New retreat center nearing completion at historic 'Franklinton Center at Bricks'

New retreat center nearing completion at historic 'Franklinton Center at Bricks'

June 30, 2007
Written by Daniel Hazard

$1.5 million fundraising effort underway

For decades in the rural South, the "Franklinton Center at Bricks" in Whitakers, N.C., was one of the few places where black and white people could meet and eat together.

Now, as a UCC-related conference, retreat and educational facility in eastern North Carolina — about 70 miles northeast of Raleigh — the former-plantation campus is raising funds to strengthen its justice-oriented programming.

The Fund for Franklinton Center is building a $1.5-million retreat facility to enhance the Center's capacity for hospitality and programming to regional and national groups. The new facility, with 22 sleeping rooms, is expected to be completed by July on the Center's 200-acre campus. It will compliment an existing 70-room dormitory, but with more conveniences.

"This is a new modern facility that has handicap-accessible, motel-type rooms, with double beds, private baths, internet service and phones in each room," says the Rev. Ervin Milton, director of the Franklin Center. "It will have the kind of modern conveniences that many people want and need at a retreat center."

On the contrary, the older facility is not handicap accessible and guests must use community showers.

"The present dormitory will sleep 70 comfortably, but you have to go down the hall to the bathroom," Milton explains. "For many people, it's comfortable. But for many people, it's not comfortable. This became a real issue and a real need."

In addition, a new, comfortable fellowship hall is part of the construction.

"It will further enhance the draw," Milton says. "It will attract new and larger groups in the future."

'A great opportunity'

The Franklinton Center traces its beginnings to the founding of the Franklinton Christian College, started by the James O'Kelly Christian Church in 1871 to train black leaders for local churches. Similarly, Julia Bricks established the Bricks Junior College in 1895 through a gift of land and endowment to the American Missionary Association (AMA). The two educational facilities merged in 1954.

Located within the bounds of the UCC's Southern Conference, the Franklinton Center at Bricks is managed and staffed by the AMA's successor body, Justice and Witness Ministries, one of the UCC's four national Covenanted Ministries.

The Fund for Franklinton Center was launched about a year ago, with seed gifts of $150,000 from JWM and $100,000 from the UCC's Local Church Ministries. The largest individual donor wishes to keep the gift anonymous, but has provided generously from the proceeds of a house sale, Milton says.

To date, about $500,000 has been raised, but early construction was given a go-ahead early this year, thanks to a $1 million loan from the UCC's Cornerstone Fund. Future contributions to the Franklinton Center Fund will help retire that debt.

Gordon Gilles, who manages the Cleveland-based Cornerstone Fund, says the project was a perfect fit for Cornerstone's primary mission, which is to provide dollars for church-related building projects, especially when alternative forms of financing may prove difficult.

"Too often, our churches and related entities don't have access to traditional financing from other entities," Gilles says. "When you go to the [Franklinton Center] campus and realize how much more they can do with expanded facilities, it is just amazing. It's a real salute to Justice and Witness Ministries and to the leadership of Franklinton Center. And it's a great opportunity for the entire denomination."

The Rev. Linda Jaramillo, JWM's executive minister, says Franklinton Center has been a "source of courage, education and spiritual comfort for decades" for those working the front lines for racial justice.

"That's why it's imperative that Franklinton Center's place in history not be forgotten and that its future within and beyond the UCC be strengthened," she says.

Buy-a-brick for 'Bricks'

"Franklinton Center Day" is still observed each year during the first week of August when hundreds of members of the UCC's Eastern North Carolina Association gather to honor the institution's racial and economic justice legacy as a spiritual center during the Civil Rights Movement.

In preparation for this summer's observance on Aug. 4, the Fund for Franklinton Center is launching a second-phase of its fundraising campaign where individuals and churches can "purchase" an engraved brick for the Center with a contribution of at least $200. The engraved bricks will comprise the sidewalk outside the new facility.

"We are planning to sell 500 bricks by Franklinton Center Day, which would translate into $100,000," Milton says.

The Franklinton Center continues to play a significant role in the education and nurture of church leaders, justice advocates, young people, and community leaders. Fundamental concerns such as rural justice, community development, environmental racism, and workers' rights are woven into its programmatic focus.

Milton says, ironically, Franklinton Center survived for decades because it was uniquely integrated on racial lines. However, as more places became open to integrated gatherings, the Center's importance became less apparent.

"In the 60s, the Center almost died," Milton says. "Then, for several years, it was in a rebuilding mode. Now, it's becoming a multi-cultural space, a safe space where people are feeling spiritual renewal. And that's the thing that we want to build on." 

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