Work is continuing to move forward on the former Burns Methodist Church in Oxford. The
…brick vernacular Gothic Revival church with two asymmetrical front corner towers…(Mississippi Department of Archives & History/Historic Resources Inventory)
was constructed in 1910 on the edge of Freedmen’s Town, an African American neighborhood. Gerald W. Walton in A History of the Belfry Project (Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation) indicated the land was deeded to Harrison Stearns, a servant of William Stearns, by Stearns’ widow in 1867. Harrison Stearns was one of three freedmen serving as an Oxford city alderman in 1870-71. He in turn gave part of the land to trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Burns Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1870, and a wooden church building was erected on the site. By 1910, it was evident the congregation needed a larger and better building. Community members began fund raising and assisted in construction of the brick building.
A rendering of the completed renovation can be seen here. A number of interior photographs can be viewed at the Burns-Belfry Museum and Multicultural Center website, which also provides extensive information on the construction phases, funding, and history of the project.
Other details provided by Walton include descriptions of the building amenities
…the new building was built for $3,000…heating was provided by 2 pot-bellied stoves…music by a foot-pedaled organ…lighting by brass kerosene lamps hung on chains from the ceiling. Electricity was added in 1914.
The west side of the church was for men’s seating, and the east side for women. The custom of separation of gender still continues in some churches today, for example, the Russian Orthodox.
In 1978, the congregation moved to a larger church building and sold the old church to an attorney. The Newtons purchased the church from the attorney, saving it from demolition. They moved the parsonage to their farm where it remains, and “renovated” the building in what Walton calls “…an ill-advised renovation.” Original stained glass windows were broken, but some of the pews were salvaged and are in the Burns’ current building.
John Grisham was the last owner of the building and deeded it to the Oxford-Lafayette County Historic Foundation, for use by the Oxford Development Association. ODA is an organization of local African Americans
…to promote and advance the general health, education, welfare and economic development of the poor community through charitable and civic means.
Renovation of this historic building and preserving it will result in another prime attraction for our area. Even more important than the attraction of this building for tourists and scholars is its possibility for our citizens to take another forward step in racial reconciliation. (Walton, A History of the Belfry Project)