Church Museum Brings History to Life

The Burns Belfry Museum and Multicultural Center is a beautiful, gothic-style building located on Jackson Ave. in the heart of what was once known as Freedman Town in Oxford, Miss. The Museum is dedicated to African American history in Oxford, Lafayette County, and north Mississippi.

The building itself was constructed in 1910 to house the ever-growing congregation of the first African American church in Oxford – Burns Methodist Episcopal Church. The members of the church dedicated all of their time to the construction and perfection of the new church building.

Southeast view of the church before the renovation process. / Photo courtesy of www.burn-belfry.com
Southeast view of the church before the renovation process. /Photo courtesy of www.burn-belfry.com

With about $3,000, the one-story, three-bay, brick masonry center-aisle church was erected. It was made complete with pews from their former church – a small, white-frame building on the edge of Freedmen Town – and a bell for the belfry.

This church was an important, active place of worship until 1974 when the congregation moved to yet another church, where they remain today. They took with them the original bell from the belfry to serve in the new location.

In 1978, the building was purchased by a local attorney and business man. He then sold it to couple who named it “The Belfry.” They renovated the building by adding a second floor and replacing the broken, stained-glass windows with colored glass.

Author John Grisham was the last to own The Belfry. The building, though, sat vacant after Grisham’s move to Virginia. And when he deeded the building to the Oxford Heritage Foundation, they found that it had deteriorated significantly through the years.

The building was fully restored in September 2013 and now serves as a dedication to African American history in Mississippi.

The Burns-Belfry Museum after its renovation in 2013. /Photo courtesy of www.burns-belfry.com
The Burns-Belfry Museum after its renovation in 2013. /Photo courtesy of www.burns-belfry.com

“The purpose of the museum is to tell the history of the building, congregation, and church. It should function with the community in a meaningful way,” says Darlene Copp, project manager.

There are movable exhibits so that they can easily be moved aside for educational or social events that are hosted at The Belfry in the evenings.

The intent of “Stage One” of the museum renovation process is to act as a preview exhibit for what is to come. The primary themes of the museum are slavery, emancipation, Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights movement. There are presently a few local examples represented in the museum, but with “Stage Two,” there will be additions of stories from cities and counties in north Mississippi and Lafayette county.

As of now, the museum gets very little traffic and upholds its business with volunteers who are dedicated to keeping it open and watching it thrive. There are currently 17 active volunteers, who range from university students to retirees who love the community. Anyone looking to help is always welcome. Please contact Copp by phone at 662-513-9957or by emailing dpcopp@oxfordmsheritage.com for more information.

Hundreds attended the Dedication Ceremony of the renovated Burns-Belfry Museum and Multicultural Center on Sept. 21, 2013. /Photo courtesy of www.burns-belfry.com
Hundreds attended the Dedication Ceremony of the renovated Burns-Belfry Museum and Multicultural Center on Sept. 21, 2013. /Photo courtesy of www.burns-belfry.com

More information about the Burns-Belfry Church itself or upcoming events, visit www.burns-belfry.com.

The following video is from the dedication of the Burns-Belfry Museum:

Burns-Belfry Dedication from Kris Zediker on Vimeo.

– Rachel Vanderford, Staff writer for HottyToddy.com, rmvander@go.olemiss.edu

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