By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – The largest high school in Mississippi now covers 14 buildings on a 75-acre tract of land between Cliff Gookin Boulevard and the Natchez Trace Parkway.
That campus, which opened in 1992, was where those whose lives have been touched by Tupelo High School gathered on Saturday to celebrate 100 years and one month after the Tupelo School District district dedicated its first building designed exclusively for a high school. It has become the showcase of that district and has proven large enough to hold the roughly 2,000 students who now attend the city’s lone public high school.
The first building to hold Tupelo High did not have that luxury. Built for $26,000 and dedicated on March 6, 1914, the two-story brick and stone structure near the current location of Milam school had 10 classrooms, a large study hall with a small stage and an immense basement for restrooms, playrooms and a football and basketball dressing room.
The school, however, “found itself overcrowded almost on opening day,” according to a history of the school district compiled by retired English teacher Mary Eleanor Long in 1962. Thirteen years later, it was demolished and replaced with a $125,000 structure which the Daily Journal then called “the most magnificent building in the state.”
Among the hallmarks of the new building were an an auditorium with approximately 1,000 seats, a gym and a library that no longer had to serve as a part-time classroom. The impressive new facility, however, suffered severe damage less than a decade after its opening when a tornado struck Tupelo on April 5, 1936.
Its renovations included changes to the main entrance, auditorium and gymnasium. They resulted in the facility occupied today by sixth-grade students. It would continue to serve as Tupelo High School until the fall of 1961.
The building took in new students in 1947, following the annexation of East Tupelo. Juniors and seniors from East Tupelo Attendance Center – now known as Lawhon school – were transferred to Tupelo High as the school district saw its enrollment grow 40 percent.
Eventually, the city needed a new high school campus, which it built for $994,000 on 27 acres along what is now Varsity Drive. Opened on Sept. 5, 1961, that building now holds Tupelo Middle School. It also is where the first black students attended Tupelo High School when the city’s schools were integrated. Rachel Holloman was the first black graduate from THS in 1968 under the Freedom of Choice Desegregation plan. Full integration followed in 1970.
The new campus held high school students for 30 years, but the need for more space persisted. In 1990, Tupelo passed a $17 million bond issue – then the largest single bond issue for a local education facility in Mississippi – with 87 percent of voters approving. Those funds allowed for the construction of the school’s current campus and football stadium, as well as other needs in the district.
The expansive campus cost $12 million, opened in the fall of 1992 and drew a visit that October from then-U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. It was expanded by a 1999 $29.5 million bond issue that added a ninth-grade building, the Performing Arts Center and the Career-Technical Center, as well as two new elementary schools.
Last spring, that school graduated 453 seniors, the largest class in its history. It underscored the tremendous growth in a school district whose 1913 enrollment of 596 students in all grades created the urgency it build its first high school building.