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Arkansas National Historic Landmarks: Centennial Baptist Church, Helena-West Helena, Phillips County

Arkansas Historic Preservation Program - Friday, February 06, 2015

The Centennial Baptist Church at Helena-West Helena in Phillips County was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 26, 1987, and designated a National Historic Landmark on July 31, 2003. You can read this and other Arkansas National Register nominations at http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/historic-properties/national-register/search.aspx.

SUMMARY

Centennial Baptist Church is nationally significant through its association with Dr. Elias Camp Morris, who served as pastor from 1879 until his death in 1922. The period of his life from 1882 to 1922 was his most productive period with respect to his efforts on the national level to further the religious, political, and societal achievements of African Americans. The church remains a symbol of those efforts in the heyday of Jim Crow.

The 1890s brought about codified segregation in the form of “Jim Crow” laws, maintaining the lines that had been drawn during slavery with increasing violence and vituperation. The African American church and its leaders during the Jim Crow era were central to the lives of their congregants because they were not simply meeting spiritual needs, but were also responsible for providing unification and a social setting that allowed a respite from the oppression faced on the streets. Separate churches allowed African Americans to take control of their lives by worshipping God their way and being able to experience the freedom to speak as they wanted expressing their feelings and aspirations in a safe environment. African American houses of worship were often utilized for political meetings to advance civil rights efforts and education. For those reasons the church was not immune from the violent attentions of former slave owners or the Ku Klux Klan who continued to be threatened by the thought of black independence. Bushwhackers attacked churches, terrorized the members and beat preachers. On a more subversive scale some white churches welcomed African Americans to their pews after emancipation but with the paternalistic idea that they would be “guided and controlled by their old and true friends.”

The African American minister exerted a great influence on his members and was described by W.E.B. DuBois as “a leader, a politician, an orator, a ‘boss,’ an intriguer, an idealist…” After emancipation some black clergymen advocated a reversal to the dependence visited upon African Americans during slavery and encouraged them to overcome their current situations by reaching their potential. At the same time some church leaders took an accomodationist stance and gave voice to white society’s ideals of black submissiveness in order to escape the ongoing atrocities. But many who had been witness to church burnings and the violence, intimidation and murder visited upon their preachers continued to push for using the church as a political platform to further civil rights and education.

Morris recognized the influence of the church and its power to fill the spiritual reserves of his congregation, enabling them to deal with life during the most difficult of times. He dedicated his life to bringing attention to the need for African American religious autonomy at the national, as well as local, level. As president of the National Baptist Convention, Morris brought attention to the right of African Americans to establish independent religious associations and called for recognition of the organization by white Baptists. Morris was able to provide a voice for African American scholars through the Convention by aiding the establishment of the National Baptist Publishing Board devoted to the production of religious materials for African American congregations.

Reverend Morris entered the political sphere as a delegate to the Republican National Conventions of 1884, 1888 and 1904. His work as a delegate served to strengthen his appeal as a leader and enabled him to expand his influence on the fight for African American rights beyond Arkansas. During World War I Morris pushed African American men to register for the draft in order to demonstrate to America that they were productive and supportive citizens, deserving of recognition by white society for their sacrifice.

Centennial Baptist Church could be considered “homebase” for Reverend Morris during his varied career as a religious leader and statesman from 1905 until his death in 1922. The brick Gothic Revival church was designed by a member of Morris’s congregation in 1905 to replace an earlier building that the membership had outgrown. The reverend had assumed the pastorship of Centennial in 1879 and he remained the leader of the church from the beginning of his career as a national spokesman for African American rights in 1882 to 1922. Although Morris traveled extensively in the fulfillment of his varied duties he remained loyal to his congregation and community and maintained his home in Helena.

The church is the structure most closely associated with the productive period of E.C. Morris’s life. Reverend Morris’s house in Helena, which is no longer standing, was a two-story frame building at 401 Columbia. The house changed hands after his death in 1922 but remained a single-family residence until circa 1976. The Rogerline Johnson family bought the house and it was destroyed in 1977 for the construction of a one-story brick commercial structure housing a photography studio, which remains on the lot today. The only other building known to be associated with Morris was constructed in his honor after his death. The Morris Memorial Building, completed in 1926 and named in honor of Dr. E.C. Morris, is a Neoclassical structure located in Nashville, Tennessee. The National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A. suffered a contentious split with the National Baptist Publishing Board in 1915, resulting in the loss of their base of publishing operations in Nashville, Tennessee. A new publishing board was created under the legally indisputable ownership of the Convention and by 1924 the new board’s success enabled the erection of a building to house the Sunday School Publishing Board. Designed by African American architects McKissack and McKissack, it was constructed as a symbol of Morris’s struggle to keep the sights of the Convention and its boards on unification.

