Meridian is the sixth largest city in the U.S. State of Mississippi. It is the county seat of Lauderdale County and the principal city of the Meridian, Mississippi Micropolitan Statistical Area. Along major highways, the city is east of Jackson, Mississippi; west of Birmingham, Alabama; northeast of New Orleans, Louisiana; and southeast of Memphis, Tennessee.
Established in 1860 at the intersection of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad and Southern Railway of Mississippi, Meridian relied heavily on the rails and goods transported on them. Union Station is now also home to several other modes of transportation, including the Meridian Transit System, Greyhound Buses, and Trailways, averaging 242,360 passengers per year. During the American Civil War, much of the city was burned to the ground by General William Tecumseh Sherman in the Battle of Meridian.
Rebuilt after the war, the city entered a "Golden Age", becoming the largest city in Mississippi between 1890 and 1930 and a leading center for manufacturing in the South. It had 44 trains coming in and out daily. Although its economy slowed with the decline of the railroad industry, the city has diversified, with healthcare, military, and manufacturing employing the most people in 2010. The population within the city limits, according to 2008 census estimates, is 38,232, but a population of 232,900 in a radius and 526,500 in a radius, of which 104,600 and 234,200 people respectively are in the labor force, feed the economy of the city.
The area is served by two military facilities, Naval Air Station Meridian and Key Field, which provide over 4,000 jobs to the surrounding area. NAS Meridian is home to the Regional Counter-Drug Training Academy (RCTA) and the first local Department of Homeland Security in the state. Key Field is named after Fred and Al Key, who set a world endurance flight record in 1935. The field is now home to the 186th Air Refueling Wing of the Air National Guard and a support facility for the 185th Aviation Brigade of the Army National Guard. Rush Foundation Hospital is the largest non-military employer in the region, employing 2,610 people.
Among the city's many arts organizations and historic buildings are the Riley Center, the Meridian Museum of Art, Meridian Little Theatre, and the Meridian Symphony Orchestra. Meridian was home to two Carnegie libraries, one for whites and one for African Americans. The Carnegie Branch Library, now demolished, was one of a number of Carnegie libraries built for blacks in the Southern United States.
The city has been selected as the future location of the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center (MAEC). Jimmie Rodgers, the "Father of Country Music", was born in Meridian. Highland Park houses a museum which displays memorabilia of his life and career, as well as railroad equipment from the steam-engine era. The park is also home to the Highland Park Dentzel Carousel, a National Historic Landmark – the world's only two-row stationary Dentzel menagerie in existence. Other notable natives include Miss America 1986 Susan Akin, James Chaney – one of the victims of the Mississippi civil rights workers murders in 1964, and Hartley Peavey, founder of Peavey Electronics which is headquartered in Meridian. The federal courthouse was the site of the 1966-1967 trial of suspects in the murder of Chaney and two other activists; it was the first time a white jury convicted a white official of a civil rights killing.
Previously inhabited by the Choctaw Native Americans, the area now called Meridian was obtained by the United States under the terms of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830. After the treaty was ratified, European-American settlers began to move into the area. After receiving a federal land grant of about , Richard McLemore, the first settler of Meridian, began offering free land to newcomers to attract more settlers to the region and develop the area. Most of McLemore's land was bought by Lewis A. Ragsdale, a lawyer from Alabama, in 1853. John T. Ball, a merchant from Kemper County, bought the remaining . Ragsdale and Ball, now known as the founders of the city, began laying out lots for new development on their respective land sections.
There was much competition over the proposed name of the settlement. Ball and the more industrial residents of the city supported the name "Meridian," believing the term to be synonymous with "junction"; the more agrarian residents of the city preferred "Sowashee" (meaning "mad river" in a Native American language), the name of a nearby creek; and Ragsdale proposed "Ragsdale City." Ball erected a station house on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad – the sign on which would alternate between "Meridian" and "Sowashee" each day. Eventually the continued development of the railroads led to an influx of railroad workers who overruled the others in the city and left "Meridian" on the station permanently, and the town was officially incorporated as Meridian on February 10, 1860.
The town boomed in the aftermath of the Civil War, and experienced its "Golden Age" from 1880 to 1910. The railroads in the area provided for a means of transportation and an influx of industries, which caused a population boom. As the population rose, commercial activity increased in the downtown area. Between 1890 and 1930, Meridian was the largest city in Mississippi and a leading center for manufacturing in the South. Many of the city's historic buildings were built during and just after this era, including the Grand Opera House in 1890, the Wechsler School in 1894, two Carnegie libraries in 1913, and the Threefoot Building, Meridian's tallest skyscraper, in 1929.
The city continued to grow thanks to a commission government's efforts to bring in 90 new industrial plants in 1913 and a booming automobile industry in the 1920s. Even through the stock market crash of 1929 and the following Great Depression, the city continued to attract new businesses. With escapism becoming popular in the culture during the depth of the Depression, the S. H. Kress & Co. building, built to "provide luxury to the common man," opened in downtown Meridian, as did the Temple Theater, which was used as a movie house. The federal courthouse was built in 1933 as a WPA project.
