Natchez’s B’nai Israel, Marks Rosenwald School Get Major State Preservation Grants

Concert at B’nai Israel, February 2016

Temple B’nai Israel in Natchez will receive a large grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, to help its preservation efforts.

The department’s board met on Dec. 6 to award $3 million in Community Heritage Preservation grants to 17 preservation and restoration projects. Another grant with Jewish significance is going to the Marks Rosenwald School, one of the few remaining Mississippi schools from a massive effort by the Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald.

The Community Heritage Preservation Grant program, authorized and funded by the Mississippi Legislature, helps preserve and restore historic courthouses and schools and, in Certified Local Government communities, other historic properties. Over the life of the program the department has awarded more than $37 million to 300 projects.

“The Legislature has saved hundreds of significant Mississippi properties through this program,” said MDAH director Katie Blount. “The Department of Archives and History is grateful for the Legislature’s support and pleased to be able to help preserve these local treasures.”

Temple B’nai Israel has an agreement with the Jackson-based Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life to assume ownership when the small congregation is no longer viable as a synagogue. The Institute plans to make the building available as a community space for public events, such as performing arts. There will also be exhibit space detailing the rich Jewish history of Natchez.

The first phase of the project was completed last year with the construction of a ramp for the disabled. Nora Katz, ISJL’s director of heritage and interpretation, told the Natchez Democrat that this new grant for $286,384 will “fund the most significant steps in that process, which is replacing the electrical and mechanical systems in the building and installing a fire suppression system.”

An updated electrical system will enable a good sound system, as well as upgrades to air conditioning.

The Natchez Jewish community was established with a burial society in 1840, and the congregation was the first to be chartered in Mississippi, in 1848. Their first building was dedicated in 1872 at the corner of Washington and Commerce. In November 1903, the building burned in what was believed to be an electrical fire. The current building was dedicated in March 1905.

“Knowing that our overarching goal is to make the temple a gathering space for the City of Natchez, we know replacing the electrical system is going to be a huge part of making that happen,” Katz said.

The Natchez Institute, which works with ISJL on the B’nai Israel project, also received a grant for $243,375 for roof repair on its facility, and to finally take care of some damage from a 1998 storm.

The Marks Rosenwald School will receive $198,315 for the replication of windows and doors, interior rehabilitation and utilities improvement.

Marks’ Old African American High School is one of the few remaining Rosenwald Schools in Mississippi, and is one of the oldest historic properties left standing in the African American community.

The building was constructed in 1922, one of 557 schools in Mississippi assisted by the Rosenwald Fund. The fund would provide seed money to match locally-raised money and labor, providing African-American schools in areas where none had existed or were severely underfunded. Of the Mississippi schools, only about 15 still stand, with half of those heavily altered or deteriorated.

Most of the over 5,000 Rosenwald Schools built throughout the South closed in the 1960s after desegregation. Some of the remaining buildings are being preserved and turned into community centers.

Grant awards are paid on a reimbursable basis upon the successful completion of the entire project or at the time of the completion of pre-established phases of the project. Prior to application, all buildings must have been designated Mississippi Landmarks.