ELABORATION

ELIAS CAMP MORRIS WAS BORN OF SLAVE PARENTS ON MAY 7, 1855, NEAR SPRINGPLACE, GEORGIA. AFTER THE END OF THE CIVIL WAR, HIS FAMILY MOVED TO CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE, AND THEN TO STEVENSON, ALABAMA, WHERE MORRIS RECEIVED A COMMON EDUCATION. HAVING LOST BOTH OF HIS PARENTS BY AGE FOURTEEN, HE WAS UNABLE TO PURSUE HIGHER EDUCATION. HE COMPLETED AN APPRENTICESHIP WITH A SHOEMAKER AND SUPPORTED HIMSELF WITH THAT TRADE UNTIL 1875, WHEN HE WAS CALLED TO THE MINISTRY. IN 1877, MORRIS STOPPED OVER IN HELENA, ARKANSAS, ON HIS WAY TO KANSAS AND DECIDED THE POSSIBILITIES AND RESOURCES IN ARKANSAS WERE SIGNIFICANT enough to settle down. In Helena he continued his work as a shoemaker and preached on Sundays. 

Reverend E.C. Morris was embarking on an impressive career in 1879 when he accepted the pastorship of the fledgling congregation of Centennial Baptist Church in Helena, Arkansas. Having only 23 members in that year, the congregation would swell to more than one thousand during Morris’s 43-year-long service, a testament to his leadership. Morris recognized that the state’s African American Baptist churches in Phillips, Lee and Monroe counties needed to become more structured. Toward this end he organized and served two years as executive secretary for a district association in 1879, which provided classes in such subjects as stewardship, Sunday school teaching and choir management for those counties. Soon after assuming the pastorate of Centennial, Morris became active in the Arkansas Negro Baptist Convention, being elected secretary in 1880 and president in 1882 (a position he held for 27 years). It was a firm belief of the reverend that achievement and religious growth were tied to education. As an influential voice in the Convention, Morris could advance his beliefs by participating in the formation of one of Arkansas’s foremost institutions of higher learning for blacks, the Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock, Arkansas. The college was voted into existence at the 1884 meeting of the Convention. The school provided training for African American ministers and teachers and was considered at the time to be the only institution of higher learning for African Americans that was not governed by a white administration. Reverend Morris served as chairman of the board of trustees at the college for 25 years.

IN 1880 THE FOREIGN MISSION CONVENTION OF THE UNITED STATES WAS ESTABLISHED UNDER A CONVOCATION OF SOUTHERN NEGRO BAPTIST CHURCHES, ASSOCIATIONS AND STATE CONVENTIONS. THE AMERICAN NATIONAL BAPTIST CONVENTION AND THE BAPTIST EDUCATION CONVENTION WERE FOUNDED RESPECTIVELY IN 1886 AND 1892. EACH OF THESE CONVENTIONS WOULD MEET ANNUALLY IN THE SAME CITY OPERATING UNDER THREE SEPARATE CONSTITUTIONS BUT WORKING TOWARD THE SAME GOALS. BY 1886 THE THREE ORGANIZATIONS HAD MADE AN AGREEMENT TO MEET AS ONE UNDER THE UMBRELLA OF THE NATIONAL BAPTIST CONVENTION. THE CONVENTION FUNCTIONED AS THE administrative arm of African American Baptist denominations. Delegates to the Convention from various Baptist organizations met annually for consideration of board and standing committee reports, and to receive contributions in order to distribute them to chosen causes. As the president of the Convention from 1894-1922 Morris established the largest deliberative body of African Americans at its time. This organization allowed African American Baptists autonomy, separate from the white Baptist hierarchy. 

