A Place Apart: Mound Bayou

A Place Apart: Mound Bayou

How could a small patch of woods and swamp become a promised land? How could exile turn into home? And imprisonment become freedom?

Less than a square mile in total area, the city of Mound Bayou, Mississippi even now stands for release, freedom, and a promised land for the descendants of formerly enslaved people.  Founded in 1887, Mound Bayou’s population is 98 percent African-American, one of the largest of any community in the United States, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

“Mound Bayou was one of the first places that actually demonstrated what African Americans can do. In spite of all the animosity toward black people, Mound Bayou was a spark of light in the South and in the whole country,” Rev. Darryl Johnson, Mound Bayou resident said. 1

“As a boy, I was a proud Mound Bayouian because we were separated from other people. We were different,” said Johnson, who at 60 has served as mayor and operates several businesses in the town. Currently, he is CEO of Walk of Faith Ministries and also operates an adult day care, personal care services, and a flower shop, all in Mound Bayou.

“Mound Bayou is a significant place in this country in the sense that Mound Bayou is the oldest all-black town created in this country,” said current Mayor Eulah Peterson. “Former slaves came to a swamp, cleared the land and built this town.”

From its beginnings in a lonely swamp, this small town in the Mississippi Delta grew into a bustling community of black-owned businesses and successful farms by 1900. With some decline in the 1920s and 30s, Mound Bayou continued to draw black businesses and a large hospital up until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  In the 1940s and 50s, when racism was at an apex in this country, the town had three schools, forty businesses, a half-dozen churches, a train depot, a post office, a hospital, a newspaper, three cotton gins, a cottonseed mill, a zoo, a Carnegie public library, and a swimming pool – all black-owned, operated and patronized, according to The Mound Bayou Story published by The Delta Center for Culture and Learning. 2

Fast forward to 2020 and Mound Bayou today is a different place than it was at its heyday.  Only a few businesses are left – a convenience store, a gas station, and a funeral home. More than half of the children in the small city of 1,200 live below the poverty level. The once thriving beacon, Taborian Hospital, is closed. The library has closed. And the high school, John F. Kennedy High School, closed just before school opened in August 2018. The teenage students are now bused to nearby Shelby to the consolidated high school, Northside High School.

The closing of the high school goes deeper than just the building that now houses the consolidated school district offices on the main street of the town. The JFK High School closure signifies the end of a proud history of education that was passed down through generations of Mound Bayouians.

“MBHS and then JFKS produced individuals that are renowned throughout the world,” said Earl Hall, executive director of the Mound Bayou Housing Authority and pastor of First Baptist Church of Mound Bayou. Born and raised in Mound Bayou, he is working on his doctorate in educational leadership.

Rev. Earl Hall is the executive director of the Mound Bayou Housing Authority and pastor of First Baptist Church of Mound Bayou. 

“Education has always been a very viable part of Mound Bayou. In 1921, the only black school in the Delta opened right here and students came here from other towns,” said Mayor Peterson, who has her doctorate in special education administration. She finished in JFK High School’s first graduating class in 1965.

“People live all over the world who graduated from high school here, either at Bolivar Country Training School, which later became Mound Bayou High School and then JFK High School. There has always been a major emphasis on education here,” said Peterson.

“Mound Bayou is up in the one percent of the communities in America with the number of advanced degrees per capita,” said Will Jacks, Program Manager for the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning.

Notable people born in Mound Bayou according to Wikipedia include Katie Hall, former U.S. Representative from Indiana; Michael Harris, Associate Dean of Engineering at Purdue University; Russell Holmes, Massachusetts state representative; and Mary Booze, political activist. People who moved away from Mound Bayou for more opportunity elsewhere were known to have come back to Mound Bayou just to have their children so they could say, “You were born in Mound Bayou,’ said Lee Aylward, also of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning. A native once told Aylward, “Every time I acted up, my mother would say to me, ‘You were born in Mound Bayou. You should be acting better because you were born in Mound Bayou.’”

“Mound Bayou is up in the one percent of the communities in America with the number of advanced degrees per capita,” said Will Jacks.

