McKinley High School (Oʻahu’s oldest public high school) was officially established in 1865, as the Fort Street English Day School by Maurice B. Beckwith. In November 1869, the English Day School moved from the basement of the old Fort Street Church to a new stone building on the corner of Fort and School Streets.
The Fort Street School was split in 1895 into Kaʻiulani Elementary School and Honolulu High School (the high school moved into Keōua Hale – former residence of Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani.)
In 1907, Honolulu High School moved to the corner of Beretania and Victoria Streets. The school’s name was then changed to President William McKinley High School, after President William McKinley, whose influence brought about the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands to the United States.
McKinley High School enjoyed the use of an “imposing” building opened in 1908. In an article which appeared in Thrum’s “Hawaiian Almanac and Annual for 1909” (published in 1908), CE King said:
“A very marked improvement has been attained in the architecture of buildings recently erected in Hawaii … This is notably true of the imposing McKinley High School, a building which compares most favorably with any of its kind in the world. …”
“In addition there is a principal’s office, ladies’ retiring room, each provided with all conveniences, two hat rooms for the use of students, a specimen and apparatus room for the physics laboratory, a private chemistry laboratory and a dark room connected with the chemical laboratory.”
That former McKinley High School building is still there. McKinley was later relocated, the old site (Beretania and Victoria) was occupied by the Linekona (“Lincoln”) Elementary School (that later relocated to the Makiki District.) In 1990, the building was renovated as the “Academy Art Center,” the largest art private school in Hawaiʻi, under the administration of the Honolulu Academy of Arts.
With growing enrollment, the school quickly outgrew its new building and a new and bigger school was necessary. In 1921, the present site on King Street was acquired through territorial condemnation. In 1923, the school was moved from the Beretania/ Victoria site to its present location, nearby on King Street.
At that time, McKinley had no auditorium; however, in 1927 the Marion McCarrell Scott Auditorium was dedicated. This new auditorium was then the largest theater in Hawaiʻi with a seating capacity of 1,114 (it served not only the students but the community at large.)
The school’s swimming pool was the students’ pride of the 1920s because they played an active part in its construction. Armed with picks, shovels and determination, the students began the excavation for a pool in 1923. The pool was completed in 1926 and named in honor of the late Honolulu Mayor Fred Wright.
Through the 1920s, more than half of the high school students in Hawaiʻi attended McKinley.
December 8, 1941 the US Government commandeered the nearby St Louis campus for the use of the 147th General Hospital. Elementary students attended classes at Saint Patrick School and St Louis high school classes shared classes at McKinley High School.
Sharing a campus by the high schools led to a fierce rivalry. To ease some of the tension, reportedly, Saint Louis football coach (later Honolulu Mayor) Neal Blaisdell created the “poi pounder trophy,” to go to the winner of the annual Saint Louis/McKinley football game (this continued from 1942 to 1969.)
The Second World War proved to bring other challenges to the students of McKinley. They wanted to do their part in the nation’s war effort. A savings bond drive was conducted, and the students responded by buying over $200,000 in bonds and stamps.
The overwhelming success of the bond drive instigated a new project; the goal was to purchase a fighter bomber for the US Air Force. Students raised an additional $333,000 in war bonds to cover the cost of a Liberator bomber. In February 1944, the plane, christened “Madame Pele,” was presented to the US Air Force.
With the ending of WW II, Veterans’ School was begun on campus to help the McKinley young men who had left school for the war. One hundred and five veterans came back to McKinley and finished their education.
In the 1960s, the students had an opportunity to choose from a wider range of subjects in preparation for their post-high school education. McKinley continued to be a comprehensive public high school in Hawaiʻi.
Comprehensive high schools are meant to serve the needs of all students; typical comprehensive high schools offer more than one course of specialization in its program and usually have a college preparatory course and one or more scientific or vocational courses.
The school colors, black and gold, were selected when McKinley High School was very young. Gold was chosen for McKinley’s close association with Hawaiian royalty. Not only was the school started during the reign of Kamehameha V, but also Honolulu High School, the predecessor of McKinley High School, used the home of Princess Ruth for a school house.
In searching for a color to compliment the gold, black was agreed upon. Part of the reason for the selection was that many McKinley graduates continued their education at Princeton University, whose colors are also black and gold. The nickname, “Tigers”, was possibly derived from the close association with Princeton.
Another proud aspect of McKinley’s history is the Code of Honor written in 1927 by student Mun Chee Chun. The code expressed the high standard of behavior which McKinley students tried to maintain. The original plaque of the code is proudly displayed in the main foyer of the Administration building.