Today’s guest post is brought to you by Jennifer Baughn, Chief Architectural Historian with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. I hope her report on the recent successful project at Mt. Moriah School will provide a brighter vision for what could happen to places like yesterday’s Southern Christian Institute when committed and diligent people get involved to make them live again.
A few Saturdays before Thanksgiving, I enjoyed the opportunity to attend a grand celebration at the Mt. Moriah School in rural Walthall County. Mt. Moriah, located on Mt. Moriah Road southeast of Tylertown, is a four-classroom African American school built of concrete-blocks made on site in 1931. The school was rare even in its time: only a relative few schools for black students in the Jim Crow era were built of brick or concrete block, and most were smaller than four classrooms. Grades 1-8 were held here, and graduates who wanted to go on to high school had to travel several miles to the Walthall County Training School, a Rosenwald school that still survives today and is also under renovation.
Mt. Moriah School closed during the Equalization Period in the late 1950s and was converted to a Head Start beginning in the 1960s. Head Start moved out in 1991, but old school still served its community for Home Makers’ Club and 4-H Club meetings, church banquets, and community and reunion picnics. That all changed on August 29, 2005, when Katrina ripped several sections of the metal roof off the building, pouring water into the beadboard ceilings below.
Instead of being demoralized or abandoning this important landmark, community members–organized and energized by Mt. Moriah graduate and former teacher, Mrs. Annie Bell Holmes–worked together to patch the roof with spare metal and stave off further damage. Knowing this would not be a long-term solution and that the building remained unusable with its interior damaged, they also formed a non-profit organization to be able to receive donations, and looked for grants to help with the project. Mrs. Holmes contacted me at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History just in time to apply for and receive a Hurricane Relief Grant for Historic Preservation.
While the grant could only cover hurricane-related damage, such as the roof and beadboard repair, the Mt. Moriah community accomplished a total renovation of the interior through donations and volunteer service, restoring the original entrance hallway that had been converted to a kitchen for Head Start, re-plumbing the building for two bathrooms, and (after the wood had dried out) re-painting the whole interior in cheerful colors.
Saturday, November 13th was the grand culmination of these efforts, when the community gathered to celebrate the re-opening the old school. By my estimation, around 150 people attended, including several generations of community families. The original auditorium space was entirely filled, and people even stood looking in from the entrance hall and classroom doorways. On stage, Kechandre Gatlin served as Mistress of Ceremony and led the audience in “America the Beautiful” and “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.” Rev. Ellis Warren led in prayer, Dianne Magee welcomed all in attendance, and Osborne Holmes Jr. read a history of the school. Then, Mrs. Holmes invited all past teachers and alumni to share their reminiscences of the school and its meaning in their lives. Several people mentioned the sometimes stern discipline of principals and teachers, but also the love and concern for the children’s welfare they showed.
Afterward, everyone gathered to eat barbeque cooked on site and sample the buffet of homemade goodies. The weather also cooperated, warm and sunny throughout, with rain holding off until the evening.
Mt. Moriah’s project, while out of sight of most Mississippians, is just one more example of people coming together to not only preserve a local landmark but also give it new life, so that it can go on being a center of its community for future generations. Congratulations to the Mt. Moriah community and to Mrs. Annie Bell Holmes on a job well done!
Categories: African American History, Cool Old Places, Historic Preservation, Hurricane Katrina, MS Dept. of Archives and History, Preservation People/Events, Renovation Projects, Schools, Tylertown, Urban/Rural Issues