Menifee High School Gymnasium
The Menifee High School Gymnasium, located on the northwestern corner of North Park and East Mustang streets in Menifee (Conway County), was built in 1938 with assistance from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a Depression-era federal relief agency. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 6, 2002.
Schools for African Americans in the Menifee area were available since at least 1919, and when the Great Depression struck these students were centered in East Side School District No. 5’s Conway County Training School, located on five acres about a mile south of Menifee. In 1938, the district succeeded in getting WPA funding to construct a gymnasium for the complex.
Construction started in the spring of 1938, and in May the Morrilton Democrat reported on WPA activities in the county, writing that “most of the men are employed on road projects, although there are school buildings in progress of construction…the gymnasium at Menifee is fifty percent completed.” The gym was finished in August, and a community columnist for the Democrat wrote that “the Menifee Training school has completed its new Gym and the whole community is rejoicing over the same. The school is a credit to the Negroes of the county.”
The columnist credited principal J. C. McDaniel for the project, holding that he was “an outstanding educator of the county and is ever on the alert for improvements of his community educationally.” A 1982 retrospective of the district described McDaniel as “the district’s ‘Mr. Fix It.’ Whenever he decided to leave or the board decided he should leave, he would go away and work somewhere else. But when the school was in trouble, the board would bring him back, and he would solve the problem.” McDaniel served as principal at least three separate times in the 1920s and 1930s.
The resulting structure was a fieldstone-clad, single-story building designed in the Craftsman style of architecture. The Menifee High School Gymnasium was one of the first three indoor gyms for African-American schools in Arkansas, the others being the Wortham Gymnasium at Rosston (Nevada County) and one at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College (AM&N) (which later became the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). The gymnasium also served as a community center, hosting dramatic performances, agricultural shows, proms, and assemblies. When Menifee was devastated by a tornado on May 5, 1960, the gym was one of the only buildings on the campus to survive undamaged; it served as a temporary classroom building.
In 1979, the Menifee district was consolidated with the Plumerville (Conway County) and Morrilton (Conway County) districts into the South Conway County School District, and that district gave title to the Menifee High School Gymnasium to the City of Menifee in 1989. The city began working to rehabilitate the gymnasium into a community center using grants from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program awarded in fiscal years 2011, 2018, and 2020. In 2023, it was announced that the gymnasium would receive a grant of $100,000 for repairs from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
For additional information:
“565 Employed by PWA [sic] in County.” Morrilton Democrat, May 12, 1938, p. 1.
Bowden, Bill. “Depression-Era Gym Building in Menifee Gets $100,000 Grant for Repairs.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 19, 2023, pp. 1B, 6B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/jun/19/100000-grant-will-help-repair-menifee-gym/ (accessed June 20, 2023).
Coleman, Jerry. “Menifee High School Gymnasium.” National Register of Historic Places registration form, on file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at https://www.arkansasheritage.com/arkansas-historic-preservation-program (accessed June 20, 2023).
Spearman, Estelle Mitchell, comp. “Sketches and Glimpses of East Side School District #5.” N.p.: 1982.
“With the Negro Race.” Morrilton Democrat, August 4, 1938, p. 4.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
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