African-American History

The Vernon Parish area of Louisiana attracted rugged pioneers and diverse cultural groups, such as Native Americans, African-Americans, Scot-Irish settlers, and remnants of Spanish colonies. Surviving together, this area has rich history of those seeking a better way of life. There are many stories of the Underground Railroad and the struggles of African-American slaves, workers, and settlers to the region.

The Underground Railroad in Vernon Parish

The exact date of the arrival of the first African-American into present day Vernon Parish and Leesville is unknown. It is known, however, that Ambrose Lecompte, the first documented European landowner was a slave owner. And, although the area did not have a lot of large plantations to compare with those found along the Mississippi or Red Rivers, some of the settlers in our area did own slaves.

Local legend has it that Holly Grove Methodist Church served as a stop on the underground railroad in its early years. Since Mexico owned Texas until 1836 and had declared slavery illegal, any slaves who could get across the Sabine River were considered free. Add to this the traditions of the Methodist church which opposed slavery and the fact that one of the four main crossings of the Sabine was very close at Burr Ferry, and the possibility becomes very reasonable.

Pleasant Hill Baptist Church

When the Nona Mills Lumber Company came from Jasper, Texas to the Leesville community, they were led by Mr. George “Rose” Ferguson, General Manager of the Leesville offices. With him came many employees, including a large population of black workers.

The company provided homes for these workers in an area called the Nona Mills Quarters, originally located at the present site of the Vernon Parish School Board, East Leesville Elementary, and the Leesville High School Stadium. The mill itself was located between this site and downtown Leesville.

Finding no African-American churches in the area, the workers held church services in their homes until Mr. Ferguson gave them some land and lumber to build their own house of worship, which they named Pleasant Hill Baptist Church on September 1, 1899.

Over the years, the church has moved several times. In 1911 it moved to a site near the present-day Leesville Temple Lodge; then later into the U.S.O. building at the corner of Simpson and Nona Street. When the U.S.O. location was destroyed by fire on February 12, 1958, services were held at the Vernon High School until 1959 when a new church was completed at 1100 Nona St. The church grew so much that it eventually necessitated one last move to its current location on Market St. To honor long-time pastor, Reverend M.W. Harrison, Market Street was renamed to MW. Harrison Street on May 12. 1994.

Other early churches were the New Willow Baptist Church organized in 1900, the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in 1912, and the St. Paul Baptist Church in 1925.

Garden of Memories Cemetery

The Garden of Memories Cemetery, located east of Kurthwood Rd. where it meets Hwy. 171, was secured in the early 1940’s by a group of black pastors who served the African-American community at the time. Today, it is funded and maintained by the Leesville City Wide Singing Convention.

Vernon Training School

Training schools were created in 1911 to provide each parish with a central public high school which would offer a greater curriculum for young African-Americans. The Vernon Training School in Leesville was built in the 1920s for this purpose. It was originally located on Gladys Street where the present day Martin Luther King Community Center is located and the first principal was Professor Booker.

In 1953, the school was relocated to 1410 Nona Street and renamed Vernon High School since it served grades one through twelve. That school operated until 1969 when parish schools were desegregated. Years later, the buildings were updated and became Vernon Middle School serving fifth and sixth grade students of all races.