Meridian's History - Visit Meridian

Meridian's History

Meridian's History

Eventful History

Listen and Meridian Will Tell You Its Story

Some once-proud buildings now stoop with age. Still, you can look at the details of their architecture — Italianate, Beaux Arts, Art Deco, Romanesque, and many other styles typical of 20th-century cities — and picture how they stood when they were young and strong and beautiful. You can almost hear the clang of streetcars and the happy hum of daily commerce from the days when downtown WAS Meridian.

Many structures have stayed in top shape — or have had a little work done. Three resplendently refurbished adjacent buildings make up Mississippi State University-Meridian’s Riley Campus: the MSU Riley Center (the old Marks Rothenberg department store and the Grand Opera House), the Deen Building (the former Newberry department store), and the Rosenbaum Building (once the Kress five and dime store).

In the next block, Meridian’s tallest structure is getting an offices-to-hotel makeover. The Threefoot Building, a 16-story Art Deco beauty, opened in 1929. (“Threefoot” is an Anglicization of the builders’ family name, Dreyfus.)

Other buildings exist now only as façades, or as a bit of crumbling wall, or as a ghost of an empty space. For a history buff, such fragments whisper of times gone by, like the ruins of the ancient world that draw travelers from around the globe.

Markers from four different historical trails help fill in the gaps. The Mississippi Blues Trail and Mississippi Country Music Trail recognize the stars and the sites that helped create and develop those two very American musical genres. They intertwine more than you might think. Meridian-born Jimmie Rodgers is known as the Father of Country Music, but a marker near Union Station (a Mission Revival–style railroad depot, originally much larger) describes his contributions to the blues as well. The music trails extend statewide.


The community has also created two local trails: the Meridian Civil War Trail (10 markers) and the Meridian Civil Rights Trail (18 markers). The war devastated the then-budding settlement. “Meridian, with its depots, storehouses, arsenals, hospitals, offices, hotels, and cantonments no longer exists,” proclaimed Union General William T. Sherman after his troops spent five days destroying nearly everything they could find. However, 26 working days later, trains once again rolled on the repaired tracks.

The markers, and their accompanying online videos, provide many other fascinating tidbits, including the fact that now-peaceful Highland Park was the site of a fierce Civil War skirmish. Visitors reported finding buttons and minié balls decades later.

Exploring a more recent part of Meridian’s history, the Civil Rights Trail packs a bigger emotional punch as it introduces you to poignant reminders of a most turbulent era. Navigating the trail will expose you to uncomfortable truths that many people would prefer to forget. And it also introduces you to people and places that sparked positive change, not just for Meridian, but for the entire country. Sounds echo along this trail. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the banging of the gavel at the old Federal Courthouse as the eyes of the nation watched the course of civil rights litigation change with one verdict. And at the old Freedom School site — the largest schools in the state — you can almost hear the voices of Freedom Summer workers who came from across the country to provide better educational opportunities for African American children. Here, children weren’t just tutored in basic academics; they were introduced to black history and the French language.

Keys to the Sky

At the Meridian Regional Airport, check out the photographic display next to baggage claim. It commemorates an incredible feat that took place a few hundred feet above your head. In 1935, brothers Fred and Al Key set an endurance record by staying aloft in a Curtiss Robin monoplane for nearly a month: 653 hours 34 minutes, or more than 27 days.

Both Civil War and Civil Rights trails have accompanying educational resource packets that can be found on Visit Meridian’s website. Packets contain additional information and activities to assist teachers planning school field trips.

The city speaks in so many different voices: the laughter of children on the 1896 vintage Dentzel Carousel in Highland Park; the appreciative murmurs of bus tour visitors at the Merrehope and F. W. Williams historic homes; the tick-tick-tick of the overhead pulleys and belts running the machinery at the Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum/Soulé Steam Feed Works, a nearly intact steam engine factory that, incredibly, operated until 2002; and the pop of a wine cork at Weidmann’s, the oldest restaurant in the state. Lovers of history will want to explore the Meridian Museum of Art, a former Carnegie Library opened in 1913, and The MAX (Mississippi’s Arts + Entertainment Experience), the bustling new showcase for the contributors to Mississippi’s impressive legacy of creativity.

They’ll want to investigate Meridian’s surroundings, driving to Dunn’s Falls Water Park to check out the 1857 gristmill (and maybe do some splashing in the water), and to the time capsule known as the Simmons-Wright General Store.

And they’ll want to reserve some time for contemplation. Like every city, Meridian regrets some of its history. But the community nevertheless remembers all of its yesterdays, including those that show just how far modern-day Meridian has progressed. Cherishing the best of its past, acknowledging the full picture, Meridian presents itself as one big, contradictory, spellbinding, ever-changing, and absolutely authentic museum of the South — and of America — in the  21st century.

A Tale of Two Theaters

At the MSU Riley Center and the Temple Theatre for the Performing Arts, history buffs will enjoy the theaters themselves as much as the performances they host.

The Riley Center theater opened in 1890 as the Grand Opera House, a Victorian gem with opera boxes and elegantly curved balconies. Meridian provided a convenient stop for theatrical and musical acts traveling to and from New Orleans by rail. The theater later showed movies as well, and closed in 1927 when a new movie venue opened nearby. Lovingly restored and updated, it reopened amid deserved fanfare in 2006 as an intimate space for concerts, plays, dance productions, and other performing-arts events.

The venue that filled that 1927 void was the Temple Theatre, a grand Moorish Revival movie palace in the Hamasa Shrine Temple building. Today, it presents movies, plays, and concerts (including lots of gospel, soul, and rap shows, many featuring local artists).