Digging for the Dream in Mound Bayou

In March, 1998, a public excavation occurred in Mound Bayou, one of the first all-black incorporated towns in the US. At one time, Mound Bayou was a prosperous and influential community. Today, because of economic conditions, Mound Bayouans are struggling to survive and teach their youth about their important history and culture. The public dig which centered on a town lot behind the Bank of Mound Bayou and also contained their first City Hall, was aimed at involving young people in the discovery and preservation of their heritage. This paper reports on this "ground-breaking"archaeological project in the Mississippi Delta and discusses some steps for working with a descendant community.


In March, 1998, a pubic dig was held in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. The excavation was conducted by Amy Young, Milburn Crowe, five students from The University of Southern Mississippi, Phil Carr, and, most importantly, local youth. After presenting a brief sketch of the history of this remarkable all-black town in the Mississippi Delta, a discussion of the steps in working with a descendant community are presented. The purpose is to share information about what we found that works when descendant communities participate in archaeological investigations.

Mound Bayou was established in 1887 by Isaiah T. Montgomery and his cousin Benjamin Green (Hermann 1981; Hamilton 1991). It is located in Bolivar County, Mississippi in the region known as the Delta (Figure 1). The Delta is renown for its many vast late antebellum cotton plantations (Cobb 1992). Montgomery and Green established Mound Bayou to be a haven and self-sufficient black community in the midst of the white-controlled cotton kingdom. This is especially remarkable considering the violence of the post-Reconstruction era in the Deep South, particularly in the Delta. Isaiah Montgomery and Benjamin Green and the other early pioneers of Mound Bayou wanted to create a refuge for blacks in the heart of this plantation country. In the words of modem residents, "Mound Bayou was a place where a black man could run FOR sheriff instead of FROM the sheriff."

Isaiah Montgomery was born a slave on May 21, 1847 to Ben and Mary Montgomery (Hamilton 1991). Ben Montgomery was one of Joseph Davis' (brother of Jefferson Davis) favored slaves. Ben Montgomery learned special skills (farm management, reading, and writing) and managed to accumulate some wealth. His son, Isaiah served as Joseph Davis' personal slave and secretary until Davis fled the Union Army in 1862 (Hamilton 1991).

After the war, Ben Montgomery purchased Brierfield and Hurricane plantations at Davis Bend that had been owned by Joseph Davis (Hamilton 1991). Because of financial setbacks, however, he lost the property in 1881. His son, Isaiah Montgomery, spent his life trying to bring his family back to their former state of wealth and comfort. Mound Bayou was one of the results of these efforts (Hamilton 1991).

Benjamin Green was born a slave in 1857 on the Davis Bend settlement. In 1886 he lived
with his aunt Mrs. Benjamin Montgomery (Isaiah Montgomery's mother) and learned planting and mercantile businesses. Benjamin Green was the Montgomery's mercantile manager at Davis Bend.

Benjamin Green and Isaiah Montgomery convinced other former slaves from the Davis Bend area near Vicksburg to join them in the settlement. They also attracted other black settlers to Mound Bayou, as well. Modern Mound Bayou residents feel that the success of the early colony is a clear demonstration of the potential and abilities of peoples who had been enslaved. Therefore, modern Mound Bayouans are not ashamed of their roots in slavery, but rather proud.

Mound Bayou was to be developed as part of the extension of railroads into the Deep South, and was thus placed on the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas line (Hamilton 1991:43). The Delta during the 1880s was still largely uninhabited and an untamed wilderness. Even in the twentieth century there were still vast tracts of Delta that remained a wilderness. The cotton plantations were located primarily on the Mississippi River, but the remainder of the Delta contained thick forests of hardwoods and pine trees, with numerous streams and bayous which made the area virtually impenetrable. "Poisonous snakes, wolves, panthers, and bears endangered adventurers ... and settlers" (Hamilton 1991:44). The earliest colonists of Mound Bayou were faced with the tremendous task of carving a town and community out of the wilderness with little or no economic resources. The railroad served to connect Mound Bayou with the rest of the nation.

According to Hamilton (I 991:5 0-5 1), the experiences of a pioneer of Mound Bayou named Simon Gaiter seem to typify those of most of the early settlers. Gaiter arrived in 1887 with $175, but his family did not join him until the following year. Gaiter purchased a 40-acre plot, cleared a small part, and with the timber, built a log house for his family. After the down payment of $40, the purchase of supplies, and the cost of transporting his family and his possessions to Mound Bayou, Gaiter was left with only $10.00. This was not enough to make it through the first year. Gaiter had his wife and children clear five acres of the town for $4.00 per acre and Gaiter himself cut firewood for $6.00 per cord. Gaiter's children and wife also picked cotton for $0.50 per hundredweight. Gaiter supplemented the family's diet with hunting and fishing, but recalled many weeks without meat (Hamilton 1991:50-51).

