By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – The plywood over the windows of the Burns Belfry Church belies the progress that’s been made in a nearly 10-year renovation process.
The Board of Aldermen authorized Mayor George “Pat” Patterson to apply for a $261,000 grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History that could, with funds already available, complete the restoration of the historic structure as a museum and cultural center highlighting the community’s African-American heritage. The historic church building was given to the Oxford Development Association, a black community organization, by author John Grisham and sits in a part of Oxford once known as Freedmen Town.
“We’ve spent $407,000 stabilizing the building,” said Jim Pryor, one of the leaders of the restoration effort. “On the outside you can’t see it, but on the inside, all the interior wall panels have been replaced, a new roof structure has been put in, roughed-in plumbing and a new roof. The bricks have been attached to the new wall structure with 1,200 stainless steel attachments. So it’s stable.”
Pryor said the work funded by a half-million-dollar HUD grant will be bid out in the next few weeks.
“What that gets us is the outside completely done. It’ll look just like it did in 1910 when it was built,” he said. He added that the HUD grant will also pay for one functioning bathroom, installation of air conditioners donated by J.W. Walker and Trane.
Pryor said the $261,000 grant and its $65,250 local match would completely finish the inside – electrical, lighting, window finishes, a catering kitchen and a second bathroom – along with landscaping.
Officials agreed that the project is important to the community.
“I think the Belfry has a mission sort of written in the stars,” Patterson said. “It can be an African-American cultural center for decades.”
“I feel it would be a great asset to this historic part of Oxford,” said Ward 5 Alderman Preston Taylor. “We’ve worked on it for years.”