Harrison County

Stalemate over future of historically black 33rd Avenue High School ends

Plans are moving forward for a $30 million Jobs Corps Center on the old 33rd Avenue High School campus in Gulfport.
Plans are moving forward for a $30 million Jobs Corps Center on the old 33rd Avenue High School campus in Gulfport. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com File

After a five-year stalemate, the federal government, the city and preservation advocates have agreed on a plan that will provide $30 million in federal funds for a new Job Corps Center on the historically black 33rd Avenue High School campus, where several exterior walls from original buildings will be preserved.

“This is a really big deal,” John Kelly, the city’s chief administrative officer, said Friday. “The money could have easily been lost.”

Sen. Thad Cochran “doggedly” kept his eye on U.S. Department of Labor funding, a DOL official said during a Washington hearing last year. Most of the money went back into a federal pool after federal officials, school alumni and preservationists were unable to agree in early 2012 on restoration plans.

Cochran feared the money would be lost without action.

The groups came together earlier this week and accepted a plan that will cost the property its designation on the National Register of Historic Places, but preserve two exterior walls from the original administration building and one wall from the old gym.

The city and Mississippi Department of Archives & History had proposed keeping all four walls from the administration building so that the property’s historic status could be retained.

Kelly said the Department of Labor, which oversees Job Corps, determined that it would be impractical to preserve all four walls of the two remaining buildings because they were too small and rundown.

J. W. Woullard, alumni association president and a 1965 graduate of the school, said the old buildings represent one of the only — if not the only — structures remaining that are of historical significance in Gulfport’s black community.

Woullard said the association went along with building plans so funding would not be lost.

“It’s something we can live with,” he said. “We were hoping for something better, to get it fully restored.”

The school was originally built in 1921, then expanded in 1954. It was closed in 1969.

MDAH’s “statement of historical significance” says the school “functioned as the heart” of Gulfport’s black community, producing a generation of civic and business leaders.

The school was an example of the state’s last-ditch effort in the 1950s to avoid integration by funding black schools at a level comparable to those attended by white students.

Kelly said an agreement approving the plans must be drafted before construction moves forward. Construction will take more than three years.

The new Job Corps campus will be on a level with the most innovate high schools in the country, he said. Job Corps aims to prepare students for today’s workforce.

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99