In the 1890s and in the first years of the twentieth century the population of the town and
surrounding black colony grew (Hamilton 1991:53). Isaiah Montgomery, Benjamin Green, and other pioneers not only spent time in their own family pursuits establishing businesses and farms, but also continued to contact people of means around the nation to invest in Mound Bayou, with the ultimate goal of making the town self-sufficient. In 1891 there were about 500 residents in the colony. In 1893 there were 183 living in the town proper. By 1900, the town was home to 287 residents with an additional 1500 living in the hinterlands on farms (Hamilton 1991:53). A study of the 1900 census of Mound Bayou shows 65 households. It is evident that Mound Bayouans placed a priority on education. Nearly 90% of the population could read, according to the census. The most common occupations were farmer, farm laborer, day laborer, servant, and grocer. Most of those listed as farm laborer apparently worked on their father's farm. Day laborers hired out on other farms. There were two blacksmiths in Mound Bayou in1900, two general contractors, three ministers, three carpenters, a postmaster, a stenographer, a wheelwright, a barber, two teachers, one lawyer, and one physician in 1900.

In the first years of the twentieth century, a prominent black businessman, Charles Banks, arrived in the community and founded the Bank of Mound Bayou. By 1910 the pioneers of Mound Bayou had succeeded in transforming the little community into a thriving town of 500 people, and many more in the hinterlands, with thirteen stores, six churches, a train station, a telephone exchange, and a weekly newspaper. It appeared that the dream of Isaiah Montgomery and the other early settlers had been realized (Hermann198 1). President Theodore Roosevelt named Mound Bayou "The Jewel of the Delta" and the town had the backing of Booker T. Washington and many other prominent Americans. Various industrial endeavors were established in the town. These included several cotton gins and a cotton oil mill. The cotton oil mill was erected as an additional economic boost to the economy of Mound Bayou.

Mound Bayouans understand that their unique history has also given them a unique perspective. Mound Bayou has ALWAYS had black officials like mayors, sheriffs, school board members, aldermen, and police, so that the fears associated with dealing with the white counterparts has been somewhat subdued in local residents. They recognized that black folks had much to fear from whites outside of town, but they have never really felt that once black officials are in place that all problems are automatically solved. Also, the everyday oppression felt by many black Mississippians in the early part of this century were not the norm for Mound Bayouans, however, residents could never remain shielded from the harsh outside world.

More than anything, Mound Bayouans feel that they have a special story to tell and their town holds a very special place in local, state, and national history. They feel that their town can be a source of pride for many Americans, not just Mound Bayouans. They also strongly feel that their youth need to be exposed to their own history and culture, but because of encroaching economic conditions, this is becoming more and more difficult. Mound Bayouans are proud of their history and want to share it. Also, because Mound Bayouans do not want Isaiah Montgomery's dream to fade, the project was entitled, "Digging for the Dream: Archaeology at Mound Bayou."

To our knowledge, this is the first archaeological project designed and implemented by a black community. The public outreach plus the involvement of the community in discovering and interpreting their past, then relating that history to outsiders makes this project another example of the pioneering efforts of the citizens of Mound Bayou.

Working with Descendant Communities

Involvement of descendant communities is an increasingly visible topic in historical archaeology (McKee 1998; McDavid 1997; Derry 1997; Blakey 1997; Singleton 1997). Within African-American archaeology the issue of involving descendant communities has gone beyond an interesting, and possibly productive, idea to a necessity. The political, social, and economic effects of archaeological investigations (and the resulting interpretations) on the descendant community and the entire nation must be considered by archaeologists (Blakey 1997). Suggestions by archaeologists for involving descendant communities have run the gamut from informing these groups after the fact (e.g., give a public slide presentation), to having descendant communities involved in earlier stages of research (Edwards-Ingram 1997). Further, many archaeologists have been confronted by difficulties trying to involve descendant communities in the archaeological research (McDavid 1997; Derry 1997). Clearly, involvement of descendant communities is complex, time consuming for archaeologists, but also very important in African-American archaeology.

This remainder of this paper describes the process, which is on-going, of public archaeology in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. The effort is a sustained collaboration between a professional archaeologist and the local citizens. We will outline the steps we have taken, and the issues we have faced to accomplish a public dig.

The Steps

The archaeology at Mound Bayou began as a chance encounter between the two authors of this article. Mr. Crowe is a native and historian of Mound Bayou. Amy Young met him as he served as the President of the Mississippi African American Historic Preservation Council. Crowe invited Young as soon as he understood her research area was African American archaeology. Crowe had been thinking about the possibility of archaeology in his town.

What made this first step easy was that Mr. Crowe already had some understanding of historical archaeology, which is remarkable in itself. He had met Theresa Singleton when she was involved in "Digging the Afro-American Past"conference in nearly a decade ago. While that conference was held in Oxford, Mississippi, it also included a tour of Mound Bayou. Most non-archaeologists have no understanding of the profession of archaeology and often equate archaeology with Indiana Jones. Without a basic understanding of the potential and limitations of modern archaeology, collaboration between professional archaeologists and others is very difficult.

Despite the knowledge that Mr. Crowe had an understanding of historical archaeology, when Young first visited Mound Bayou, she made a slide presentation of my work on other African-American sites so that he and other local residents might know something about the kinds of information we obtain in our work. This was very important because it made the descendant community aware of the potential and the limits of archaeology. This step, educating the descendant community, is absolutely critical for public archaeology and for involvement of a descendant community in archaeology. It is somewhat unfortunate that non-archaeologists have such a limited understanding of archaeology and often equate it with treasure hunting and Indiana Jones.

