. They have the purse strings.

ELLIOTT: Arkansas historian Bobby Roberts agrees, but he says jumpstarting the restoration of Centennial Baptist Church means treading touchy historical ground.

ROBERTS: The exploitation of African-Americans in the South and in the Delta's been notorious. And even though that's in the distant past, those wounds and hurts, I think, are still there and there's a feeling of distrust, understandably, I think, if you only look at the past. You have to get over that fear.

ELLIOTT: Roberts says a national treasure is at stake.

ROBERTS: Nobody loses if that church gets saved. Everybody loses if it falls down.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

MARTIN: This story is part of NPR's Southward Partnership with Oxford American magazine. To see images of Centennial Baptist Church, go to npr.org.

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