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Martin Luther King Jr. Street triangle history center discussed

Keena Graham, Chief of Interpretation at Natchez National Historical Park, talks about possible options to update the buildings by the Martin Luther King Street triangle area during a lunch at Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church on Monday in Natchez. (Nicole Hester/ The Natchez Democrat)

Keena Graham, Chief of Interpretation at Natchez National Historical Park, talks about possible options to update the buildings by the Martin Luther King Street triangle area during a lunch at Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church on Monday in Natchez. (Nicole Hester/ The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — The group looking to revitalize Natchez’s historic district through strategic redevelopment shared Monday a plan to develop an interpretive history center in the Martin Luther King Jr. Street triangle area.

If it comes to fruition, the project will be a combined effort between Friends of the Riverfront Natchez, the National Park Service and Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

FOR Natchez, a non-profit formed by residents seeking to take a proactive role in community development, is in the process of raising $100,000 in private funds to engage a consultant who will draft a downtown development plan that will hinge on having two anchor sites in the area.

The proposed anchors are the Natchez bluff and the triangle.

FOR Natchez chair Chesney Doyle said that during the fundraising efforts, the state of the 1940s filling station in the triangle came to the committee’s attention.

The building, which is owned by Zion Chapel AME across the street, has some stabilization needs, she said.

“As we started having meetings, we were reminded we could do all the planning we wanted to do, but if these buildings fell down or were torn down, there would be nothing to plan,” Doyle said.

The building is located in the heart of what was the 19th and 20th century black business district, and is centrally located to a number of key planning sites for Natchez’s civil rights movement.

“Not only is there a lot of Reconstruction-era history in this neighborhood, but later on the civil rights planning happened here,” Doyle said. “Some of that history has been forgotten because those buildings are gone. Now that we’re in our Tricentennial year, not only has it become OK to talk about our full history, but people want to talk about it and embrace it.”

FOR Natchez chair Chesney Doyle speaks during a chili lunch at Zion  African Methodist Episcopal Church on Monday in Natchez. The purpose of the lunch was to discuss with state holders the plan to update the buildings by the Martin Luther King Street triangle  area. (Nicole Hester / The Natchez Democrat)

FOR Natchez chair Chesney Doyle speaks during a chili lunch at Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church on Monday in Natchez. The purpose of the lunch was to discuss with state holders the plan to update the buildings by the Martin Luther King Street triangle area. (Nicole Hester / The Natchez Democrat)

The proposed solution for the filling station site is for the National Park Service to sign a memorandum of understanding with Zion Chapel AME that will allow the church to continue owning the structure while the NPS spearheads a project to install a permanent, museum quality exhibition about the neighborhood in the open-air portion of the station.

Where FOR Natchez comes in is in grant writing. While the Mississippi Department of Archives and History is not writing planning grants — which would support the long-term goal of the organization — this year, it is for the first time considering grants for church-owned properties.

“A bricks-and-mortar project in the planning area would further the plan,” Doyle said.

The group will be seeking a $10,000 grant, she said, which will require a $10,000 match.

“We believe we can do that privately,” Doyle said. “It is not within the spirit of our project to rely on the City of Natchez. The whole spirit is we the people can step out and show what we want.”

David Gardner with the St. Catherine Street Trails Project said the site could serve as a perfect dovetail to the St. Catherine trail.

“I can see this being a perfect trailhead for the St. Catherine trails,” he said. “It’s working for the same goal, trying to promote heritage tourism, trying to educate people about what was happening in this area for 100 years, where you had various ethnic groups living and coexisting peacefully most of the time.”

Doyle said the idea of the site is not just to share history but encourage positive change through education.

Those present at the meeting included representatives of Zion Chapel AME, FOR Natchez, the NPS, and other stakeholders, including business owners in the triangle area.

Doyle said FOR Natchez is continuing to fundraise for its main mission, the development plan. The group has raised approximately $70,000 of the needed funds, she said.