After a brief slowdown of the economy at the end of the Depression, the country entered World War II, which renewed the importance of railroads. The rails were essential to transport gasoline and scrap metal to build military vehicles, so Meridian became the region's rail center again. This renewed prosperity continued until the 1950s, when the automobile and Interstate Highway System became more popular than passenger rails. The decline of the railroad industry caused significant job losses, resulting in a population decline as workers left for other areas.
During the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Meridian was home to a Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) office and several other activist organizations. James Chaney and other local residents, along with Michael Schwerner, his wife Rita, and Andrew Goodman, volunteers from the North, worked on creating a community center to help prepare African Americans in the area to regain the power to vote. Whites in the area resented the activism, and racial tension often translated to violence. In June 1964, Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman went to Neshoba County, Mississippi to meet with members of a black church which had been bombed and burned. The three disappeared that night on their way back to Meridian, and their bodies were discovered, buried in an earthen dam, two months later.
Seven Klansmen, including a deputy sheriff, were convicted in the federal courthouse in Meridian of "depriving the victims of their civil rights" and three were acquitted in the Mississippi civil rights workers murders trial. It was the first time that a white jury had convicted "a white official in a civil rights killing." In 2005, the case was reopened by the state, which brought charges in the case for the first time. Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Meridian later honored Chaney by renaming a portion of 49th Avenue after him and holding an annual memorial service.
Starting in the 1960s, residents began to move away from downtown in favor of new subdivisions north of downtown. After strip commercial interests began to move downtown, the city worked to designate several areas as historic districts in the 1970s and 80s to preserve the architectural character of the city. The Meridian Historic Districts and Landmarks Commission was created in 1979, and the Meridian Main Street program was founded in 1985.
After ownership of the Meridian Main Street was transferred to the Alliance for Downtown Meridian in late 2007, the two organizations, along with the Meridian Downtown Association, spearheaded the downtown revitalization effort. The Alliance serves as an umbrella organization, allowing the other two organizations to use the its support staff and housing, and in turn the Alliance serves as a liaison between the organizations. Plans were underway to renovate the Threefoot Building, but Mayor Cheri Barry killed the plans in early 2010. Today, the Alliance helps to promote further development and restoration downtown, stating that it focuses on assisting businesses such as specialty shops, restaurants, and bars because these types of businesses help downtown become more active during the day and at night. The Meridian Downtown Association is primarily focused on increasing foot traffic downtown by organizing special events, and the Meridian Main Street program supports existing businesses downtown.
Many historic hotels have existed in Meridian throughout its history. Even before Meridian reached its "Golden Age," several large hotels including the Great Southern and the Grand Avenue hotels were built before the start of the 20th century. With the growth of the railroads and the construction of the original Union Station in 1906, many hotels were constructed for passengers and workers. The Elmira Hotel was constructed in 1905, and the Terminal Hotel was constructed in 1910. Hotel Meridian was constructed in 1907, and Union Hotel was built in 1908. Union Hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, and both Hotel Meridian and Grand Avenue Hotel were listed as contributing properties to the Meridian Urban Center Historic District.
As the city grew, the hotels grew as well, as evidenced by the eleven-story skyscraper Lamar Hotel built in 1927. Lamar Hotel today serves as a county annex building and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. It was also listed as a Mississippi Landmark in 1988.
The E.F. Young Hotel was established in 1931. A staple in the African-American business district that grew west of the city's core, the hotel was one of the only places in the city during the years of segregation where a travelling African American could find a room.
As the city became more suburb-focused in the 1960s and '70s, most hotels moved outside of downtown. There has been a push for a new downtown hotel, sparked by the rehabilitation of the Riley Center in 2006. The Threefoot Building has been the main focus of these efforts; however, the hotel remains unrestored.
Meridian contains nine historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One district, the Meridian Downtown Historic District, is a combination of two older districts, the Meridian Urban Center Historic District and the Union Station Historic District. Many architectural styles are present in the districts, most from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Italianate, Art Deco, Late Victorian, and Bungalow. The districts are:
East End Historic District — roughly bounded by 18th St, 11th Ave, 14th St, 14th Ave, 5th St, and 17th Ave.
Highlands Historic District — roughly bounded by 15th St, 34th Ave, 19th St, and 36th Ave.
Meridian Downtown Historic District — runs from the former Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad north to 6th St between 18th and 26th Ave, excluding Ragsdale Survey Block 71.
Merrehope Historic District — roughly bounded by 33rd Ave, 30th Ave, 14th St, and 8th St.
Mid-Town Historic District — roughly bounded by 23rd Ave, 15th St, 28th Ave, and 22nd St.
Poplar Springs Road Historic District — roughly bounded by 29th St, 23rd Ave, 22nd St, and 29th Ave.
West End Historic District — roughly bounded by 7th St, 28th Ave, Shearer's Branch, and 5th St.