Cleveland, Miss., July 13, 1887: Two former slaves, Isaiah Montgomery, 40, and his cousin, Benjamin Green, 33, have finally realized a dream they have had since childhood – to establish Mississippi’s first all black town complete with social, economic and political freedom.
Yesterday morning, part of their childhood dreams as young slaves became a reality. They founded their all-Negro community of Mound Bayou, some 10 miles north of here.
Both Montgomery and Green fervently believe true black freedom can be realized only in a segregated, all-black environment. The men contend that only under such racially supportive conditions can former slaves realize opportunities for individual advancement living alongside the white Southern society.
Ironically, Isaiah Montgomery is an ex-slave of the Confederate President Jefferson Davis family. Montgomery grew up on the Davis’ Hurricane Plantation at Davis Bend, 20 miles south of Vicksburg.
Jeff Davis’ brother, Joseph, who was 20 years older than Jeff and who ran the plantation, was a highly educated man and had what were considered unusual beliefs about slavery prior to the Civil War. He felt slaves would work harder if educated; he provided exceptional health care; and he taught the value of community living. So, Isaiah Montgomery began his education at an early age and studied diligently, often in the extensive Davis family library. He learned well. It was in that early education that ideas formed in his mind for a Mound Bayou-type settlement, or as he says, we want “to develop (a community) unencumbered by (racial) handicaps imposed on us by the dying traditions of the past.”
In December of last year, Montgomery and Green bought 840 acres of land from the Louisville-New Orleans & Texas Railroad for $7 an acre. That acreage would serve as the site of Mound Bayou.
This is certainly not the most hospitable land in the state. Only about 75 acres is immediately available for cultivation. The rest of the land is covered with dense brush and trees that can be traversed only with a hatchet or a machete. But the underbrush could be considered a minor problem compared to the bears, panthers and snakes that freely roam the area and, of course, there is the ever-present threat of swamp fever.
Both Montgomery and Green want Mound Bayou to be a sanctuary for black families and black culture for blacks everywhere.
For the next 40 years, these black colonists in Mound Bayou built what can only be described as a successful community. By 1907, it boasted a population of 4,000 people – 99.6 percent black. It had a train depot, a bank, a post office, many churches, numerous successful industries, a variety of stores and eateries, a newspaper, a telephone exchange and, eventually, a hospital. Mound Bayou was a thriving community in those beginning years.
Benjamin Green died early in the developmental period in 1896. Isaiah Montgomery died much later in 1924.
But, between 1940 and the late 1960’s, Mound Bayou began a slow decline. Of course, its decline was matched by virtually every other town in the Delta during those years.
Today, Mound Bayou’s 1,500 residents are struggling to survive. All industry is gone. Few stores remain. Even fewer jobs. Basically, it has become a noble and historic community effort that is weakening but not yet surrendering.
This community produced some extraordinary success stories during its heyday. Ben A. Green, son of the co-founder, graduated from Harvard Law School. He made this memorable observation about growing up in Mound Bayou: “Everything here was black, from the symbols of law and authority and the man who ran the bank down to the fellow who drove the road scraper. That gave us kids a sense of security and power and pride that colored kids don’t get anywhere else.”
Mound Bayou, Mississippi: a memorable part of all our Southern Memories.