Rev. Darryl Johnson recalled being a schoolboy of 12 in 1972 and being so excited to get his Mississippi history textbook. He cracked open the pages and went immediately to the table of contents to look for a chapter on Mound Bayou. Seeing nothing, he turned to the index and found Mound Bayou was mentioned on p. 377. He turned to the page and found one sentence. The town was named in a short section about the Constitutional Convention of 1890 in reconstruction because the town’s founder Isaiah T. Montgomery was one of the few Republicans to attend.

Former Mayor Rev. Darryl Johnson of Mound Bayou. He is currently the CEO of Walk of Faith Ministries.

When Johnson read that one brief mention of his historic town, he said, “That took everything out of me.”

“I made a decision based on my hurt,” Johnson said. “I always wanted Mound Bayou to be a place where people can come and remember and learn and leave with a better understanding of who we are.” Johnson is a founding member of the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, which was created to “bring awareness about the significance of these towns and preserve for future generations the contributions of people of African descent.”

Like Johnson, those born and living in Mound Bayou are proud of their history and have dreams for this once shining city of hope, despite the recent set-back with the high school closing and the vacant storefronts on Main Street. They are ancestors of the formerly enslaved people and farmers who made their dreams a reality.

“They created a town out of nothing and became economically self-sufficient in the face of resistance,” said Jacks.  “Mound Bayou showed what was possible in a time of virulent white supremacy.”

“Our ancestors came up here and took this barren land that nobody wanted. Our ancestors took a nothingness and made something out of it,” said Rev. Hall.

It all started with the town founder, Isaiah Montgomery, the patriarch of a formerly enslaved family. Well, it really started earlier. The story actually begins in the late 1830s with Montgomery’s father, Ben, and his dreams of creating a community of formerly enslaved persons, according to Lee Aylward of the Delta Center.

Joseph Davis, Montgomery’s owner, had “utopian social ideas” and tried to start a model cooperative community of enslaved people at his Hurricane Plantation in Davis Bend. Aylward said that Davis thought, “If you give people an opportunity to rise to their ability, they will.”  Davis made Ben Montgomery manager of his plantation as well as the general store at the plantation, both positions unusual for an enslaved person.   

Montgomery’s son, Isaiah Montgomery, born in 1847, was educated by a tutor along with the Davis children, due to Montgomery’s position on the plantation. Davis’s younger brother, Jefferson Davis, who had a nearby plantation, became President of the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War. The Davis family was forced to leave their plantations in 1862 as Union troops advanced in the area. Ben Montgomery assumed control of the Hurricane Plantation, and after the war, Joseph Davis sold his plantation and property to Montgomery as part of a short-term loan. 

“It’s an amazing story to think that former slaves now owned the plantation,” said Aylward.

Ben Montgomery became the first African-American official elected in Mississippi when he became Justice of the Peace of Davis Bend in 1867. By all accounts, the plantation prospered under Montgomery in these years following the war and, along with his son Isaiah, he established a general store, Montgomery & Sons. But within ten years, when Montgomery had a bad crop year, he missed a loan payment, and the Davis family seized back their land. Montgomery died the following year in 1877.

Ten years later Isaiah Montgomery, born into slavery, was able to realize his father’s highest ambition when the Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railroad offered to sell him untouched, humid bottomland in Bolivar County. Along with his cousin Benjamin Green, Montgomery bought the 840-acre property for $7 an acre. That desolate swampland became Mound Bayou, named for the large Indian Mound where the two bayous converged, in 1887. The founders Montgomery and Green saw an opportunity to build a freedman’s community here.

“They saw the land as a means for economic freedom,” said Rev. Johnson. Four of his great grandparents were early settlers. His great grandmother Ada Simmons started the annual Founders Day, celebrated each year in July. 

Many other current residents of Mound Bayou are descendants of the original founders and Isaiah Montgomery’s home, still owned by a distant relative, is under renovation as a tribute to the founding father.

“They created a town out of nothing and became economically self-sufficient in the face of resistance,” said Jacks of the Delta Center.  “Mound Bayou showed what was possible in a time of virulent white supremacy.”

