Nusce Hall still remembers the way he felt when he learned about his town’s history.

“[It was] like going to Walt Disney World for me,” he recalled.

Hall was nowhere near Disney World when he got the same feeling that inspires children who step into the Magical Kingdom. Two states stretched between him and the towering castles, the whimsical rides, the palm trees that characterize America’s happy place.

Instead, he sat inside a rural Mississippi Delta school about 20 miles east of the Mississippi River and 115 miles north of Vicksburg up Highway 61. It’s a part of the country known for its high poverty, low life-expectancy and history of racial oppression.

But his school sat on hallowed ground, the land cleared and the town settled by freed slaves. It would come to be known as Mound Bayou, one of the first settlements established by freed people exclusively for African Americans.

This is why Mound Bayou felt like Disney World for Hall — why, as a child, it filled him with wonder. Because Isaiah T. Montgomery and Benjamin T. Green — two former slaves who had been owned by Joseph Davis, the brother of Confederate President Jefferson Davis — went on to found a place that would represent success and autonomy for African Americans.

“Being in that town and for it to be created by two ex-slaves … what I see is a man who had a vision, and he created something. I look at (Disney World and Mound Bayou) as basically the same,” 21-year-old Hall said.

Today, the town remains at 98 percent African American. It still has a vision for what Mound Bayou should be, and it still has to fight for it. In the past, that meant fighting for autonomy, excellence and a peaceful existence. Recently that has meant a legal battle to keep its iconic high school open.

To the people who live there, the pursuit of settling the post-slavery settlement and the pursuit of saving the high school are inextricably linked. Without the history, the high school wouldn’t exist. Without the high school, that history may be lost.

Early days

After paying the down payment for 840 acres of land in Bolivar County during July 1887, Montgomery and Green began recruiting settlers. The land was, “covered by a thick coating of trees and undergrowth, through which the only means of moving was by hatchet or machete. The forests were filled with wild animals and there was the ever-present fear of swamp fever, to which some settlers succumbed,” a document of the town’s history details.  

In the coming years, early settlers built a supply store, a saw mill, a post office, obtained a cotton gin, established a school and a church.

Montgomery became the town’s first mayor in 1898, three more settlers became the town’s first aldermen and two more were appointed marshal and treasurer.

“It was an effort made to find you a place where you could govern yourselves and work for yourself versus working for the master or working for someone else. That was attractive to people, especially to those that had experienced slavery,” said Eulah Peterson, mayor of Mound Bayou. Peterson’s grandfather, a former slave, moved to Mound Bayou in 1903.

While Mound Bayou was looked to during the post-antebellum era as a haven from white autonomy, Peterson grew up there during the Civil Rights era, when it was a haven from racially motivated violence and oppression.

Eulah Peterson, Mound Bayou mayor, stands on family property.
Eulah Peterson, Mound Bayou mayor, stands on the land that her grandfather bought when he moved to the town in 1903. She still owns the property. Credit: Kelsey Davis / Mississippi Today

Shops and businesses lined the streets. Excellence in education was emphasized. A hospital in town employed black surgeons, doctors and nurses. There were no dehumanizing separate water fountains or bathrooms or schools. No need to look down when a white person crosses your path for fear of losing your life.

Of course, the safety that Mound Bayou afforded its community didn’t mean that people there were naive about racial injustice happening outside of town. And, it didn’t mean the town was never targeted by white people.

In the early days, white people stole mules from the settlers and poisoned their wells. Around the turn of the century, white people made a point to boycott the oil mill in Mound Bayou.

Peterson’s uncles once willingly spent the night in jail to protect themselves from a white mob looking for them after they helped a wounded black man — who was accused of shooting a white man — get medical attention.

At the same time, it was instilled in the Mound Bayou community to not let fear from the outside disrupt their sense of worth.

“We were not taught to be subservient. My parents taught us that you’re no better than anyone else, but no one else is any better than you. We were told you can do anything — be what you want to be,” Peterson said.

Mound Bayou Mayor Eulah Peterson outside of city hall
Mound Bayou Mayor Eulah Peterson outside of city hall Credit: Kelsey Davis / Mississippi Today

Peterson tells stories like this to illustrate what that sometimes looked like in Mound Bayou during the Civil Rights Era:

“We would be at (my father’s printing shop) assisting, and I remember one day dad wasn’t at the shop. This white guy came and he says, ‘Is Isaac here?’ (My sister and I) looked at each other and said nothing. So he asked again, kind of like maybe y’all didn’t hear me. (My sister) said, ‘I don’t know Isaac. Mr. Peterson went across the street.’ He turned and left.”

