Churches often have a deeper historical significance than just a place of worship. Sometimes, I run across those stories accidentally while searching for information about architectural history. I think those stories are part of the fabric of our communities, and that they present alternative narratives about our identifies. Indianola’s First Baptist is on the corner across the street from the Indianola 1935 New Deal Administration Post Office, which is the reason I was even standing on that corner one afternoon last week.
The Mississippi Department of Archives and History Historical Resources Inventory lists the church as a 1911 Neoclassical design by architect H. J. Harker, and constructed by S. L. McGinnis. Nancy Bell (June 2, 2008, National Register of Historic Places nomination form) described it physically as:
A one-story brick church building, facing south, with a central dome of wood topped with a metal bell roof capped with a small bell tower. Extending from the dome are centered cross gables over the hip of the main block. The cross gables on the front and west side extend past the front wall to form a narrow porch (made deeper by a recess into the main block) supported by four monumental concrete ionic columns. There are seven bays: three art glass/art glass double-hung wood windows under the porch flanked by two art glass/art glass double-hung wood windows with transoms to each side of the recess (these windows have stone pediments and sills). The entrances are into the sides of the porch recess and are double-leaf paneled doors. The building is further enhanced with a molded cornice and a concrete water table.
There are estimated construction dates from 1911 to between 1915-1925. The Sunflower Tocsin (27 May 1915, p. 4) described the community as “the proud possessors of a new Baptist church which was built at a cost of $30,000.00 and is the finest of its kind to be found in any town three times the size of Indianola,” which would seem to lend support to the 1911-1915 timeline.
What led me to those “alternative narratives” was an entry on Wikipedia that indicated “it’s rumored the First Baptist Church basement became home for white students in the wake of federal integration laws.” A search for Indianola Academy led to another Wikipedia post and the statement “For the 1966-1967 and 1967-1968 school years, classes were held at the First Baptist Church.” Steve Rosenthal, mayor in 2012, said he began to attend the Indianola Academy “in a Baptist Church” in January 1970, although he does not specify which one (Sarah Carr, Dec. 13, 2012, “In southern Towns, ‘Segregation Academies’ are Still Going Strong”, The Atlantic). The enrollment of the academy doubled from 1969 to 1970 to 1200 students, and about 223 were grades 10-12 white students. Classes were held in the Baptist and Methodist churches as ‘satellite campuses’ until a new facility was constructed for the private academy, and I think it likely that only the First Baptist and First Methodist would have been large enough and segregated enough to have accommodated that many students.
Indianola, like other segregated communities across the country, is defined not only by two school systems and two sides of town, but by two competing narratives that attempt to explain segregation’s stubborn persistence. (Carr, 2012)
Those competing narratives perpetuate division and prevent our coming together to solve problems that would result in a benefit to all of the community. Dick Molpus, co-founder of Parents for Public Schools says Mississippi towns have “limited amounts of money, power, and influence. When those three things are divided between black public schools and white academies, both offer substandard education.”