Location: Central Mississippi Delta
Located in the Mississippi Delta, Mound Bayou lays about 20 miles east of the Mississippi River and 130 miles northwest of Jackson. Founded in 1887, the town was established by Isaiah T. Montgomery and his cousins Joshua P.T. Montgomery, and Benjamin T. Green. The three men were former slaves from the Davis Bend Plantation, a community where its Black population though enslaved was independent, skilled, and educated. During slavery, Isaiah and Benjamin gained business experience while Joshua learned about law.
The Louisville, New Orleans, and Texas Railroad (L, NO & T) planned to establish a new railroad line that would run through the Delta but required towns along the way to provide passengers. In 1887, the railroad hired Isaiah as a land agent and gave him the task of finding a site and establishing a community. The site he selected was located near the Chickasaw burial mounds at the meeting point of two bayous from which the town would take its name. The town’s founders purchased an 840-acre parcel of land which had to be cleared of thick forests and swamplands.
Mound Bayou’s earliest settlers were the extended family members of the Montgomerys and Green followed by other people from Davis Bend. As the town grew, its residents established an independent civic infrastructure that included a local government, school system, banks, parks, and various businesses. The town maintained a low crime rate as a result of its strict moral code which required all citizens to be productive members of society and prohibited gambling and alcohol sales. There was a heavy emphasis on education with a particular focus on scientific agriculture as the town generated much of its revenue from the production of cotton and related enterprises.
During a time when Black people throughout the South faced the threat of violence and increasing legal discrimination, Mound Bayou became an oasis of safety and opportunity. As a self-sufficient town, Mound Bayou was able to limit its contact with the nearby predominantly White towns which helped to protect its citizens. As an all-Black town, residents did not have to deal with the brunt of segregated facilities like other towns. They were able to maintain a sense of pride in the town and themselves as they were not forced to live with social conventions that required them to be subservient to White people. The town’s success would lead to Theodore Roosevelt nicknaming it “The Jewel of the Delta”.
Yet, the town still experienced some racial strife. In its early years, residents from neighboring White towns stole animals, poisoned wells, and boycotted the town’s oil mill. Also, Montgomery accepted the disenfranchisement of Black Mississippi citizens in hopes of maintaining Mound Bayou’s independence and safety from its White neighbors. This compromise was heartily commended by White politicians across the country but led to ill feelings towards Montgomery by some members of the Black community outside of Mound Bayou. He did not permanently dismiss the need for Black enfranchisement but also did not publicly speak out against the increasing Jim Crow laws. Montgomery’s compromise would serve as inspiration for Booker T. Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Compromise.
Charles Banks, a member of the Tuskegee Machine and one of Washington’s representatives in Mississippi moved to Mound Bayou in 1903. By the end of the decade, he’d surpassed Montgomery as the town’s leading citizen and became the state’s most powerful Black leader. Over the years he would found the Bank of Mound Bayou as well as help to establish multiple Black-owned businesses. His influence and relationship with Washington would result in philanthropic funds flowing into the town.
Mound Bayou eventually grew to a population height of 8,000 residents in 1911 but began to decline a few years later. When the Great Migration began in 1915 some residents fled to the North and West. The town also experienced some economic instability when cotton prices fell and later during the Great Depression. A fire in the early 1940s destroyed parts of the downtown area.
But it was also during this period that Taborian Hospital, the first hospital in the central Delta opened, and began providing low-cost medical care to Black people in the area. The hospital was staffed by Black doctors and nurses from Meharry Medical School an HBCU in Nashville, Tennessee.
Notable residents, Medgar and Myrlie Evers lived in Mound Bayou for some time after they married in the early 1950s. And it was during this time that Evers became increasingly active with social and political reform leading campaigns in the area. By the 1960s, the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement and increased opportunities offered by integration resulted in more residents being drawn to other parts of the state and country.
The local industry continued to decline which eventually led to the hospital closing in the 1980s, the population dropping below 1,500, and only about three businesses surviving in the town. Mound Bayou remains a predominantly Black town with Black residents accounting for approximately 98.6% of the population. Like many other small southern and rust belt towns, the loss of industry has resulted in limited employment options and increased poverty.
- Davis, Kelsey. 2018. “Mound Bayou’s History a ‘Magical Kingdom’ Residents Fight to Preserve.” Mississippi Today. May 18, 2018. https://mississippitoday.org/2018/05/19/mound-bayous-history-a-magical-kingdom-residents-fight-to-preserve/.
- Jackson, David H. 2018. “Charles Banks.” Mississippi Encyclopedia. Center for Study of Southern Culture. April 13, 2018. https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/charles-banks/.
- Jones, Jae. 2018. “Mound Bayou: Mississippi’s.” Black Then. June 17, 2018. https://blackthen.com/mound-bayou-mississippis-jewel-delta-largest-black-town-u-s/.
- Rosen, Joel Nathan. 2018. “Mound Bayou.” Mississippi Encyclopedia. Center for Study of Southern Culture. May 2, 2018. https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/mound-bayou/.
- Ruffin, Herbert G. 2007. “Isaiah T. Montgomery (1847-1924).” BlackPast.org. January 17, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/montgomery-isaiah-1847-1924/.
- Ruffin, Herbert G. 2007. “Mound Bayou (1887- ).” BlackPast.org. January 18, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/mound-bayou-1887/.
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