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20 years later, staff and alumni reflect on historic fire at McKinley High

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BATON ROUGE - Twenty years ago, a fire caught the eyes of everyone in Baton Rouge.

Three teenagers burned down the old McKinley High School. The decades-old school was an integral part of the city.

“The school opened in ‘26, and this was the first class,” said McKinley Alumni Association supervisor Melvin Mitchell, referring to a picture. “We had Dr. Fraizer, who was the principal.”

A museum now displays the school's years upon years of highlights.

“People would come from out of town to live in the city for the week and go to classes at McKinley,” said Mitchell.

But there’s one wall that shows something different – the association’s hardships.

“You get that sinking feeling in the bottom of your stomach, and your heart breaks while you think the old school is gone,” said Mitchell.

On July 3, 1998 flames flew out of the top of the school. The flames show up for miles in video WBRZ captured from tower cameras.

“I got the news from the television,” said Daniel Glaspel Jr. “I felt bad because I went to school here in junior high school. This is the first school that was for African American people here.”

Hundreds, like Glaspel, watched the fire tear down history. But, not completely. The front wall of the building survived.

"We thought we could build some small building to represent McKinley High School, well, the alumni members did not want that,” said Mitchell. “Baton Rouge felt like McKinley was important to the city.”

It didn't take long for restoration to begin. Now, more than $3 million and 8 years later, held up on the original pillars, there isn't a trace of the fire on the building. But, it does have a new name: the McKinley High School Alumni Center.

While devastating, if you ask those who went to the school, they won't say the fire was the most significant thing to happen.

“The fire was catastrophic, it was major. But, I think the major thing McKinley has gone through is McKinley has educated black people for over 100 years,” said Mitchell.

The alumni center now holds events everyday. There are more than 15 businesses inside, and a Sunday service is held every weekend.

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