By Angela Rogalski
Baptist Town, about a mile east of downtown Greenwood, is a community that is solidly defined by its history and the common bond of its residents. Born in the 1800s, it is one of Greenwood’s oldest African American neighborhoods and is steeped in the rich culture that is the Mississippi Delta. Honeyboy Edwards and Robert Johnson were known to frequent Baptist Town during their lifetimes and it’s written that Edwards called it “the final residence of Robert Johnson” since the legendary Blues singer spent some of his last days in and around Baptist Town.
Today the community is going through a promising re-flourishment as the Baptist Town Neighborhood Reinvestment Project, planned in 2000, is still underway. Emily Roush-Elliott, a social impact architect, has been a long-time participant in the project.
“For the last three years I was an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow, which was a wonderful position with the Greenwood, Leflore, Carroll Economic Development Foundation,” Roush-Elliott says. “The Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship partners early-career architectural designers with local community development organizations, where they facilitate an inclusive approach to development to create green, sustainable, and affordable communities. And even though I am no longer a Fellow, my work has actually continued. I still do about half-time, but have also had the opportunity to branch out and start my own design-build practice with my husband. So, we’re continuing the work I started as a Fellow most of the time, but also doing other projects as well.”
Roush-Elliott explains that Baptist Town history has deep roots and is very important to the city of Greenwood.
“Baptist Town is a neighborhood and not its own town at all; it’s part of Greenwood,” she explains. “We know that it’s at least 135 years old and is probably one of the first places where African Americans could own property in Mississippi after slavery ended. So, it has a really long history and is very important.”
While Baptist Town isn’t known for its economic wealth and prosperity, Roush-Elliott says it has so much more embedded within its historical core and is rich in many ways other than money.
“When newspapers write about Baptist Town it always makes me cringe, because invariably someone calls it this impoverished neighborhood. And I wish that they would clarify and say economically impoverished, because it is; from a financial and wealth standpoint it struggles, but from every other value standpoint, the more important ones, such as people taking care of each other, community identity and history and culture, it’s incredibly rich. It’s a wonderful neighborhood and has been studied by a lot of different people. Robert Johnson spent time in Baptist Town; part of the movie “The Help” was filmed there, so there’s a lot of tourism attractions to the community, which sometimes is a negative thing.”
In 2000, students from the Carl Small Town Center, which is a community design center out of the Mississippi State University School of Architecture, came over to Baptist Town and worked with the community and did architectural planning studies to determine the primary needs and goals of the neighborhood and come up with solutions.
“That was the beginning of the relationship between the Mississippi State University School of Architecture and the Carl Small Town Center and the Economic Development Foundation here in Greenwood,” Roush-Elliott says. “So years later, they partnered again and students came back and re-studied the neighborhood and created a masterplan with the community; they really specialize in listening and having community engagement sessions.”
The community had some top priorities for Baptist Town, such as rehabbed and new housing; a community center; safer and better-looking entryways; a playground and parks. And all of these things became part of the masterplan.
“The Carl Small Town Center got together with the Greenwood, Leflore, Carroll Economic Development Foundation and applied to Enterprise Community Partners for an Enterprise Rose Fellow and they were awarded that fellow,” she says. “My husband and I had been working on rural development in Tanzania and we were looking to come back to the States and apply the things that we’d learned over there. So, when this opened up, we applied and we got it and we’ve been really working and focusing on Baptist Town since 2013.”
It was a three-year fellowship and with some funding that was already in place, Roush-Elliott, along with the Greenwood partners, was able to accomplish almost the entire masterplan that had been laid out years earlier.
“Five homes were rehabbed and we’re working on a couple of more now,” she says. “We did 11 new affordable homes and sold them to families who lived in the neighborhood for a cost that fit within their budgets. We purchased a building and rehabbed it for a community center that is open. It offers job training now and will offer other things in the future. We did street lights, sidewalks and signage, and landscaping at all of the entryways. We built two parks and one of them includes a playground.”
Roush-Elliott says those are the tangible things the project has been able to accomplish, but more than that are the relationships that have formed between the city and the people who live in Baptist Town.
“We’re most proud of the changes in people’s lives that we’ve seen,” she adds, “the things that the residents have been able to accomplish all on their own. The homeowners who are all first-time buyers, mostly people a little older in age who have never been able to own their own home before, are now doing it and it’s great. And none of it was gifted; they’re buying their homes. Whatever we invested to develop the home is what the mortgage became.”
John Poros was a teacher at the Mississippi State University School of Architecture and part of the original team that began the planning stages of the project in 2000. Today, Poros is the director of the Carl Small Town Center and is still involved with the ongoing improvements.
“The project got started with Fred Carl of Viking Range Corporation in Greenwood,” Poros says. “And Fred brought us (The Mississippi State School of Architecture) to the neighborhood back then and we had an architectural design studio that looked at the neighborhood then and the Carl Small Town Center gave a report on the project, but unfortunately at that time, we couldn’t get any traction with the project.”
Poros says a few years later, when all of the current partners got involved, they began to see the project move forward.
“The masterplan that we came up with actually won a National American Planning Association Award and once that happened we were able to get funding from the Foundation for the Mid- South, which was about $300,000. Then we were able to move forward and start the work in the neighborhood. That’s when I knew that we had to get Emily Roush-Elliott involved, and on behalf of the Carl Small Town Center, I applied for the Enterprise Rose Fellowship.”
Poros said the Center’s involvement with the project is still strong. “We at the Carl Small Town Center have been working with Emily over the past three years, during her Fellowship to help. Right now, we’re partnering with her to get smaller projects done in the neighborhood by bringing students or faculty members in to help. It’s been an incredible experience and really what you love to see if you’re doing community design. When you can really affect people’s lives and see those results, such as the first-time homeowners; it’s great.”
Alice Leflore is a Baptist Town resident and has been for most of her life. She’s also chair of the management board for the Baptist Town Community Development Center.
“Baptist Town is my home and I have lived there for the majority of my life,” Leflore says. “All of us who live there have always wanted to see our neighborhood improved and revived. It’s our home and we knew what it had once been before the deterioration begun in the late 90s and early 2000s. So, I wanted the neighborhood to be improved and to have the same pride, if not more, than it once had.”
Leflore welcomes the changes that she has seen since the project began and hopes that the progress continues.
“One of the things that I love is the fact that for most of the people in the homes, this is the first time they have ever owned their own home,” Leflore says. “And it’s a really wonderful thing for them. Unfortunately, we have had three people to pass away since they moved into their own home, but I am thankful that they died owning that home that they never thought they would. And I’m happy that we’re on our way to accomplishing the things that we set out to accomplish. We are non-profit now at the Center, so we can go after more programs to assist people and get more things started. So, we are moving forward.”