By 1895 a unified National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., formed from the three aforementioned organizations, emerged at Friendship Church in Atlanta, Georgia, during sessions attended by hundreds of clergy from northern and southern black Baptist churches. Prior to 1895 the structure of the National Baptist Convention lacked cohesion and seemed to revolve around loose organizations with no true national influence. At the Atlanta meeting three boards were established to represent the interests of the previously separate conventions: the Foreign Mission Board formed to direct missions in Africa; the Home Mission Board for the direction of home missionary activities and the Educational Board for the promotion of black education and development of Negro seminaries. The National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A. was formed mainly in response to the issue of whether African Americans should establish self-sufficient religious and educational institutions that were free from white leadership. This issue gave rise to the question of whether African Americans should have their own publishing house to provide religious literature written by African American authors to the congregations. In 1898, when E.C. Morris delivered his annual address, the question of dependency upon white sponsorship as opposed to racial self-sufficiency threatened to split the young Convention. He emphasized in this address that white Baptists would have to acknowledge the National Baptist Convention as a viable group. Morris emerged on the national scene advocating African Americans’ right to establish independent religious associations and calling for recognition of the strong organization he led. 

Early in his career Morris saw the need for talented African American authors to write for the African American Baptist audience. He met this need by establishing a forum for religious subjects written by African American Baptist scholars. Morris’s first religious publication, the Baptist Vanguard (1882), became the model for African American religious literature throughout the country. Prior to the establishment of an African American publishing body, the congregations relied on white Baptist denominations to furnish newsletters, Sunday school lessons, and other religious materials. The northern Baptist Society, called the American Baptist Publication Society, had agreed to publish articles and Sunday school literature written by African American Baptists. Under pressure from southern Baptists, however, the white organization rejected the work of these scholars.

Since 1891, African American Baptists had been enthusiastic about the idea of publishing denominational literature “from the pens of Negro Baptist authors.” In 1893 Morris gave a paper in demand for a “Negro Baptist publishing house” stating, “we must not be satisfied with subordinate things. We must take our place as thinkers and as writers.” At this time, whites were reluctant to encourage writing and publishing ventures among African Americans. In 1896 Morris fully backed efforts by Reverend Richard Henry Boyd of Texas to establish a black Baptist publishing board. In that year the board of the National Baptist Convention appointed Morris to a printing committee as editor-in-chief to prepare and publish Sunday school literature. By 1897 the first issue of the Sunday School Teacher, the earliest quarterly ever printed by African American Baptists, went to press. This publication was the result of efforts of the new Sunday School Publishing Board formed out of the National Baptist Convention, in cooperation with the white Baptist organizations. The Home Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention allied closely with the publishing board by having their missionaries display publications and Sunday school materials. This was a major achievement and only a small part of the success enjoyed by the publishing board, but it was censured by some African Americans within the Convention and the American Baptist Publication Society. The strident efforts of the board caused no small amount of contention among many who felt that the endeavor was being used as a personal bank account for its organizer. In the early years of the Board’s existence Morris countered this criticism by throwing his support behind Boyd, holding multiple inspections of the operations and calling upon African Americans to unite in their efforts to escape white paternalism, not foster division.

Within a decade, however, the Publishing Board would jeopardize the Convention’s very existence. Despite the continuous rancor concerning revenues and management, the National Baptist Publishing Board grew and prospered during its first decade. Soon it was able to purchase its own machinery and property to house its operations. By 1915 the Board had grown more powerful than its parent organization ostensibly due to the fact that the Board was legally incorporated and the Convention was based on only “gentlemen’s agreements.” Morris emphasized to members of the boards and the Convention that black Baptists should not forget that their strength lay in working together and at this point he, along with his cabinet and official board, attempted to gain control of Board real estate that the Convention considered its own. In 1917 and 1919 the reverend tried to reinstate unity between the groups through the formation of Peace Commissions. The schism that had developed between the Convention and those who sympathized with the Publishing Board could not be resolved by these meetings and resulted in court decisions that transferred the property the Convention reportedly owned into the hands of the Publishing Board by 1920. These decisions meant the National Baptist Convention had to begin again to establish a publishing arm of the organization. A new Publishing Board was elected as soon as possible after the split but a new publishing house in Nashville was not constructed until 1924, two years after Reverend Morris’s death. The building, designed by African American architectural firm, McKissack and McKissack was named the Morris Memorial Building in honor of the reverend.

