After a cold and rainy start to the weekend, our first Sunday in February began as a beautiful south Mississippi day: temperatures in the 50s and a mostly blue, sun-kissed sky peppered with fluffy clouds.
It looked like the perfect day for a solo Sunday drive, my favorite form of social-distancing entertainment in the age of COVID-19. What promised to be an otherwise pleasant day was spoiled, however, by one of the first things I saw on my Facebook feed that morning, a photo on a friend’s page of a huge fire in Hattiesburg.
I was afraid it might be one of our historic buildings, but the flames were too intense in the photo. At first glance, I couldn’t make it out until I read the caption, confirming my fear. It was the abandoned Hattiesburg High School gymnasium and, from the looks of it, we might have a total loss on our hands. My heart was broken in two.
The building, constructed in 1937, originally served as the gymnasium for the old Hattiesburg High School that sat just across Gordon’s Creek from the site. Ironically, in my previous column for The Pine Belt News, I praised the rebirth of the century-old high school as it enters its miraculous second life as Preservation Crossing senior living apartments. After so much cause for happiness, it was a cruel twist of fate for this equally important building to meet its tragic end.
The gym sat on Forrest Street, directly across from Hawkins School, which now serves elementary students but is where I attended junior high school. It served as the boys’ gym for Hawkins. The girls had their own gymnasium attached to the school building proper.
After seeing news of the fire, my planned Sunday drive would have to include a visit to the gym – to see for myself and to say farewell to an old friend.
The area around the gym was cordoned off with Hattiesburg Fire Department trucks still on site. Standing near the American Legion building on Green Street, I was close enough to see smoke rising from the ruins. A soft breeze carried the smell of burned wood, probably rising from the gym’s now charred wooden bleachers and hardwood floors. It reminded me of the time I was able to see the rubble of New York City’s World Trade Center, less than a month after the Twin Towers were brought down by two hijacked jetliners. A month later, smoke still rose from its remains. As an American, it was an emotional moment as I remembered my own visits to the observation deck within the towers. But a different level of emotion settled over me on that otherwise beautiful Sunday afternoon as I gazed on a slice of my personal history still smoldering.
The gymnasium and Hawkins go hand in hand with my childhood memories. I was among the second group of African American students to attend Hawkins. I’d spent my grammar school years at the historic Eureka Elementary School with its all-black student body. Hawkins Junior High was my first deep immersion into an integrated society, and I remember being very nervous on that first day of school. There I was with my first white classmates, schoolteachers and school principal, Billy Rogers, who was, I must add, a man before his time.
It was the late 1960s, and as America and Mississippi tiptoed through the minefields of integration, Mr. Rogers went out of his way to make Hawkins’ students, Black and white, feel they were part of one student body. No favoritism, no intolerance; he made sure his students knew they were to be treated as equals at our newly integrated junior high school. (That’s pretty good for 1967 south Mississippi, huh?)
And, oh, yeah … then there was gym class.
PE was my fourth-period class, and we boys would walk across Forrest Street to the gymnasium. It was always known as Hawkins Gym to us. Don’t ask me how I pulled it off, but seventh grade at Hawkins was the only gym class I ever took during my school years. Believe me, it was by my own design. I was usually the fattest kid on campus and was afraid of being picked on. My fourth-period gym classmates were 7th, 8th and 9th graders. I was only 11 years old, and those 9th graders looked like grown men to me. I expected to be bullied; however, that was until Coach Jerry Smith entered the scene.
Coach Smith was fresh out of college and had to be in his early 20s. He was my hero, having no part of anyone making fun of the fat kid from east Hattiesburg. He forbade those 9th graders, or any other boys, from picking on me. Whether playing baseball on the big grassy field behind Hawkins, having football scrimmages at nearby San Antonio Field or shooting hoops on those hardwood floors at Hawkins Gym, he always looked out for me.
Before fire engulfed the gym, there were many days I’d drive by the building, which meant driving by Hawkins Elementary as well. Both buildings brim with memories from my school years. Even when I graduated from S. H. Blair (Hattiesburg High) in 1973, our graduation ceremonies were held at Hawkins Gym.
As is often the case with a loss of this magnitude, I’m learning a lot more about the history of the old gymnasium. Opened in 1937, it was as one of the many public works projects completed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. President Roosevelt created the WPA in 1935 as part of the New Deal plan to help usher our country out of the Great Depression. That’s plenty of history right there, but there’s more.
I heard from a member of the Hattiesburg High School Class of 1957 and he said that, back in the ‘50s, the Big Eight basketball tournament was played at the old gym, bringing teams from all over Mississippi to play in Hattiesburg. At the time, it was one of the largest public school gyms in the state.
Of course, many Hattiesburg basketball legends dribbled a ball on those historic hardwood floors, including the Short brothers – Purvis and Eugene – who grew up in the Goula just down Fairley Street from where I lived.
Outside of Coach Smith’s gym classes at the old gym, I don’t have much experience with a basketball. But I will always have memories of Hawkins School and, of course, “our” boys’ gym.
Viewing what’s left of the old gymnasium makes me so sad. Barely a shell of the building remains. But let’s not forget, the old high school once fell victim to a horrific fire, leaving it a shell, too. My column about the beautifully reborn school building ended with the words, “Who says miracles don’t happen?”
Well … talking about championships, let’s go for a repeat win, Hattiesburg. We need one more miracle to save the architectural soul of our historic Hawkins Gym.
Elijah Jones is a proud Hattiesburg native who enjoys writing. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.