“It is not about the buildings; it’s about the mission,” said Cheryl Thompson about Gulfside Assembly, a place full of history.
- By Maurice Singleton
“When I think of this anniversary, I think about our theme: One Hundred Years of Advocacy and Resilience,” said Cheryl Thompson, anniversary chairperson. “Over these 100 years, Gulfside Assembly has been an advocate for the underserved. It started 100 years ago with Bishop Robert Elijah Jones starting a school for poor boys here in Mississippi, where education was not available to many of them.
“They came here and received formal education, but in addition to that they learned life skills,” said Thompson. “They were able to grow their own food.”
Thompson said that local tradesmen mentored the boys and taught them how to make cinder blocks, which were used to build the dormitory, cafeteria, classrooms and meeting facilities that made up Gulfside.
Thompson recalled the struggles of Dr. Jones, principally being a black man buying property on the beach in Waveland. Dr. Jones, who was a fair-skinned man and taken for white, arrived in Waveland in the company of white Methodist ministers, and the land was sold to them.
“That says a couple of things,” said Thompson. “First of all, they would not have sold it to someone who looked like me or my husband. They assumed that he was white.
“That being said, those other pastors with him, who were Caucasian, demonstrated to us that we were not in this struggle without help,” Thompson recalled. “They knew what was going on, and they came down here to help him.”
He purchased 300 acres, cleared the land, restored the building on the grounds, and converted the 22-bedroom house into a dormitory to accommodate the boys.
Over the years, Gulfside evolved into an active retreat center for students, adults, and clergy. During the 1950s and 1960s, it served as a safe meeting place for civil rights leaders to discuss strategy.
For the African American citizens in Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and surrounding areas, it was a place to picnic and swim during the summer.
However, like many structures on the Gulf Coast, Gulfside was impacted by hurricanes, with Hurricane Katrina destroying all the buildings on the property in 2005.
“It is not about the buildings; it’s about the mission,” Thompson told the audience at the ribbon-cutting as Gulfside starts its next 100 years. She said that Gulfside is moving forward. “Over the years, Gulfside has struggled, but we have always survived.”
Clarence Harris grew up in Waveland and visited Gulfside to enjoy the beach there during the summer. He said that the significance of Gulfside didn’t register with him when he played on the beaches there as a child.
“It was a place we could go,” said Harris. “It wasn’t until I was in college at Mississippi Valley that I came to appreciate it. We came back to Gulfside for a field trip. To see the faces of the other students as we walked on the beach, looking out over the gulf – they were amazed by Gulfside. It was a great experience.”
Harris is very encouraged by the Gulfside exhibit at WGZM: “It is really nice. Everybody should see it. Cheryl and her committee have done an excellent job getting so much that shows the activities and programs at Gulfside.
“I would hope that everybody in Hancock County would visit the Ground Zero Museum and see this exhibit,” Harris added. “It is excellent! I know that the hurricane probably destroyed everything, but they’ve done an outstanding job coming up with so much of the history in photographs.”
Gulfside is based on the Chautauqua pillars of Religion, Education, Arts and Recreation. The mission includes annual college tours and mission study, a senior Lunch and Learn Series, a webinar series for youth, programs, musical events and concerts, a community garden, an event titled the “It Takes a Church to Raise a Parent” educational series, and other programs.
The exhibit includes banners displaying photos of events that took place at the center over the past 100 years. It also includes a history of Dr. Jones and his first wife, Valena C. Jones, who died at the age of 44. A local school and church are named after her.
The official celebration will be held over a three-day period, April 27 - 29. Guests are invited to tour the WGZM exhibit on April 27 from 3:00 to 6:00 pm. A meet-and-greet will follow at Studio Waveland from 6:00 to 8:00 pm.
A golf tournament fundraiser is scheduled for Friday, April 28, at 8:00 am, and a gala will follow that evening at 6:00 pm at the Community Hall in Bay St. Louis.
On Saturday, April 29, a community service project and closing worship will take place at Gulfside Assembly from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm.
To purchase tickets for the gala, or for more information on the weekend of activities, call (228) 206-1750.
The exhibit will be on display at WGZM until May 6. The museum hours are 10:00 am to 3:00 pm, Tuesday through Saturday.
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