In 1831, Virginian Richard McLemore was the first to settle in the area that is now known as Meridian. It was just a year after the Choctaw Indians agreed to vacate their territories in Mississippi under the terms of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. McLemore offered free land to entice more people to travel to the region, and when the railroads were linked to the area in 1855, the future of Meridian was secured. By the early 1860s, Meridian was a small community with 15 families. New growth was spurred by the town’s 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.
Timber and cotton became important commodities in the economy, and the rails used for transporting them helped bring prosperity to Meridian once again. The city entered its most progressive era – the Golden Age – and from 1890 to 1930, Meridian was the state's largest city and a leader in manufacturing. It was during this time that the existing skyline was built. It began with the Grand Opera House, which opened its doors in 1890, and continued with the Threefoot Building, an Art Deco masterpiece. It was Meridian's tallest skyscraper and was soon followed by the Carnegie Library, which now houses the Museum of Art, along with fine hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Today, many of Meridian's historic neighborhoods feature fine homes and buildings typical of that era – a magnet for heritage tourism.
There are nine historic districts and neighborhoods recognized in the city, with the downtown district having the largest collection of historic buildings in the state. Architectural gems aren’t Meridian’s only treasure. Meridian has produced many talented people, including Jimmie Rodgers, known as “The Father of Country Music.” The Meridian native gained popularity in the 1920s and 1930s through his vocal and guitar music, which helped shape a new musical style. The sharecroppers and railroads in the area influenced Rodgers’ songs of the poor man’s South, giving him a distinctive place in the world. One of Meridian’s most famous daughters is actress Sela Ward, who won the 1994 Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her work in the television series Sisters, and who also entertained us in the series Once and Again.