October 14, 2021

A Campuswide Commitment to Preserve Jackson State University: A Q&A with Heather Denne

The HBCU Cultural Heritage Stewardship Initiative derived from a need to cultivate and uplift historic Black colleges and universities across the nation. This work is in tandem with the standard set by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to protect and restore places where significant Black history happened and highlight the key roles they have played in American society.

This year, eight HBCUs were awarded more than $650,000 in funding to develop cultural heritage stewardship plans for their campuses and historic sites. The sole goal of this initiative is to partner with HBCUs to empower and preserve the legacies of the campuses and ensure that the stories of their foundations are upheld to educate and inspire future generations of students to pay it forward. As part of this work, we conducted a Q&A with each grant recipient to learn about the history and work at each of these significant institutions.

Jackson State University was founded by the American Baptist Home Mission Society in 1877. Originally known as Natchez Seminary, it was established with the purpose of cultivating Black Christian leaders in Mississippi and neighboring states. In 1882, the institution was moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where its rich history leads its mission to empower students to become leaders within their respective communities.

Jackson State University received an HBCU Cultural Heritage Grant to create a campuswide stewardship plan for the 245-acre campus, the development of which will provide support and coordinate the ongoing preservation of the campus.

A black and white image of building at Jackson State. It is brick and has four floors. This image has a group of people standing on the stairs leading up to the entryway and across the front. There are no other buildings around it.

photo by: JSU/University Communications

Ayer Hall is Jackson State University's oldest and most iconic structure. This image is from 1903.

Exterior view of a brick building with a portico entryway with a series of stairs leading up to front door. The building is four floors with twelve windows visible across the third floor. A tree obscures part of the top floor.

photo by: JSU/University Communications

A contemporary image of Ayer Hall at Jackson State University.

In recent years, Jackson State has undertaken the preservation of multiple campus buildings and sites including Ayer Hall (1903), the historic Council of Federated Organizations Building, and Mt. Olive Cemetery (1807). The campuswide plan will support and coordinate the ongoing preservation efforts and allow Jackson State to be a leading force for preservation of both the campus and the adjacent historic Lynch Street corridor.

In this Q&A, Heather Denne, director of community engagement for Jackson State, discusses the preservation of Mt. Olive Cemetery—a symbolic and important landmark for the campus and Black people in Mississippi—and other key spaces at Jackson State University. Denne’s work is guided by the belief that “in exposing the students at Jackson State University to the rich history surrounding the campus and with this preservation project, [I] hope to share stories about the pioneers that paved the way for them in Mississippi.”

Jackson State has many historic resources, both on and adjacent to the campus. What is the history of some of these sites, and why are they important to preserve?

Mt. Olive Cemetery, established in the early 19th century, is one of the oldest private cemeteries for Black Americans in the state of Mississippi. It is probable that Mt. Olive was a plantation graveyard before the Jackson Cemetery Association purchased the site, and it represents four distinct eras in American history: slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. Mt. Olive remains an intact and visible landmark for the community that depicts a point of beginning and serves as a final resting place for some of Jackson’s prominent Black citizens that include the first doctors, lawyers, dentists, legislators, midwives, and teachers.

Additional sites include the M. W. Stringer Grand Lodge, which was used by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to strategize with civil rights leaders such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Robert Moses, and the NAACP State Office at 1072 John R. Lynch St., which was the office for Medgar Evers from 1955 until his death in 1963. The Lynch Street neighborhood around the campus was a mix of commercial, residential, and institutional resources that traditionally served Jackson’s Black residents.

Gibbs-Green Memorial Plaza at Jackson State. There is a black gate into the space marking the entrance to the courtyard with a brick lined walkway with benches and trees on either side.

photo by: JSU/University Communications

A view of Gibbs-Green Memorial Plaza at Jackson State University.

An aerial view of a campus with a central green space and various brick buildings on either side.

photo by: JSU/University Communications

An aerial view of Jackson State University.

Mt. Olive Cemetery suffers from years of deferred maintenance, which has left many of the markers and mausoleums deteriorated or missing. [However,] despite its current state, Mt. Olive is one of the most intact historic properties associated with the growth and development of the Black community and business district surrounding John R. Lynch Street in Jackson.

Preservation of the Jackson State campus will also preserve the cemetery, creating a public space that that is beautiful and inviting for all to visit and learn about the pioneers that paved the way for a greater Mississippi. Subsequently, it will encourage and support revitalization of the Lynch Street neighborhood with Jackson State as a community anchor.

What is one of the most inspiring places at Jackson State, and how does it influence this project?

The Gibbs-Green Memorial Plaza is a major focal point of our campus and a beautiful, serene place for pedestrians. The plaza is named in honor of Jackson State student Phillip Gibbs and high school student James Green, who died during a horrific event in 1970 when Jackson police opened fire on a crowd of students at Jackson State University. The Plaza commemorates this event, the lost lives, and serves as a gathering place and a space for activism for Jackson State and the community. The Plaza is one of many spaces at Jackson State and within the Lynch Street corridor that represent tragedy and triumph and the role of our campus, students, and leaders in the fight for civil rights and social justice. By preserving these spaces, which represent so much of Mississippi’s history, we hope they will continue to inspire our students and visitors.

A view of a plaza area at Jackson State. There are a series of flags in two concentric circular patterns with a brick building on the other side of the circle from the viewer.

photo by: JSU/University Communications

A common space at Jackson State University.

How do you envision John R. Lynch Street will serve as an economic catalyst for change within the community?

Jackson State and the Lynch Street corridor are authentic historic sites that represent the 19th- and 20th-century African American experience in Mississippi. The sites are associated with significant persons and events such as Freedom Summer, Medgar Evers, and so much more. We envision this historic corridor growing as a bustling tourist attraction, where students and the community come and learn about the history of Jackson State and the community.

How has historic preservation influenced your thinking about the role of the historic buildings on campus?

We value our history and feel that moving in the direction of becoming a historic district and Jackson State being listed on the National Register of Historic Places will help economic development. This will allow us to apply for grant funding and continue to preserve our historic sites both on and adjacent to the campus. We feel that this move will not only help Jackson State’s campus, but also the community that surrounds the university.

How will the plans for the campus highlight Black heritage and invigorate pride within the community?

Our goal is to have empirical evidence of what happened in the Black community in Jackson, Mississippi. Empirical evidence includes buildings, records, oral histories, and spaces such as cemeteries that tell the story of our community. By saving these spaces, records, and places, we will be preserving the history of Black people for generations to come. If we do not try and preserve the sites, then this history could be lost forever.

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Monique Robinson is a graduate student in architecture and historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. In the Summer of 2021 she was an intern with the National Trust's HBCU Cultural Heritage Stewardship Initiative.

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