Abandoned Mississippi: Southern Christian Institute

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.

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Categories: Abandoned Mississippi, African American History, Civil Rights, Cool Old Places, Demolition/Abandonment, Universities/Colleges

43 replies

  1. Very well written. It has my interest to go exploring.

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  2. I hope the money can be found to renovate the buildings.

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  3. I heard a rumor recently that these buildings are being demolished. Can anyone confirm or deny this?

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  4. I love to shoot photos at Bonner-Campbell, especially the old water tower there. And the old playground is haunting as well.
    Here is my favorite shot of the water tower.

    http://martykittrellphotos.blogspot.com/2009/08/oh-lord-my-god.html

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  5. Bonner-Campbell College
    18449 Old US Highway 80
    Edwards, MS 39066
    (601) 852-5401

    Google maps link

    http://maps.google.com/maps/place?cid=7814958920648107780&q=Bonner+Campbell+Institute,+edwards,+MS&hl=en

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  6. The construction on the interstate around the Edwards exit had me on this stretch of Hwy 80 several times last week. In the 1940s, my mother had a school friend in Edwards (Lois Long) whose father was the director/superintendent (?) at SCI. I wish Mama were still here to answer questions – but I do think Lois (about 80 years old) is still living in California (will confirm with my sister).

    These buildings, like some of those remaining at Mound Bayou, are rare survivers of an important transition time in Mississippi just after Reconstruction when African Americans were making great strides in education and economic independence. The loss of these structures (and their associated stories) is a great tragedy, compounded by the decay of the little towns in which they sit. It will take a creative new vision to marry their great preservation needs with a sustainable future.

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    • Yes, Mr. Long was the president of SCI. I worked there in the 50’s, before it merged with Tougaloo in 1953. I was so glad to get some current information about the plantation (Mt. Beulah at that time). Are there any “old” staff or faculty members around?

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    • Hi there. I’m a radio reporter working on a story about SCI. I’d love to chat with anyone who may have memories of the school in the olden days—perhaps the Lois Long you spoke of? I’m in California myself—would be wonderful to track her down. Thanks very much.

      Ryan Kailath
      ryankailath@gmail.com
      347.407.2887

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  7. Hello, I was a graduate of the first headstart class to attend Bonner Campbell and it saddens me to see such a magnificent landmark be ignored. As a teacher and extreme optimist it is my dream to one day begin my own school in my home town of Edwards, and on a campus that has so much history. I suppose I was wondering if you know exactly who owns the campus. I would love to consult with them about finding grants to renovate the buildings and reopen the campus in the very near future.
    Sincerely,
    Hopeful Educator

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    • It is certainly a sad state of affairs for this once proud institution. I believe the campus is still owned by the A.M.E. denomination, and I think they are still using the relatively new conference center at the back of campus. If you do make contact, and if there is movement to try to renovate the campus, please let us know so we can publicize that and help raise awareness.

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      • I’m apart of the A.M.E denomination and yes we still do use the new buildings for different church retreats and meetings. The A.M.E denomination bought the land so the buildings will not be demolished any time soon. And if they do decide to tear them down I can assure you that we will be building new ones.

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        • Hello Janay

          Thank you for the update. Do you have any history on SCI or know where we might find historical information on the institution?

          Gloria

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  8. My Dad (a Disciple of Christ from MO) graduated from Southern Christian Institute around 1929. He would have been 100 in May, and my sister and I are going to have a birthday dinner in his honor and will use this info. on SCI as part of our remembrance. He went on to be a teacher, attending Butler University and Lincoln University.

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    • Hello C. Orr
      My mother, and several of her sisters attended SCI around 1929 and/or later. I have pictures of her standing around various part of the campus. She also latter became an elementary school teacher in Mississippi.

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  9. I am truly blessed to be reading these posts on SCI. Thank you! What brought me to the site is: last night, I had a dream about SCI. In my dream, I was searching for photos of my deceased sister who attended this institution back in the 60’s (so did I).
    While driving to work this morning, SCI was on my mind again so I called the library in Jackson to find out what I could. As you may know, they didn’t have much to share therefore, I thought I’d check the internet and here I am and want to learn more. I was only 4 or 5 years of age when I attended SCI and remember walking over to the cafeteria for lunch. What I remember most is climbing the stairs at Allison Hall to get to the cafeteria. As a little girl I just thought there were far too many stairs to climb in all that heat (smiling). I certainly appreciate that photo. Again, I am very thankful to see this information and would very much like to stay in touch. God Bless.

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  10. I’m so glad you came across our posts just at the right time, and thanks for sharing your memories of living there. Please feel free to post more of your memories about SCI here. Is there an alumni association that might want to get involved in saving these buildings and re-using the campus?

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  11. Thank you so very much for your sharing your pictures and information about Southern Christian Institute. I discovered this site by accident and became emotional while reading your article because my 90 y/o Mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease graduated from SCI. Again, thank you for providing me with photos to add to the memories that I have from the many stories that my mother shared with us about SCI before her long-term memory was affected by the disease.

