May 7, 1975: The Day the Hub City Went Dark

By BETH BUNCH,

It was a dark and stormy night” wouldn’t quite fit the scenario that played out on a day in May 1975 in the Hub City.

A recent Facebook post on the “Remember When In Hattiesburg’”page asked friends of the open group to shed some light back on May 15, 1975, when it went totally dark in Hattiesburg during the middle of the day. 

The Facebook page, which has 11,571 members, is a place where people can post pictures and fond memories of events, businesses, people and places in and around Hattiesburg. 

Since the original post, more than 420 people have responded with their memories of that day, and it’s been shared 21 times.

Some people thought it was the end of time, while others weren’t quite sure what was happening. 

But the date wasn’t actually May 15, but a week earlier on May 7. Weather records back that date up, as well as memories of the day’s incidents that people shared.

Gerry Burns, operations officer at the Emergency Management District in Hattiesburg, researched his archives and couldn’t find anything significant for May 15. However, a week earlier on May 7, “reports show an outbreak of severe weather, which provided some interesting reading.” (See story at right). Most remember the first sweep of bad weather occurring around the noon hour.

Peggy Hartfield of McLaurin remembers the date pretty well. 

“The date was May 7, 1975!” she wrote. “We had just made it to Forrest General Hospital for my delivery of our daughter. It was total darkness during the middle of the day. My aunt got caught in the parking lot with the hail and it bruised and cut her up. The hospital went on emergency generators. My Mom was home alone and she was terrified of bad weather already, but that day she thought the world was ending.

It was also the day Tillie Long was born and aul DeFreese celebrated his fifth birthday.

Mary M. Lott-Hatten originally posed the  question on the Facebook page. She was young and had just moved to the state from the San Joaquin Valley in California, where she had rarely even seen rain, so this new introduction was quite strange for her. 

She remembers being at work at the First Mississippi National Bank, now BancorpSouth, at the corner of Hardy and West Pine. She described the weather as very scary, weird and frightening. 

“The street lights came on and the electricity and phones went out,” she said. “It actually came and left and came back the same day.”

But she also has a funny story from that day.

Twenty-four years old at the time, when the weather got bad she said ‘the powers that be’ told them to go to the basement. 

“I was not doing that,” she said. “I got into my car and was going to meet my husband in Glendale, where he worked.”

She said this was the first time that day it got dark.

The second time that day it happened again and this time she went into the basement. She describes it as probably 55 women all gathered down there, with two or three of them pregnant.

“There was only one phone that had an open line,” she said. “It rang and was the city police department. I heard the enployee from the bank tell them that ‘Yes, we were being "held" in the basement!’

The next thing we knew, down the stairs come cops in riot gear with shotguns and riot helmets on.

“Oh my gosh, what a site. It’s a thousand miracles those gals didn’t give birth right there. I’ll never forget it!”

Sue Anthony, also a First Bank employee, was at the downtown branch. “Everybody ran and got in the vault but me,” she remembers. “Dumb me stood by the front door to see what I could see. I heard later it was a monster tornado going over. Thank goodness it didn't touch down.”

Back then Buford McCain worked as a foreman for Miller Picking Air Conditioning Corporation whose plant was located at Bobby Chain Airport.

“I was looking out our raised-up back door to the west and saw all this coming,” he said. “The wind blew like a hurricane and the sky turned to midnight. It lifted part of the roof off the building. There was an interior block wall all the workers huddled against until it was over.”

Several responses came from those who worked at Big Yank on Edwards Street – Sharon Robinson, Mawmaw Carter and Bonnie Blackledge. Blackledge had a four-month-old son and was trying to get home to him. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” she said.

Jeff McInnis was working next door at Price Brothers.

James Breazeale described it as the biggest, darkest cloud you will ever see.

 “I’ve never seen dark like that before or after,” he said. 

Connie Graham Garrett, said it was scary, especially at 15.

Forrest County election commissioner Sug Jenkins was at her home in Petal. 

She explained that her husband had gone hunting and all four of her children were at school. “The phone lines to the Petal schools stayed busy. (No cell phones). I was praying and walking the floor,” she said.

Jack Ezelle remembers being at work at the Magnolia Branch of Southern National Bank. “One of our executive officers came from downtown to “check on” the branch. He got into our vault immediately upon arriving and stayed there the entire time.”

