Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Downtown High School

I attended high school in "downtown" Jackson in the 1960s. As far as I know, in those days, Jackson only had a "downtown." In years past, the area around North State Street where a few old houses from the antebellum era still stand, may have been called "uptown." But during the 1960s, when we said "downtown," we meant East Capitol Street. The downtown area began at the Illinois Central Train Station, where "fast" trains left Jackson going north to Memphis and South to New Orleans, and continued for slightly less than a mile uphill to the Old Capitol Building. City buses used the railroad station as a transfer point for shuttling passengers east to the downtown area or west to other businesses and homes.

Downtown Jackson was home to a variety of large department stores such as Montgomery Ward, J. C. Penney, and the local Kennington's Department Store. Five-and-dime stores, like Woolworth, Kress, and H. L. Green were all situated near the center of the street and well within two blocks of each other. Downtown Jackson was also home to several large old hotels, the kind with richly appointed lobbies, where chandeliers lighted the way to ballrooms that hosted wedding receptions and other large gatherings. These hotels all had impressive-sounding names like The Heidelberg, The King Edward, and The Walthall.

Deposit Guaranty Bank's tall building, on the north side of the street, next to H. L. Green, was a landmark in downtown, as was the Standard Life Building with its clock on top, and the ivy-covered St. Andrews Episcopal Church next door. Several jewelry stores, a furniture store, and a few local restaurants, including Primos, the Mayflower Cafe, and the "Pig Stand," a local lunch place and after school hangout, completed the assortment of businesses that lined both sides of the street. In the 1960s, Capitol Street was a thriving urban shopping area, with the exception of a few surburban strip shopping malls, such as Maywood Mart and Westland Plaza.

Downtown Jackson actually had two high schools in the 1960s, St. Peter's Catholic School and Central High School. Murrah and Provine were the other Jackson high schools, but each was located several miles away from downtown and nearer to residential neighborhoods that were home to growing families. St. Peter's and Central were just across the street from Smith Park, a public park in the middle of downtown Jackson that is still one of the few publicly-owned parks in the nation. Since we had limited space and no athletic complex, it was in Smith Park that high school "gym" classes went to play softball and to run. Girls' athletics were much different in the 1960s, at least in our school, and intramural sports were limited to boys only. We were in a beautiful location, one where we could see the New Capitol Building on one side of the park and the grounds of the Governor's Mansion on the other. Woolfolk State Office Building, one of the tallest buildings in downtown, could be seen in the distance.

Central High School also was the home to high school Army ROTC, the only high school program of its kind in Jackson. It was on the large front lawn at Central that some of these ROTC students got their first taste of the military before going on to serve their country in Vietnam. Unfortunately, a few of those same students also lost their lives.

Just outside the high school's band hall was the entrance to the Greyhound Bus Station, a place that became well-known during the sit-ins, marches, and riots that became part of downtown Jackson's history and culture during the 1960s. For obvious reasons, the bus station was off limits to students. Our campus was a closed campus, with no privileges that allowed seniors to leave campus during the day, unless we were going to after school jobs or home. Jackson was going through some turbulent times during those years, and national news networks had cameras set up on every corner. Even the threat of suspension and possible expulsion, however, did not prevent some of my classmates from attempting to get themselves into pictures that could have made the six o'clock news.

But June of that year finally arrived, and almost 300 of the so-called "Baby Boomer" generation graduated. Little did we know how much our lives and the lives of those around us would change over the course of the next fifty years.


  1. "Downtown Jackson actually had two high schools in the 1960s, St. Peter's Catholic School and Central High School." ----- St. Peter's was the Cathedral on the corner of Amite and West, but St. Joseph's Catholic School was the other high school beside Central High School. St. Joe was separated from Central High School by a chain link fence and a sidewalk on the Central side.

  2. Hi, Martin...remember me, Janice Branch?? Although I know the name of the school well, I have been gone from there for quite a while now and simply made a mistake. I understand that St. Peter's Co-Cathedral was made a full cathedral some years ago. And I remember the sidewalk between the two schools very well. Walked down that sidewalk many times in my ugly blue gym shorts, white snap-up-the front gym "blouse" and even uglier high top white converse gym shoes, headed for the softball field across the street in Smith Park for PE class. My least favorite class in school ever!