By Amanda Shelby
PICAYUNE — A piece of local African American history, the Picayune Colored Gymnasium, has been recognized as one of the 10 Most Endangered Historic Places in Mississippi for 2007 by the Mississippi Heritage Trust.
In an interview Friday, Carole Fortenberry said she hopes to get funding to “restore the building to its original design and purpose.” Fortenberry, who owns the building, would like to reopen the building as a community center for the city’s youth.
Fortenberry said the only discussions about the building so far have been about its preservation. Earlier this year it had been designated as a public nuisance. With that designation, it could have been demolished as part of the city’s program to deal with abandoned, rundown properties. However, the city has agreed to hold off to let renovation and preservation work to go forward.
Picayune native James “Lap” Baker, who was also instrumental in getting the gymnasium put on the list, said he is going to do everything he can to help renovate the building. Baker is a self-employed grant writer and planner who currently lives and works in Jackson, but says he comes home to Picayune every chance he gets.
Baker said the most important factor in repairing the building is to get community support for the project.
“What I would like to see is the entire community getting behind and showing support for this project. It won’t cost them one penny. All it will cost them is their support,” said Baker.
Picayune City Councilman Leavern Guy said Tuesday that so far the city has not been asked for help other than the request in February to delay demolition. However, Guy hopes that once a formal request is made, the city will help as much as is possible in the restoration of the building.
“It opened the door for many grant opportunities when (the gymnasium) was placed on the list. Now, the site is in a position to receive a lot of funding,” said Guy.
In a letter addressed to Baker that was provided to the Item, MHT Executive Director David Preziosi wrote, “Picayune has already lost so many of its historic structures that it would be a tragedy to lose anymore especially one that is important to the African American community and has played a role in so many of their lives.”
Built in 1930 by George Pickett and William “Bo” Sewell, the Picayune Colored Gymnasium was an important part of the African-American community for more than 60 years.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the two-story cinderblock structure housed the only full-sized basketball court available to African Americans on the Gulf Coast. Starting in the late 1940s, it was the site of home games for the George Washington Carver High School’s boys’ and girls’ basketball teams.
The building also provided the only recreational facilities in the area for the African American community, serving as the site of events such as dances, concerts and boxing tournaments. Boxers trained in the building, including Freddie Little, a Picayune native who held the WBC and WBA World Junior Middleweight Boxing Title in 1969 and who is now a member of the Nevada State Boxing Commission.
In 1960, the building was purchased by Fortenberry’s father Lemuel Jackson and converted into a nightclub named The Blue Note Café, but Fortenberry said it was more commonly known as “Bootsie Boys’ Place.”
There are stories that many historical figures have been at the Colored Gymnasium at one point or another. Guy said he had heard a rumor of a performance given once by James Brown, the legendary Rhythm & Blues singer.
Tuesday, Baker mentioned another R & B music legend, Sam Cook, who may have performed at the gymnasium.
The Colored Gymnasium closed its doors in the 1990s and has been vacant since. The building has not been maintained since its closure and suffered extensive damage to the roof and walls during Hurricane Katrina.
The Heritage Trust is a statewide non-profit organization established in 1992 that is dedicated to preserving cultural and historical resources in the state.
The 10 Most Endangered Historic Places are announced biennially in April. Chosen sites are included in a photographic exhibit that is displayed at different sites around the state. While the Trust does not provide funding for the restoration of the designated buildings, the organization hopes that if enough attention is called to the chosen sites, restoration and preservation of these places with high historical significance will result.
Since its inception in 1999, the program has helped save six sites, and 28 more are in the process of being preserved, said MHT Director of Programs Dawn Denton. In addition to those sites where efforts are being made to preserve them and those already saved, said Denton, there are 15 other sites on which no progress has been made. Only one site has been lost during the eight-year span of the program.
Baker said he is determined to see the effort to save the Colored Gymnasium through to its conclusion.
Amanda 5/2/07 “This will be a reality,” Baker said.