Wanda Stringer, a Mound Bayou native and former principal of John F. Kennedy Memorial High School in town, also remembers deriving dignity from her town in a way she couldn’t have at most other places in America.

“The town was self-sufficient and that shaped our personalities. Most people grew up here believing they could do anything because we didn’t grow up in a place where limitations were put on what we could be,” she said. “Students left here, graduated, it was nothing to say I’m going to school and become a doctor or a lawyer or one of the greatest teachers, because that was the attitude that we had. It was instilled in us by those who were around us.”

The power of storytelling

Current students at John F. Kennedy Memorial High School say these are lessons that are still emphasized today.

They’re taught about their town’s history both in class and in the community. The value of independence, grit and knowing your worth are lessons that are still passed down from Isaiah T. Montgomery.

“We really grew up on that, and that’s what we talk about every day — how they made a way out of no way and how we can do the same with the legacy they left us,” said Kylan Hooker, a sophomore at JFK. “It’s instilling in young black kids like us to have a sense of value for education … and it really made us feel special about the history of our school.”

A sign outside of John F. Kennedy High School in Mound Bayou depicting its name
Residents of Mound Bayou have filed an injunction to stop the school from closing, a decision recommended by the North Bolivar Consolidated School District Superintendent. Credit: Kelsey / Mississippi Today

And while it’s important to contemplate what it means to be empowered by the stories of your history, perhaps equally as important is to consider what it means when the heroes of your history are swept under the rug, boiled down to a single sentence in a textbook.

In October 2017, an analysis by The Hechinger Report showed most public schools use outdated textbooks to teach Mississippi history. These textbooks downplay the Civil Rights Movement and barely mention Mississippians who were pivotal in that era.

“You learn by seeing models of people like you. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to have a wide range of diverse books in a classroom library, and teachers should always make sure that there are stories that reflect the lives of the children in the class,” said Maureen Costello, director of the Teaching Tolerance program at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

A sign outside of the elementary school in Mound Bayou depicting its name and founder, I.T. Montgomery
The elementary school in Mound Bayou is named after one of the town’s founders. Credit: Kelsey Davis / Mississippi Today

“When you don’t do that, the message you’re sending is you don’t count, you’re invisible. There’s literally schools of research on this that say that when you don’t acknowledge people’s identities and you deny them, you simply perpetuate a system of racial dominance.”

Present Day

Mound Bayou is now facing a new threat, this time of losing its historic high school. In January, North Bolivar Consolidated School District Superintendent Maurice Smith announced that the high school in Mound Bayou would close as a result of budget constraints. Under that decision, students from Mound Bayou would have to go to near-by Shelby for high school.

Mound Bayou citizens have sought legal action to keep their high school open, but the judge has yet to make a decision.

If the high school closes, some fear the town’s sense of identity and remaining vitality will be weakened.

“Without our school, we’ll feel like they’re just taking away everything special that was bestowed upon us,” Hooker said.

Strife has played an important role in Mound Bayou’s history. The first year the town was settled, a flood nearly wiped out the work that was done to clear nearly 90 acres of land. In 1914 the price of cotton fell, harming farmers and causing the town’s banks to close.

A photo of storefronts in downtown Mound Bayou
Many downtown shops in Mound Bayou have shuttered throughout the decades. Credit: Kelsey Davis / Mississippi Today

The Great Depression of the 30’s and increased mechanization of farming devastated the town. A fire destroyed a significant part of the downtown area in 1941. In 1983 the hospital in town, where Civil Rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer took her last breath, was shut down.

And like every other small town in rural America, Mound Bayou has dealt with declining population and lessening opportunities for economic stability. Today, about 44 percent of people in Mound Bayou live in poverty, U.S. Census data shows. 

A poignant paradox exists here: one that laments that the town isn’t what it was, but knows that it’s still worth fighting for.

“We have so much to be proud of and so we’re working hard to maintain our school system,” Stringer said. “We will not go quietly into the darkness. We will not do that because it’s a part of our legacy and it’s an important part of our history and in order, we feel, for our community to survive, we can do no less than fight this thing until the end.”

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.