After the rain out of a local golf tournament, Scott Dossett recalled being at Nick’s Ice House with PGA golf pros Lance Ten Broeck and Mike Peck playing pool. 

The owner of a small daycare, Cheryl Harper Scott  said they got all the babies and children into the hall.

 “We let the older children hold the babies,” she said. “Thank God we did. When we went back into the baby room shards of glass from broken windows were sticking up from the baby bed mattresses.‬‬‬”

A plethora of responses came from those who were then just youngsters or older school-age children.

Local restaurateur, author and columnist Robert St. John was 13-years old and was in the cafeteria at Beeson Academy at the time.

“The Cold War was still in place,” he said. “We were a decade away from school drills against potential nuclear attack, but the U.S.S.R. and their firepower were always in the news. For several years, there was a rumor going around my grade that Camp Shelby was on the list of targets for one of the Russian nuclear missiles. My school was near Camp Shelby. The day we had that weather event, my fellow eighth graders and I truly thought it might be the end of the world – at least for an hour or so.”

St. John said he doesn’t remember the hail falling, but does remember that it was pitch black, “seriously pitch black dark. It wasn't dark like a dark cloud passed overhead for a few minutes. It was dark as the middle of the night for over an hour, in the middle of the day. It was scary and I have never seen anything like it since.”

Ursula Jones, director of the Hattiesburg Historical Society, was a teacher with the Hattiesburg Public School District. She and students were in the little gym at Hawkins School when the storm came out of nowhere.

“We’d come back from lunch and one of the students, looking out the dressing room windows, called our attention to the weather,” she remembers. “I was wondering about the weather because we were in a gymnasium. The dressing room, of course, had lower ceilings, but it was kind of cut off from the rest of the building. There were no warning signs or sirens; you didn’t have weather reports or TV telling you anything was coming.”

The student asked her teacher if it was OK for her to walk out to the sidewalk, which ran along the street, and look at this huge darkness coming towards them.

Jones remembers the student almost reaching the sidewalk before she turned around and came running and screaming, “Hail, Hail.”

“And here it came. It was just like a curtain and the whole world went black,” Jones said. “It was over in just a few minutes, but it was the strangest thing you had ever seen. There wasn’t time for anybody to get anywhere for safety. It was gone as fast as it came.”

 Cheri Reus was a first-grade student at Sacred Heart. “My teacher sent me and a boy out to pick up hail,” she remembers. “I thought it was cool (at the time), but now as an adult I'm like, ‘What was she thinking?’”‬‬‬

Judge Bill Anderson was on the Southern Miss campus helping to build the new stadium when they told them to go home. “As I was driving home on Richburg Road, it got so dark I had to turn my lights on,” he said. “It must have been around 10 a.m.”

Tony Davis and Jim Kemp were also working construction on the USM campus.

Kemp was fixing a hydraulic leak and said it got so dark he couldn’t see what he was doing.‬‬‬ Meanwhile, Kemp was helping build the speech and hearing. 

“We were under the first floor slab when the foreman called us out,” he said. “It was hot and sunny when we went in, and cold and dark when we came out. Three of the green block walls blew down and it was hailing.‬‬‬”

David M. Lyon said he personally witnessed people running around in a panic shouting that the 'Judgement Day' was upon us. “And for a little while, I was sort of ready to believe them!”

Jim Cameron recalls standing in front of WXXX radio on Broadway Drive with Randy Swan discussing whether or not this was the Apocalypse. St. John said he thought the same thing

Nancy Parker Mitchell was in nursing school and working at Hattiesburg Convalescent (on Bay Street). She remembers patients packing their bags because they were convinced it was the end.”

Jean Light was working in the administration building on the USM campus. “They put us in the center of the building against the walls until all the glass from the top fell in,” she said. “It was scary.‬‬‬”

Jeanne Van Peacock, said a lot of the students at Hattiesburg High were crying and wailing that it was the end of the world. “My Mama came up to the school and got me out early,” she said. “The water was waist deep on me when we were in the breezeways and the sky was so black that you could not see your hand in front of your face.”

Cheryl Wagoner Cheryl Wagoner has a different take on being placed in the hallway.

“I was in the hall at school and figured if I was going to die I would be next to a cute guy,” she said. “That guy was Dwight Barnett.”

Yvette Thomas-Major, a fifth grader at Walthall Elementary, who was fascinated by the weather, remembers it being close to lunch time.  

