By Errol Castens
OXFORD – More than a decade after several Oxonians shared the vision for restoring Oxford’s oldest African-American church building, an estimated 400 people attended the Burns Belfry dedication Saturday.
The building was donated by author John Grisham for the eventual use of Oxford Development Association, a black economic and cultural enhancement organization. It will serve both as a multicultural center and a museum of local black history.
“One of our prime missions is to bring people together and to dialogue in a manner that enhances our relationships and our community,” said restoration leader Jim Pryor of the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation.
“This building is now a haven of hope, of aspirations and of promise,” said the Rev. Chris Diggs, pastor of Burns United Methodist Church, to whose congregation the building was home from 1910 to 1974, when it was converted to office space.
Capstone donor Ray Neilsen noted, “I hope this building continues to be a catalyst of dialogue and understanding for another 100 years.”
As people toured interior exhibits interpreting four eras of black history in America – slavery, emancipation, Jim Crow and civil rights – the building’s own history held many in awe.
Lifelong Burns UMC member Ester Boone said, “I think they’ve done a great job. Every time I walk in that door, I think about when I was a girl and used to go here.”
Herbert Wiley, another Burns UMC member who attended the now-restored building as a child, recalled generations of his family whose lives had been intertwined with it.
“My granddaddy was one of the founders of the church,” he said. Looking at a 1940s-era photo of the church’s first Boy Scout troop, he pointed to one child and said, “That’s my daddy right there.”
Julia Boles of Chicago is the great-granddaughter of Judge W.R. Boles, one of the building’s original donors.
“I was here when I was 4 years old,” she said. Boles recalled her great-grandfather as a “powerful presence” and made the trip to share memories of their family heritage with her grown daughter, Julia Davis.
“I brought her home,” Boles said. “This is home.”
Billy Glen Houston was not a Burns member but became an Eagle Scout after years of Tuesday night troop meetings.
“I was actually a Boy Scout – we were directing traffic – when James Meredith came to speak here,” he said.
Given Oxford’s and the University of Mississippi’s singular place in civil rights and racial reconciliation, Houston said, “This is the civil rights museum of Mississippi. Even though they got $35 million to build one (in Jackson), we have this one today, and I’m so glad.”