Exhibition Provides Historical Examination of African American Baptists

The Delta Cultural Center will host a grand opening celebration Saturday.

Black and white photo of Rev. Elias Camp Morris
Photo courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System.

Arkansas minister Elias Camp Morris became president of the National Baptist Convention, the largest denomination of Black Christians in the country, in 1895. As a leader in the Black community, he often served as a liaison between Black and white communities at the state and national level, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. 

The life of Rev. Morris is highlighted in a new exhibition at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena called Building for Tomorrow: Elias Camp Morris and the Black Baptists in the Era of Jim Crow. While Morris was an acclaimed figure during his lifetime, he is largely overlooked today, curator Drew Ulrich says. The exhibit aims to educate visitors about Morris’ work and the centrality of churches to the lives of African Americans. 

“Churches emerged as more than just a place of worship, they were really the epicenter of community life and collective social welfare,” Ulrich says.  

Born into slavery in Georgia, Morris eventually became a freedman who learned to read and write, completed a cobbler apprenticeship and attended Nashville Normal and Theological Institute in Tennessee.

He became a licensed Baptist preacher in 1874 and three years later, he settled in Helena, Ark., where he pursued careers in politics and the church. Morris was the pastor of Centennial Baptist Church and organized the Phillips, Lee and Monroe counties’ Black Baptist association. 

Postcard featuring Centennial Baptist Church at Helena (Phillips County); circa 1890s.
Postcard featuring Centennial Baptist Church at Helena (Phillips County); circa 1890s. Courtesy of Shane Williams.

He also served as the secretary of the Black Arkansas Baptist State Convention. Morris became president in 1882 and held the post for 35 years. As president, he oversaw the creation of a denominational newspaper and helped establish a Black seminary in Little Rock, which later became Arkansas Baptist College. Morris was also an important leader in the Arkansas Republican Party.

“He really formulated and set a gold standard for what a Black cleric, or a cleric in general, should be to their community — not just a religious leader, but a civic leader and responsible for not only for their congregation’s spiritual salvation, but also their earthly or temporal salvation as well, and using the church to create agencies to assure or facilitate that,” Ulrich says.

Morris founded the Helena Negro Business League in 1902. He also joined the National Negro Business League and became a close associate of its leader, Booker T. Washington. In 1908, Washington delivered a speech at Morris’ church while standing behind a podium that is included in the Delta Cultural Center’s exhibition. 

A lifelike figure of Morris stands at the podium and guests can press buttons to listen to an actor share excerpts of Morris’ speeches. Another interactive feature allows visitors to listen to a choir singing songs that would have been sung at churches or meetings.

“It’s just a very wonderful colorful array of photos and texts that convey this very, very important state and national African American history,” Ulrich says.

The grand opening celebration for Building for Tomorrow: Elias Camp Morris and the Black Baptists in the Era of Jim Crow begins at 2 p.m. Aug. 28 at the Cherry Street Pavilion, which is located across the street from the Delta Cultural Center in Helena. Guest speakers include Rev. Melvin Owens, current vice president of the National Baptist Convention’s Southwest Region. 

The long-term exhibition will be on view at the Delta Cultural Center’s visitor’s center for at least the next five years. Admission is free and the center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. More information is available on the center’s Facebook page

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.