Gulfside center bridges segregation era, 21st century

Feb. 16, 2005

A UMNS Feature
By Linda Green*

When segregation was legal in the United States, blacks in the former Methodist Church were barred from white sanctuaries, schools and retreat centers in their own denomination.

Besides historically black colleges and churches, African-American Methodists had few places where they could assemble for cultural events or educational and religious training.

Their most prominent gathering place was Gulfside Assembly in Waveland, Miss. Founded in 1923 by black people, this multicultural conference, retreat and training center became an important destination during segregation.

When the Central Jurisdiction — the racially segregated entity for blacks in the Methodist Church — existed from 1939 to 1968, Gulfside was a haven for blacks, says Marian Martin, director of the center for the past 17 years. While whites also attended programs and events at Gulfside, African Americans could not go to white camp centers

Today, the assembly is the only place remaining that was specifically related to the Central Jurisdiction, Martin said.

Gulfside played an important role in developing leadership in the Central Jurisdiction, according to Jessie M. Robinson, a historian from Houston. “Had it not been for Gulfside, we would not have been able to bring to the table capable leadership to function when the church moved from (the) 1939 union to the 1968 merger,” she said.

The center’s programming was patterned after the Chautauqua Movement in Ohio and New York, which provided cultural, missional and educational training to people who could not go other places.

Bishop Robert E. Jones, the first black general superintendent of the Methodist Church, bought the property called Gulfside after realizing that African-American church leaders needed a place for renewal, training and worship, and recreation. Over the years, the campground became not only a place of official church gatherings but a center for education, camping and more.

The retreat center was the first place in Mississippi where blacks could swim and walk on the beach. It hosted meetings of blacks and whites during the civil rights movement, and became a haven for Methodists and civil rights groups.

The Gulfside School predates public education for black children in Waveland. The center’s programming provided the foundation for today’s Schools of Christian Mission, held by the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

Because of segregation and African Americans not being welcomed to concert halls, Gulfside also hosted concerts of black entertainers.

The Central Jurisdiction era would have been different without Gulfside. “We would have been like a fish out of water, floundering, like a person with no moorings,” Robinson said. “It became our moorings, a rock and an oasis where we could go for renewal. If we had not had it, we certainly would not be able to function in the United Methodist Church as we do now.”

Today, the United Methodist Church has 423,456 African-American members, including 12 bishops and 2,500 black U.S. congregations.

The formation of the United Methodist Church in 1968 brought the integration of church and public facilities, and Gulfside was no longer the only assembly ground where blacks were welcome. As a result, it began to deteriorate, helped along by Hurricane Camille in 1969. “There was no rush within the denomination to repair it, restore it or to keep it,” Martin said.

Gulfside’s historical significance to the Central Jurisdiction impelled groups in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi to help keep the assembly afloat. The center’s mission was expanded, and Gulfside became a resource that people of all races could use for education and training. United Methodists from many conferences support the center in a variety of ways today.

Open year round, Gulfside is used by local churches, boards and agencies of the denomination, university personnel, government staff and more. Family reunions, banquets, picnics and weddings are also held there, Martin said.

One of the assembly’s goals is to provide programs to bridge the gap between people of many cultures, languages and traditions in a modern atmosphere of learning and living.  Officials also want to launch educational endeavors to make young people today aware of Gulfside’s history and dispel the myth that today’s Gulfside is only an enclave for African Americans. “We are for all people,” Martin said.

Having a trained staff and updating and expanding the existing structure and grounds are essential to achieving these goals and leading the assembly into the new century “with things that are relevant to today while maintaining the historical significance.”

In an effort to further preserve and expand what is called a treasure, Gulfside launched a 10-year, $17 million capital campaign, with the theme “Moving Forward.” Assembly trustees have already committed prayerfully to the financial success of this campaign, which they hope the entire church will support. Gulfside is an Advance Special of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and can be supported through “Gulfside Assembly, Waveland,” No. 761337-2, or “Gulfside Assembly, Capital, Waveland,” No. 760235-6.

Gulfside’s long-range vision is to become debt-free and self-supporting; restore existing buildings; develop senior housing; establish a Head Start program and a writers’ colony; develop a center for archives and history on the black church; host interns; and be a center of nurture and renewal for activities of missionaries and long-term supporters of United Methodist mission work. Phase one of the project, a new chapel, is under way, and $2 million in gifts and pledges for new construction, refurbishment and renovation have been raised.

In August, a building named in honor of Bishop Alfred Norris will be dedicated. Other buildings at Gulfside are being renovated to meet the challenges of the 21st century without losing the spiritual and historical significance of the past.

“We do not want to get bigger, we want to get better,” Martin said. “We are experiencing a renaissance.”

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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