The work of Oberlin College alumni who, in 1964, volunteered to rebuild a Mississippi church that was destroyed by fire following a voter registration rally, has been commemorated with a new historical marker. The marker is part of a cultural initiative that honors the men and women who were a part of the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the 1950s and ’60s.
The marker was dedicated on January 17, the weekend before Martin Luther King’s birthday, with a ceremony at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Blue Mountain, Mississippi.
Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, founded by former slaves, was the first black church in Tippah County, Mississippi. The building was one of almost 40 churches that were burned or bombed in Mississippi during a six-month period in 1964. It was also active in voter registration efforts. Five Oberlin students were present at a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party voter registration rally featuring civil rights activist Fanny Lou Hamer the night the church was burned to the ground. In response, Oberlin Professor of Philosophy Paul Schmidt and his wife, Gail Baker Schmidt ’55, proposed to Oberlin’s student civil rights organization that they rebuild the church. The students raised the money and recruited students, faculty, and community members to rebuild the church during Christmas recess.
A team of nearly two dozen Oberlin students and three faculty members, along with a skilled contractor from Oberlin, traveled to the site to offer their skills, calling themselves Carpenters for Christmas. A volunteer engineer from Littleton, Massachusetts, and students from several other colleges joined in the rebuilding effort. For nearly two weeks, the volunteers labored alongside church members to rebuild the church from the foundation up. Between December 22 and Christmas Day, the team completed the foundation and erected four walls in time for Christmas services led by the church’s pastor, the Rev. John R. McDonald. They completed most of the church before leaving to return to school.
The marker takes its place on the Mississippi Freedom Trail—a virtual tour of the state that provides an in-depth look at the people and places that played a pivotal role in the fight for justice and equality. The first Freedom Trail markers were unveiled in 2011 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary and reunion of the 1961 Freedom Riders.
The idea for including Antioch church and Carpenters for Christmas was initiated by Matt Rinaldi ’69. Although he wasn’t enrolled at Oberlin at the time, Rinaldi participated in civil rights activities in the Deep South, and he was inspired by the Carpenters’ project when it made national headlines. Until now, there had been no Freedom Trail marker for any of the destroyed churches.
“The churches were the only places where civil rights meetings could be held, and all of the ones destroyed had held meetings to talk about voter registration,” says Carpenters volunteer Marcia Aronoff ’65. “We undertook the project so that the churches would know that there were people who would stand behind them and help them if there was retribution for their efforts. We were there to work, but we were also there to bear witness to the courage of local African Americans and the continuing need for our democracy to perfect itself.”
Rinaldi enlisted the help of Aronoff and fellow Carpenter Joe Gross ’67 in raising the money needed to fabricate the sign, about $10,000. Support came from former Carpenters and other Oberlin alumni, as well as a contribution from the Oberlin College president’s office. It is one of two privately funded markers on the Freedom Trail.
Aronoff says she is pleased with the content of the marker, particularly its statement that the church was destroyed following a voting rights rally. “At the time, the official police position was that it must have been an electrical short, that it was not arson,” she says.
To date, 16 markers have been installed on the Mississippi Freedom Trail.
Marcia Aronoff ’65 201-865-2202
Joe Gross ’67 510-499-5767
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