109-Year-Old Black Arkansas Church Engaged in Preservation Battle

Poverty, racial tensions and other concerns in Helena, Ark., have made raising restoration funds difficult for Centennial Baptist Church.

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Snapshot 2014-01-12 11-25-45

Centennial Baptist Church in Helena, Ark.

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Centennial Baptist Church, a Gothic Revival-styled boarded up structure in Helena, Ark., has deep roots in the African-American community, NPR reports. But poverty, racial tensions, among other things in the Delta town, have made raising restoration funds difficult, the report says.

Phyllis Hammonds, executive director of the foundation that owns Centennial, was baptized and married in this church, the report says. Like her mother, she is on a mission to save it.

"The history is so rich," Hammonds told NPR. "Two former slaves collaborated and built this structure."

The founders were a Baptist pastor, Rev. Elias Camp Morris, and Henry James Price, a self-taught architect. Price, according to his grandson Harold Jefferson, was a skilled woodworker by trade. The congregation met in a house in the late 1800s, Jefferson says, until Morris asked Price to build a new, more splendid house of worship in 1905, the report says.

"And Dr. Morris went to Europe and he wanted to find a picture or ... to see about a building that he wanted to bring back to Helena, Ark.," Jefferson, a longtime member of Centennial Baptist, told NPR. "Grandmother told me that he brought it back and showed it to Price and said, 'Can you fix this like this picture?' "

Morris did just that. Centennial eventually became a “source of pride for the African-American community in segregated Helena, once a bustling port on the Mississippi River,” the report says.

But an estimated $2 million is needed to restore the church to its former splendor, Jameson estimates, and the group would need much more to run the cultural center they envision, the report says. That has proven to be a difficult amount of money to raise for the church that became a National Historic Landmark designation in 2003.

Hammonds argues that it's hard to win support in a city where residents are concerned about more pressing issues, such as education, violence and poverty, the report says.

After teaming with local preservationists in 2006, the report says, the foundation won a $300,000 Save America's Treasures grant. But the relationship turned sour before the required matching funds were met.

Hammonds accuses white preservationists of trying to appropriate Centennial's history. "I view it as a plantation mentality: 'You give me the information and we'll tell your story,' " she told NPR.

Hammonds also cried foul when a community development bank put conditions on the foundation that she worried would remove control from the hands of black church members, NPR said.

"I would rather see it fall and say, put up a sign, 'Here Centennial stood.' At least we would still be in control," she told NPR.

Read more at NPR.

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