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.”



Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

More by Doug Smith

  • The L word and the C word

    I was excited to see the newspaper headline "Bielema liberal." "After all those neo-Nazis, we've finally got a coach who thinks right," I told friends. "I wonder if he belongs to the ADA."
    • May 1, 2014
  • Who's exasperated?

    Jim Newell was gripped by exasperation himself after reading this item in the business section. "Exacerbated" is the word the writer wanted, he sagely suggests.
    • Apr 24, 2014
  • We will run no race before it's ripe

    "What year would Oaklawn recognize as its 100th anniversary? After all, Oaklawn's advertising material is ripe with 'Since 1904,' but it's widely reported the first race wasn't run until 1905."
    • Apr 17, 2014
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • Kanis development decried

    Fletcher Hollow wrong place for density, neighbors tell LR planners.
    • Oct 8, 2015
  • Eligible voters removed from rolls

    Arkansas Times reporters contacted election officials around the state to see how they had handled flawed felon data from the secretary of state. Responses varied dramatically.
    • Aug 11, 2016
  • Real Republicans don't do pre-K

    Also, drifting away from trump, Hudson's downfall at ASU and more.
    • Aug 11, 2016

Most Shared

  • Welfare for the wealthy: More reasons to VOTE NO on ISSUE 3

    Voices on the left and right are lifted against Issue 3, the corporate welfare amendment to send tax money to private business and corporate lobbyists.
  • Little Rock police kill man downtown

    Little Rock police responding to a disturbance call near Eighth and Sherman Streets about 12:40 a.m. killed a man with a long gun, Police Chief Kenton Buckner said in an early morning meeting with reporters.
  • From the mind of Sol LeWitt: Crystal Bridges 'Loopy Doopy': A correction

    Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is installing Sol Lewitt's 70-foot eye-crosser "Wall Drawing 880: Loopy Doopy," waves of complementary orange and green, on the outside of the Twentieth Century Gallery bridge. You can glimpse painters working on it from Eleven, the museum's restaurant, museum spokeswoman Beth Bobbitt said

Latest in Arkansas Reporter

Visit Arkansas

Searching for diamonds at Crater of Diamonds State Park

Searching for diamonds at Crater of Diamonds State Park

A venture to this state park is on the must-do list for many, the park being the only spot in North America where you can dig for diamonds and other gemstones and keep your finds.

Event Calendar

« »


2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31  

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: Road Trip Arkansas

    • Hunter . I see what you mean... Charles `s comment is unimaginable... I just got…

    • on October 25, 2016
  • Re: The Arkansas ale trail

    • just before I saw the draft that said $7003 , I didn't believe that...my... friend…

    • on October 25, 2016
  • Re: Youth movement

    • Best of luck. Will look forward to watching the results with high hopes for him.

    • on October 24, 2016

© 2016 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation