THIS IS THE FIRST of a 16-part weekly series on courthouses in Northeast Mississippi. The stories will appear on Page 2A each
Monday. The Education page has moved to Sundays
TUPELO – The first monument erected on the Lee County Courthouse grounds honored those who fought for the Confederacy in its effort to preserve slavery.
The most recent statue, erected 105 years later, honored those who fought to bring equality to all.
Although the classic-revival style courthouse straddling Court Street between Spring and Broadway hasn’t changed much in the past century, life in Tupelo and Lee County has moved at lightning speed.
The city’s population has swelled to nearly 35,000 people. Its boundaries have expanded by dozens of square miles. Its dusty streets have been paved, and fast cars have replaced the horse and buggy.
People of all races bustle past the courthouse on their way to jobs in banks, shops, law firms and a myriad of other businesses that have popped up downtown.
Yet the Lee County Courthouse – as in most Southern communities – continues to serve its role as the honorary center of the county and the hub of activity.
It’s where people gather to conduct business, hold auctions, share news, host rallies and enjoy festivals. It’s the heart of the community and the bosom of its history.
“The courthouse is a physical and symbolic anchoring for the sense of community in the South,” said Charles Reagan Wilson, former director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and current Cook Chair of History at the University of Mississippi, in a previous interview.
Wilson said courthouses were intentionally placed in the center of towns to reflect their importance in the communities. And although Tupelo has long since grown beyond its courthouse square, its role hasn’t changed much in the 108 years since it was built.
The Lee County Courthouse was designed by Patrick Henry Weathers. Built of stone and copper, the two-story domed structure is now on the National Historic Register.
It houses the Lee County Tax Collector’s and Tax Assessor’s offices. It’s where residents purchase vehicle tags, look up property information, attend tax sales and conduct other business.
It’s also the site of the annual GumTree Art Festival, a popular weekend event that draws thousands of people to the courthouse square for music, activities and shopping among the dozens of artists who display their original pieces.
In its heyday, the courthouse held criminal and civil trials played out in the majestic court rooms located on the second floor. And for awhile, Tupelo radio station WELO broadcast weekly shows from the building, including one in which a young Elvis Presley performed.
But the radio station left, and the courts moved their offices and trials across Jefferson Street to the new Lee County Justice Center. Despite this, the courthouse remains a popular tourist destination and one of the most filmed and photographed structures in Tupelo.
“We have film crews here all the time wanting to get footage of our historical sights, and they always get the courthouse,” said Pat Rasberry, assistant director of the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau and head of the city’s Film Commission and annual Film Festival. “It’s an icon for our city.”
Outside, the courthouse lawn boasts 10 monuments. The first – the Confederate memorial – graced its grounds just two years after construction. The tall obelisk atop which stands a Confederate soldier honors those who fought in the Civil War and was erected by “comrades, their sons and daughters” in 1906.
Two years later, a stone angel joined company, erected by the Tupelo Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to commemorate the statewide prohibition of alcohol.
More than two decades passed before the next tribute came along – a tree planted by the Tupelo Business and Professional Women’s Club in 1932 to recognize Washington’s bicentennial.
Other monuments and memorials slowly accumulated over the years, including a Lee County War Memorial, Bicentennial Time Capsule, and a marker honoring Elvis Presley.
The most recent was a civil rights monument erected in 2009 by the Coalition for Change to honor those who fought for equal rights for all.
“It’s the blood, sweat and tears of those who tried to bring the city together,” coalition member Rosa Roberts said at the time. “We are going to recognize that.”