Wechsler School:Opportunity for another life
In its own way, Wechsler School helped bridge the racial divide in Meridian.
What, you say, how can that be? Wechsler was a school for African American students, built in a time of stark segregation. That's true.
The original Wechsler School building built in 1894 was the first brick public school building in Mississippi for African Americans. Construction costs were paid from the proceeds of a public bond issue voted by the white citizens of Meridian.
All the children'
Plus, the school took its name from Rabbi Abraham Wechsler, who led the movement to provide public school facilities for African American children in Meridian.
So, from its very origins, Wechsler School crossed racial and cultural boundaries. Black. White. Jewish. Even at a time when educational facilities were separate and unequal and racial tensions marked daily life, citizens here managed to do something positive for their community.
At first, Wechsler students could only go through the eighth grade. By 1920, the 12th grade had been added. In 1936, when T.J. Harris Senior High School was built as Meridian's African American high school, Wechsler again housed grades one through eight. In 1950, a 400-seat auditorium was built, along with a cafeteria, four more classrooms plus a little office space.
It became an elementary school in 1959 and a kindergarten in 1970 when Harris High and Meridian High merged.
The Meridian public school district put Wechsler into mothballs in 1978, although early childhood development classes went on until the spring of 1982.
In the fall of 1984, a group of citizens approached the school board with a request to use the Wechsler building as a community arts center. Persistent efforts eventually paid off.
Since then, the Wechsler Community Arts Center Association acquired the building and it has served at various times as a community theater, Head Start center and senior citizens nutrition center.
From its vantage point at 3015 15th Street, Wechsler School has borne witness to change. This is not a posh suburb with mansions surrounded by finely manicured lawns. It is what might be called a working class inner city neighborhood.
The $385,000 grant awarded to the Wechsler Community Arts Center Association by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History will help keep the rain outside the building. Physical repairs are part of the work to be done.
But in a larger sense, the grant is state affirmation that Wechsler can and should again be an integral part of this community. As Jesse Brewster, president of the Wechsler Community Arts Center Association, says in a letter published today on page 5A of The Meridian Star, this can be "Meridian's Community Center."
Brewster is making a generous overture that Wechsler belongs to the entire community, and all citizens of Meridian are an important part of the process.
The grant complements an ongoing effort to raise money through a "no bake cake sale" where donors contribute the cost of their favorite cake.
Its mission statement says the organization wants to provide activities that are both educational and culturally stimulating. The Wechsler board has in mind:
tutoring youth and adults without high school diplomas so they can obtain GEDs;
parenting classes to single and young teen-age parents; and,
civic activities, including concerts to culturally enrich the surrounding community.
Brewster is especially excited about the possibility of job readiness workshops to teach techniques necessary to seek, gain and maintain employment. He'd like to see computer classes and related technology assistance.
Wechsler could also offer space for meetings, class reunions, recitals, wedding receptions, family reunions, private parties and fashion shows. It could be a museum of historical memorabilia.
It is said education gives children the tools they need to succeed in life. A nurturing, supportive community offers encouragement.
Another life for Wechsler School may be just what our community needs. This building could gain new life, make new contributions.
Brewster sees a day in the not too distant future when Wechsler School resumes its role as a cultural icon in a world that needs a shining beacon.
Buddy Bynum is editor of The Meridian Star. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.