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  12. I’m sitting with my Mom who is 97. As a child the next door neighbors in her southern Indiana town were cousins, Doc Hester and “Aunt” Laura also a doctor. They had a family of daughters, older girls. Donovan ended up being a college professor at Purdue. The young high school girl’s missionary society at the Disciples of Christ church was called “The Circle Girls.” Mom and the Hester’s read about Southern Institute at Circle meetings. The Hester girls, Mable, Jesse, Donovan, Corrine, each taught at Southern Institute as part of their teacher’s training and early teaching experience. They taught in the 20’s. Mom was inspired by Southern Institute. Mom was an early woman seminarian and became a school teacher later. She got to visit the institute in her church work. It is so wonderful to see the church buildings of the time and the photo of the bell. I am wondering if there are students out there that have been interviewed who attended during the 20’s-30’s or even their children who might have stories. The photos look so rich with history. I hope to visit one day.

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  13. The plantation that these building establishments were built on once belonged to my great, great grandfather, McKinney L. Cook. Unfortunately, General Grants troops during the Civil War destroyed the plantation, its crops, etc. which amassed mounds of debt for the Cook family. Mr. Cook died shortly after the war and the plantation was later purchased by the Home Missionary Society of the Disciples of Christ. Following is an article the shows a picture of the beautiful plantation house before it was destroyed in the early 1900’s. http://www.battleofchampionhill.org/cook.htm

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    • I happened on this note today. In 1962 my husband and I lived in the Mansion and our daughter Sarah was born that tumultuous summer. We left in Feb. 1963. I oversaw a lot of work on the Mansion to make it more livable for us. For the three of us we lived in the 19 or so rooms–one room on the first floor for TV, one for stereo, one for office, a dining room, living room and first floor bedroom. We had moved from a one bedroom apartment in Washington, DC and that was the furniture we had. Amazing place! No AC but many windows. My e mail is jlollis@starks400.com if you would like to respond.

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  14. I planned on exploring this site today, but there were “No Tresspassing” signs all around the entrance and what looked like a new trailer to the right near the entrance that appeared to be used by caretakers.

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  15. Another historical reference with pictures

    Southern Christian Institute, 1924-1925
    The school catalog of Southern Christian Institute for the 1924-1925 year.

    http://cdm16631.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/charm/id/18756

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  16. Charles. Thank you for sharing the catalogue. Do you have more? Or where can one find the archived documents?

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  17. I was Born on SCI Campus in 1936. My parents were on the SCI facullty until 1941 when we moved to Walla Walla, Washington so that my father, an ordained Pastor in the Disciples of Christ could go into the US Army as chaplain and serve in Europe until the war ended. My mother, daughter of a Methodist Pastor, could live in Walla Walla where her elder sister was living. My sister and brother are deceased, so I am the only one from our Family with memories of life at the Southern Christian Institute. I just realized this week that it might be important for me to write about some of my childhood memories so that my daughter and her two daughters could learn more about their ancestors. I would be very interested to contact the author of this very well-written article.

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  18. Is there any news regarding this lovely place?

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  19. Such a lovely part of History. some initiative must be gathered soon to bring back a part of this history. gloria.duplessis@gmail.com

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  20. It is to my understanding,that SCI is still owned by our African Methodist Episcopal Church. I am a certified Researcher and would be more than happy to start the research project ASAP.

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  21. Mt. Beulah was the headquarters of the Delta Ministry from 1965-1967 or 1968. The Delta Ministry was a civil rights organization working for voter rights and equality for AfricanAmericans during the 1960s. I worked for the Delta Ministry and lived in the mansion for 1 1/2 years–a lovely house that tragically burned down. The tenants of the mansion had moved into the trailer after the fire.

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    • Hi Marian. Do you have any idea what month/year the mansion burned down? I’m trying to understand if this mansion was the one my great great grandfather, Col. McKinney L. Cook, built in the early 1840’s or one built post-Civil War. The following article shows a pic of the mansion built by Mr. Cook and details some of the events of the Civil War and the effects it had on his plantation as well as his health. Can you tell me if this is the mansion you lived in? http://www.battleofchampionhill.org/cook.htm In the early 70’s, my father Russell F. Cook, Jr., drove me out to this Edward’s site but the only thing remaining of the mansion was the brick fireplace. He had told me the mansion burned down but wasn’t certain of the year. Any help you can provide is appreciated. Thanks!

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  22. Try a “one call, that’s all” to Columbus’ Wil Colom. He is the owner of the tallest building in North Mississippi. and a personal friend of both George H. W. Bush and Haley Barbour.

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  23. I believe that my great great grandfather, Samuel Riddle “S.R.” Jones was somehow involved with the founding of the school after the Civil War. Is there a detailed history of that time somewhere?

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  1. Field Recordings Volume 3: Mississippi 1936-1942 (Document, 1997)Free MP3 Download | Free MP3 Download

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