Morris’s stature in the church, which was in effect the center of the lives of many African Americans, led to widespread involvement in various endeavors at the local and national levels. He represented Arkansas’s First Congressional District as a delegate to the Republican National Conventions of 1884, 1888 and 1904. He also served the Arkansas State Republican Convention for nearly 40 years. Morris fought against whites that sought to form a “Lily White” Republican Party by removing African-American party members from leadership roles. A split in the Republican Party had appeared between one faction, a mixed or bi-racial group, called the “Black and Tans,” and another all white group, who hoped to entice more whites to the Republican Party through patronage. The “Lily Whites” hoped to re-establish a two-party system in the South while limiting black control of the Republican Party. In 1908, Morris began to break away from the Republican Party saying he anticipated that “before many years shall pass the Democratic Party will champion the rights of the black man.” That year he successfully lobbied to have a plank in the state Republican platform removed on the basis that it was discriminatory. Morris demonstrated that it was designed to re-assure whites that they should not fear African American domination if the Republicans won the election. Again in 1914 and 1916, he fought the “Lily White” movement at the state level; and yet, its strength and persuasiveness was proven in 1916, the year that marked the first time in 32 years that no African American represented Arkansas at the National Republican Convention. In 1920, Morris played a role in the confrontation between the factions at the state Republican convention. He continued the fight on the convention floor in June 1920, representing the African American Republican committee from Arkansas, known as the Republican State Central Committee.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt recognized Morris’s appeal as a national leader by appointing him as an emissary to the Belgian Congo. Belgian King Leopold II was recognized as the absolute ruler of the Congo Free State in 1885. Led by his desire for adventure and riches, Leopold controlled the Congo like it was personal property, ruthlessly exploiting the country to recoup his expenses. Roosevelt, along with European politicians, criticized Leopold’s actions, and sent Morris to investigate claims of inhumane treatment of Congolese citizens. Reverend Morris confirmed the exploitation of the people of the Congo Free State when he reported to Roosevelt. Later in 1908, Leopold was forced by international criticism to turn over the Congo Free State to the Belgian Parliament for annexation as a colony. Morris’s work contributed to the removal of total control of the Congo from Leopold II. His defense of the rights of an oppressed population was recognized by national leaders, with whom he worked successfully to influence international policy.

>MORRIS’S WISH FOR UNITY OF THE RACES MANIFESTED ITSELF IN MANY WAYS. WHEN THE UNITED STATES ENTERED WORLD WAR I, MORRIS ENCOURAGED AFRICAN AMERICAN MEN TO PARTICIPATE IN THE DRAFT. HE BELIEVED THAT THE WAR OFFERED AN OPPORTUNITY FOR MEMBERS OF HIS RACE TO DEMONSTRATE THEIR WORTH AS AMERICAN CITIZENS. “BELIEVING AFRICAN AMERICANS’ FULL RIGHTS AS CITIZENS WOULD BE RESTORED IN EXCHANGE FOR THEIR SUPPORT OF THE WAR, MORRIS OFFERED SERMONS AND SPEECHES FROM THE PULPIT AT CENTENNIAL AND AT MEETINGS OF THE CONVENTION ACROSS THE UNITED STATES, ENCOURAGING REGISTRATION, THE PURCHASE OF WAR BONDS, AND FOOD RATIONING.” ALONG WITH W.E.B. DUBOIS, MORRIS CALLED FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS TO FIGHT FOR THE “DOUBLE VICTORY” ABROAD AND AT HOME. WHILE SERVING IN EUROPE BLACK VETERANS WERE EXPOSED TO A DEGREE OF RACIAL EQUALITY. THEIR EXPERIENCE ABROAD, COUPLED WITH THE REASSURANCES OF LEADERS LIKE MORRIS LED THESE MEN TO EXPECT LESS DISCRIMINATORY TREATMENT AND NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR ADVANCEMENT IN RETURN FOR THEIR SERVICE. AFTER RETURNING HOME, HOWEVER, MANY FOUND THEIR SITUATIONS UNCHANGED. RACIAL CONFLICTS SPREAD ACROSS THE UNITED STATES AS A RESULT OF GROWING TENSIONS. THE ARKANSAS DELTA WAS THE SCENE OF SUCH A CONFLICT CULMINATING IN VIOLENCE WITH FAR-REACHING EFFECTS.

