Student tour brings historic stories to life

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 15, 2004

[11/14/04] PORT GIBSON Every building tells a story.

History teacher Chuck Yarborough emphasized that again and again to his Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science class during a visit to historic churches here.

“We’re interested in using buildings as a text. You can read a building,” Yarborough said.

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The trip, which also included stops in Jackson and Natchez, is the high point for Yarborough’s unit on American architecture.

The school, based on the campus of the Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, is a public magnet school for high school juniors and seniors. It is open to any Mississippi resident. Tuition is free.

Most of the lectures were on Port Gibson’s oldest churches, many dating to the mid-1800s.

But Alexander Martin and Horace Wicks reminded the students that a building can tell the story of much more recent history.

Martin and Wicks, both members of First Baptist Church, spoke about the historically black church’s role at the center of the civil rights movement in Claiborne County.

Wicks, a retired school principal, told about highway patrolmen entering the sanctuary and firing their weapons. He pointed to the organ and said the officers had hit it with the butts of their guns.

Martin, the district attorney for the 22nd Circuit Court District, spoke about the city’s boycotts and the subsequent legal battles.

Both men also said the city has come a long way since then.

“There has been so much progress with the races,” Wicks said. “I’m proud to live in Port Gibson.”

Not all of the history was on such a serious topic. At First Presbyterian Church, home of the famous “Hand pointing to Heaven,” the Rev. Michael Herrin told students about less well-known architectural details.

He said the church’s chandeliers came from the steamboat Robert E. Lee. That’s why the image of the boat’s namesake is depicted at the top of each chandelier.

“I like to say that’s the only graven image allowed in a Southern Presbyterian Church,” Herrin said.

The minister also pointed out the church’s remarkable acoustics, saying “we’re inside a guitar.”

At First Methodist Church, students learned that not all activity in a church is holy.

In 1858, gamblers met in the church’s steeple to play cards, said Libby Hollingsworth, a local historian.

“One night they had too much fun and it burned down,” Hollingsworth said.

Adedoyin Adebiyi, a 16-year-old junior from Starkville, said her favorite building was St. Joseph Catholic Church, a Gothic Revival-style structure built in 1851 and the oldest church building in town.

“I’m really into interior design. The inside just blew my mind,” Adebiyi said.

The church wouldn’t have been built without the determined efforts of Elvie Anna Bowie Moore, wife of prominent planter John Taylor Moore.

She pestered her husband’s friends for money to build the church, Hollingsworth said.

“It embarrassed him so much that he paid for the church,” she said.

The students also visited St. James Episcopal Church, an example of Victorian Gothic architecture. Yarborough also pointed out the church’s indebtedness to English country style.

The Very Rev. James Webb said building of the church was delayed by an unwise investment.

Port Gibson Episcopalians had raised money for years, then put them in Confederate bonds.

“This was not a good idea,” Webb said.

At Temple Gemiluth Chassed, students heard the story of the oldest synagogue in the Mississippi. In a combination of Moorish and Byzantine styles, the building opened in 1891.

It was in use until the 1970s when Port Gibson’s Jewish population became too small to sustain a congregation.

The synagogue was vacant for about 30 years until a Messianic Jewish congregation began worshiping there in 2003.

Yarborough said the synagogue’s history provides a powerful example of the necessity of making sure historic buildings have present-day uses.

“If a building isn’t used, it will die,” he said.

Giving students an appreciation for historic buildings is at the core of the course’s purpose, Yarborough said.

“I think this program will help our students develop as leaders who value the history of local communities across our state,” he said.

Port Gibson is an excellent example of Mississippi architectural history, Hollingsworth said.

“Port Gibson has more different types of architecture than any other small town in Mississippi,” Hollingsworth said. The town features 21 distinct styles, she said.