How Elvis Presley gave back to Tupelo, Mississippi – the hometown he loved

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Elvis Presley received the Key to the City of Tupelo on September 26, 1956
Every year, thousands of people from around the world travel to the small town of Tupelo, Mississippi to see the two-room shack where Elvis Presley was born. A little known fact is that it was The King of Rock and Roll himself who helped preserve his former home as far back as 1956.
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That was the year that Elvis “returned” to Tupelo at the age of 21 as a star. He had lived with his parents in Tupelo for the first 13 years of his life. When he returned to do the “Homecoming” concerts at the Tupelo Fairgrounds just a short eight years later, he had become a household name and the top rock and roll singer in the country.

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On September 26, 1956, Elvis performed at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in Tupelo – the same place where he performed in public for the first time at the age of 10. On October 3, 1945, Presley won fifth place in a talent contest sponsored by local radio station WELO. He sang “Old Shep.”
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The original program from the 1956 show on display at Elvis Presley’s Birthplace museum in Tupelo, MS
After the two shows he performed on September 26, 1956, where they had given him the key to the city, Elvis told the Mayor of Tupelo: “I saw the house I was born in and 15 acres for sale. I want you to take this check back and put it to build a park for the kids of East Tupelo.”
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According to Tupelo historian, Roy Turner, Elvis was motivated to do this because “he was an East Tupelo Kid. He knew we had nothing on the east side of town. We had to go to the west side for a park, to swim, movies, everything. And we were not welcomed by the west side kids. They thought they were better than us and referred to us as white trash. At 21, he wanted to make a change in the lives of others growing up as he did. I think that speaks volumes about the man.”
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Elvis Presley’s generous habit of giving to others throughout his lifetime can be traced back to his roots of growing up poor in Tupelo. According to Turner, in the small community that Elvis grew up in “they all knew each other or worked together in the factory or went to church together and they all supported each other however they could.  If one person had a radio, it was there for all to come over and listen to the Grand Ole Opry on Sat. night.  If one had a sewing machine all the ladies were welcome to use it…  It was a sharing community. No one had a lot and no one felt better than the other in general.”
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The sign marking the future site of the Elvis Presley Youth Recreation Center in Tupelo, MS
As a result, when Elvis returned again the following year to do a show on September 27, 1957, this time he donated approximately $14,000 for a youth recreation center to be built in Tupelo.
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“No one prompted him to do these two acts of kindness,” explains Turner. “That was Elvis.  He said later in life he loved to give gifts and make people happy. It brought him joy.  But I think these two purchases went much deeper than that.”
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“I love it here,” Elvis told reporters in 1956 before his afternoon Tupelo show. “I’ll come back as often as I can.” And he did!  The following rare video shows Elvis and his friends visiting Tupelo trying to hold up the falling sign for the future Elvis Presley Youth Recreation Center.
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Youth Sign video screenshot
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However, it had been several years since Elvis had donated money and yet both the Elvis Presley Park and Youth Center construction had stalled. It wasn’t until Elvis made a few phone calls in February 1961 did things change.
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“Elvis called Mayor James Ballard and told him if dirt wasn’t moving by the end of the month there was going to be hell to pay,” said Roy Turner.
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As a result, the Elvis Presley Park literally got built in one day and the Elvis Presley Youth Center was constructed soon after as pictured below.
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RoyTurner-YouthCenterThe Youth Center had a pool, playground and picnic area, and school dances were held there. Roy Turner, a native of Tupelo, attended a junior high school dance at the Elvis Presley Youth Center when he was a young teenager. To the right is a photo of Turner at the Youth Center around the time of the dance.
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Meanwhile, during the 1960s, Elvis fans began visiting the grounds of the birthplace to see the house where Elvis was born. In 1964, Elvis’ dad, Vernon came to see the house with Albert Hand, who ran the Official Elvis Presley Fan Club of Great Britain. Here is a photo of Vernon sitting at the front of the house.
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While there are conflicting views on whether the home was moved from its “original”  location nearby, the impetus to save the house and eventually restore it was due to the fact that Elvis had given money for the City of Tupelo to purchase that big chunk of land for the Elvis Presley Park which provided a place to preserve the home.
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The birthplace home sat at 306 Old Saltillo Road (now 306 Elvis Presley Drive) right next to the Elvis Presley Youth Center. The front of the Youth Center had a guitar displayed in the sign at the entrance as shown in this photo from July 1967.
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photo courtesy Paul and Joan Gansky
While fans could come see the outside of the birthplace structure, it wasn’t until 1971 when the East Heights Garden Club along with the Tupelo Park and Recreation Department restored the outside and inside of the home where Elvis was born. It was furnished to resemble as close as possible to what it would have looked like when Elvis lived there with his parents, Gladys and Vernon. The pictures below show the two rooms that make up the house – the bedroom and the kitchen.

