Natchez College project gets support from local leaders

Published 12:16 am Thursday, December 8, 2016

By Cain Madden

The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — Several Natchez leaders asked the community Wednesday to get behind a project to revitalize the former Natchez College campus.

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The General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi, seeking to reestablish its home in Natchez at the former college site, hosted a public meeting at the Natchez City Council Chambers to lay out its plans and seek public input on the project.

The convention established Natchez College in 1885, shortly after the American Baptist Home Missionary Society of New York relocated Natchez Seminary for educating African-American ministers from Natchez to Jackson, where it eventually evolved into Jackson State University.

Natchez College later became a junior college and closed its doors in 1989.

Executive Director of the Congress of Christian Education the Rev. Reginald Buckley of Jackson said since Natchez is the beginning of black Baptists in Mississippi, it makes sense for the city to house the convention’s cultural center.

Buckley said the organization has one goal in three parts. First, preserve and present the history of the black Baptists of Mississippi.

“The first African-American Baptist church in the state of Mississippi was founded in Natchez — Rose Hill Missionary Baptist Church,” Buckley said. “The black Baptist genesis was right here in Natchez, so as a convention, it makes sense for us to say, ‘We need to come back home.’”

The vision for the historical center, Buckley said, is when historians and religious scholars desire to conduct research, Natchez would be the hub city.

“Natchez would become a jewel in terms of the religious faith tradition,” he said.

Another goal is to have administrative, classroom and meeting space so small religious conventions and retreats could be hosted in Natchez.

The third goal is to promote family and community. Buckley said the objective is to restore the chapel for the small conventions, but also for the community to host events and weddings.

The convention also plans to build an outdoor amphitheater on the campus near the women’s auxiliary building, where a natural slope in the terrain exists. The theater would host concerts, festivals and other events.

Other additions to the property include a recreation facility for basketball and volleyball. The site would also include several multipurpose buildings to be used as conference and classroom space, but the structures could be used as convocation cabins for the small retreats, as well.

“This is basically the idea that we are working around,” Buckley said. “We do believe that it is critical that we get input and insight from the community in terms of other services we can provide and build into the project.”

Carolyn Myers, president of Natchez College’s alumni group, said her organization wants to be involved in the process. She said without Natchez College, she would not be the person she is today.

“When I pass by the college now, it makes me want to cry,” Myers said. “We would like to take part and do whatever we can do.”

Mary Lee Toles said moving into the future often requires looking at the past. Toles said the convention could count on her support.

“If our foreparents put that much effort into it, I think if we have the chance to revive it that we ought to do so,” Toles said. “I wish us well. I say us because it is not just your project, it has to be our project as well.

“We have to want it in this community and do what we can do to help make this happen.”

Historic Natchez Foundation Executive Director Mimi Miller said her organization is behind the project.

“This is very important for our community,” Miller said. “Just imagine all of the African-American Baptists coming to town and looking at our Trails panels.

“It will help make Natchez a better place for everyone.”

Natchez Museum of African-American History and Culture director Darrell White said this would be similar to the Gray Center in Canton, which is a camp and convention ground for the Episcopal diocese.

“Having a property of that nature developed here in the city of Natchez would be a tremendous asset here in this community,” White said. “I salute your efforts and hope you are successful in procuring funds to make it happen.”

Currently, Buckley said $400,000 in seed money has been approved by the state Legislature in House Bill 1729, but Gov. Phil Bryant has yet to sign it. Over three funding phases, Buckley estimated the cost would be $12 million to $15 million, which would involve both fundraising and grants.

Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell said he met with Bryant recently and urged the governor to sign the bond bill.

Grennell said he thinks the project would have a revitalizing effect on the Woodlawn area as well as the whole community. He said the project would have a tremendous economic impact.

“When tourists come to Natchez, they do not just want to see the antebellum homes anymore,” Grennell said. “They want to see every aspect of the community.

“Let’s move Natchez College forward. Let’s do what we need to do to enhance our community.”