WATCH: Historic African-American Church In Helena, Arkansas Faces Preservation Crisis

Centennial Baptist Church in Helena, Ark. (Dave Anderson)
Centennial Baptist Church in Helena, Ark. (Dave Anderson)

The towers framing the majestic roof of Centennial Baptist Church reach for the heavens near downtown Helena, Ark. The elaborate red brick church stands out in a neighborhood that’s seen better days, given the boarded-up homes and businesses nearby.

But a closer look reveals that the century-old church has seen better days, as well. Bricks are breaking apart and falling away and a huge metal structure abuts the back wall.

Heritage tourism is a growing industry across the South, as civil rights pilgrimages take note of historic sites like the restored Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.

But in smaller towns like Helena, finding the resources to save lesser-known landmarks is a challenge.

Inside Centennial Baptist, pigeons roost along the hardwood floors and pews where parishioners once worshiped. Beer and whiskey bottles litter a corner and scaffolding holds up the high-pitched roof.

This isn’t just an endangered, beautiful building from the turn of the last century. Centennial Baptist Church is a National Historic Landmark.

Phyllis Hammonds, executive director of the foundation that owns Centennial, was baptized and married in this church. She’s now carrying on her late mother’s mission to save it.

“The history is so rich,” Hammonds says. “Two former slaves collaborated and built this structure.”

Those men were a Baptist pastor, Rev. Elias Camp Morris, and Henry James Price, a self-taught architect. Price’s grandson, Harold Jefferson, says he was a skilled woodworker by trade. The congregation met in a house in the late 1800s, Jefferson says, until Morris asked Price to build a new, more regal house of worship in 1905.

“And Dr. Morris went to Europe and he wanted to find a picture or … to see about a building that he wanted to bring back to Helena, Ark.,” Jefferson, a longtime member of Centennial Baptist, explains. “Grandmother told me that he brought it back and showed it to Price and said, ‘Can you fix this like this picture?’ ”

Price did, and Centennial became a source of pride for the African-American community in segregated Helena, once a bustling port on the Mississippi River.

Historian Bobby Roberts, director of the Central Arkansas Library System, says Centennial is a prime candidate for preservation.

“One, it is a monumental building just in terms of size,” he says. “Two, it is a major piece of African-American history. So it really is a unique structure I think, not only in the Delta, but in Arkansas and in the South.”

Morris rose to national prominence as the first president of the National Baptist Convention, the largest historically black denomination. Centennial had about 1,000 members when Morris died in 1922.

But by the turn of this century, active membership had dwindled to double-digits. Roberts, a Helena native, says that reflects the hard times in the Delta as people left the region to find work.

Maintaining the church was an uphill battle for the congregation, he says. “It was too big for them. So they turned it over to a foundation with the idea that the foundation would be able to save the church. And they did protect it.”

The E.C. Morris Foundation got started with state funding to shore up Centennial in the 1990s. Little Rock architect Tommy Jameson, who drew up the plan, recalls when he first stepped inside.

“It was somewhat frightening … from a structural standpoint. But it was magnificent,” he says. “The architecture is incredible. The soaring spaces. It’s 40 feet up to the ceiling. It’s a wonderful space and incredibility intact — unchanged substantially.”

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Debbie Elliott