Mary Holmes gets new lease on life

WEST POINT — Just a year ago, Mary Holmes College was crumbling.

Vines crept over decaying buildings.

Doors, sleepy from lack of use, were slow to open.

Inside an abandoned library, books were left open and marked, and half-empty Coke bottles waited on desks, ghosts of the day the historically black college closed.

For six years, the campus sat idle. A former cultural center of the community became 180 acres of quiet emptiness.

When Melissa King first saw what was to be her new workplace, the glory of its historic buildings and grounds had long faded.

Grass was waist high, and buildings were falling apart.

Slowly, the expansive campus is coming back to life.

The vines have been peeled away from the buildings. The grass has been cut.

Many of the buildings have been restored, with more to come.

“When we bought the campus, it was in pretty bad shape,” said King, business office administrator for Community Counseling Services.

CCS bought the campus about a year ago from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and immediately went to work restoring it.

The campus boasts 25 buildings, including the library, eight rental houses, two condominium complexes, a cafeteria, a chapel and the original 1930s-era all-girls school.

The original school building is caving in, King said. CCS plans to replace the roof to stabilize the building; she hopes it can be salvaged.

“It’s gonna take a lot of work,” she said.

Gail Turner of West Point worked at the college from 1968 until 2007, two years after the school shut its doors. She stayed on getting student transcripts and answering phone calls.

Turner recently visited the campus and got a glimpse of CCS’s ongoing renovations.

“I think it is wonderful,” she said. “I did not like to see it getting in disrepair. I am very pleased with what they have done with the property so far.”

In its heyday, Mary Holmes was at the heart of the community, welcoming “a variety of cultural activities,” Turner said.

The college brought writers, performers and speakers from all over the country to the small city of West Point and gave it a larger view of the world.

“There was always something that people could do to get involved (and) of course, you have so many people here whose parents and grandparents attended school there,” she said. “I know that a lot of people really loved the place. It was just a beacon of light to them and their families.”

Over the years, Mary Holmes evolved from a school for young black women to a community college, giving those who may not have had the funds or GPA for a four-year college an opportunity to further their education. It continues to evolve.

Along with housing its administrative offices for the eight counties it serves, CCS plans to return the campus to the public. It hosted a Mary Holmes reunion over the weekend.

A wedding is planned, in October, at the chapel, currently under extensive renovations.

“A woman who went to school here, she wants her granddaughter to get married here,” King said.

The gym already has been used by local high schools for basketball practice. Eventually, CCS plans to build playgrounds open to the public and offer fishing at its two ponds.

Margaret Shelton graduated from Mary Holmes in 1966. She mourned for the school as she watched it decay.

“I’ve always felt that Mary Holmes was a vital part of this community,” Shelton said. “When I did hear that Community Counseling was trying to refurbish the campus for the public’s use I was excited about it. It gives the community an opportunity to be a part of the campus again …

“Like many, I was watching on the news when the college closed. I was crushed. I absolutely was.”

CCS provides mental health care, alcohol and drug counseling, and care for the intellectually developmentally disabled in Choctaw, Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee, Oktibbeha, Webster, and Winston counties in Northeast Mississippi.

Garthia Elena Burnett/The Commercial Dispatch