A HISTORY OF THE BURNS-BELFRY PROJECT
by Gerald W. Walton
In 1867, the widow of William Stearns, who had been a professor of law at the University of Mississippi, deeded land to Harrison Stearns, who had been an enslaved servant of William Stearns. Harrison Stearns, one of three freedmen to serve as Oxford aldermen in 1870-71, then conveyed a portion of the land to the trustees of the Burns Methodist Episcopal Church of Oxford, MS organized in 1867. A white frame building with a light blue ceiling was constructed on the land. Several white citizens contributed to the building of the African-American church, which was constructed on the edge of Freedmen Town. (Both Freedmen Town and the Burns Church building presently have historical markers.)
By 1910 it was clear that the congregation needed a bigger and better church. Many church members mortgaged their homes in order to finance a new brick building; men donated their time to make mortar, carry brick, and assist in construction; women delivered baskets of food to the workers. Pews from the original church were used in the new structure, and the church bell was put in the belfry.
The new church, built for about $3,000, was heated by two large pot-bellied stoves, one on each side of the sanctuary. A foot-pedaled organ provided music. Brass kerosene lamps, hung on chains from the ceiling, provided light; a janitor filled the lamps and cleaned the chimneys weekly. Electricity was added in 1914.
The men’s “Amen Corner” was on the west side of the sanctuary; the east side was for the ladies of the congregation. The church served a social purpose as well. Box suppers and church plays were held in the building. The Burns Church played a major role in the lives of many African Americans in Oxford, MS from 1910 until 1974.
A local attorney and businessman purchased the building from the Burns Church congregation in 1978. He then sold the building to a couple who dubbed it “The Belfry.” They created offices by lowering the original floor and adding a second floor. At that time the church parsonage was adjacent on what is now the parking lot. In order to have parking for the occupants of the offices, the owners moved the parsonage to their farm, where it remains. A weather vane once atop the church’s belfry had already been removed. The original bell from the bell tower was removed by the Burns congregation and taken to their new church. Original stained glass windows broken while the building was vacant were replaced with colored glass. A few of the old pews were salvaged, some of which are now in the new Burns United Methodist Church.
The architecture of the Burns Church building can be appreciated in this description of the building: One-story, three-bay, brick masonry center-aisle church with Gothic Revival influence, built 1910. Cross-gable roof covered with asphalt shingles, with single-light fixed sash roundels in gable ends. Facade features symmetrical square towers; one of two stories with a bell cast roof and one of three stories with a polygonal spire. Windows are single-light, fixed sash replacements set in Gothic-arched reveals. Entrance is set in semi-circle arched reveal with a single-light double door topped with a double, single-light transom.
Author John Grisham was the last owner of the building, which remained vacant after his move to Virginia. While the building has historic value, the land had monetary value, drawing the interest of a number of real estate agents and business entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, the Oxford Development Association (ODA), an African-American organization, hoped it might be allowed to use the building. Members of the Oxford- Lafayette County Heritage Foundation (OLCHF), working closely with the ODA, asked Mr. Grisham to deed the building to the Heritage Foundation, with a clear understanding of its proposed use by the ODA. Mr. Grisham, who preferred “to give the building to some organization that will preserve it rather than selling it to someone who will destroy it,” deeded the building to the OLCHF.
When the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation adopted the Burns-Belfry project, the building evidenced serious deterioration:
- The brick veneer was not adequately tied to the wood stud framing behind it, allowing it to move laterally and separate from the substrate.
- The wood studs were rotting from the bottom up.
- Moisture penetrating the wall assembly had attacked the interior gypsum board finishes installed during the 1978 renovation to add a second floor, along with a host of other ill-advised alterations.
- The roofing had deteriorated and the rafters were fatigued, requiring temporary shoring and permanent reinforcement.
- All plumbing, HVAC, and electrical systems needed replacement.
The Burns Church building represents a valuable part of the history of Oxford and the surrounding area, that of the lives of African Americans during the 19th and 20th centuries. By preserving and restoring the building in its current location, it will continue its role as an African-American Mississippi Landmark and offer documentation about the lives of the African-American community.
Plans call for the restored and renovated building to provide open space for educational public programming and meetings of nonprofit organizations, while also functioning in a museum capacity with a permanent exhibit and occasional special exhibits. A separate building reminiscent of the original parsonage will provide office and storage space for the ODA and OLCHF.