Mound Bayou Museum, Utica Institute Museum, preserving the African American story and fortifying critical race theory

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Separated by less than 140 miles are two museums that have much more in common than just the fact that they are both African American museums in Mississippi. Although it may seem ironic that they came into existence within a year of one another, the openings of the Mound Bayou Museum in July 2021 and Utica Institute Museum in April 2022 merely reflect the fact that great minds follow similar paths. 

Mound Bayou native and Jackson State University alumnus, Harmon Johnson Jr. began thinking about building a museum to display and celebrate the uniqueness of Mound Bayou shortly after his days as a history major at JSU. Meanwhile, alumni of Utica Institute/Utica Junior College began putting their heads together around the idea of developing a museum to preserve and display the amazing history of Utica Institute, which is now the Utica Campus of Hinds Community College.

 Mound Bayou had been created out of wilderness swamp land in 1887 largely through the efforts of Isaiah T. Montgomery, along with Benjamin Green and a band of previously enslaved African Americans. They were attempting to create “a promised land” for Black people. Their efforts were amazingly successful for the time and the environment. Not only did they build the first all-Black municipality in the state, but the town had the first Black high school in the region, the largest Black hospital in the state, its own bank, and many prosperous businesses.

Nevertheless, by the end of World War II, it entered a period of decline from which it has not been able to recover thus far. Although such a decline was not unique for much of Mississippi, especially the Mississippi Delta, people like Johnson did not want future generations to be uninformed regarding the great and unique history that had earlier existed.

The story of Utica Institute had a similar, yet rather modest, beginning. In 1903, following the dream of William Holtzclaw, several Black men, serving as Utica’s board of trustees, utilized their property and reputations to purchase 2,000 acres of land on which to locate a school for Black citizens. It became the first high school for Black children in Hinds County and that region of central Mississippi. Moving beyond just Hinds County Agricultural High School, it became Utica Junior College, one of the three public junior colleges in the state at that time, the other two being Coahoma Junior College and Harris Junior College. Despite the fact that it had to compete with Hinds Junior College and Copiah-Lincoln Junior College for tax dollars, it survived and remained a successful model of Tuskegee Institute and a close ally of Alcorn College.

On the other hand, by the time that the civil rights movement reached its peak and the Ayers lawsuit was filed, Mississippi’s white leaders decided to merge Utica with Hinds and make it the Utica Campus of Hinds Community College. From that point forward, Utica has declined, playing a much inferior role to Hinds as well as to its role during glory days. As the decline set-in, friends and alumni of Utica decided to create a museum that could preserve its origins and greatness for future generations.

Today, the Utica Institute Museum is co-directed by Professors Jean Greene and Dan Fuller and operated on the Utica campus in Copiah County. The Mound Bayou Museum of African American Culture and History is directed by historian Hermon Johnson and operated on the campus of what was once John F. Kennedy High School in Mound Bayou. Both museums have received funding from state and federal humanities agencies. Both, however, continue to need support from local groups and individuals. For sure, their stories need to be told and their existences publicized.

At the Utica Museum, the story of Holtzclaw and other pioneers is told. There are displays and the story of the world-famous Utica Jubilee Singers is exhibited, along with their recordings and a copy of their 1929 movie. Other leaders and outstanding alumni of Utica are featured in the collection. The museum also has an oral history center where aspects of its history is narrated by eye-witnesses. It has an archive with historical documents. The staff conducts genealogical workshops.

At the Mound Bayou Museum there are many artifacts donated by Dr. Alvin Simpson of Tuskegee Institute. There are several from the movie sets of “Women of the Movement,” “Till,” and “Gone with the Wind,” and from local newspapers. There are photographs and artifacts from Medgar Evers, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, Booker T. Washington, Representative Katie Hall, etc. The exhibits touch upon early Black athletes, entertainers, and professionals as well as on atrocities, stereotypes, and various forms of oppression exhibited by white American society.

Although the Mound Bayou Museum and the Utica Institute Museum are both very young, it is clear to see that they can go a long way toward preserving much of the local history that may not have otherwise been exposed for the larger world to see. In that regard, they both can help many understand the reality behind what has been labeled “critical race theory” and can thwart the efforts of many “white supremacists” to exclude the negatives and ugliness of America’s racist past from the schools and colleges.   

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Mound Bayou Museum, Utica Institute Museum, preserving the African American story and fortifying critical race theory

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
July 17, 2023