Here's What's Become Of A Historic All-Black Town In The Mississippi Delta Founded by former slaves in 1887, Mound Bayou, Miss., was one of the country's first all-black towns. Here's a look into its historic past and uncertain future.
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Here's What's Become Of A Historic All-Black Town In The Mississippi Delta

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Here's What's Become Of A Historic All-Black Town In The Mississippi Delta

Here's What's Become Of A Historic All-Black Town In The Mississippi Delta

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And we're going to go now to the Mississippi Delta to a town with a unique history and a storied past. It's Mound Bayou. It was founded in 1887 by former slaves - founded with a vision to be a self-reliant, autonomous all-black community. And it thrived for decades, famous for empowering its black citizens. So what has become of Mound Bayou now?

Our colleague Melissa Block went to find out as part of her travels. She's traveling around the country. It's a series called Our Land.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOUND BAYOU")

MAXINE SULLIVAN AND HER JAZZ ALL-STARS: (Singing) Mound Bayou...

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: For generations, that name stood for independence.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOUND BAYOU")

MAXINE SULLIVAN AND HER JAZZ ALL-STARS: (Singing) Mound Bayou - that's the town I'm bound for.

BLOCK: It stood for success, a haven from the virulent racism in the Jim Crow South.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOUND BAYOU")

MAXINE SULLIVAN AND HER JAZZ ALL-STARS: (Singing) I'd reach and wrap them gently 'round my Mound Bayou.

BLOCK: For a long view, we stop in at the Mound Bayou home of Annyce Campbell, age 92. She's waiting for us in a reclining chair, eager to talk about the town she loves.

ANNYCE CAMPBELL: Mound Bayou is where I was born and reared.

BLOCK: There's a lot of history in this town.

CAMPBELL: Oh, don't say nothing - plenty history in Mound Bayou.

BLOCK: Back in 1887, the founders of Mound Bayou, former slaves, bought Mississippi swampland covered with forest and did the backbreaking work of clearing it for farming. It became prime cotton land, and word spread. Mound Bayou became known as a place where blacks enjoyed political and economic freedom.

Teddy Roosevelt came through here in 1907, saw the prosperity and proclaimed Mound Bayou the jewel of the Delta. And that's still the slogan on the sign leading into town. Back in its heyday, Annyce Campbell tells me, Mound Bayou had everything.

CAMPBELL: You name it, we had it.

BLOCK: Dozens of businesses, three cotton gins, a sawmill, a black-owned bank, several schools, a train station, a Carnegie library.

CAMPBELL: We had everything here but a jail, to tell you the truth.

ROLANDO HERTS: Just being able to walk through the front door of a hospital and immediately receive the care that you need. It's almost like it was an inverted, (laughter) you know, or alternate universe where being black was a positive thing.

BLOCK: That's Rolando Herts. He directs the Delta Center for Culture & Learning at Delta State University. He's talking about Taborian Hospital, which opened in 1942 and served blacks from all over the Delta. That hospital is shuttered now, and a drive through Mound Bayou shows a town that's fallen hard. There are just a few businesses left - a convenience store, a gas station, a funeral home. I meet Rolando Herts outside the abandoned home of Mound Bayou's founder, Isaiah T. Montgomery. Its foundation is cracked and crumbling.

What happened to this place that had such promise and hope?

HERTS: I think desegregation happened. And this is a case that we've seen across the country in which black communities - people who had more options left those communities to move to the suburbs or to move to urban areas for more opportunities and took their know-how and their resources with them.

BLOCK: It didn't help that Highway 61, which used to bring people through Mound Bayou, now bypasses it. The population has dwindled to under 1,500, a fraction of what it once was. More than half the children here live below the poverty level.

EULAH PETERSON: People are different. Times are different. A sense of what was is not here.

BLOCK: This is Eulah Peterson, former alderman and vice mayor of Mound Bayou. Her grandparents moved to this town in 1903, drawn by the promise of what was happening here.

PETERSON: My grandfather, I like to tell, was a slave. My mother's father was 7 years old when the slaves were freed.

BLOCK: Eulah Peterson hasn't given up on this town. In fact, she moved back here after many years away and is running for mayor.

PETERSON: I do feel that Mound Bayou will survive - not necessarily the way it was but maybe different and better in some way.

BLOCK: Despite it all, Peterson is a believer. She has faith there are others like her, people who've moved away but want to come back home and help revive Mound Bayou, Miss.

Melissa Block, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAXINE SULLIVAN AND HER JAZZ ALL-STARS' "MOUND BAYOU")

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