Exit off I-20 at Edwards, wind around through town and out Highway 80 to the west, and soon enough you’ll come to the campus of the old Southern Christian Institute, more lately known as Bonner Campbell Institute. The college is one of several Tuskegee-like institutions that once educated African Americans in a state that had decided they weren’t worthy of even basic rights.
Although not technically “abandoned,” the campus is unused except for one newer building at the back. Thus its inclusion in the Abandoned Mississippi series.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, the institute began just after Reconstruction. It was established in 1882 by the Home Missionary Society of the Disciples of Christ, which bought the 800-acre plantation of Col. McKinney L. Cook west of Edwards. The mansion house formed the center of activities for a decade, but eventually by the 1890s, several new buildings began to form a campus setting. The structures now part of the historic district range from the 1900s through the 1930s: Allison Hall (1909), President’s House (1910, although I think this has been demolished since the nomination was written), Assembly Hall (1914), Smith Hall (1915), Administration Building (1927), and Belding Hall (1935). The campus even still boasts a bell tower, built in 1926.
According to the NR nomination:
A former student, Estes Williams, recalled that the ‘big plantation bell in the middle of the campus pealed out the signal for everything. We got up in the morning, ate breakfast, went to class and went to bed by that bell.’
Due to the acknowledged deplorable state of primary education for blacks in the public schools, Southern Christian Institute, like other similar institutions, offered elementary grades from its founding through the 1920s, dropping grades one and two only in 1926. The school was finally accredited by the Southern Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges in 1931, the first year that organization began recognizing African American institutions. Many of SCI’s students trained as teachers and went on to teach in the public schools of Mississippi. Changing times brought about a merger with Tougaloo College in 1953, and the campus closed down, only to be revived during the Civil Rights years, when it hosted Movement leadership training led by Bob Moses. This training taught volunteers (mostly students) how to go into communities and conduct voter registration drives.
The campus again saw new life when it became Bonner Campbell School of Religion, an arm of the A.M.E. denomination, in 1971. Used mainly for church retreats, but also more regularly as a Head Start center until around 2000, the owners have struggled in recent years to keep the campus up.
The last sentence of the nomination states, “Currently there is an interest by the Bonner-Campbell School of Religion to revitalize the buildings and property in order to educate African Americans in a religious curriculum.” This seems more hopeful than is perhaps the reality. On a recent drive down the dirt road that leads off the highway, I thought at first that the whole campus was abandoned, but when I got the very end of the road, I came upon a huge relatively new building that is clearly used as the primary meeting space on the property. Maybe the owners needed a larger space than any of the older buildings offer, but this new building tells me that all the resources have been used, and not to revitalize the historic buildings.
The National Register-listed buildings meanwhile are clearly suffering from years of neglect. Holes dot the roofs, and Allison Hall’s roof in particular has a gaping wound. In general, vines grow up the walls, windows are broken out, and I assume the interior wood is starting to rot (or is in the middle of rotting) in some of the structures. These are sturdy buildings, of brick, stucco and a nice rusticated concrete block, and they are still repairable. But each season that goes by without even an attempt to patch the roofs and board the windows will mean more money to fix them up again and less incentive to do so.
We’ve already seen the effects of neglect in the Mississippi Industrial College at Holly Springs. Roofs get holes, holes get bigger, portions of the roof fall in, putting stress on sections of the walls, those sections collapse in a wind storm, and the dominoes fall faster and faster. “For want of a nail, the shoe is lost . . . ”
These are landmarks of initiative and determination in the midst of extreme discrimination and oppression. Let’s hope they aren’t allowed to rot away for lack of interest.