Which of the following statements is true? A) Plantation owners of Mound Bayou, Mississippi helped ex slaves establish themselves after the 13th Amendment was signed. B) Two ex slaves bought, founded, and successfully established the land of Mound Bayou, an all black town. C) The utopian town of Mound Bayou was established by ex slaves and was eventually wiped out by Spaniards.
Correct answer, B: Two ex slaves, Isaiah Montgomery and his cousin Benjamin T. Green, bought, founded, and established Mound Bayou, an all black town in Northwest Mississippi.
The Dream of Plantation Owners & Slaves
Long before the signing the 13th Amendment two slaves had a dream. It wasn't any ordinary dream. It was an extraordinary dream - to establish an independent, all black town, where education had no limit, the freedom to enter through the front door of any building was the norm, and being a business owner was a possibility. It was a utopia. But could it come to fruition? Absolutely. This is America.
Isaiah Montgomery was born into slavery at Hurricane Plantation at Davis Bend, where his father Benjamin Montgomery was allowed to run a store on the property and oversee other everyday operations of management. What white planation owner would grant such authority to a slave? The plantation was owned by Joseph Davis, brother of the President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis.
Joseph Davis was a smart man and he, like Isaiah Montgomery, had a dream of his own. He wanted to create a utopian plantation. He wasn't going to free his slaves, but he worked to provide better nutrition and living conditions, and gave them more independence within the plantation. This was radical approach for the 1800s.
Like our modern day companies, Zappos, Ikea, and Google, who consistently rank as the best company to work for, Davis inherently knew that treating workers well, investing in them, would in turn create a happier worker. That, in turn, creates better employees (well, slaves), which ultimately creates better results, hence, higher output and higher profits. Employers who take care of their workers will have workers who will take care of their clients. It's a simple model that many businesses managers of today have lost sight of.
Isaiah Montgomery was witness to his father, a slave, co-managing a plantation. But, Isaiah's own vision wasn't bound to the plantation. After Emancipation he set his plan in motion. He and his cousin, Benjamin T. Green, purchased land. It wasn't quality land and it wasn't "Location, location, location!" But, nonetheless, it was land, and it was theirs to clear, to plant, to build and to begin that dream. On July 12, 1887 Mound Bayou was officially established. I had the pleasure of visiting Mound Bayou and interviewing its Mayor, Darryl Johnson.
Mound Bayou Then & Now
"A person from Mound Bayou carries themselves with confidence," states Mayor Johnson. "Not cockiness, confidence."
The town gave its people the tools and resources necessary to build confidence with a school, library, bank, and hospital - built and run by their black community. Learning was a must, striving was an expectation. Those establishing Mound Bayou wanted habitants that could contribute. They knew, in order to succeed, they needed individuals who had a thirst first knowledge, a desire to evolve, and the potential to represent Mound Bayou as a place of intelligence and integrity. They succeeded and gained respect, not only with one another, but from those living in the surrounding areas.
Mayor Johnson recounts the story of his grandfather who entered a white-owned business on the outskirts of Mound Bayou. His grandfather was wearing a hat, the business owner said "Nigger, take your hat off." Not acknowledging the business owner was speaking to him, he did not remove his hat. The business owner repeated his demand, referring to him again as a nigger. A white customer spoke up on his grandfather's behalf and said, "He ain't no nigger, he's from Mound Bayou!" Word was out: Blacks from Mound Bayou were educated, self-sufficient, and were not going to respond to anyone referring to them as nigger.
Although the residents of Mound Bayou lived in their own utopian bubble, they were not ignorant to the situation of blacks throughout the country. They watched the marches of the Civil Rights on television sets and witnessed the struggle and the beatings of their fellow man. They could not understand it. The common questions among them were: Why? What can we do to help? and How can our fellow black man see that life doesn't have to be this way?
They maintained their stance that education was the foundation. Just as they knew of blacks being discriminated against, blacks across the USA were hearing about Mound Bayou. It sounded too good to be true - to the point that only seeing would be believing.
One day an elderly lady came into the flower shop owned by Mayor Johnson. He asked her if she was looking for any flowers in particular. She said no, that she just needed to stand there. She just needed to be there. She had heard of Mound Bayou, a place where black people were able to live life, without being segregated, without being harassed. This town that she heard of sounded like a fairy-tale, even though she lived less than one hour away. She finally had someone drive her to Mound Bayou to see it for herself. She left a believer.
Mound Bayou hit hard times with debt, fire, and poor agriculture. But resilience and pride remain high. Residents obtain their education, values, and confidence and leave Mound Bayou for the rest of America. Is there a plan to keep them in this bubble? No.
Mayor Johnson hopes those of Mound Bayou do leave, to contribute beyond the bayou, to show the world, to show other blacks what can be accomplished. It's as if he wants Mound Bayou to be the hive, and the residents to act as pollinators throughout the rest of America - sting them with where you're from and with what you know.
The town of Mound Bayou is quiet, dusty, friendly, and curious. As we drove down the main street and parked, workers stopped to take a look at us. What business did we have here in Mound Bayou?
In Search of Caleb Freeman
Caleb Freeman is the main character of my next book, Conducting The King. He is an older black Southern man. He is wise, clear, and gentle. Where could this man have hailed from? Where did he get this conviction, this zen-like attitude, this intelligence? I researched high and low. And then I learned of Mound Bayou and its history. I instantly knew that Caleb Freeman was born there.
It is said that a character will tell the writer his story, his traits, his quirks. That has been the case here. It's as if Caleb opened a vintage map and pointed me straight to Mound Bayou, Mississippi. He is taking me by the hand, opening my eyes, and massaging my brain as he unfolds his story. He is showing me the streets he grew up on, where he checked out books, where he gained his confidence. He is a man that has the smarts to observe and learn; and a man that has the audacity to go after his dreams, like the founders of his little town.
"Caleb Freeman, Mound Bayou, Mississippi" he states with pride every time he introduces himself. We all want to be Caleb or at least know someone like Caleb. Although Caleb is a fictional character, Mound Bayou is very real. If someone has the perseverance against opposition and oppression, they can make the impossible possible. They can clear the land and rise from the dust. It appeared to be a seemingly impossible dream: from slaves, to dreamers, to free men, to town developers. Yet, Montgomery and Green made it happen. It is the fruition dreams like this that make us continue to believe in The American Dream.