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!
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.
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).