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The Visual South, Part IV: Getting Lost In Mississippi

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The current issue of Oxford American magazine, known as "the Southern magazine of good writing," is nicknamed the "Visual South Issue." In its 100 under 100 list, the magazine identifies "the most talented and thrilling up-and-coming artists in the South." This week, we're looking at five of the photographers on that list.

Portraits of the mayors of Mound Bayou, Miss., an early autonomous African-American community, hang inside the Mound Bayou City Hall, in September 2009. The top portrait is Mound Bayou's founder, Isaiah T. Montgomery.

Portraits of the mayors of Mound Bayou, Miss., an early autonomous African-American community, hang inside the Mound Bayou City Hall, in September 2009. The top portrait is Mound Bayou's founder, Isaiah T. Montgomery. Brandon Thibodeaux hide caption

itoggle caption Brandon Thibodeaux

We all have our ways of escaping the daily grind. We watch TV, or go for a run — or a drive. When Texas photographer Brandon Thibodeaux wants a break from the "constrained world of deadlines," he gets in his car and heads down Highway 61 to the areas around Mound Bayou — a black-majority area of Mississippi with a history as rich as the Delta soil.

PBS has the story of Mound Bayou, which, in short, goes like this:

Jefferson Davis, the president of the Southern Confederacy, had a brother, Joseph. And Joseph had a plantation. And on that plantation, a man named Benjamin Montgomery was born into slavery.

  • Arthur and Willie stand beside a tractor they use on a farm outside Alligator, a village in Bolivar County, December 2010. All of these photos were taken in cities and towns in the northwest counties of Mississippi.
    Hide caption
    Arthur and Willie stand beside a tractor they use on a farm outside Alligator, a village in Bolivar County, December 2010. All of these photos were taken in cities and towns in the northwest counties of Mississippi.
    Brandon Thibodeaux
  • A single cloud floats above a field of crops at the edge of the Duncan city limits, September 2009.
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    A single cloud floats above a field of crops at the edge of the Duncan city limits, September 2009.
    Brandon Thibodeaux
  • Harry Hope bundles collard greens in Mound Bayou, December 2010.
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    Harry Hope bundles collard greens in Mound Bayou, December 2010.
    Brandon Thibodeaux
  • The exterior of a mechanic's shop outside Batesville, June 2009.
    Hide caption
    The exterior of a mechanic's shop outside Batesville, June 2009.
    Brandon Thibodeaux
  • "Maw Maw" stands for a portrait with her new braids at her home in Duncan, September 2009.
    Hide caption
    "Maw Maw" stands for a portrait with her new braids at her home in Duncan, September 2009.
    Brandon Thibodeaux
  • An aerial view of the Mississippi River during its flood in Vicksburg, May 2011.
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    An aerial view of the Mississippi River during its flood in Vicksburg, May 2011.
    Brandon Thibodeaux
  • Portrait of "Pokie" in Duncan, June 2009.
    Hide caption
    Portrait of "Pokie" in Duncan, June 2009.
    Brandon Thibodeaux
  • A young man stands alone in a field near his home in Mound Bayou, November 2011.
    Hide caption
    A young man stands alone in a field near his home in Mound Bayou, November 2011.
    Brandon Thibodeaux
  • Black birds swarm over a harvested field near Mound Bayou, December 2010.
    Hide caption
    Black birds swarm over a harvested field near Mound Bayou, December 2010.
    Brandon Thibodeaux
  • Dandelion in Duncan, April 2011
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    Dandelion in Duncan, April 2011
    Brandon Thibodeaux
  • A young boy performs a back flip on a discarded mattress in his grandfather's backyard in Duncan, June 2011.
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    A young boy performs a back flip on a discarded mattress in his grandfather's backyard in Duncan, June 2011.
    Brandon Thibodeaux
  • Dressed as an angel, a young girl poses for a portrait after the First Baptist Church of Mound Bayou's Christmas Eve celebration, 2010.
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    Dressed as an angel, a young girl poses for a portrait after the First Baptist Church of Mound Bayou's Christmas Eve celebration, 2010.
    Brandon Thibodeaux
  • Reclining on a car in Duncan, June 2009.
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    Reclining on a car in Duncan, June 2009.
    Brandon Thibodeaux
  • Street corner, Winstonville, November 2011.
    Hide caption
    Street corner, Winstonville, November 2011.
    Brandon Thibodeaux
  • A portrait of President Obama sits on a small table inside the home of Mound Bayou's former postmaster, Columbus Preston Holmes, November 2011.
    Hide caption
    A portrait of President Obama sits on a small table inside the home of Mound Bayou's former postmaster, Columbus Preston Holmes, November 2011.
    Brandon Thibodeaux

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Montgomery managed the plantation until the end of the Civil War, when he bought it from Davis and built an autonomous community of freemen. Hard economic times ensued, and Montgomery sold it back — but his son, Isaiah, executed his father's dream: He bought more than 800 acres in the wilderness of northwest Mississippi and founded an independent black community called Mount Bayou.

"There is this elegance," Thibodeaux says of his wanderings through the area. "You might see the parking lot party, trailer, white-washed chapels — but when you venture off the road and into the communities, you realize there is a sense of pride. You see it in the family unit, in their ties at church."

The story of Mound Bayou gets complicated when you fast-forward to today. Most recent estimates put the population at around 1,900. And historic and cultural riches don't always translate in hard numbers: According to the U.S. census, about 35 percent of the population in Bolivar County lives below the poverty line.

So, while Thibodeaux may come here to escape his deadlines, plenty of Mound Bayou residents leave the city limits to find better work. The economic hardship is real, but that's not his focus. He's off duty and exploring, making friends and finding an appreciation for one enclave of people after another.

"There's so much fertile ground to explore," he says. "There's so much in your own backyard."

(See Part I, Part II and Part III)

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