The Oberlin Sanctuary Project

Carpenters for Christmas: Civil Rights in Mississippi

Above: The "Carpenters for Christmas" and other volunteers raise a wall for the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Ripley, Mississippi, December 1964.

In December 1964, Oberlin faculty, students and a local contractor traveled to Ripley, Mississippi to rebuild a Black church that burned after a Mississippi Free Democratic Party rally was held there on October 30. The rally was led by Fannie Lou Hamer, who spoke in support of Lyndon Johnson’s candidacy. Five Oberlin College students were in attendance at the meeting as volunteers to register Black voters. At about 3 a.m., a fire at the church was reported by a neighbor, but when firefighters arrived they stated that the church could not be saved. The media reported the fire as accidental, but the Antioch Missionary Baptist church in Ripley was one of about forty Black churches destroyed in a six-month period in Mississippi in 1964. All of the churches had held civil rights-related events.

 On November 4, the day after Lyndon Johnson’s election, Oberlin faculty member Paul Schmidt and his wife Gail Baker Schmidt, Class of 1947, conceived of the idea to organize a construction crew made up of students, faculty and other volunteers to rebuild the church in Ripley during the holiday break. In Ripley, students stayed at the homes of members of the church, which created trouble for the hosts. Although students took rigid security precautions in guarding the church site at night, two incidents occurred in which local whites, including the Tippah County deputy sheriff, chased carpenters. One Oberlin student was arrested, and had to be bailed out by the church minister on Christmas night. The carpenters worked all day, every day between December 22 and January 3, with some staying longer.

The Carpenters for Christmas project, sponsored jointly by the Oberlin Action for Civil Rights (OACR) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), attracted national and world-wide publicity. In two weeks of work, the group completed the entire shell and roofing of the church at Ripley. Students and other volunteers from both North and South journeyed to the site to join the project, and contributions of over $10,000 from hundreds of supporters across the nation ensured the financial success of the project.

The Mississippi Freedom Trail was created in 2011 to commemorate the people and places in the state that played a pivotal role in the American Civil Rights Movement. A historical marker for the destruction of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Ripley in October of 1964, and the role of Oberlin's Carpenters for Christmas in rebuilding it the following December, is one of the markers that stand on the Mississippi Trail. The markers were unveiled in conjunction with the 50th anniversary and reunion of the 1961 Freedom Riders.

Additional Resources

Oberlin and Activism Digital Collection, Oberlin College Archives

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