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franklin county times

Rebuilding the past

By Staff
Rich history
Even though the African-American district shares some of the same rich history and culture as the rest of downtown Meridian, the condition there is much worse than the area around the Grand Opera House.
There are few street lights there and no underground power lines or fancy curb shrubbery.
Most of the area's buildings have decayed. Many of the upper floors of the remaining buildings have broken windows and leaky roofs, leaving many open to rain and prone to rot.
Some buildings are completely gone, with nothing left but an empty lot and the name of a business written in tile on the sidewalk where the entrance once stood.
Even the streets in the district are in poor condition. In some places, the asphalt layers on the streets have worn so thin that they have uncovered the city's older cobblestone roads.
And then there are the drainage problems. Four green sandbags rest against the rotted wood footboards of the Meridian Cab Co., where owners placed the bags after a recent rain.
Some motorists who drive through the area rarely stop. Others avoid it altogether, especially after the sun goes down when the few barber shops and salons close and give way to late-night clubs and pool halls.
Downtown activity
The African American Historic Business District wasn't always so bleak.
In the late 1800s, the stretch of Fifth Street in the district was the center of Meridian's downtown activity. The Con Sheehan building, leveled last month by Hurricane Ivan, was built in 1870 and was the city's second-oldest building.
The Con Sheehan building originally housed the Lauderdale County Courthouse on the second floor and a saloon on the first. A recent study indicated it also was the site of the Freedom School during the Civil Rights era.
Local leaders hope to eventually build a museum at the location in honor of the Freedom School.
Also on Fifth Street was the Fielder and Brooks Drug Store, where civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman left the morning of June 21, 1964 the day they were brutally murdered.
The few business people in the district today said they hope a new effort by local leaders to refurbish the area will begin soon. Lewis is one of those people; he wants to revive a downtown he enjoyed as a teenager.
Lewis' barber shop was once home to the Fifth Street Grill, which housed a pool hall and hotel rooms upstairs. Next-door was the legendary Beale's Cafe, one of the area's most popular eateries.
Fond memories
Lewis turned off his clippers and smiled when asked about his fondest memories of Fifth Street. He pointed across the street to a weed-covered vacant lot former home of the Magnolia Star movie theater.
Across the street from Lewis' barber shop, at the corner of Fifth Street and 25th Avenue, sits one of the area's oldest landmarks: the E.F. Young Hotel, which housed travelers for less than $5 a night.
State Rep. Charles Young, D-Meridian, and his family still own the building today as well as many other properties along Fifth Street. Today, the hotel remains vacant.
Young said he believes it's important for future property owners to invest in the rebirth of the area.
Local businessman
Tavio Rand is one of several people who rent space on Fifth Street from Young and one of a new breed of businessmen to move to the area.
Rand runs a speciality store in the district that offers such items as oil-based incense, soaps and car fresheners including the homemade scents of "Brotha Man" and "African Flower."
Rand moved his store, called "Things that make ya go hmmm," in June from Bonita Lakes Mall to Fifth Street because he thought the area was on the verge of becoming vibrant once again.
Lewis plans to continue to operate his barber shop regardless of what happens. But he said he would like to see Fifth Street return to a time when "everybody was down here and it was so crowded you could hardly walk."
Lewis tries to preserve the atmosphere from years gone by. Strangers in his shop are treated like family. Customers sit around and talk about the baseball playoffs, the presidential race and church.

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