Centennial Church is falling down 

Stories out of Helena-West Helena always seem to be about conflict, often conflict with a racial angle. Even stories about historic preservation tend in that direction.

The March issue of Smithsonian, the magazine of the Smithsonian Institution, carried a list of “endangered must-see cultural treasures,” and on that list was Centennial Baptist Church in Helena. A number of people want to remove Centennial from the endangered list, but they can't seem to agree on how to go about it. Meanwhile, the hundred-year-old building, now vacant, continues to deteriorate. The property is owned by the E. C. Morris Foundation, formed by the families of people who attended the historic black church. The Foundation has been unable to raise enough money on its own to fully restore the church. Sufficient funding might well be available through various public and private groups that are run mostly by white people, but these groups have said that certain standards must be met, certain rules agreed on, before they can commit large sums to the project. The Foundation has thus far chosen not to meet those standards.

Some preservationists fear the church building will be lost unless the Foundation gives or sells the property to a more resourceful governmental or nonprofit organization, or at least enters an agreement with such an agency for the preservation and operation of a restored Centennial. In either case, the onus is on the Foundation, as the owner of the property. Spokesmen for the Foundation say they have no intention of giving up the property or their own plans for it.

Phyllis Hammonds of West Helena is the executive director of the Morris Foundation, named for a black leader who built and pastored Centennial. “We don't want to lose the building, but we want to tell the story of Dr. Morris our way,” she said. “As far as the white community is concerned, if we give them the building, they'll control it, it'll be built their way, the programming will have their emphasis.

“We know how to do things. We have people of caliber on our board. We can tell our story ourselves.”

In 2005, a federal program, Save America's Treasures, made a $300,000 federal matching grant for the preservation of Centennial. But the money has gone unused because the Foundation can't raise the required $300,000 match. Though the deadline has been extended until 2010, there's a good chance the $300,000 will be lost forever.

Henrietta Williams of Little Rock is the president of the E. C. Morris Foundation. Originally from Helena, she was baptized at Centennial. Loss of the $300,000 grant “certainly would delay” the restoration of the church, she said, “but we'll try to continue on. We'll look for other sources of funding to complete the project.”

As the church building continues to age, the amount needed for renovation continues to rise. Two years ago, the estimate was $1.2 million, Williams said, and there's been further deterioration since. “And we'd probably need at least another million to restore the pipe organ and other artifacts.”


His name is unfamiliar to most Arkansans today, especially white Arkansans, but the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture has a long entry on Elias Camp Morris, who was born in slavery in 1855 and died in prominence in 1922. It begins:

“Elias Camp Morris was an African-American minister who, in 1895, became president of the National Baptist Convention (NBC), the largest denomination of black Christians in the United States. Recognized by white Arkansans and the nation as a leader of the black community, he often served as a liaison between black and white communities on both the state and national level. He was also an important leader in the Arkansas Republican Party.”


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