Tornado of 1936 saw city pull together

By Andy Kanengiser/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – When the deadly tornado devastated much of Tupelo in 1936, it didn’t flatten the city’s can-do attitude.

That might have been one of the few bright spots from the disaster.

“We were all suffering together and the town came back from it,” said business patriarch Jack Reed Sr., who as a 12-year-old survived the storm at his home. “There was a spirit of recovery that Tupelo could do it.”

The Red Cross, volunteers from Memphis and other towns, the National Guard and others pitched in with Tupelo survivors to help the town get back on its feet.

“In a limited sense, it was just like Katrina,” said Reed, 81, referring to last year’s hurricane that left much of the New Orleans in shambles and the Mississippi Gulf Coast scoured.

Tupelo’s reaction wasn’t as sophisticated in the 1930s as today’s post-Katrina response with its expert planners rebuilding on the Gulf Coast today.

At the time, there was no federal emergency assistance, government trailers or billions in disaster aid. Some Tupelo tornado victims lived in boxcars, Reed recalled. The city’s hospital was inadequate to deal with 212 killed and some 1,500 injured.

As a result of the storm, a new hospital became a high federal priority and the town’s local funding match was reduced, thus bringing into existence North Mississippi Medical Center.

Also fortunately for Tupelo, which was struggling in the Great Depression era, the tornado didn’t wipe out its downtown businesses.

The Northeast Mississippi hub saw whites and blacks working together in reconstruction, whether it was Crosstown or Mill Town, two very different socioeconomic places, Reed said.

His home received heavy damage and people across the street were killed. The son of a department store owner on Main Street, Reed was a seventh-grader when the April 5 weather system spawned tornadoes across the South.

Still, the rebuilding was not on a massive enough scale to energize the economy, said Vaughan Grisham, a University of Mississippi sociology professor who has studied Tupelo for 35 years. The real positive from the storm was the massive outpouring of people pitching in to ease the suffering. Grisham’s father, then 19, lived in Booneville in 1936 and was among those traveling to Tupelo to help.

The pulling together in Tupelo after the tornado reflects the unity existing for generations in Northeast Mississippi’s trading center, said retired Ole Miss historian David Sansing.

“Tupelo has always had a very strong sense of community,” Sansing said.

Even with the spirit of teamwork, it took many years for Tupelo to recover economically from the Depression and the tornado. “The town was still struggling in the 1940s,” said Grisham.

What happened immediately, “there was a pulling together,” with headlines in the Tupelo Journal boldly declaring the town would rebuild “better than ever,” Grisham said. “The newspaper did a lot to bolster spirits.”

Sansing is also familiar with Tupelo’s upbeat community spirit. He wrote a book about the growth of Peoples Bank in Tupelo and its partnerships with the community, from the bank’s beginnings in the early 1900s through the 1980s.

The 1936 tornado, like Katrina, is the type of event that “can bring an area together really significantly,” he said. Sansing was a 3-year-old in Greenville when the tornado struck Tupelo.

It was three more years before Tupelo Mayor Ed Neelly was born in Grenada, in the heart of Mississippi’s hill country, but he said he’s learned how the storm saw residents work side by side to cope.

Added Ward 6 City Councilman Mike Bryan: “That’s just the way Tupelo is.”

People can see evidence of this post-tornado coming together in photos and other artifacts at the Oren Dunn Museum.

On display are black and white pictures of Red Cross volunteers and soup lines in the downtown area and Mill Town. Photos show 100 people in a soup line at the American Legion and Armory. National Guardsmen can be seen serving meals. Others show people looking to find bodies or portray a family being treated at a Tupelo hospital.

While the tornado was a tremendous tragedy, said museum curator Jeni Skolaris, “it really did a lot of good – the city was able to rebuild,”

Contact Andy Kanengiser at 678-1590 or andy.kanengiser@djournal.com