North Natchez’s historically segregated community center reopens ‘for all people’

Published 11:51 am Thursday, August 3, 2023

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Editor’s Note: In this story originally published Aug. 3, we neglected to include the name of former Parks and Recreation Director Sanora Cole, who was among those credited for overseeing the renovation work at North Natchez Youth Center. We regret this omission and are happy to set the record straight.

NATCHEZ — A historically segregated community center that has recently been renovated for use by all in the public had its grand re-opening on Thursday morning.

“I remember, as I’m sure most of us here do, when (it was) only used by the Blacks in this community,” recalled Ward One Alderwoman Valencia Hall at Thursday morning’s ribbon cutting at the North Natchez Youth Center. “We could not go to any other park. We could not go to Duncan Park. We came here for recreation.”

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Located at 8 Triumph Lane in Natchez, the Youth Center was built around 1917 and was originally part of Anchorage Plantation, then sold as a farm to Melchior Roch Beltzhoover. By 1959, it became the property of the Natchez Adams School Board. In 1974, the property was divided, giving the city control of the property and youth center building, with the school board maintaining control over the school and baseball field. During segregation, the park served as a haven for the black community.

Despite the grim fact that parks were segregated then, Hall has fond memories of using the Youth Center for activities as a Girl Scout. However, over time it fell into disrepair.

Less than a year ago, the center had boarded up windows, had been overgrown with weeds and was uninhabitable.

Many believed, and some still believe, that it should’ve been torn down, Hall said.

However, because of its historical significance, Hall said she fought to renovate the building instead.

She suggested that the Youth Center be brought to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to be considered for the Mississippi Historic Landmark list.

The city worked hand in hand with Carter Burns, Executive Director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, and Mimi Miller, Director Emeritus of the Historic Natchez Foundation, to place the Youth Center on the list for pending approval.

“Yes, I was passionate about restoring this building,” Hall said. “This building has many of the original characters in place.”

Though it was a challenge to contractors, Hall said the front pillars, interior floors and many other parts of the original building remain intact thanks to Burns and Miller.

Adjacent to it is a brand-new playground. Both were part of the city’s $3 million renovation of all six city parks.

The Youth Center renovation costs totaled $959,406, with $445,300 coming from a 2021 Recreation Bond and $514,106 from a Capital Improvement General Obligation Bond.

Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson also credited Community Development Director James Johnston, Interim Director of Parks and Recreation Ryan Porter, former Parks and Recreation Director Sanora Cole, Architect Johnny Waycaster, Contractor Chris Smith and others for the role they each had in the project.

The restored Youth Center features a kitchen, meeting spaces and restrooms as well as offices, one of which will be the Department of Parks and Recreation office.

A diverse crowd attended its grand reopening on Thursday morning.

“It is a privilege to be here with you all today to come to — I will call it a sacred place,” Hall said. “It is now a welcome haven for all people. Not just Blacks in this community. All of our parks are a place for all people.”

The Youth Center is open to reservations only through the Natchez Parks and Recreation Department or by calling the Mayor’s Office.