Arriving Again — Part Two

I drove on over the overpass into downtown, and was happy to realize I could still drive myself through the main business district. I had no trouble finding a place to park, and got out for a walk around town

Meridian, when I lived there in the 60’s, was a bustling town of almost 50,000 that served as the business center for several surrounding counties of Mississippi and Western  Alabama.  Downtown was an area about ten blocks square with one 16-story “skyscraper”, the Threefoot building,* and there were the usual department stores, banks,  churches, Kress’s, Newberry’s. shoe stores, furniture and hardware stores, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, train station, bus station, movie theater, restaurants, drug stores, hotels. federal courthouse and county courthouse. I don’t recall empty storefronts, though there may have been a few.

*While checking my recollections about Meridian on the web, I learned that Threefoot was the name of a prominent Jewish family, who emigrated to the Southern US from Germany in the 19th century and anglicized their name from “Dreyfuss” to “Threefoot.”  I don’t speak German, but I am told Dreyfuss means three foot.

A small part of downtown, centered at Fifth Street and Fifth Avenue, was the “black ” section of town.  In that area there were several black-owned buildings and business, including Young’s Hotel, Fielder and Brooks Pharmacy, barber shops, and a taxi stand, Adjoining the “black” section of town, were shops owned by whites, but where blacks were welcome as customers. The first COFO office was on the second floor of the Fielder and Brooks Building (below left), and the second office on 25th Avenue (below right) were both in this section.

I was aware of the intricate rules of racial commerce, but as a white person with little spending money, I didn’t master them except to avoiding patronizing any place a black person couldn’t go.  There were restaurants where you could order standing up at the counter but not sit down; there were restaurants where you could not enter  the front, but could order take-out from the back door, and there were a couple of places with black seating sections. In a couple of the clothing stores near the black section you could try on clothes; in others you could buy clothes, but not try them on, and still others you just didn’t go in at all if you were black.

I learned to drink Coca-Cola in Mississippi the way a lot of kids learn to drink alcohol at college. It was cold and thirst-quenching, and, when I think about it, had the virtue of being sold  from the  red machines around town that took your money without ever looking at the color of your skin.  To my knowledge, no one ever tried to design a whites-only Coke machine.

As a college student in Cambridge, MA, I swam with the crowd, and was in no way conspicuous.  In the black section of Meridian in 1964, I clearly looked different.  I was a white woman walking on sidewalks mostly frequented by blacks. From the first, everyone was friendly, and spoke with the sort of warm greeting I wasn’t used to in the reserved North.  They all seemed to know who I was and what I was doing there, and, even if they didn’t come to civil rights meetings, everyone on the streets acted glad to see me.

The white section of town was totally different.  White people did their best to act as if I was invisible, or, if they let on that they noticed me,  slightly unsavory.  Rarely, I would get the slightest nod. Looking back, it’s hard to put my finger on what made me (us — this pertained to all the civil rights workers) look so “northern.” Definitely, long hair was different.  Southern white ladies at the time wore their hair teased and carefully pinned up and hair-sprayed into place, or occasionally in a tidy page-boy.  The only white people with long hair were country people, and I wasn’t  mistaken for a country person. Other than my hair, I actually observed a lot of fashion conventions: I wore skirts and dresses at all times, never trousers. I wore a little make-up, though I never mastered powder and foundation. When I dressed up, I wore a girdle and stockings and flats or heels, though not for everyday wear, when I walked across town once or twice a day. As I picture myself walking unacknowledged along a busy sidewalk of white people, I think there was something else, a self-confidence or openness that was not considered seemly, or even polite, in a  lady at that time.

In no time at all, after just a few days on the sidewalks of the Meridian in 1964, without a  word being said,  it became clear that I was welcome in black Meridian and some sort of a trespasser in white Meridian.

As I started to walk around town in 2011, I had no trouble getting oriented. Meridian has a plat of east-west streets and north-south avenues, and these were all pretty much in place as I remembered.  But what lined those streets, in both the black and the white sections,  were blocks of empty storefronts or vacant lots.  I counted 40 empty storefronts, before I stopped counting in discouragement. The once-proud Threefoot Building stands empty. Suddenly those big box stores on the Interstate had a more insidious meaning.  They have literally sucked the life out of downtown Meridian.  Almost the entire economic life of the city has moved to the malls. As I walked through town, I couldn’t tell if people were unfriendly or friendly, because I didn’t see much of anyone at all.

The block where the first COFO office was located is now mostly empty lots, but the Fielder and Brooks Building, still stands,  albeit vacant and crumbling. The building on 25th Avenue where the later office stood has been razed and is in a row of vacant lots. Here are a couple of pictures of that area in livelier times.

Standing in the midst of all the vacant lots and boarded up buildings, gleaming like a breadbox-shaped Taj Mahal, stands Meridian’s newly renovated City Hall, updated at a cost of more than $17 million.

