‘Promised Land: A Story About Mound Bayou’ attempts to portray the problems and possibilities facing developing Black communities in the Jim Crow South

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Isaiah T. Montgomery (Photo: New York Public Library [Image ID: 1157792])

A young Black-owned media company, Red Squared, with support from Mississippi Heritage Trust, produced a documentary on Mound Bayou, Mississippi, that attempts to portray the development, achievements, and decline of the town from its beginning in 1887 until the present. In the words of the producers, including Red Squared founder Roderick Red, it “aims to educate the public about the history of this special place, celebrate the achievements of the early residents of Mound Bayou, and help create a conversation about its future.” The documentary uses the words of historians, residents, and leaders from the area to paint its portrait.

The film opens with conversations from current residents of Mound Bayou, including Mayor Leighton Aldridge. Their conversations are about the current dire economic conditions of the town.

The scene then quickly shifts to Davis Bend in Warren County near Vicksburg. Viewers become acquainted with Ben Montgomery who literally ran the plantation there, owned by the Davis brothers. As preparations were made for Mississippi’s secession from the Union, Jefferson Davis was elected President of the Confederate States of America. Both he and his older brother, Joseph Emory Davis, left the 4000-acre plantation in the hands of Montgomery. The South lost the war and Ben Montgomery’s family bought the land through the Freedmen’s Bureau. After the ex-confederates regained political control of the state, however, the Davis family sued and regained the plantation. At that point, in 1887, Isaiah Montgomery, son of Ben Montgomery, along with Benjamin Green and up to 25 former enslaved families purchased land in Bolivar County and moved there, establishing Mound Bayou.

The film then focuses on Isaiah Montgomery’s efforts to protect Mound Bayou from violent attacks by hostile whiter mobs, as he, Green, and the other Black settlers attempted to build “a promised land” in the area. It was that motivation that was uppermost on the mind of Montgomery, as he, as a part of the 1890 Constitutional Convention, accepted the idea of reforming voting rights to such an extent that there resulted an 80% reduction in the registration of Black male voters across the state. That effort did enable the town to escape white mob violence. Mound Bayou did not become another Greenwood community as in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a Wilmington, North Carolina, or a Rosewood community in Florida. Furthermore, to a limited extent, more than similar communities in the county, like Beulah, Rosedale, Benoit, Shelby, and Shaw, Black residents were able to own more property, to build more businesses, and to establish the first Black high school in the county. Therefore, Montgomery’s approach was applauded by the likes of Booker T. Washington, while it was criticized by the likes of Frederick Douglass.

The movie again shifts focus to talk about the accomplishments of Mary Montgomery Booze, the daughter of Isaiah Montgomery, who served for years as the post mistress, the only Black one in the state; the Taborian Hospital established by the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, as the first and only Black hospital in the area; Dr. T.R.M. Howard, who not only served as chief of surgery at the hospital, but owned a large plantation, a zoo, an insurance company, and organized the Regional Council of Negro Leadership; the building of the first swimming pool for Black people in the county; and of Professor Eugene Fisher, as an educator and historian from the area.

Yet, again, the film changes focus to discuss Mound Bayou during the Civil Rights Movement. The name of Medgar Evers became prominent, as he was hired by Howard to sell insurance for the United Order of Friendship and went on to study the Mau Mau tactics in Kenya as well as become the leading civil rights organizer and leader in the state. Dr. T.R.M. Howard is mentioned, again, as one who mentored the likes of Medgar Evers, Amzie Moore, and others who became affiliated with the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. All the while, Howard was also touring the country speaking and fundraising for the cause of civil rights.

The film ends with a series of questions regarding the future of Mound Bayou. This ending can be very effective, not just for people who are familiar with and sympathetic toward such communities. It can be effectively used by people who are concerned about political, economic, and cultural development anywhere, especially as it relates to the challenge of overcoming racism and racial oppression. 

The film, “Promised Land: A Story About Mound Bayou,” has been well-received by limited audiences. It has generated lively discussions, revealing among other things that, although it has had tremendous influence in Black history discussions, its population has never reached 3,000. (Its peak population was 2,917 according to the 1980 census.) In its heyday, it had between 800 and 1,350. It was data such as this that led one former resident and historian, Dr. Matthew Holden, to suggest that a part of the problem is that America’s economy has very little place for small towns like Mound Bayou.

It has also been indicated that despite Isaiah Montgomery’s attempt to put a protective hedge, so to speak, around Mound Bayou, it has always been difficult for businesspersons in the town to secure loans for start-up, maintenance, or expansion. The same was testified to regarding the distribution of goods and products needed for sale by the existing Black businesses in the town. That has made it difficult for economic development to become optimum.

Compounding the problem of the lack of economic development was the decades-long siege mentality that saw state highway patrol officers monitor and harass residents in the town. Many residents left for more economic opportunities and a greater sense of freedom. One viewer suggested that Mound Bayou continues to remain under attack because of its history. That attack has been manifested by the recent merger of Mound Bayou’s high school under the high school in Shelby and by the manner in which the state has now diverted Highway 61 around rather than through Mound Bayou, depriving it of possible revenue from people driving through the area. 

As the film shows, Mound Bayou held great possibilities for Black political, economic, and cultural development and expression. During its early time period, it stood out as a Black Bolivar County community. Over time, however, it succumbed to the strangle-hold of racism. Discussions stemming from the film can lead to future generations of Black people learning from the Mound Bayou experience and creating a lasting “promised land.”  

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‘Promised Land: A Story About Mound Bayou’ attempts to portray the problems and possibilities facing developing Black communities in the Jim Crow South

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
November 21, 2022