“Our class had to go downstairs to the library and get under the tables,” she said. “I was under the table with my teacher, Mrs. Helen Woullard. I was alright until I heard her say, ‘Lord Jesus, keep us safe and don't let us die here.’ That's when I got scared and screamed and cried.‬‬‬”

Alanna Hunt was in the second grade at Dixie.

“I even remember the blue and white dress I was wearing,” she said. “It had a little bell on the slip for some reason. We started out trying to hide in the bathrooms that had an outside wall. Then we were told to go to what I believe was the auditorium where we had plays. I remember hiding behind a long curtain but the windows were still breaking and I was crying. I'm 51 years old now and every time there's a storm I think about that day.”

Peggy Hartfield remembers the generators at Forrest General coming on for emergency backup . 

Tracey Scott Goodfellow was on a kindergarten field trip on the train heading back from Laurel, while Beth Glover was in the hallway of Oak Grove Elementary passing out pages of a pocket Bible.

Becky Csaszar Revoir was a senior at Hattiesburg High. She remembers it being black as midnight and a guy friend carried her on his back because the water was ankle deep.

It was Adelia Nichols Webb Powe’s freshman year. She was at the USM  Commons, but “couldn’t stand the panicking, screaming students so I took off my shoes and ran to my dorm, Mississippi Hall.”

Former Mississippi University for Women president and one-time commissioner of the Institutions for Higher Learning for High, Jim Borsign was a Southern Miss eating lunch in Elam Arms before taking a history final in College Hall. He remembers the electricity being off and the windows broken out in the classroom.

As a second-grade student at Woodley, Michael Myrick claims they found hail stones the size of baked potatoes in the front entrance to the school after the storm.‬‬‬

Sydney Hill Anderson found herself in the second floor rotunda of Hawkins Jr High “with a -egree view of the phenomenon.”

Terri Adams Shelton was a student at Thames Elementary and admits to being scared to death. “My parents were out of town and I just knew I was gonna be an orphan,” she said. 

A student in Mrs. Crews’ third-grade class at Beeson Academy, Elizabeth Bush Foreman said her

dad drove through the rain, hail and flood to get her. “He truly believed it was the end of the world and did not want me to be by myself,” she said. “I’ve never been so happy to see somebody in my entire life and I think the principal and the coach felt the same way because they were happy to see another male in the building besides just the two of them‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬.”

David M. Lyon said he personally witnessed people running around in a panic shouting that the 'Judgement day' was upon us. “And for a little while I was sort of ready to believe them.”

Rain, wind, curtain of hail come and go

On May 7, 1975, when many Pine Belt residents witnessed the skies go dark in the middle of the day, there are weather reports to back that up.

Reports for South Mississippi on that day show that flash flooding and local street flooding occurred through much of the area as 5 inches or more of rain fell within a 24-hour period. The ground was already nearly saturated by frequent rains falling since the end of April.

Residents were evacuated and some schools dismissed early as county road conditions deteriorated and creeks swelled. 

Reports went on to report a tornado touched down ¾ miles south of the Forrest/Jones County line between Hwy. 49 and Interstate 59 before moving into the Providence Community where two chicken houses containing 20,000 chickens were killed.

In Lamar County, marble to golf-ball size hail fell, accumulating to as much as two inches deep in some spots, inflicting damage mainly on truck farming crops.

As the storm moved east, a small tornado was said to have uprooted trees, damaged playground equipment and blew down several pavilion-type shelters at Kamper Park. 

But it appears that Forrest County may have received the brunt of the storm. Winds of 75 mph were observed at the Bobby Chain Airport and fallen trees damaged house roofs. Hail damage was reported as golf ball-size hail fell for 10 minutes. Drains backed up, flooding the courthouse as nearly five inches of rain fell during the day, mostly during the noon hour. 

Flooding occurred at the University of Southern Mississippi campus along with hail which broke 300 windows and some car windshields. A foot of water collected on the USM Reed Green Coliseum basketball court. Damage to a printing company due to water-logged equipment after the roof was damaged amounted to $30,000. A pilot reported wind gusts to 70 knots.

In neighboring Perry County, golf-ball size hail fell for five minutes southeast of Richton and destroyed thousands of young tomato plants at a Heinz Company Plant north of New Augusta. It also wiped out about 90 percent of a pecan grove north of New Augusta.

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