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Centennial Church is falling down 

Would-be saviors not in step.

click to enlarge HAMMONDS: "Our plans have not been able to meet their specifications."
  • HAMMONDS: "Our plans have not been able to meet their specifications."

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.”

In 1905, Morris and another former slave, Henry James Price, a self-taught architect, built Centennial Baptist Church, which became, in Smithsonian's words, “a center of leadership and a beacon of pride for the African American community.” Membership declined in later years, and the last service at the church was held in 1998. The building has fallen into disrepair, despite the efforts of the Foundation. Those efforts have necessarily been limited to relatively minor repairs. The Foundation is a small, all-volunteer organization with little money.

The board of directors of the Foundation itself recognized that it needed help when the board voted to enter a financial partnership with Southern Bancorp Partners, a rural development bank, a few years back. It was through that partnership that the $300,000 matching grant was received. “We didn't have status to apply for federal funding on our own at the time,” Hammonds said. Even so, Hammonds was skeptical of partnering with Southern Bancorp. “I didn't like their style, I didn't share their vision of what the community should be.” And after the grant was received, differences of opinion about Centennial became more apparent, she said. There was disagreement within the community over whether the Foundation should retain control of the building, as the Foundation always intended, and over ambitious plans for the preservation, including an African-American Heritage and Education Center intended to be a tourist attraction and economic catalyst, not just for Helena but for the whole Arkansas Delta.

“It has not been a good relationship with Southern,” Hammonds said. “They've given us deadlines and we've given them deadlines. Our plans have not been able to meet their specifications.”

But there are two sides to every story, she said, and she suggested that the other side of this one could be gotten from Joe Black, who is the president of Southern Bancorp Partners, and whom Hammonds first met years ago when they were both students at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

Joe Black is African-American himself, and when told of Hammonds' remarks about race, he said emphatically that “Race has nothing to do with this project.”

“We've been working with the foundation,” Black said. “We got the Save America's Treasures grant. But as a regulated institution, we have to follow the guidelines of prudent lending and grant-making. That's sometimes hard for nonprofits to understand.”

As for Hammonds' comments about different emphases in programming, Black said, “Our focus now is to save the building. It's had a hole in the roof for 13 months. How will the building be maintained, how will it be sustainable? Questions about programming can come later. They have some ideas that could be very good.”

Otherwise, Black is close-mouthed about the differences between the Morris Foundation and Southern Bancorp. He still hopes the differences can be resolved, and he professes more optimism than Hammonds or Williams that they will be. He sounds less optimistic that funds will remain available for historic preservation in these troubled times even if the local parties make peace. While the Save America's Treasures program has extended the deadline for the Centennial grant, the Save America's Treasures program itself may soon cease to exist because of federal budget cuts, making the extension meaningless. And all over America, donors to historic preservation are cutting back on their gifts, and watching their portfolios shrink.

Hammonds has a potential donor in mind – the National Baptist Convention, founded by E. C. Morris and now 8 million strong. “If they'd partner with us, we could get it built.” But to reach the National Baptist Convention, the Foundation must work through the Arkansas Baptist Convention, and there may be some problems to overcome there, she said. “Everything is political, including the Baptist Convention. Centennial was always known as the elitist black church in the community. The members were educated, community leaders. People had a perception of the church that was not always good. We've been misunderstood.”     

  

 

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