Neighbors working to restore Batesville landmark

BATESVILLE, AR (KAIT) – A group of volunteers is working to restore a building in Batesville that is closely tied to their heritage.

Black families in Batesville used to send their children to the Ethel O. Miller School during the days of segregation.

When the school system integrated, the Miller gym became a gathering place for local kids and has since seen better days, but that is set to change.

Several former students and their relatives have formed the Ethel O. Miller Historical Preservation Association. The group's latest project involves restoring and reopening the Miller gym.

"I would love to see this place just like it was when I was a kid," Sheila Avant said.

When she was growing up, Avant spent hours at the Miller gym, like many of the black children in Batesville.

"Back in the days of segregation, we didn't have much," she said, "and so this was a place that we can call our own."

Now, Avant is working to reopen the gym as a community center not just for black families but for the entire community.

"Kids coming here any time of the day or up to the evening, it was always supervised," Avant recalled about the gym. "I want to see that again. I want to see that happen again."

October will mark a year since Avant took on the restoration project with other members of the historical preservation group.

Most of the improvements they have made have been cosmetic, but one of the most major achievements came after a local electrician helped rewire the electrical system and get all the lights working again.

"The love I guess is what was lacking in this building – the commitment, the love and appreciation of it," Ralph Grant said. "If we get it in the condition where kids can feel safe again, that's all I want to do."

Grant has helped ready the building for the first Miller School reunion in years.

He was one of the five graduates in 1966, the last class before the Batesville school system integrated.

He hopes the reunion, which starts August 31, will inspire others to give back and keep the project going.

"It's not some kind of thing that we're going to do for two or three days and then we'll ride off," he said. "When it gets back into good condition then I will leave. I'll let the younger people have it because it's up to you all."

The Ethel O. Miller Historical Preservation Association recently achieved its official nonprofit status. It is currently accepting donations of time, money or labor from anyone who can or would like to help complete the community center project.

"We have just a few people right now working with us and volunteering their time, and that's encouraging," Avant added. "One more person walking through the door won't be turned away. That's for sure."

To contact the historical preservation group, call 870-569-6774 or "like" its Facebook page by clicking here.

Any correspondence or monetary donations can also be sent to the Ethel O. Miller Historical Preservation Association, P.O. Box 2272, Batesville, Ark., 72503.

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