City, convention commission to renovate Smith Drug Co. on Mobile Street

By HASKEL BURNS,

In recent years, officials from the City of Hattiesburg have had two core objectives in mind: telling the city’s story – past, present and future – and ensuring that every neighborhood in the city sees progress, whether that be with infrastructure, public safety, economic vitality or quality of life.

Both of those goals will soon be met in the historic Mobile-Bouie Street Neighborhood, with the recent purchase and upcoming renovation of the Smith Drug Company building at 606 Mobile Street. The building, which has been vacant for the last several years, will be purchased by the city from the Harris family for $20,000, and will be placed under the management of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission for renovation and operation.

“(This building) is one of the last remaining storefronts from the period that was the peak of Mobile Street’s economic, social, and cultural influence in the city of Hattiesburg and the African American community,” Mayor Toby Barker said Thursday at a news conference outside the building. “Like Mobile Street in recent decades – particularly since the 2013 tornado – this building has been dormant, holding lots of stories within its walls of a proud neighborhood.

“As a city, we believe that a building such as this, with a rich history, deserves an equally bright future. We believe this building has an opportunity to capitalize on the momentum that we’re seeing in the East 6th Street Museum District, as well as bring people and commercial activity back to Mobile Street.”

Restoration plans include installing a new soda fountain in the building, as well as setting up the facility as a small event space. Once renovation is complete – hopefully in time for this fall’s Mobile Street Renaissance Festival – the building will be incorporated into the East 6th Street Museum District, which also includes the African American Military History Museum, the Oseola McCarty House and the Eureka School Museum.

Smith Drug Company will be the seventh facility managed by the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, along with the facilities in the museum district, the Hattiesburg Zoo, Lake Terrace Convention Center and the Saenger Theater.

“This area of Hattiesburg has been a special place in the heart of the convention commission, and we are excited to see it continue to grow,” said Rick Taylor, executive director of the commission. “These buildings hold many, many stories, and we are excited to be able to preserve those stories and then bring back those memories, that people will come out and talk about how important these structures were in their life and how the community revolved around these structures.”

Smith Drug Company was opened by Dr. Herman Smith in 1925 at the Mobile Street location, serving pharmaceuticals, sick room supplies, patient drugs and sundries. The store also was well-known for its frozen custard and ice cream.

In addition, the building is regarded for playing a prominent role in educating African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

“This is a great day in Hattiesburg, and I am so excited about the restoration and renovation of this building,” Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado said. “I cannot begin to thank Belinda Harris and her husband Harvel for saving this building, for preserving it, for protecting it over many years.

“Hopefully, the city of Hattiesburg will do them justice by restoring it and making it available to this community, so that we honor our heritage and where we came from. The Smith family, I believe, was one generation out of slavery, and they educated many children who were active not only in the medical field, but also in the area of education.”

Melvin Williams, president of the Mobile-Bouie Street Neighborhood Association, said the renovation of Smith Drug Company is especially meaningful for him, having grown up in the neighborhood and seeing so many important structures come and go.

“This has been a journey, and I am so happy today,” he said. “When (chief administrative officer) Ann Jones called me and told me that they were having a ceremony today to officially announce the renovation of Smith Drug (Company), I got emotional.

“And you can only understand that if you have experienced it – I’ve watched my whole life, each building that was present here on Mobile Street, go to its demise. It will live on forever, because future generations will know what happened right here on Mobile Street.”