100 years of Rock Hill High School

Rock Hill High School students dance at the King and Queen of Hearts Dance in a photo from the 1955 yearbook, The Bearcat.

The exterior of the old Rock Hill High School is seen in a photo from the 1956 Bearcat.
Rock Hill High School students dance at the King and Queen of Hearts Dance in a photo from the 1955 yearbook, The Bearcat. The exterior of the old Rock Hill High School is seen in a photo from the 1956 Bearcat.

As the Rock Hill High School class of 1961 tooled around town on a bus tour during a reunion in 2006, the former students were saddened to see the site of their old high school.

RHHS alumni recognized the old steps leading up to where the school yard used to be as the only remnants of the place where they spent their teenage years.

"As we were driving along there on North Spruce we thought, 'Well for goodness sakes, there are thousands of people in Rock Hill who went into those buildings and a lot of memories,'" said Bennett Tarleton, a 1961 RHHS graduate. "We just got to talking, and we thought, 'Well, we ought to do something.'"

The alumni took action, and on Tuesday, Rock Hill High School students and staff from the past and present will gather at the site on North Spruce Street to dedicate a historical marker.

Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of the first time the name Rock Hill High School was used.

"There are reminders all around us of the traditions of this school," current RHHS Principal Judy Mobley said. "What they did before sets the tone for what we're doing now, and I hope what we're doing now sets the tone for those that come after us."

'Something called Rock Hill High School'

Rock Hill High School has its roots in the Rock Hill Graded School, which is believed to be the first public, tax-supported grade school in the city. The school housed elementary and high school students.

When overcrowding became a problem, the school district purchased the old Catawba Military Academy off Charlotte Avenue in 1907.

Rock Hill High School opened that year. But a dispute with Winthrop College, which wanted the property to open its training school, ended up in court, and Rock Hill High students were sent back to the graded school in 1908.

In 1914, a new high school, bound by East White, East Main and North Spruce streets and Gladstone Court, opened.

The two-story brick building included 14 classrooms, science labs, a library, an auditorium and a domestic science wing.

Other buildings, including a gymnasium, were added later.

The current Rock Hill High School facility opened in 1977, and the old buildings were torn down the following year.

Tarleton said the marker is about honoring all Rock Hill High School students, regardless of which location they went to.

"Even though what we're commemorating are the buildings that stood there on White Street ... that's a part of their lives too," he said. "They may not have actually gone to school in that building, but they went to something called Rock Hill High School."

'A hunk of our lives'

Teachers and students from the original Rock Hill High School have fond memories of their years there.

Calvin Burleson was an assistant football coach and math and social studies teacher before becoming principal of Rock Hill High in 1967.

Because facilities at Rock Hill High were somewhat lacking, the team practiced on the playground of a nearby elementary school.

"One of my memories was that I had to take a fire hose and wet the field out so it wouldn't be so dusty during practice," he said.

Burleson, who now lives in Columbia, said he still keeps in touch with many of his former players and students.

For Mary Joyce Harper Wright, a 1961 graduate, memories of high school are wrapped up in the school band. Wright played the clarinet.

"The band was a big part of a lot of our lives then," she said. "We got a lot of notoriety."

Wright said one of her favorite memories of high school was leaving school at lunch with her girlfriends.

Wright's brother bought a 1948 Plymouth but couldn't take it to college with him. So Wright and her friends would cruise to a local shop at lunchtime, feeling lucky that they had access to a car.

Those are the kinds of memories Tarleton hopes the historical marker will bring to the forefront for the many students who trooped up and down the halls of Rock Hill High over the years.

"There are thousands of us who have a really personal relationship to that," he said. "That's not just an old building. That's a hunk of our lives."

1888: Rock Hill Graded School opens. The school, which is the first public, tax-supported school in Rock Hill, houses elementary and high school students.

1907: The school board purchases the old Catawba Military Academy, now on the campus of Winthrop University, to relieve crowding at the graded school. The new high school is called Rock Hill High.

1908-1909: A dispute between the school system and Winthrop College, which wants the property for its training school, is sent to the courts. RHHS doesn't operate, and students go back to the graded school.

Winthrop eventually wins the dispute and creates its training school.

The school board charter is amended so trustees have to be popularly elected.

1913: Rock Hill High School is built at North Spruce and East White streets.

1923: The football team starts calling themselves the Bearcats.

1935: The first separate high school gymnasium is built, thanks to federal money.

1964: Seven black students are the first to integrate at Rock Hill High.

1965: RHHS moves from White Street to the building originally built for Sullivan Junior High School. Sullivan students move to the old high school building.

1970: The first black student graduates from Rock Hill High.

1971: Northwestern High School opens in Rock Hill. At least 1,500 students enroll at each high school.

1972: Gold is added to garnet and black as a school color. Gold represented Emmett Scott, the black high school that recently had closed.

1977: Rock Hill High School opens at its current location on Springdale Road.

1978: The original Rock Hill High on East White street is razed.