A fascinating portrait of early Meridian
Editor's note: This is the third of a four-part series on a new book by historian Hewitt Clarke, a Meridian native. The book depicts the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but also describes an era of honky tonk fighters in Meridian, never equaled before or since. The East End Tea Room was not a Klan hangout but a colorful beer joint that depicts the honky tonk scene during that bygone period of Meridian's history.
By Carol James / special to The Star
Oct. 4, 2002
Being a native Oklahoman, there are many things I don't know about Mississippi history. However, the longer I live in Mississippi, the more I am realizing that what little I was taught about the South in school wasn't exactly the whole truth.
One section of Meridian native Hewitt Clarke's new book, "The East End Tea Room," paints a fascinating picture of early Mississippi (and specifically Meridian) history that many newcomers to the state may find very eye opening.
The history of slavery in our country, as well as the developing racial tone in Mississippi, is a recurring theme in this book. Clarke opens one section in the 1700s at the Choctaw Nation fort at Koosa, a war village on the northern outskirts of the future Meridian. French soldiers from Mobile approached the village with an urgent message. The Natchez Indians had attacked Fort Rosalie in Natchez and massacred the men of the army garrison and taken captive the women, children and 200 slaves.
A few weeks later accompanied by the French Infantry, the Choctaws attacked the Natchez at Grand Village, and freed the women and children. However, when the French didn't come through with what they promised to give them, the Choctaws kept some of the slaves and brought them back to Koosa town. These slaves became the first became the first Black Africans to the Meridian area.
After the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1831, the Choctaws were removed to the west. Two years later the land around Koosa became Lauderdale County.
Clarke next begins a detailed discussion about what led our country to a Civil War. His coverage of the North and South's struggle for financial power may provide a different view of the cause of the war from what is presented in the more "politically correct" school textbooks.
Mississippi was the second state to secede from the Union (South Carolina was the first). However, what many may not realize (as Clarke points out), the plantation counties along the Mississippi River with by far the largest slave population voted against the secession. It was the smaller counties with relatively smaller slave populations that carried the vote to secede.
When the war began, Meridian quickly became a military center of the Confederate Army in Mississippi and Alabama. According to Clarke, white canvas tents covered most of the land in town. Although the soldiers were enthusiastic about defending their beliefs, as the war progressed the glory of battle soon became disheartening and wearisome.
Clarke gives a brief overview of the war including Sherman's Meridian Expedition. Sherman had three objectives for his expedition destroy the railroads and supply depots at Meridian, beat the devil Forrest, and attack Selma. The small Confederate force at Meridian managed to load canons, rifles and other supplies on trains for Columbus and Mobile. By the time the Yankees arrived, the Confederate soldiers were gone.
At the close of the war, business in Meridian quickly picked up even with the harsh "shackles of Reconstruction." Meridian's political situation, though, was like "a powder keg ready to explode." Clarke explains the workings of several of the Reconstruction groups in town the regional Freedom Bureau which was to oversee the work contracts between land owners and former slaves; the heavily armed Negro state militia, which guarded the polls making it hard for black citizens to vote the Democratic ticket; the Republicans' secret political organization the Loyal League and the Democrat's organized secret political organization, the Ku Klux Klan.
Clarke dramatically recounts the story behind the Meridian Riot of 1871. This riot culminated in a vicious shooting spree in the courtroom of Con Sheehan Hall.
Part of The East End Tea Room deals with the Rise of the Ku Klux Klan. On July 3, 1923, in downtown Meridian, 400 Klansmen in white robes with red crosses on their breasts marched toward the fair grounds on the Southside. Thousands of spectators watched this procession. The Klan was having a revival nationwide during this time. Since the political climate in Meridian was fairly calm, the local Klan mostly disciplined men who drank too much and didn't take care of their families.
Clarke finishes out this section with a discussion of the racial climate in the country and in Mississippi after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education that reversed the separate but equal school system in the nation and ordered integration of the public schools.
Carol James works in the Adult Services Department of the Meridian-Lauderdale County Public Library.
Tomorrow: Historic account of a troubled time.