July 10, 2019 10:17:36 AM
Since 2012, the R.E. Hunt Museum and Cultural Center inside the old Hunt High School building has played host to hundreds of historical artifacts. Hanging on the walls and displayed around the room were documents, letters, photographs, an old washboard and sewing machine, and a typewriter that once belonged to Carlotta Walls LaNair, one of the Little Rock Nine who desegregated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957.
Decades of history is now inside a climate-controlled storage unit in Meridian, safe from the elements after an EF-3 tornado ripped the roof off the Hunt building in February. Hunt Museum volunteers and archivists from the Billups-Garth Archives at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson and Mississippi University for Women scrambled to salvage what was damaged by the storm.
Museum board president Johnny Johnson worried that's where all that history would stay for the three or more years it is expected to take to restore Hunt.
Thankfully, he said, the Columbus Municipal School District has opened the doors of Union Academy, which is currently being renovated in anticipation of hosting the students and after school programs formerly at Hunt, to be a temporary home for at least some of the museum's artifacts.
"When we heard it would take years to get Hunt back up to shape, we thought it would be best to have a place for the museum in the meantime so people wouldn't lose interest," Johnson said. "And the (CMSD) board has been real cooperative with us as far as getting it together."
There are currently no fixed plans for the location or opening date of the relocated museum. Johnson and other museum board members will meet with CMSD Superintendent Cherie Labat next month to decide how much space the museum needs.
"We won't be able to display everything, but we'll be able to display a lot of it," Johnson said. "And since kids will be in the building, they can learn from that history. And it's important history, too. They need to know it. That's what this museum is about."
A long, slow process
When working with other administrators to find a place for the 25 Columbus Success Academy (alternative school) students displaced after the Feb. 23 storm damaged Hunt, Labat admitted she, at first, overlooked the museum.
"I completely forgot about the museum that was in the school," she said. "And then someone said to me, if we put everything in storage for however long it takes to repair the building, that's not really a museum. So we're working to find it a place at Union Academy along with the students."
The Union Academy building in Columbus, which hasn't been used as an educational facility in 10 years, is on track to be open this August in time for the 2019-20 school year. In her monthly report to the CMSD board of trustees Monday night, Labat told board members the final steps have been taken to prepare the building for students, teachers and personnel.
"The wiring for alarms, internet and the intercom were installed today," she said. "The flooring is going in this week and then all we have left is to finish the plumbing and finally, paint. We're on track to have it ready by the beginning of the school year."
Meanwhile, CMSD still has not put a price tag on the repairs needed for Hunt to be restored. Historic preservation standards are contributing to that delay.
Because Hunt is a Mississippi Landmark, certain specific measures must be taken to rebuild the building back according to the standards of its time. That requires, among other things, an architect with experience restoring historic buildings and a lot of patience, said CMSD Board President Jason Spears.
"We really can't quantify the cost of repairs or even the cost of contracting until we hear from architects," he said. "We have a draft of a (request for quotations) going out and we're requesting bids from architects with experience with historical buildings, but there's no specific timeline or cost for the actual construction yet."
Labat said she, along with Spears and other members of CMSD administration, have been meeting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Mississippi Department of Archives and History officials to work out the most efficient and sensible way to manage construction on the Hunt building. CMSD board members hope to choose an architect by mid-August.
"We're meeting with FEMA (Tuesday) and we're doing a walk-through of Hunt later this week," Labat said. "It's a slow process. I gave a projection of January for construction beginning and the FEMA representative laughed. The (MDAH) representative didn't laugh, but he did say I was being optimistic. So it's definitely going to be a long process."
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