Here is a picture of City Hall in 1964, and, except for the models of the cars parked around it, it looks almost exactly the same today, $17 million later. The Police Department was here. It was to this building that COFO staff and kids were taken to be booked the various times we were arrested.  And it was in a holding cell in this building that  I spent four days in jail in November 1964.  This wasn’t the city jail, but they didn’t have a jail block for white women, and so they held me here.  Ironically, City Hall was directly across the street from the second COFO office: we could watch them, and they could watch us.  (They evidently weren’t watching, the night the COFO office got a bullet hole in the window.)

People who care about downtown Meridian today have given up on economic development.  Instead, they are trying to turn downtown into a cultural and historic center.  A  group of citizens, led by Roscoe Jones, has gotten the Fielder and Brooks Pharmacy building designated an historic site because of its history in the 1964 civil rights movement, and  have received a grant from the Mississippi Department of History and Archives to initiate planning for renovations, with an eye toward being ready to open in the summer of 2014, the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.  This is the office that Mickey Schwerner and his wife Rita, young CORE volunteers from NYC, opened in early 1964.  It was the office that Mickey and Andrew Goodman and James Chaney left from in June 1964 to investigate a church bombing in Neshoba County and where staff and friends waited anxiously by the phone for a call that never came.

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Comments

  • cefalk  On December 2, 2011 at 2:43 am

    I think the contrasts you write about are so poignant. It seems kind of ironic that as things have presumably gotten better for blacks in Meridian, the economic vitality of the city has been squeezed empty by big box economics.

    Also, I didn’t know you wore a girdle.

  • freedomsongs11  On December 2, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Yes, definitely a girdle. I had a Playtex rubber girdle. The girdle held up stockings until pantyhose came along — at the time they seemed like a marvelous invention. I think I stopped wearing a girdle earlier than many people, maybe 65 or 66. I do remember worrying that people would be able to tell I wasn’t wearing a girdle (hence was partly u dressed) because my behind would be jiggly. In those days, they definitely wanted you to be a tight-ass.

  • Hijo  On December 2, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Coke and the Democratization of Commerce….actually, coke was a big part of why atlanta’s white elite did not oppose integration in the way Bama and Mississippi did.

    • freedomsongs11  On December 2, 2011 at 11:09 pm

      Interesting about Co-Cola and Atlanta. I doubt that they consciously thought of selling Coke through machines as an alternative to segregated fountains. Nor did they probably see civil rights workers as a market. But, when I was thinking back, I realized how much easier it was to get a Coke from a machine than to deal with making a choice about whether to drink from a segregated water fountain (and which part to drink from) or go to a segregated lunch counter. Plus they were really cheap then. And they came in the beautiful green bottles.

  • Kristin Glaser  On December 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    Gail: I am getting into the narrative rhythm here. I like the texture of the story. Did you say before where the pictures are coming from? Kristin

    • freedomsongs11  On December 5, 2011 at 12:58 am

      Hmmm. No I didn’t say about the pictures. In this blog, the top two are from Google images, and all the rest in this post are snapshots I had in an old album, which I have scanned. (I put in more pix since you asked). I didn’t take the black and white photos. These and quite a few others I have were taken by a family friend from Pgh. who came and visited for a couple of days, probably in November 64.

  • Larry  On December 24, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Gail … I am enjoying reading your blog. I look forward to more posts aboout the cultural differences you observed between 1964 and 2011. Keep up the good work.

  • LENRAY GANDY  On January 16, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    I truly love this. It is simply amazing to look back at pictures of myself, my brother and sisters as children. I am two photos, my brother on two, my two sisters pictures here have passed. My mother will love seeing these pics. We lived acrossed the streets from the COFO Center and was there EVERY day. My grandmother ran a cafe where they often ate. My mother marched in many protest. We were good friends of Mickey, Rita, James, Freeman, Luke and the others who came for our cause. I look forward to more pics. Thank you for this.

    • Gail Falk  On January 16, 2012 at 3:57 pm

      Dear Lenray. How wonderful to hear from you. Of course I remember you — your bright eyes and big grin that you had as a little boy. Do you still have them? We have a lot more pictures of you and your brothers and sisters. Some are in the other posts, and I can send you links to some picturesPatti Miller, Donna Garde, and Mark Levy (other volunteers) took. When Mark Levy and I were in Meridian in October, we saw Lance. Where aré you living now. I remembre your brothers and sisters. because we saw younall the time, but i can’t remembre the names of your mother and grandmother. Is your mother well? I am going back to Meridian in February and would love to visit any members of your family that are still there.

  • LENRAY GANDY  On January 20, 2012 at 4:06 am

    My mother, Ms Rosie Lee Gandy is great, she lives a quarter of a block away from First Union Church. My grandmother Ms Effie Lee Lucas passed in 2003, also my sisters Linda in 2006 and Lois in 2010. Larry lives in Hattiesburg, Lance and I live in Meridian. I have began writing a story in the eyes of a child during Freedom Summer. I have some pics and would like to use any that you have as well and include you in the footnote.. I will send you a copy of what I have written thus far, I am sure you will enjoy it! I am trying to find out who’s arms that I am in on a photo (a female standing next to Freeman),I had gotten sick one day and she carried me home (across the street). Len

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