‘Part Mystery, Part Miracle’: Contract signing first step in new Baptist Heritage center

Published 10:06 am Wednesday, March 13, 2024

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NATCHEZ — Tuesday marked the beginning of the construction of a Baptist Heritage and Arts Center on the grounds of the historic Natchez College.

A $797,000 contract was signed Tuesday to begin the next phase of restoration of Huddleston Memorial Chapel, which is owned by General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi. The convention plans to construct the center.

The Rev. Reginald Buckley, president of the State Convention, signed the contract during the group’s spring session taking place at the Natchez Convention Center.

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Natchez College, opened in 1884, was one of several private institutions of higher learning established by African American religious organizations in Mississippi during the post-Civil War period.

Newly freed, previously enslaved African Americans accomplished the incredible feat of building the institution “out of the ashes of a war that nearly destroyed the nation,” Buckley said.

These faith-filled people, “our ancestors” had already opened Natchez Seminary before Natchez College, two institutions founded less than 20 years after the Civil War.

Buckley called this feat “part mystery and part miracle,” Buckley said.
“This mysterious and miraculous place is a place that we call Natchez College,” he said. “A place where Booker T. Washington lectured in 1908. A place where Anne Moody (author of Coming of Age in Mississippi) began her first protest over what most college students protest about, the cafeteria food.”

Buckley invited Mississippi House Representative Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez; Mississippi Department of Archives and History Director Katie Blount, Johnny Waycaster of Waycaster Dungan Architects; contractor Joel Smith and executive officers of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi up to the stage for the signing of the contract.

This work is largely being funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Fund acquired through the foundation’s Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative, a nationwide effort to help museums and other cultural institutions improve the public understanding of religion.

“With the signing of this contract, another phase of the restoration of the two remaining historic buildings will be completed,” Buckley said, “helping to ensure that the stones of our ancestors, mysteriously and miraculously placed … will stand as a memorial for future generations. … We will be able to tell the mysterious miraculous story of how God used the people once bound by fetters to build a monument to him.”

MDAH stated that its historic preservation team will oversee a grant of $750,000 from the Lilly Endowment Fund for the GMBSC’s renovation of the college’s chapel building.

Lilly Endowment support of $36,000 in addition to other state and federal grants enables MDAH’s other project, building an interpretive center and a historic preservation field school at Historic Jefferson College.

“Our mission is to tell all Mississippi stories, and the influence of religion is among the most important,” said Blount. “The support of the Lilly Endowment is critical to our goals of reaching a broader audience at all of our sites and interpreting our state’s history at Natchez College and Historic Jefferson College.”