In September of 1919 hostility surfaced in Elaine, Arkansas, located near Helena. The Elaine Race Riot began with a fray between African American union members and white local officials. The day following the outbreak of violence, Rev. E.C. Morris assured white people in Helena that they had nothing to fear from the African American population. Morris later wrote that he “never believed that the Negro at Elaine had planned to murder the white planters and take their lands,” as many whites had feared. In the aftermath 67 African Americans were sentenced to prison terms for their participation in a purported rebellion and twelve were condemned to death for the murder of five white people who died in the fighting. All the sentences were eventually overturned by the United States Supreme Court decision of Moore v. Dempsey (1923).

THE NATIONAL SCOPE OF RACIAL UNREST DURING THE SUMMER OF 1919 WAS EPITOMIZED BY THE RACE RIOT AT ELAINE. IN THE FACE OF THE TURMOIL MORRIS STILL ADVOCATED HIS BELIEF THAT THE EXAMPLE OF THEIR SERVICE DURING THE WAR ENTITLED AFRICAN AMERICANS TO RECOGNITION AS CITIZENS. HE ACTED AS A UNIFYING FORCE BETWEEN THE RACES DURING THE ELAINE RIOTS ENCOURAGING COOPERATION. THROUGH HIS URGING HE INFLUENCED LOCAL EVENTS THAT REFLECTED THE NATIONAL TREND TOWARD VIOLENT RACIAL CONFLICT. MORRIS’S ABILITIES AS A MEDIATOR EXTENDED TO BOTH RACES. HE FURTHERED RACIAL COOPERATION, BUT NOT AT THE EXPENSE OF AFRICAN AMERICAN RELIGIOUS AUTONOMY. WHILE MORRIS BELIEVED A SEPARATE RELIGIOUS STRUCTURE WAS IN THE BEST INTEREST OF AFRICAN AMERICANS, THIS VIEW DID NOT PRECLUDE HIS FEELING THAT A PEACEFUL WORKING RELATIONSHIP WITH WHITES WAS NECESSARY.

Morris did not stand alone as a great African American leader, but he was certainly on a par with the most well-known of those who labored to convince white America of the unjustifiable institution of Jim Crow. When one considers the efforts of Washington, Boyd, Dubois, Simmons, Douglass and Price, the list would not be complete without the inclusion of Reverend Elias Camp Morris. He was a man respected by white leaders as well as those of his own race. In 1900 Morris organized the Arkansas State Mission Board as a vehicle for cooperation between the National Baptist Convention and the white Southern Baptist Convention. In 1903 he helped organize the bi-racial General Convention of America and in 1905 assisted in the formation of the Baptist World Congress, serving as the only African American member of the executive committees of both. Morris’s stature in the white community is further reflected by the fact that on the occasion of his death in 1922, the mayor of Helena declared that all the city’s businesses, both African American and white, be closed for the funeral.

Throughout his long and varied career Morris remained pastor of Centennial Baptist Church. As the membership grew during the early years of his pastorate so did the necessity of replacing the congregation’s original house of worship. Morris’s descendants tell the story that the clergyman saw a church building on his travels that impressed him and described it to one of his congregation who had studied architecture, Henry James Price. Price had graduated summa cum laude from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and moved to Helena around 1900. Research has revealed little about Price despite the fact that his descendants still reside in Helena. The virtually unaltered building reflects traditional Gothic influences such as lancet windows and buttresses.

Centennial Baptist is a local landmark in Helena that bears national significance due to its association with the African American leader who was its pastor for more than 40 years. Centennial Baptist is the only known example in Arkansas of a church designed by an African American architect for an African American congregation. More than that, through its link with Morris the building is a symbol of the striving for racial and religious equality in Arkansas and the United States. By Morris’s count Centennial Baptist hosted over five hundred African American speakers who delivered their messages of perseverance and progress to an audience made up of black and white alike. The speakers ranged from nationally known orators to county farm demonstration speakers. Booker T. Washington spoke at Centennial in 1908, stressing the need for African American education and moral structure. In 1916 H.C. Ray of the Department of Agriculture spoke to the Baptists at Helena on “Dr. Knapp’s Safe Farming Doctrines” to progress better farming ideas in the minds of Arkansas African Americans.

Morris never wavered in his allegiance to Helena and the people under his leadership though he was called away from his home many times in his career. Within the walls of Centennial Morris appealed to his congregation and his white neighbors to recognize the need for the advancement of African American education, organization and cooperation between the races. Reverend Elias Camp Morris took an aggressive and unflagging stance for African American rights at a time when opposition to such efforts could exact staggering blows.

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