 

Elvis Presley’s birthplace home was officially open to the public in 1971. At the opening, Mayor Ballard said, “We have come a long way from what we started with in 1958.”
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The East Heights Garden Club “took upon themselves the project of keeping the birthplace open to the public and manned the house with volunteers. They carefully kept the money only providing what upkeep was needed in hopes that a memorial of some sort would be erected near the birthplace.”
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As a result of Presley’s death on August 16, 1977, a memorial to Elvis was set in motion. Two years later, on August 17, 1979, the Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel opened on the grounds. Before his death, Presley’s longtime friend, Janelle McComb, asked Elvis about the possibility of building something to honor him. Elvis replied: “Why don’t you build a chapel so that my fans will have a place to meditate?”

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Now 40 years later, The Elvis Presley Birthplace site includes the birthplace home of Elvis Presley, a museum, the Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel, and the Assembly of God Church building where the Presley family worshiped. There is also a huge amount of land surrounding the complex which features the “Reflections” lake, the Overlook Pavilion and several statues of Elvis.
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Most fans may not realize that the building of the former Youth Center is now the Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum. According to Turner, “The entrance, museum and north end of the gift shop were the original building. When the ramp starts up toward the theater – that is all the addition.  After it was no longer used as a youth center, one could rent it for events and we had the Turner Family Reunion there several years in a row, until they turned it into a museum.”
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Over the years, Elvis visited Tupelo more often than local residents realized. When Priscilla was dating and married to Elvis, he took her to Tupelo five times to show her around where he grew up and went to school.
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Priscilla’s familiarity with Elvis’ roots in Tupelo was evident in 2014 when Priscilla visited the birthplace site and museum. She said she hadn’t been there since she had last visited with Elvis in the early 1970s.
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“She seemed genuinely happy and pleased with the city’s efforts,” Turner described. “She said Elvis would be humbled.  That he was not one much for accolades, but would be truly moved by this park. When she saw Guy [Harris, Elvis’ childhood friend from Tupelo], she immediately recognized and acknowledged him walking over and embracing in a hug. They walked off and had a private conversation. It was very moving.”
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Elvis Presley performing in Tupelo on September 26, 1956
“He never forgot Tupelo, Mississippi,” Priscilla said. “He never forgot where he was raised.”
Learn more about the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum in Tupelo here: https://elvispresleybirthplace.com/
Special thanks to Roy Turner for help with this article!
Roy Turner is a native of Tupelo who is involved with the Tupelo Elvis Fan Club and the Elaine Dundy & Roy Turner Endowment for the Arts which supports projects every year for the youth of Tupelo.  He has become the local Elvis historian sharing his expertise on Presley’s 13 years in Tupelo. He is also the co-producer of the 2008 documentary, Elvis: Return To Tupelo.
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For more Elvis news, follow the Elvis News Examiner on Twitter and Facebook

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For more fascinating Elvis Presley stories, check out the author’s book, ELVIS: Behind The Legend: Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music

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One thought on “How Elvis Presley gave back to Tupelo, Mississippi – the hometown he loved

  1. I believe back when Elvis did this show for the park, they wanted to built it on the West side of Tupelo, out by the airport and they were building nice homes at that time out that way also ? It’s nice to see the old buildings of the rec center when it was first built. I have some picture of it someplace if I find them I will post.

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