“Former slaves came to a swamp, cleared the land and built this town,” said Mayor Peterson. The significance of this is not lost on anyone associated with the town.

Current Mound Bayou Mayor Eula Peterson was elected mayor in 2017 and is the second woman to serve as mayor. She has her doctorate in special education administration and spent thirty years working in education. “Mound Bayou has survived 133 years and I don’t want to see it die on my watch."

The bottom land on which Mound Bayou was founded, once cleared, turned out to be rich land to cultivate cotton. By 1888, the town had 40 residents and 1,500 African Americans in the area.  By the turn of the century, Mound Bayou had more millionaires in the population than any Delta towns, based on the cotton, according to Johnson.

With farming income increasing, Montgomery enlisted the help of Booker T. Washington to help build up the number and size of local black businesses.  Washington saw Mound Bayou as a shining beacon and “an example of thrift and self-government” in an article he wrote about the town. 3 For years to come, Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, promoted Mound Bayou in speeches and in books and articles. Montgomery joined Washington in advising African Americans to accept discriminatory laws in order for future integration and full citizenship.

As for Mound Bayou, by 1900 two thirds of independent farmers in the Delta were black. But as Jim Crow laws took effect, black people in Mound Bayou started to lose their land. By 1920, many of the former landowners were landless sharecroppers. As cotton prices fell, Mound Bayou faced a real economic decline in the 1920s and 1930s, as did most of the country.

By the turn of the century, Mound Bayou had more millionaires in the population than any Delta town.

Mound Bayou did not revive until 1942 when the Taborian Hospital opened and began providing low cost health care to thousands of black people in the Mississippi Delta. The Taborian is recognized as the first health maintenance organization in America, as subscriptions from black Delta farmers underwrote the organization. The chief surgeon there, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, became one of the wealthiest men in Mississippi. He owned a plantation of more than 1000 acres, a home-construction firm, a small zoo, and he built the first swimming pool for the black community in Mississippi. Howard became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement when he founded the Regional Council of Negro Leadership in 1951.

A year later, Medgar Evers moved to Mound Bayou as a life insurance salesman for Howard’s Magnolia Life Insurance Company. Evers joined Howard and Aaron Henry on the Council as they mounted a successful boycott against service stations that denied the use of restrooms to African Americans and organized yearly rallies in Mound Bayou for civil rights. Evers eventually became field secretary for Mississippi’s chapter of the NAACP and was tragically assassinated by Byron De La Beckwith in 1963 in the driveway of his home while carrying a box of t-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go.”

After Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago visiting relatives in the Delta, was lynched in 1955, Howard became heavily involved in the case for justice for this brutal murder. Howard protected Till’s mother when she came for the trial in nearby Sumner and turned over his home to become a “black command center” for witnesses and journalists. He gave speeches all over the country talking about Till’s murder, including one at a church in Montgomery, Alabama hosted by a young Martin Luther King, Jr. and attended by Rosa Parks, who would later lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

‘We can’t tell the Emmett Till story fully without Mound Bayou,” said Will Jacks.

After the pain of the 1960s, Mound Bayou began its slow decline. Young people began to leave, and businesses began to close as they competed with the larger, neighboring towns.

“In 1966 when I left, we had businesses here – there wasn’t this blight. The bank was a credit union. We had a grocery store, the Fancy Freeze, a theatre, a zoo, the Taborian Hospital, Friendship Clinic, the new high school, a cleaners, a shoe shop,” said Haneefah Muhammad, 1966 graduate of JFK High School.  She has since returned and is the unpaid editor of the local newsletter, Did You Know?

Haneefah Muhammad returned home in 1996. She is now the editor of the local newsletter, Did You Know?

“Mound Bayou benefited from segregation – the city had its own schools, own hospital, own bank,” said Earl Hall, Housing Commission head and pastor.

“Before the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Mound Bayou was in its heyday,” said Rev. Darryl Johnson. “You could walk up and down these streets and it was bustling. That was a Mound Bayou you don’t see now. Then all the storefronts were open for business.”

