A History of Innovation: Remembering Mound Bayou, MS

Author: Jenna Watson

At CFI, we are observing Black History Month with particular attention to the groundbreaking social innovation of the Black community. As a recent Forbes feature notes, African Americans have created technological innovations we use every day, such as the traffic light, caller ID, and automatic elevator doors [1]. Some have called the Civil Rights Movement the greatest period of social innovation in American history. Though often born out of necessity and affliction, the history of Black innovation and entrepreneurship in this country is one of creativity and strength.

The story of Mound Bayou, Mississippi is a story of social innovation that often gets overlooked in history books. Founded in 1887 by former slaves, Mound Bayou was one of the first entirely African-American municipalities established in the United States. By the mid-twentieth century, Mound Bayou was a thriving, self-sufficient, entirely Black town. As Amy Young and Milburn Crowe note, this was especially noteworthy given Mound Bayou’s location “in the midst of a white-controlled cotton kingdom” and its founding in the post-Reconstruction era American South [2].  

Accounts of the town’s founding tell us that one fall day in 1887, the only passengers to step off a northbound train into such densely-forested land were a small group of formerly enslaved people, led by Isaiah T. Montgomery and Benjamin T. Green. No one else saw the land as viable soil for a new community, but Montgomery and Green rallied their party and encouraged them to begin clearing the land. Because of the strategic location along the train tracks, early settlers were able to fund the town through timber sales to those passing by on the train [3]. Within a few months, there were stores, banks, a hospital, and an economy.  By 1900, Mound Bayou was a bustling town, entirely Black-owned, operated, and inhabited. By the 1940s and 50s, the town boasted of “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” [4]. 

Citizens and visitors of Mound Bayou recall this town as an oasis from the racial segregation and oppression of the surrounding American South. As citizens fondly remember it, “there were no dehumanizing separate water fountains or bathrooms or schools. No need to look down when a white person crosses your path for fear of losing your life” [5]. A modern resident described the historical Mound Bayou as “a place where a black man could run for sheriff instead of from the sheriff” [6]. Another resident described that “in spite of all the animosity toward black people, Mound Bayou was a spark of light in the South and in the whole country” [7]. Recalling his town’s history, Mound Bayou citizen Nusce Hall exclaimed, “[It was] like going to Walt Disney World for me” [8].

Today, Mound Bayou is still 98% Black, but only a few establishments are left standing. Like many small towns in rural America, Mound Bayou suffered from economic instability and declining population in the late twentieth century, likely as a result of desegregation [9]. The legacy of Mound Bayou is still celebrated by its inhabitants and remembered by those who experienced Mound Bayou’s haven-like Black community.  

The revolutionary vision of Isaiah T. Montgomery and Benjamin T. Green and the innovative strength of the town’s early inhabitants reminds us at CFI that no vision for social innovation is too ambitious. In the heart of the Jim Crow South, during the devastating racism of the post-Reconstruction era and early twentieth century, Black men and women pursued a vision for social innovation that brought relief, safety, and belonging to thousands. This is history worth celebrating and an example worth emulating. 

To learn more about Mound Bayou, see these resources: 

“Mound Bayou: Jewel of the Delta,” an Emmy-nominated documentary by CFI member organization Urban Ministries, Inc. 

A Place Apart: Mound Bayou

“Here’s What’s Become of a Historic All-Black Town in the Mississippi Delta”

Mound Bayou’s history a ‘magical kingdom’ residents fight to preserve


Sources:

  1. Ruth Umoh and Brianne Garrett, “Black in Business: Celebrating the Legacy of Black Entrepreneurship,” Forbes, February 3, 2020, Accessed February 15, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ruthumoh/2020/02/03/celebrating-black-history-month-2020/?sh=e2944372b450
  2.  Amy L. Young and Milburn J. Crowe, “The Story of Mound Bayou: Part I: Descendent Community Involvement in African American Archeology in Mississippi: Digging for the Dream in Mound Bayou,” Ethnic Heritage in Mississippi (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), 98.
  3.  Young and Crowe, “The Story of Mound Bayou,” 101.
  4.  Harriet Riley, “A Place Apart: Mound Bayou,” Mississippi Folk Life, Fall 2020 Issue, October 23, 2020, Accessed February 13, 2020. http://www.mississippifolklife.org/articles/a-place-apart-mound-bayou#fn-2-a
  5.  Kelsey Davis Betz, “Mound Bayou’s history a ‘magical kingdom’ residents fight to preserve,” Mississippi Today, May 19, 2018, Accessed February 15, 2020. https://mississippitoday.org/2018/05/19/mound-bayous-history-a-magical-kingdom-residents-fight-to-preserve/
  6.  Young and Crowe, “The Story of Mound Bayou,” 99.
  7.  Riley, “A Place Apart.” 
  8.  Betz, “Mound Bayou’s history.”
  9.  Block, “Here’s What’s Become.” 

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