By Whitney Downard
The Meridian Star
MERIDIAN, Miss.—In recent months, the Wechsler Foundation has made strides in preserving the Wechsler School in Meridian, which was the first brick school in Mississippi built for black students using public money.
The school needs new mechanical systems and rehabilitation to bring it to its former glory, but the foundation hopes to get the community involved in plans for the school.
On Tuesday evening, the foundation invited community members, many former Wechsler students themselves, to express their hopes for the school. With the help of the Carl Small Town Center, a community design center at Mississippi State University, the foundation will develop a plan for the historic landmark using input from the meeting.
Thomas Gregory, with the Carl Small Town Center, said he, the center’s director Leah Kemp, and three students will assist in finding a shared vision among community members and Wechsler School stakeholders.
“We work with the Wechsler Foundation to come up with ideas and try to understand what the community wants to see at that site,” Gregory said. “The work that we do revolves around community involvement.”
Edward Lynch, the president of the Wechsler Foundation, said that he wanted to build something that the community needed, not something that would go unused.
“What we don’t want is to build a nice facility that nobody wants to use,” Lynch said. “Something needs to be there that people have to come to (Wechsler) to get.”
Joann Hooper, a former Wechsler student and board member, recalled some of her memories at the school, including book fairs, annual plays and a May Pole on May Day.
“The community needs to be revitalized,” Hooper said. “We don’t need people to talk, we need people to be committed.”
For Rev. Greg Moore, also a former student and board member, the neighborhood flourished with the school.
“I can name 10 accomplished professionals raised in that neighborhood,” said Moore, who lives near the school and wore a Wechsler shirt to the meeting. “The atmosphere of Wechsler exceeded Wechsler itself.”
The ten gathered community members discussed the best uses for Wechsler, debating the value of a history museum documenting Meridian’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, a business incubator, education courses or art classes.
Following the meeting, Gregory said the center would take some months to draft a final plan for the foundation to use and implement. The plan would include funding streams, alternate uses for the building and more.
“Part of our challenge is to take the myriad of ideas and find something sustainable,” Gregory said. “Obviously the community is very excited about the project and had a lot of great ideas.”
Lynch, though encouraged by the meeting, said one of the barriers to the project will be communication with the community.
“We have to develop the vision and then be able to sell the vision,” Lynch said. “We would have liked to have a few more people here but the people here were great… I think we’re really onto something.”