Meridian's history begins in 1831, one year after the Choctaw Indians agreed to vacate their territories in Mississippi under the terms of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Richard McLemore of Virginia settled first in the area from which Meridian would grow. He offered free land to draw more people into the region. When the railroads linked to the area in 1855, Meridian's future was secured. During the early 1860s, Meridian was a small community of 15 families. New growth was spurred by the town's strategic geographical location for railroads. During the Civil War, Meridian was the site of a Confederate arsenal, a military hospital, a prisoner-of-war stockade, and headquarters for a number of state offices. In February 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman's army destroyed the city's railroads and much of the surrounding area. Sherman is credited with saying, "Meridian no longer exists." Despite this, the railroad tracks were repaired in 26 working days, and the city continued to grow. As timber, cotton, and the rails used for transporting them brought good times back to Lauderdale County, Meridian entered its most progressive era, known as the Golden Age. From 1890 until 1930, Meridian was the state's largest city and a leader in manufacturing. During this time, much of the existing skyline was built. The Grand Opera House opened its doors in 1890. The Threefoot Building, an Art Deco masterpiece, became Meridian's tallest skyscraper, and Meridian's Carnegie Library, which now houses the Museum of Art, was constructed. Today, many of Meridian's historic neighborhoods feature fine homes and buildings typical of their eras. The city has nine recognized historic districts and neighborhoods, including the largest collection of historic buildings in its downtown district in the state. For more on Meridian's Downtown Historic District resources, visit the Historic Preservation Commission's website.
Not only has Meridian produced architectural gems, but it also has produced many talented people. One of the most famous is Jimmie Rodgers, known as the Father of Country Music. Born in Meridian, the "Singing Brakeman" gained popularity during the late 1920s and early 1930s through his vocal and guitar music, which helped shape a new musical style. Sharecroppers and railroads influenced his songs of the poor man's South, giving him a distinctive place in the music world. One of Meridian's most famous entertainers today is Sela Ward, who entertained us in the television series Sisters, for which she won the 1994 Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series, and in the hit drama Once and Again for which she won the 2000 Emmy Award in the same category.