Remembering Mound Bayou: Mississippi’s Black Wall Street
Have you heard of “America’s Black Wall Street?” “Black Wall Street” refers to the once-prosperous and thriving Greenwood community located in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This freedom colony was home to almost 10,000 residents and more than 70 businesses during the early 1900s.
Greenwood served as a safe space for African-American residents to start black-owned businesses, expand their families, worship, and build stable foundations for future generations. In the 1900s, this was an extraordinary accomplishment for African Americans. Residents of Greenwood were able to live comfortably in a community built exclusively for them. The success of Greenwood angered white outsiders.
On May 31, 1921, the complete destruction of Greenwood took effect. Mobs of white residents, equipped with weapons and explosives destroyed businesses, burned down homes, and brutally murdered many black residents.
Reportedly, 100 to 300 people were killed during this massacre. According to NY Times, The financial toll of the massacre is evident in the $1.8 million in property loss claims — $27 million in today’s dollars, which is detailed in a 2001 state commission report. Today, we refer to this massacre as the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Now, why was this history lesson important? Simply because the community of Greenwood was one of many communities built by black people for black people. Mississippi had its own.
Mound Bayou, located in the Delta of Mississippi, was once Mississippi’s thriving “Black Wall Street” and leaves many stories to be told. For decades, the all-Black community thrived and empowered its citizens. This was one place in Mississippi where being Black could mean being prosperous.
Rewinding back to the year 1887, co-founder and former slave Isaiah T. Montgomery had a vision that resulted in a successful community and sanctuary for black people. Alongside Montgomery, business partner and cousin, Benjamin Green, purchased 840 acres of land together at seven dollars per acre.
Mound Bayou gets its name from a large prehistoric Indian mound that can be found at the junction of two bayous located in the town.
Montgomery, Green, and other former slaves worked endlessly to cut down trees, drain bayous, build up the land, and live as frontiersmen. Officially the settlement of Mound Bayou was incorporated as a town on February 16, 1898, making it one of the oldest African-American incorporations in the United States.
Montgomery and Green built a self-governing and self-sustaining community for black people. Within this community, black residents were able to prosper from the revenue cotton brought in.
By 1901, the 10 stores owned and operated by Blacks were grossing over $30,000 annually.
Charles Banks, a Black businessman from Clarksdale, established the Bank of Mound Bayou in 1904. Within the first eight months, the bank had earnings of 17 percent. This was one of the first Black-owned banks in Mississippi. By 1907, the town had six churches, a railroad depot, a newspaper, and a telephone exchange. Booker T. Washington frequently visited Mound Bayou.
Former Mound Bayou Mayor Dr. Eulah L. Peterson expressed how special cotton from the town was to outsiders.
“Mound Bayou was initially prosperous and known worldwide for its quality of cotton and had white farmers that came to Mound Bayou to get their cotton ginned.” said Peterson.
For farmers, receiving the Mound Bayou stamp on their cotton allowed them to increase the prices of their cotton bales. As the town continued to grow, residents annually produced 3,000 bales of cotton and 2,000 bushels of corn on 6,000 acres of farmland.
Aside from being passionate about agriculture, residents were just as interested in creating a sustainable education system for the town.
Between the years 1900 and 1904, Mound Bayou established Baptist College (Mound Bayou Industrial College). Even though Baptist College was supported by annual tuition and regular fund drives, it was discontinued in 1936.
After a fire had destroyed much of the business district, Mound Bayou began a comeback during the early 1940’s. The Taborian Hospital was opened in 1942. It was the second-oldest Black hospital in Mississippi. The facility had two major operating rooms, an x-ray room, a sterilizer, incubators, a blood bank and a laboratory. The hospital provided low-cost health care to thousands of Blacks in the Mississippi Delta. The Chief surgeon was Dr. T.R.M. Howard, who eventually became one of the wealthiest Blacks in the state. He owned a plantation of more than 1,000 acres and built the first swimming pool for Blacks in Mississippi.
As time progressed, Mound Bayou played an important role during the civil rights struggle. President Teddy Roosevelt had proclaimed the town as, “The Jewel of the Delta.” It became a safe haven for Blacks during the civil rights struggle.
Famed civil rights leader Medgar Evers lived in Mound Bayou in the early 50’s after college and worked as an insurance salesman. Dr. Howard had a huge influence on him joining the struggle for civil rights. It was Dr. Howard’s home that Mamie Till Mobley – Mother of Emmett Till – , as well as Black reporters and witnesses stayed at during the trial of Till’s alleged killers.
Through the Great Migration and desegregation, Mound Bayou is a shell of what it used to be. Even though there has been a sharp population decline over time, the spirits of Montgomery, Green, and every former slave that worked hard to establish Mound Bayou continue to ripple through the small community. Black leaders, such as Dr. Peterson, continue to see the importance of keeping such a historical town alive.
Peterson, who was elected mayor of Mound Bayou in 2017, was raised alongside six other siblings in Mound Bayou. She recalls her experience growing up as being ‘unique.’
“Day-to-day we did not have to deal with being told we can’t go into that church, school, or building because Mound Bayou was all black,” she reminisces.
As children, she and her siblings were raised with the mentality of, “No one was better than them and that they were no better than anyone else.” and “if you strived to do something, you worked at doing it.” she expressed.
by Angela Brown