The Jewel of the Delta: Mound Bayou, Mississippi

Our friend Susan James of Suzassippi’s Lottabusha County Chronicles blog will be taking a turn as a guest contributor on MissPres this week sharing her thoughts about the African-American town of Mound Bayou in the Delta. I know you’ll all enjoy learning more about this fascinating place, its history, its challenges, and its hopes for the future. Thanks Susan and enjoy, y’all!

malvaney

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Booker T. Washington frequently visited Mound Bayou, Mississippi.  He wrote, “Outside of Tuskegee, I think I can safely say there is no community in the world that I am so deeply interested in as I am in Mound Bayou.” (The Mound Bayou Mississippi Story, The Delta Center for Culture and Learning, Delta State University, n.d., para.1).  I pretty much concur with Mr. Washington.  Since I first learned of the community and its rich history of black self-enterprise, economic development and empowerment, I have been fascinated.  Mound Bayou today celebrates it 124th Annual Mound Bayou Founder’s Day Program and Graveside Commemoration Program.

This is the first in a week-long series of posts about Mound Bayou.  I will cover a brief history of the town’s beginnings, followed by a report about the remaining historical buildings in the community.  I will conclude with a “what’s next?” that presents the town’s plans for saving these historical structures and revitalizing the community’s present-day contribution to the “Delta, the South, and the country.”

Mound Bayou’s story is remarkable in many ways.  It began in 1887 when Isaiah T. Montgomery and Benjamin Green purchased 840 acres for $7 an acre.  Along with other freed men, they began clearing the forest and dense foliage.  A prehistoric Indian mound was located where two bayous met, and thus, the name was selected.  Montgomery had been highly educated and was already a successful businessman when he made the decision to establish Mound Bayou along the railroad route.  The Louisville, New Orleans, and Texas line ran through the center of Mound Bayou, and enhanced their growth and development.  The old track bed is still visible, though the rails have been removed, and still symbolically divides the town along two sides.  The town was officially incorporated July 12, 1887.

At one time, the all African American owned town included: 3 schools, 40 businesses, 6 churches, a train depot, a newspaper, 3 cotton gins, a cottonseed oil mill, a zoo, the Carnegie library, a bank, a swimming pool, a sawmill, a Farmers Cooperative and Mercantile company, and a hospital.  These photographs were taken in 1939 by US government photographer Russell Lee for the US Farm Security Administration (all photos are in public domain and non-copyright protected), and illustrate that the hard economic times affecting the nation were evident in Mound Bayou as well.

Most of downtown buildings were destroyed in a fire in 1941, but many buildings illustrated that the community appreciated beautiful, architecture, such as Isaiah T. Montgomery’s house, and churches.

Booker T. Washington spoke at the opening of the Mound Bayou Cotton-Oil Mill on November 15th, 1912. It was the largest cotton-oil mill in the state, which “symbolized the effort of this all-black town to establish the technological basis for economic self-sufficiency” (Memphis Commercial Appeal, November 27, 1912).

“I congratulate every white and black citizen of Mississippi on the launching of this great manufacturing enterprise, the greatest of its kind in the history of our race.  I congratulate you because it is located in the heart of the black belt of the South where black people and white people are side by side to work out their destiny and prove to the world that is is possible for two races different in color to live together, each promoting the happiness and welfare of the other” (Booker T. Washington Papers, volume 12: 1912-14).



Categories: African American History, Historic Preservation, Mound Bayou

18 replies

  1. Great Post! What a tragedy that the downtown was destroyed by fire. I can’t wait to see the post regarding the remaining historic structures.

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  2. If you want to read about the Montgomery family, read Janet sharp Hermans book “the Pursuit of a Dream” all about Joseph Davis, Ben Montgomery, (Isaiah’s dad). Great read. Gives you a lot of insight on how Mound Bayou really came about.

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  3. Thanks for the book information. I’ll see if I can locate it. There seems to be a good deal of scholarly and academic literature about the community, and it has been the subject of a number of research studies.

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  4. Good point Walley. The origins of Mound Bayou go back to the Davis Bend Plantation south of Vicksburg before the war.

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  5. Looking forward to founders Day July 12, 2012

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  6. I’m truly glad to know about Mound Bayou. It’s a pity that information like this is not in a museum or Black History books. If it is, I’m not aware of it. I had to find out by watching a documentary on TV. This is powerful to know. It can be a tool for other generations.

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    • There have been a number of books written specifically, but I am sure it is not in standard school history books, and probably not taught in Mississippi other than in the Mound Bayou school district. I think the documentary is one way of reaching a broader audience.

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      • Susassippi, your response above is on point: I saw the documentary today for the 1st time. With Black history my fave subject, this was an amazing ‘find.’ DEFINITELY gonna work to spread awareness of this historical jewel of a find.

