Every city has its hidden treasures– places nestled so naturally into the contours of the community that even some of the residents don’t know its value. Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi is one of those treasures.
History is in the air at Tougaloo College. Yet not like the air in an attic or a cellar- dank and musty with age. More like the scents of a kitchen. The familiar aromas can transport you back decades, but something new is always being cooked up.
I recently took an unforgettable tour of Tougaloo College. My guide was Kelle Menogan, the Vice President of Facilities and an elder at our church, and I couldn’t have had a better host. Since his job revolves around buildings, he took me on a brief walking tour of the small campus. Amid the Spanish moss drifting ethereally from the trees and the hilly lawns, he beckoned me into the stories embodied in the edifices on campus.
Even though I only had a brief time there, I invite anyone to take a tour of Tougaloo College because the rich history the buildings tell will inspire anyone with a reverence for the past and inspiration for the future.
A Historically Black College
Tougaloo is no ordinary college. It’s a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). The college was founded in 1869 by the American Missionary Association, and Kelle went on to tell me that the White missionaries who started the school did so out of concern for the education of newly freed Black slaves.
For an institution of higher learning to be especially sensitive to African Americans means that even with the bitter history of race-based chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the ongoing effects of racism, Black people in America can still achieve at high levels.
Although ten of Tougaloo’s buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the most impressive building I saw was Woodworth Chapel. At both the geographic and spiritual heart of campus, the chapel stands as a visible manifestation of the beauty of African American spirituality.
At one time in the recent past, the chapel had fallen into such disrepair no one could use it. Kelle told me that so many bees formed their hives between the brick exterior and the wooden interior that honey literally dripped from the walls. Rainwater would pummel the pews during a storm. Many thought the building should just be torn down. But four and a half years of intense labor and $5 million dollars later the restoration was complete.
If the tour had ended in the chapel, the first building we visited, I still would have gladly written this article. I’ve never been in any other place of worship like it. I’ll let the pictures below describe the scene. The chapel’s podium, built in 1904 and still in use today, has hosted a history book’s worth of Civil Rights leaders and entertainers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, Medgar Evers, Robert F. Kennedy, Harry Belafonte, and Joan Baez to name a few.
The architecture and the timeless tales bespeak the dignified history of the Civil Rights Movement and African American spiritual heritage.
The Bennie G. Thompson Academic Center
Our last stop on the tour of Tougaloo was the Bennie G. Thompson Academic Center. Named after Tougaloo alum and still-active congressman, Bennie Thompson, the building represents at once an homage to the past and a bold face toward the future. Its modern brick and concrete design are efficient, industrial, and trendy. Yet the building contains a handsome collection of historical artifacts.
Talented students at Tougaloo display their own art in one section of the building. While in another section an extensive collection of African art and sculpture–donated by a generous alumnus of the college–is displayed. But the image etched onto the walls of my memory is a wall-sized picture of the famous of the Woolworth Sit-ins.
On May 28, 1963 a group of Black and White students from Tougaloo College entered the segregated Woolworth Department Store and attempted to eat at the lunch counter. Instead they were harassed and humiliated for hours as an angry mob poured ketchup, salt, and sugar on their heads and pelted them with fists and other objects.
Standing under the roof of a building less than two years old and staring at a 50 year old photo from the Civil Rights Movement gave me a feeling of mental vertigo. My mind kept trying to locate its place in time. Was I there with the students in this grainy, life-size, black and white photo, or was I present with the students of today in colorful reality? I couldn’t tell the difference until I finally tore my eyes away from the photo.
Where History Meets the Future
The buildings of Tougaloo delicately manage the tension between history and progress. You depart with a sense of having walked with the giants of Civil Rights history. Yet you also leave feeling like you’ve shared space with the history makers of tomorrow.
As we concluded the tour and I was getting ready to leave campus, I expressed this very idea to my guide. And he said, “You know that’s the motto of Tougaloo College. Where history meets the future.” I couldn’t agree more.
Have you visited any place that manages the tension between history and the future? Or does your town have a hidden treasure? Tell us about it?