By Joe Rutherford/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Many people knew intuitively and from experience early on the evening of April 5, 1936, that a big storm was possible in Tupelo and Northeast Mississippi.
It was what many called “tornado weather” – hot, humid and unsettled. The temperature had peaked at 90 degrees and collective memory knew such abnormally hot weather in the early spring set the stage for a clash in the sky if cooler air rushed in behind it, especially forming storms in the southwest.
A series of thunderstorms had moved across Northeast Mississippi in the previous week, and the temperature had alternately dipped and soared.
But nobody knew for sure that about 8:30 that Sunday night a tornado with winds of at least 261 mph – based on the destruction it caused – would roar across Tupelo, by official reports killing 216 people and injuring hundreds, and angrily exit to the east. Total final death count from that storm is set at 233. Seventy years later, it ranks as the fourth-deadliest tornado in U.S. history.
At that time, Tupelo was home to about 7,500 people. Its hospital was a small facility downtown and its commercial district was clustered around the courthouse.
It was from that southwesterly direction that the storm first was spotted in what is now west Tupelo. It hit the Willis Heights area – also identified with the former Harrisburg Baptist Church and the Tupelo National Battlefield Monument on West Main Street.
It leveled everything in its path as it tore through the Crosstown intersection – Gloster at Main – destroyed Tupelo High School (now Milam School) and virtually all the homes, churches and buildings eastward and northward to the Park Hill residential area – one of Tupelo’s two predominantly black neighborhoods at the time.
Bodies were under wreckage and cast into Gum Pond. It would take quite a while to the dead.
Amid the destruction of 48 city blocks, 10 churches were destroyed.
In news reports of the day, some people, including a few ministers, said the tornado had been sent by God to punish sinful people.
Garland Hill, who was 7 at the time, said the storm brought destruction and change. People forgot their differences – rich and poor, black and white – and helped one another in nearly miraculous ways, Daily Journal writer Phyllis Harper remembered in a 1995 story about the storm.
“I can tell you one thing I don’t understand,” Hill said then. “I drove over debris. I could see nails sticking up and I never had a puncture. I tell you God just took over.”
The next morning, the same storm system caused a tornado that devastated Gainesville, Ga., killing 203 people. Fifteen other tornadoes also formed out of the huge weather system that swept through the South.
The same tornado that hit Tupelo also dealt destruction and misery in other parts of Northeast Mississippi that Sunday night.
Starts in Black Zion
Martha McCullough Ray of Pontotoc County’s Black Zion community said the twister “totally destroyed” her family’s home and her father’s store, both near the Lee-Pontotoc county line.
She and her parents, Henderson and Lovie Nichols McCullough, escaped without injury but were without possessions.
“We had only the clothes on our backs – night clothes – after it wiped us out,” Ray said. The family moved in with her grandparents.
Ray said her father’s uninsured store, open only 10 days, was destroyed. It eventually reopened in a lot across the road from the original site, and her family built a new residence next door.
Physicians, nurses, funeral directors and people from all walks of life responded immediately to the disaster, some coming from surrounding states to work around the clock to help. More than 1,000 Work Progress Administration workers sent in a few days later helped clear debris. Newspapers in Memphis and Jackson promoted a fund for financial help.
Torrential rains that came after the storm were credited with saving the town from burning.
For years Tupeloans would reckon time from that spring evening.
A Tupelo Journal editorial published on April 10 proclaimed “Tupelo Will Build on This Wreckage A Bigger and Better City.”
Writer Harper also noted the only visible signs today of that devastation are giant pin oak trees on Rankin Street, still leaning in the direction they were bent as saplings 70 years ago.