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  • Nicole J. Burton

The Riddle of Meridian

Mamie and Don of the Century B&B made me a wonderful breakfast and learning about my research, Don offered to drive me to James Chaney's gravesite on the outskirts of town. Truthfully, he wanted to drive my Jeep. (I'd asked the rental company for a small subcompact hoping to slide quietly across Mississippi but God has a sense of humor and I ended up with a huge turquoise Jeep with Minnesota tags.) It was a pleasure to be driven awhile and Mamie pointed out sights from the backseat, the high schools and the synagogue bombed in 1968 by the KKK, the national headquarters of which is in Philadelphia, thirty miles north. I saw a map showing black and white populations by county and realized that Neshoba County where Meridian is the county seat is a white county surrounded by mixed and majority black counties. The reason we know the name "Meridian" is because it's where activists Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were kidnapped and murdered while investigating a church bombing. Leaving the Jeep at the B&B, I explored Meridian on foot. Before arriving, I'd imagined it as a dusty cowtown when in fact its downtown has many tall brick buildings, two Art Deco skyscrapers (one being renovated by Marriott), and historically had a large Jewish community. As far as I can tell, its prosperity derived from lumber shipping and the crossroads of north-south and east-west railroads. I followed the civil rights trail map and with difficulty found markers for the Meridian COFO/SNCC Office and Freedom School (both gone), St. Paul United Methodist and New Hope Baptist Churches, the Wechsler School (the state's first brick educational building for black students named for Rabbi Wechsler), the shuttered Head Start building, and the old black business area. At Weidmann's, "Since 1870," the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Mississippi, I feasted in style on mac n' cheese, turnip greens, fried green tomatoes, and corn bread. The photo is taken from the site of the COFO office, which was above a drugstore. The E. F. Young Hotel hosted Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he came to town. The complex developed into a hotel, two restaurants, a movie theater, beauty shop, two barber shops, a shoe shine parlor, and hair product manufacturing shop. I hope someone has plans to restore it.

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