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!



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

47 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.


    • My Mom was born in Mound Bayou… She told me of growing up in an all black town. Her Father was a sharecropper, Mr. Plato Mickey and how $1.00 would circulate 50 ×’s before leaving the community. I’ve actually found a photographer of my Grandfather. In the article it stated that the town is situated along railroad tracks…. my Mother’s sister, my Aunt was found murdered along the railroad tracks and who knows what, she never talked about it much. I’m planning a trip to Mound Bayou in the future.


  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.


  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.


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


  5. Looking forward to founders Day July 12, 2012


  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.


    • 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.


      • 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.


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


    • 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!


    • My family is from Mound Bayou MS. As well….The Gray’s


  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.


    • 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.


      • 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.


        • 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). “ 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.


  9. I was born in Mound Bayou and lived there a total of two weeks. I know little or nothing of the town or the history needless to say I will be reading everything I can about the town and the people I’m so glad I came across this post.


  10. I was born in Mound Bayou in 1938 and left there to live in Chicago when I was only four years old. I made several trips back when I was a small child but have not returned for many years. I am happy to have stumbled upon this site. I may still have relatives there. My mother was Marinda Nalls, and my father was Perry Smith II. I was also related to the Richardsons and the Terrells.


    • Mound Bayou is special to me for several reasons. First, it is proof that results beat all arguments. Booker T. Washington was not the only individual who was proud of the town and what it represented—race pride, good schools, the ingenuity of black leadership and a respite from the terror and trauma of racism. Second it was home to Frederick Miller, an early president of my fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, son-in-law of the town’s founder, graduate of the University of Michigan and a Fisk University supporter (his wife). Also, this is where the parents of my mentor John Hope Franklin were married and honeymooned. Finally, Lewis Ossie Swingler, a founder of both the Memphis World and Tri-State Defender Newspapers and major face of Alpha Phi Alpha from 1929-62 succumbed to a heart attacked while helping to revive the public education system in the town and preparing at the request of Frederick Miller to write a worth history of this “jewel in the Delta. Swingler is credited with editorials that led to black police officers being hired in Memphis (1948); he was responsible for bringing Dr. ML King, Jr. to Memphis for his first visit in 1957. Frederick Miller was a member of the audience.

      My last visit to Mound Bayou was to the funeral of the mother of a young fraternity brother who is an engineer. Prior to that, I was there to do an oral history with a 92 year old resident black male. He had a story to tell.

      I will be sharing a trip to Mound Bayou in May with others from Memphis.


      • I love it Clarence. Please share your experience. Oh how I would love to speak with a 92 year old from Mound Bayou.


        • Hello everyone, I found this site while looking for more info about Mound Bayou. I ordered “The Pursuit of a Dream” through Amazon. It’s a fascinating read. Not too long ago I discovered that my great grandmother’s maiden name was Green and that she was related to the Davis Bend Green, Lewis, and Montgomery families among others I’m still researching. The book gave me enormous insight about my family as well as the how mound Bayou came to be. I hope to open lines of communication with whomever wants to.


      • Frederick Miler was also the beloved uncle of Gloria Ray Karlmark a member of the Little Rock Nine. And brother-in-law of H.C. Ray whom studied under George Washington Carver at The Tuskegee Institute and later ran the African American Extension Service Program in Arkansas.


  11. My name is Willie L. Davis. My mother and her siblings grew up in Mound Bayou. They were the Nibbs family.


    • hi willie davis
      my family from mound bayou ms, i live in memphis, tn now and i have a brother live in mound bayou ms. i don’t you remember this, when a young black man were killed in mound bayou ms in 1965 by the hightway patrol, that were my brother. we are living in memphis, now.


      • OMG!!!! I was trying to find information about this incident yesterday. It is no longer on the internet. Yesterday all I could find was post about the trooper and a memorial to him. Everything that was previously written about your brother has been removed. Even the information and article about the trooper Marcus LaMastus does not mention your brother by name. I was just discussing this an hour ago. I can’t believe I just saw this post.


  12. My name is Cora Jamison . Visited mound bayou many weekends to a club owned by Willie hill aka tippy. Passed there Wednesday going to Cleveland . Boy did my mind to back.


  13. I’m doing research on Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Mississippi Health Project which operated out of Mound Bayou from 1935-1941. Does anybody have insight into this history


  14. Hello am from mound bayou my family are late Louise. Mason I am Steven Mason l live in. Inglewood. Ca now but what good testimonies these are


  15. everything is beautiful what people are saying about the history of mound bayou.


  16. I stumbled on the pictures of Mound Bayou one day when I googled Isaiah Montgomery. To make a long story short, attached to the article on Isaiah Montgomery is a picture of 5 men standing on the corner next to the store D.S. Lee. One of the men, all the way to the left, is my grandfather, John Frye. John Frye had a small farm in which he raised 5 children. Below the picture states a photo journalist named Russell Lee who took the picture. I traced Russell Lee back to the Library of Congress. Russell Lee took about 19 pictures of Mound Bayou in 1939, and all these pictures are in the Library Congress. Russell Lee and several other photo journalists, hired by the Dept. of Agriculture, fanned out across the U.S. taking pictures of people in everyday life, depicting the human condition 10 years after the Great Depression.
    John Frye owned a small farm in Mound Bayou in which he raised 5 children.
    John Frye, Mattie Frye his wife, and a first cousin, Naomi Roscoe, are all buried next to the church Wanders Home.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I loved reading all of the comments. My family lived inound Bayou in the late 1800s to early 1900s. I am trying to find out more information about City Marshal Charles “Charlie” Henry Williams, who we believe is one of our Ancestors. If anyone has information about him, please let me know. Thanks



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