After months of haranguing, it became official last week that Mississippi’s civil rights museum would stand at Tougaloo College, and not in downtown Jackson.
The National Civil Rights Museum Commission in Mississippi voted 22-9 in favor of Tougaloo, despite impassioned pleas from downtown economic development officials to build the museum there.
They argued that a museum downtown would lure more visitors and benefit the area’s overall economic development surge. With projects like Old Capitol Green, the King Edward Hotel restoration, the Farish Street Entertainment District and the Capitol City Convention Center underway, downtown Jackson is recovering, they say, and the civil rights museum would hold a natural place in the recovery.
In a press conference last month, Jackson City Council President Leslie Burl McLemore said any location outside of downtown should not even receive consideration.
“I never thought we would be having this discussion,” McLemore said then, in between leading chants of “Downtown Jackson.”
Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, said studies had shown that the traffic count on Pearl and Pascagoula Streets would triple in the next decade due to all the residential development in the form of loft apartments. He said as many as 10,000 people could live downtown by then.
Allen, a former city councilman, joined Hinds County Board of Supervisors President Peggy Calhoun and Jackson Mayor Frank Melton at the press conference to voice their support for downtown.
In the end, though, it was not enough.
After the fact, Susan Lunardini, who served on the Commission’s location committee, was despondent. She had lobbied hard for downtown.
“I’m still just speechless,” she said.
Lunardini fears Tougaloo is too out of the way to attract anyone other than school children, that no one who works downtown will make the trek to West County Line Road to hear a lunchtime lecture or presentation.
“I still think it’s a mistake,” she said. “I went in (to the process of selecting a site) with the idea that I would do what’s best for downtown. But now we’re putting a $75-million dollar project at a private college.”
Yazoo City Mayor McArthur Straughter also served on the location committee. He supported Tougaloo.
“It was the incubator (of the civil rights movement),” he said. “It’s where everything started. It was a safe haven.”
Straughter acknowledged that the downtown Jackson lobby made a compelling case, but he did not share their concerns about the museum being too isolated.
“I think once it’s up and going and if people really want to know the history of the civil rights movement, they’ll go out there.”
Despite the setback, Lunardini said downtown would press on. She said the residential demographic downtown is trying to attract — young professionals in their late 20s and early 30s — will still migrate there, bringing restaurants, bars, drycleaners and other business with them.
“We’re going to have these people downtown,” she said. “Those are the folks that are going to live there and spend money. This will do nothing to stop that.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .