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Today is December 18, 2018

Mississippi Seen

Historic campus reinvented for art students

Historic campus reinvented for art students

Lampton Auditorium was the first building restored on the old Whitworth College Campus. It is a fixture in Brookhaven and an important part of the Mississippi School of the Arts. Photo: Walt Grayson

Evidently, I used to have a lot more time to roam around and discover things than I have now. Maybe life is more hectic than it used to be. Or maybe I’m just slower. Whichever, it has been a long time since I ran up on something I had never heard of before.

But back in those wondrous days when I could find something new (to me at least) around every bend, I unexpectedly discovered Whitworth College in Brookhaven.

Oh, it had been there for some time. I just had never heard of it. While exploring the town I happened to drive up to the campus of the closed school just west of downtown. Seeing the obviously old buildings scattered out over the sprawling campus was as exciting to me as if I had stumbled up on Stonehenge unawares. It was fascinating walking around looking at what was obviously a significant place in our state that I was totally unaware of.

The Rev. Milton J. Whitworth started Whitworth College as a school for girls in 1859. It closed during the Civil War and was deeded to the Mississippi Methodist when it reopened afterwards. Over the next century or so the school evolved through several phases and mergers until it had outlived its usefulness. It was shut down in 1984.

By the time I discovered it, Whitworth had been closed for a decade or so. And 10 years of neglect really shows on buildings that are already old.  

So I wondered what would become of the old campus. There were a lot of old buildings there that needed a lot of restoration. What could it be used for if it was restored? It was ready-made to be a school. But that had already been tried. As times changed it went out of business.

But, times were changing again. Some thought it should be repurposed once again as a school, but this time as a different kind of school.

Fortunately, some of those who had grand visions for the old college also had the ability to do more than just do wishful thinking. One of those people was Former First Lady Pat Fordice. who commented that the old campus would make a marvelous school of the arts.

Well, partly from her saying out loud what a lot of other people had been thinking, a lot of reality began to fill out the dreams. Local folks from Brookhaven and Lincoln County and lots of legislators in Jackson caught the vision.

It took a while, but the first students to attend the new Mississippi School of the Arts walked onto the old Whitworth College campus in Brookhaven in 2003.

The Mississippi School of the Arts is a two-year high school for juniors and seniors. Prospective students audition for the chance to attend. Once here, they not only get the academic basics but also intense study in dance, vocal music, visual art, literary art, media art and theatre.   

The school’s 150 students come from all over and live on campus. Their school day runs from 8 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon with extra rehearsals and performances at night.

These are motivated students who want to be here, and it shows. Their average ACT score is 23.1. And the 55 graduates in 2017 were offered over $10 million in scholarship opportunities. That’s more than the school’s annual budget! Talk about paying for itself!

So many things I’ve “discovered” over the years seem to be deteriorating. The Mississippi School of the Arts has not only come back but is giving back.

Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television, and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” Contact Grayson at walt@waltgrayson.com.

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