Meridianites return home for 55th convention and picnic (2024)

Thousands of Meridianites, both those who still live in the city and many who have moved away, will gather in the Queen City this weekend to reunite and reconnect as the National Council of Meridianites Inc. holds its 55th convention and picnic.

The event, more commonly known as the Meridianite picnic, will bring home Meridian’s diaspora, those native to the city but who have left over the decades to pursue an education and better job opportunities across the nation.

Hosted by the Southern region home chapter, this year’s convention and picnic will run from Wednesday through Saturday with the theme, “When we all get together, what a day of rejoicing it will be.”

Events will be held at several venues around town with the Drury Inn & Suites serving as the headquarters hotel, and the traditional picnic, one of the highlights of the convention, being held in Highland Park.

“Reuniting with classmates, reuniting with family and that’s what the picnic does, it brings everybody back home,” Terrence Davis, cultural affairs coordinator for the city and a member of the picnic’s executive committee, said during an interview earlier this spring. “The sense of family is so strong in Highland Park, not just seeing people that you haven’t seen from 25, 30 years ago, but it’s like you’re reuniting with family and that’s what you feel in the atmosphere in Highland Park.”

The idea for a reunion picnic originated in the 1960s with a group of friends who graduated from the old segregated T.J. Harris High School: Lucille Kennedy Jackson, Steve Jackson and Annie B. Kennedy Horton, who lived in Detroit, Michigan, and Curtis Cole, Lessie Hill Cole and Clarice May Thomas, who lived in Cleveland, Ohio. The old friends had come together in Detroit for the funeral of a classmate, said Mable Oatis, a Natchez native who became involved with the Meridianite picnic through her husband, the late C.E. Oatis Jr.

After the service, they met up in a park to catch up on each other’s lives, Oatis said. Having not seen one another in years, the friends decided to stay in touch and plan a reunion picnic with the first one taking place in Detroit in 1967.

With a successful attendance, the picnic not only included Meridianites living in Detroit and Cleveland but also Cincinnati and across the Midwest. Chapters of Meridianites were soon formed across the country and the annual reunion picnic was held in other large cities and open not just to T.J. Harris alum but also to Lauderdale County residents who went to the old Middleton Attendance Center, former St. Joseph Catholic School students and Meridian High School graduates.

The annual picnic was first held in Meridian in 1974 with about 6,000 people attending and the organization was officially named the National Council of Meridianites Inc., Oatis said. It became tradition for the picnic to be held in Meridian every fifth year, traveling to cities around the nation the other four years. During the first post-COVID pandemic convention and picnic in 2022 in Houston, Texas, members decided to begin holding the picnic every two years starting with Meridian in 2024, Oatis said.

This week, the organization’s executive board members will begin arriving on Wednesday with the convention’s business sessions scheduled for Thursday and Friday morning.

The National Council of Meridianites Jacquelyn Sweetner Caffey Scholarship Foundation luncheon will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at Hilton Garden Inn. Tickets are $60. A memorial service, free to the public, is planned for 6 p.m. at the Drury Inn to honor those members who have passed away since the last reunion. A hospitality dance is set for 8 p.m. at Drury Inn and will include a dance and the annual awards ceremony. Friday night’s theme is HBCU/Greek Night so attendees are encouraged to wear their favorite historically Black colleges and universities or Greek fraternity and sorority apparel.

Saturday will be the big day for activities with the Meridianite Picnic planned for Highland Park from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. Picnic parking will be available at the old T.J. Harris lot, and a trolley service will provide transportation to and from the park beginning at 10 a.m.

The convention will conclude with a sold-out Grand Ball to be held Saturday night, beginning at 8 p.m., at the Copeland Center. The theme for the gala is “Oscar Red Carpet Night” with attendees planning to dress in formal and semi-formal attire worthy of the Oscar Awards.

“For me, living away from Meridian, it was a way to just still stay connected to home,” Alinda Rush Brown, who serves as the national vice president of the Meridianite council, said about the annual picnic in an interview earlier this spring.

“Through the picnic, you meet people that you haven’t seen in forever. I’ll never forget, one year we were in California in San Francisco … and I ran into a girl who grew up right next door to me. We grew up as children together, but I had not seen her in years,” Brown said. “So it’s that coming back together, that sense of community, cause Meridian … we were a strong community.”

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Meridianites return home for 55th convention and picnic (2024)
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