"In spite of all the animosity toward black people, Mound Bayou was a spark of light in the South and in the whole country,” Rev. Darryl Johnson, Mound Bayou resident said.

One of the most significant points about Mound Bayou, according to Derek Bell, current vice mayor of Mound Bayou is that the town “was free of Jim Crow rules. It was much different outside of the town in a two to three mile radius. Black people outside of here didn’t have the peace of mind we had. We were free of prejudice.”

Current residents of Mound Bayou are determined to preserve its heritage and revive the economy.

“Mound Bayou is 99.9% black. MB is the largest all black settlement in the country. The culture here is different,’ said Bell. “We have small town values. We are friendly and neighborly. We have common goals and a common perspective.”

“We have made strides in getting the city economically stable and paying off our debts,” said Bell.

Muhammad, who returned to her hometown in 1996, proudly shows visitors all the spots marked with more than thirty historic signs in the town.  “There are more markers than a town this size should have. The town is filled with history. Decaying history,” said Mohammed.

Twenty-five of the more recent heritage markers were funded by collaboration between the Historic Mound Bayou Foundation and AARP Mississippi, according to Elaine Baker, head of the Mound Bayou area chapter of AARP.

Elaine Baker is yet another returned Mound Bayouian with a doctorate. She headed the social work program at Albany State University in Georgia for 30 years and returned to her hometown in retirement. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” said Baker.

“Those of us who remain here, we try to keep the light burning,” said Earl Hall.

Born and raised in Mound Bayou, Peter Woods is another of those natives and JFK High School graduates that give back to his community. He and his brothers grew up working at McCarty Pottery in nearby Merigold. In 1998, the four brothers started their own business in Mound Bayou, using everything they had, and called it Peter’s Pottery.

They were determined to “bring some recognition back to the city,” said Peter Woods, the younger of the two remaining brothers. The brothers asked to be included in the city limits so the town would receive the sales tax benefit, and they now ship their distinctive earth toned pottery all over the world.

“We wanted to give back to our community and revitalize the town,” said Woods. “We want others to see the rich heritage this town has to offer.”

“Mound Bayou’s history is what makes it so special,” said Rev. Earl Hall. And current residents just want to tell that story.

Mound Bayou native, Peter Woods, owns a pottery business in town called Peter's Pottery. 

Rev. Darryl Johnson said that white men have told the story of African Americans for so long. “They told us our story – who we are. We didn’t say who we are. We bought into that story that being black wasn’t good….But the fact is that the United States wouldn’t have been what it is if not for African Americans. We need to tell about the great things that happened that made the US what it is today,” Johnson said.

Johnson is president of a group working to start a museum in Mound Bayou. “We want to tell the story and just like in the book of Joshua in the Old Testament, let these stones be a memorial.”

“Those of us who remain here, we try to keep the light burning,” said Hall.  “We are still trying to make sure we are doing our part to keep society going forward.”

“I feel Mound Bayou is a place that blacks all over the world can point to and say this is something black people did,” said Mayor Peterson.

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Footnotes

  1. ^  The information collected for this article came from interviews with former and current Mound Bayou residents. The interviewees are listed in the article.
  2. ^  The Delta Center for Culture and Learning. The Mound Bayou Story. Delta State University. 2018.
  3. ^ Washington, Booker T. A Town Owned by Negros: Mound Bayou, Miss., An Example of Thrift and Self-Government. PDF file. http://blcfieldschool2017.weebly.com/uploads/8/2/0/0/82006750/ch07_02_booker_t_washington_rediscovered.pdfd.pdf.

Harriet Riley

Harriet Riley

Harriet Riley is a free-lance writer focusing on creative nonfiction. She publishes primarily nonfiction pieces in magazines and on-line publications. She has just moved to New Orleans after living in Houston, Texas for 11 years. There she taught creative writing in a variety of settings with Writers in the Schools. Before moving to Houston, Harriet taught undergraduate writing classes at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. She has also worked as a non-profit director, hospital marketing director, and newspaper reporter. She has her MA in print journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and her BA in English and journalism from the University of Mississippi. She lived the first 18 years of her life in Meridian, Mississippi.