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Meridian honors memory of historic desegregation case

Published 4:53pm Tuesday, May 18, 2004

By By Erin Hilsabeck / staff writer
May 18, 2004
Jesse Palmer had been teaching math at a black high school in Meridian for 10 years when he transferred to a newly integrated county school in January 1970 and began working with black and white students.
Palmer, who today is one of two black members of the Meridian City Council, said he felt comfortable with the transition from racially segregated to integrated public schools as well as student reaction to having a black teacher.
Palmer was one of about 50 people who met Monday at Dumont Plaza in downtown Meridian to mark the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling which led to school desegregation.
The May 17, 1954, decision said that separate schools for blacks and whites were unequal. Despite that, it was another 16 years before Meridian and Lauderdale County schools were desegregated.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sponsored the Meridian rally, which primarily attracted black officials and educators as well as a small group of Meridian High School students.
Mayor John Robert Smith, Meridian School Superintendent Sylvia Autry and Lauderdale County School Superintendent David Little all of whom are white emphasized at the rally the importance of the court decision on education.
Before and after the rally, some people reminisced briefly about what it was like during the days of desegregation.
Donna Kendrick taught business classes at Shirley-Owen High School, a black high school in Quitman, when schools were ordered to integrate in December 1969.
Kendrick, who is black, ended up teaching blacks and whites at Quitman High School.
Kendrick, Palmer and Walter Patton, president of the Meridian-Lauderdale County chapter of the NAACP, said problems and fears related to integration were few.
Patton said for every 30 students, three were black.
Patton was in the seventh grade at Kate Griffin Junior High School in December 1969 when desegregation sent him one month later to Magnolia Middle School where he finished the year.
Patton said he didn't face conflict, other than what he called "typical boy behavior" that had nothing to do with race. He recalled the integration period in Meridian as being new, frightening and exciting.

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