Mound Bayou, Mississippi
Mound Bayou, Mississippi
Considered by many to be the first all-African-American town in the South, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, was founded in 1888 by Isaiah T. Montgomery and Benjamin Green. The two cousins created what they believed to be a haven for African Americans who sought self-determination; the community also served as a capital venture intended to improve the fortunes of the Montgomery family.
The idea for Mound Bayou was conceived in the 1880s after the Louisville, New Orleans, and Texas Railroad (L.N.O. & T.) began developing a railroad line stretching from Memphis, Tennessee, to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Railroad officials believed that few whites would settle along the swampy land where the potential for disease was high; they thought, however, that African Americans were racially suited to the climate and could flourish under such conditions. As a result, the company set aside tracts of wilderness along the route for sale. Mound Bayou was forged from an 840-acre section of wetland, including two merging bayous and a number of Native American burial mounds, which lay on both sides of the tracks that ran through Bolivar County, Mississippi.
The first settlers cleared land, planted crops, and opened their own businesses. Through mass advertising campaigns, which encouraged black settlers to form an all-black community, and with the support of national figures such as Booker T. Washington, Mound Bayou thrived and grew to become one of the Mississippi Delta's most successful towns. It also had the distinction of being the largest African-American city in the nation. At its peak in 1907, Mound Bayou was home to more than eight hundred families, with a total of approximately four thousand residents.
In an era of sharecropping and peonage for much of Mississippi's black population, inhabitants of Mound Bayou—mostly doctors, lawyers, and small farmers—had a standard of living that exceeded most black, and some white, communities. It was a close-knit town that brought local issues before town meetings and sought the approval of its citizens before embarking upon new projects. Residents, citing a negligible crime rate, boasted of having torn down the local jail. They attributed this fortune to community spirit.
Community spirit aside, much of Mound Bayou's good fortune came from outside sources. Booker T. Washington was a vocal supporter of Mound Bayou in the early twentieth century; through Washington's intercession with financiers around the country, Charles Banks (1873–1923), a leading developer in Mound Bayou at the time, was able to float several ambitious projects, including a cottonseed oil mill and the Bank of Mound Bayou. The oil mill, whose stock was bolstered by contributions from such outside investors as white philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, was initially capitalized at $100,000; it promised to be the industrial centerpiece of the small town.
By 1914, however, economic problems plagued Mound Bayou. The falling price of cotton and a lack of capital forced many residents to depend upon credit extended by white merchants from other communities. As economic conditions worsened, it became more and more difficult for local farmers to get the credit they needed for planting. The much heralded oil mill, opened in dramatic fashion by Booker T. Washington in November 1912, never actually went into production under the supervision of African Americans; its owners and shareholders were forced to cede control of the mill to B. B. Harvey of Memphis, an unscrupulous white businessman, while the bank failed in the fall of 1914 amid allegations of mismanagement. As the price of cotton rose during World War I, the corresponding drop in prices after the war brought little relief to the residents. Hundreds fled north as part of the first great migration during the war in search of better economic opportunities. Fewer than nine hundred residents remained by 1930.
Mound Bayou remained troubled during the 1930s and 1940s. A fire decimated most of the business district in 1941. In the same year, one observer noted that Mound Bayou was "mostly a town of old folks an' folks getting old." By World War II prosperity and pride had been replaced by poverty and disillusionment.
After World War II general prosperity nationwide brought a limited degree of revitalization to Mound Bayou. In the 1960s some black nationalists brought Mound Bayou back to the spotlight by endorsing the desirability of all-black towns. In 1966 the Tufts University Department of Community Medicine, funded by a grant from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity, established an outpatient health center in Mound Bayou. Although there was some population increase, the number of inhabitants never again reached its 1907 peak. The 1970 census showed a population of slightly more than two thousand.
The 1970s witnessed an economic upsurge. Under the administration of Mayor Earl Lucas, who was elected in 1969, Mound Bayou attracted outside support for various projects. Tufts University continued to channel funds from the federal government into the local clinic and hospital. Although the funds were now granted by the Department
of Health and Human Services (HHS), Tufts was charged with the administration of the clinic, which served the four surrounding counties. The clinic merged with the Mound Bayou Community Hospital in 1978. The two facilities were responsible for 450 jobs and served as the bulwark of the local economy. In 1977 Mound Bayou also received $4.9 million in public works funds from the U.S. Economic Development Agency; the grant was almost half of the $10 million appropriation for the entire state. In the same year, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who spent her last years in Mound Bayou, died at the local hospital.
Unfortunately, by the beginning of the 1980s, the town had once again fallen on hard times. Economic cutbacks under the Reagan administration eliminated the jobs of some townspeople; at one point more than half of the residents of the town relied on either federal or state assistance for support. In 1982 a Memphis radio station raised $120,000 from the black community in one week to help diminish Mound Bayou's $209,000 debt. While this measure showed the overall support for the town, the 1990 census only registered 2,200 residents; more than one quarter of the town's population left Mound Bayou during the 1980s.
In the 1990s various other crises affected Mound Bayou. While Mayor Earl Lucas had been partly responsible for attracting funding for the hospital and federal grants, his administration left office after twenty-four years in 1993 with a municipal debt of more than $500,000. Although Lucas had been defeated in a 1989 election, due to a lawsuit alleging election improprieties in 1989, no new mayor was allowed to take office in Mound Bayou until Nerissa Norman became its first female mayor in a court-ordered special election in June 1993. Norman pledged to try to curtail municipal spending and attempted to reduce some of the small town's debt.
Chambers, Caneidra. "Mound Bayou: Jewel of the Delta." Available from <http://ocean.st.usm.edu/~aloung/mbayou.htm>.
Crockett, Norman L. The Black Towns. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1979.
Mound Bayou, Mississippi Centennial Celebration: July 6–12, 1987. Mound Bayou, Miss., 1987.
joel n. rosen (1996)