The Burns M. E. Church was originally known as Sewell Chapel, built in 1869-70 on the current site. It was Oxford's first African American church and was constructed on the edge of Freedmen's Town. The one-story, three bay, brick masonry center aisle church building with Gothic Revival influence was constructed in 1910. The church had been renamed Burns in 1900. The congregation outgrew the original wood structure.
When the Burns congregation outgrew this building in 1978, they sold it to a local couple who used it for office buildings, and gave it the name "The Belfry." Oxford novelist John Grisham used the building for a while, and donated it to the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation for use by the Oxford Development Association to promote cultural and historical African American events.
The bell tower. The original bell was removed to the location of the new building.
Recently, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded a $500,000 economic initiative grant for the project. The Oxford Board of Aldermen voted October 19 to accept the funds and awarded a contract to local firm Howorth and Associates (who have done other historical renovations in the community). Phase 2 of the project is supposed to be completed sometime in 2011. This involves the restoration of the exterior of the building. A photograph on the Howorth website indicates that the interior was totally gutted in phase one stabilization, and the roof replaced.
This location is near the downtown square, and considered prime developmental real estate. That the church has not been demolished for the lot (as it apparently almost was twice) is testimony to a lot of work by a lot of people. It says that sometimes, history and culture are more important than another condo in Oxford.