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  7. My family is from Mound Bayou!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Love the history!!!! THE DAUGHRITY’S!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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    • My Mother Mrs. Bettie Austin, who was born in Ms. but lived in California and Detroit, Mi. She passed away last year 2014 at 93 years old. I’m going through all of her photos. One of her favorite fundraising efforts was helping Mound Bayou and the city’s first female Mayor, Nerissa Norman, pay off their $300k debit. I’m putting together a scrapebook of the photo’s, check stubbs,(including a check from President Clinton) and presentations
      that my Mother and Mayor Norman made to various friends, family and organizations with 100% of proceeds going to Mound Bayou’s debit. I’m proud to say, it was “Mission Accomplished!”

      We maybe California raised but we ARE Mississippi proud!

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  8. Susan,

    Your information about the founding of the Mound Bayou is incorrect. Isaiah T. Montgomery and Benjamin were former slaves of the Joseph Davis plantation, the brother of the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Joseph Davis provided the land to his former slaves in his last Will and Testament. Read, In Pursuit of a Dream.

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    • While Mr. Montgomery and Mr. Green were former slaves on Davis’ plantation in Davis Bend, Davis did not own the land purchased for Mound Bayou. The land was owned by the railroad company, including what is now Bolivar County. The Louisville, New Orleans, and Texas Railway wanted to sell land along the line; the land agent approached the former Secretary of State, Jim Hill, who referred him to Montgomery, at that time, a merchant in Vicksburg. After visiting the area at Mound Bayou, Montgomery and Green purchased the land from the railroad and established Mound Bayou.

      See for example, Washington, B. T. (1907) A Town Owned by Negroes and The National Register of Historic Places nomination form for Mound Bayou Historic District among others.

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      • Susan,

        My question then is, how can two professional Journalist/writers, review the same documents and interpret them so differently. The library will have a copy of In Pursuit of a Dream by Sandra Hermann…? I think thats her name. I’ll have to dig through my books and find it for you if not.

        I was born in Mound Bayou and lived in Shelby, Mississippi three miles north of there.

        I’ll have to research this matter myself.

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        • Thank you for your questions, Mr. Allen-Anderson. I will be delighted to correct or add to any information that is determined to be in error about this community–it will always stand as one of the highlights of my life to have had the opportunity to share in work with the community during the development of the Taborian Hospital renovation and restoration to become the Taborian Urgent Care Center. So many wonderful people there generously shared their knowledge of and experiences in Mound Bayou with me.

          The history of Mound Bayou is documented in several sources, including Mr. Montgomery’s work, and that of others in the Mound Bayou community. I relied on many of those sources, including records from the Mound Bayou documents available from the city, and from Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Janet Sharp Hermann’s book, The Pursuit of a Dream (1999) is highly praised as a source of not only the history of Mound Bayou, but the early beginnings of the conceptual foundation for Mound Bayou that began with Benjamin Montgomery’s Davis Bend.

          Of Mound Bayou, Ms. Hermann wrote:

          “However, Isaiah learned from his brother’s experience that a railroad could be just as effective a highway of commerce as the Mississippi River, and it had the advantage of never flooding the fields. Therefore, he was immediately interested when James Hill told him that the Louisville, New Orleans, and Texas Railroad was offering bargains in rich, alluvial land along their new line from Memphis to Vicksburg, through the Yazoo Delta. As a result of encouraging correspondence with Major George W. McGinnis, manager of their land office, Isaiah made several trips through the bayous that bordered the railroad right-of-way” (p. 221).

          “Finally, in the spring of 1887 he chose a site almost midway between Memphis and Vicksburg fifteen miles east of the Mississippi and four miles west of the Sunflower River. He called it Mound Bayou for the large Indian mound at its center where two bayous converged. Isaiah returned home and, after consulting Martha, decided to sell their Vicksburg interests and invest everything in a new colony in the virgin delta. He persuaded his cousin, Ben Green, to give up his small store in Newton and join them in buying 840 acres at the new site. The Montgomerys and Green began to advertise their venture among blacks in and around Vicskburg. They especially sought out the remnants of the Davis Bend community who had shared in the prosperous years of that experiment” (p. 221). “..by midsummer they had recruited a little band made up primarily of former Davis slaves…they were to start out as owners of their own plots of forty or more acres which the railroad sold them for seven dollars per acre, one dollar down and the balance in five equal payments. By the end of the year more than 700 acres had been purchased on these terms, and Isaiah’s theory that landownership would make steady, responsible colonists was about to be tested” (p. 222).

          If I have missed other documentation that differs from the generally cited accounts, I welcome the information.

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