Thursday, January 12, 2012
Rust College holds press conference: Airliewood gift
By SUE WATSON
Rust College President David Beckley held a formal press conference December 28 to announce the estate gift to the college of the Airliewood mansion and property.
The college was sold the property for a nominal fee by owners Joe and Kathy Overstreet, who purchased the property in 2002 as a project. They made major restorations to the 153-year-old, two-story mansion containing 5,000 square feet, added 4,000 square feet of living space, and made other improvements on the grounds.
Beckley said this is one of three estates the college has in its portfolio.
“Welcome to Airliewood,” he said in opening remarks about gift of the historic mansion that was built by slave labor and on cotton money.
The mansion was used as a home and headquarters for Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War on his push through Mississippi to take Vicksburg.
Beckley said Grant’s troops also camped on present Rust College property which was also used as an auction site for slaves before the war. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the United States on January 1, 1863.
The property may find many uses. Among those considered are a guest house, a museum, an event center, and as an educational outdoor classroom, Beckley said.
Dr. Debayo Moyo asked Beckley to comment on the historical connection.
Beckley restated that Union troops occupied the Rust College site which historically had served as the site of a slave auction before the Civil War.
“We had nothing to do with that,” he said, meaning today’s African Americans have not experienced slavery directly.
“We want to move forward,” he said. “There are a number of (historic) houses built after the Civil War (in Holly Springs).”
Sharon Goodman-Hill, with Rust College Radio WURC FM 88.1, asked Beckley about other potential uses.
He mentioned a possible fund-raising use and a place to house collections now at Rust and elsewhere.
She asked him to share the excitement he had in developing the transfer of the property to Rust College.
Beckley said he is excited about the possibilities, as is the college board of trustees, but the fund-raising of the $750,000 in a short time, a requirement to receive the gift, “was a challenge.”
The Overstreets approached the college in October 2011, he said.
Another reporter asked Beckley about the irony in the history of the house – being built by African Americans who were slaves, now being given as a gift to African Americans.
“In a sense, it’s redemption,” Beckley said. “Yes, our foreparents labored to build the place and in cotton. I’m not saying this to brag, but I think this is redemption for this to go to an historic black college.”
Mayor Andre’ DeBerry was asked to say a word about the transaction. He said he sees a great educational opportunity since the property is adjacent to the high school.
“People will see some of the history they read about and how the whole state was changed through the Civil War and seizure of Vicksburg,” he said. “For them (Rust College) to be able to pull this off is a major coup. And for the Overstreets and the type of citizens they are.... It is a great day for the city, as well.
“It gives people an opportunity to see history and to be a part of it and to understand the Civil War and Civil Rights – the two most significant events in world history. We have to start to understand it. It happened.”
“It wasn’t the happiest thing; blacks were beaten,” Hill said, “but it happened and we have to accept it.”
“You have to understand history and how we played it out,” DeBerry said. “It is our history. We are here to enjoy it, the house built by our people.”
“It is definitely a testament to the race and our history,” Hill said.
Beckley answered a question from a Commercial Appeal reporter, “Do people understand?”
“It is a part of Holly Springs’ history,” Beckley said. “The question is, will they accept that we own it? I think it’s an opportunity to bring the Holly Springs community together and appreciate all the contributions of our citizens, even during slavery. It is an opportunity to receive valuable property with a rich history to both African Americans and the majority community.”
News outlets present at the Rust College press conference included the Commercial Appeal, Rust College, Memphis Channel 3 News and The South Reporter.
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