During this first visit, Mr. Crowe and other residents began educating Young about the history of their town. The history presented in the first part of this article is the story of Mound Bayou from the perspective of local residents. All referenced material was checked with residents for accuracy. Learning the history from the perspective of the descendant community was the second step for the archaeologist in working with a descendant community. In this case, because of the pride Mound Bayouans feel for their history and culture, this second step was also easy. Understanding the history and the source of pride that Mound Bayou provides to residents was critical for the archaeologist who was often reminded by the residents that history is a very personal thing and that archaeologists are actually digging up (through excavations and through interviews) intimate aspects of their past. Interestingly, while Young was taught the history of Mound Bayou, she also learned of the diversity of opinions within the community and how this affects modern cultural traditions like their annual Heritage Festival. Recognizing the diversity within a descendant community is the third step in working with a descendant community. For example, there are Mound Bayouans who are descended from the original pioneers. There are Mound Bayouans who are descended from later immigrants. This is a source of potential conflict, even if it is only friendly competition. Knowledge of the history and culture of another community from the perspective of the descendant community is also critical for a successful project.

Once it was decided that a dig was to take place then the fourth step was to find the right site. Because of the potential divisiveness within the community based on descent from early pioneer or later immigrant, Young encouraged a focus on a site with which all Mound Bayouans could identify. In other words, we decided not to excavate at the home of one of the founding families, but on a public or commercial site.

In this case, the choice was relatively simple. Mound Bayouans recognize that they have several important buildings, including the Bank of Mound Bayou constructed in 1904 by Charles Banks, a later immigrant. The old bank building is in a state of disrepair because the current owner cannot afford to fix it. The Mound Bayou Historic Preservation Council hopes eventually to acquire the building and obtain funds to stabilize and reconstruct it. Some hope it can be used as a cultural center.

The Bank of Mound Bayou is a two story brick structure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places standing on the corner of West Main and Green streets (Lot 1,Green's Square). The first floor contained the bank, but the second story held offices, including an office of a physician, Dr. Scott Harris, and offices of the Mound Bayou Oil Mill. The building served as the headquarters of the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a black fraternal organization aimed at helping widows and orphans and supporting black business endeavors. Charles Banks organized the Mississippi Negro Business League as a chapter of Booker T. Washington's national organization, also located in the Bank of Mound Bayou (Hermann 198 1). The building occupies almost the entire lot, and it was thought that Lot Two may contain refuse from the building as it was vacant until 1919 or 1920. The refuse may help in understanding the daily activities that took place in the bank building, and many of these activities are associated with the early organization and business activities of the town.

The lot on which we excavated, besides being immediately adjacent to the Bank of Mound Bayou was eventually the site of the first City Hall and Mayor's office. The building which served as the first city hall was constructed in 1919 or 1920 by Benjamin A. Green, Benjamin Green's son and first child born in Mound Bayou. Benjamin A. Green served as Mayor of Mound Bayou from 1920 until around 1970. All of these factors made the lot ideal for an archaeological excavation. Choosing the site together with the descendant community is absolutely necessary so that the archaeologist has the support of residents.

Many residents of Mound Bayou felt that the local youth had a poor to marginal understanding of the history and culture of Mound Bayou. They felt that it was necessary to involve young people in the archaeological project. Thus the public aspect of this project was born. We decided where to dig and that this was to be a local effort. Crowe and Young wrote a grant proposal to fund a public dig and because it must, involve school-age children, the excavation was scheduled for Spring Break. The fifth step in working with a descendant community is to directly involve local people in the work. In this case, the youth of Mound Bayou excavated with us.

The decision to involve the youth of Mound Bayou in the archaeology was one of the wisest decisions we made. Instead of strangers coming into town to excavate, it put control in the hands of the descendant community. Furthermore, in a community that has experienced continual oppression from whites and made some local residents reluctant to share memories, it opened the door to additional information in the form of oral histories shared more with the youth than with strangers.

After the excavation and the processing and identification of the artifacts, the story of this public dig and what we found will be disseminated throughout Mississippi in the form of a traveling exhibit of "Digging for the Dream in Mound Bayou." The last step in working with a descendant community is to make sure all interpretations are approved by that community. In this case, Young made a subsequent visit to Mound Bayou to meet with the Mayor and the Historic Preservation Council where she laid out ideas for the exhibit, which they commented upon and approved. Most of her suggestions were greeted warmly and the input added detail and richness to the exhibit. This last step is the most important of all, because who owns the story of Mound Bayou but Mound Bayouans.

The Digging for the Dream project culminated in a final public forum to disseminate the findings during Mississippi's Archaeology Week. Young gave a brief slide presentation of the dig, and Theresa Singleton came and talked about the place of Mound Bayou in state, National, and international history. Dr. Alferdteen Harrison, from Jackson State University also spoke, as did the mayor of Mound Bayou, and Mr. Crowe.


The public excavations at Mound Bayou were a tremendous success for a number of reasons. First, Mound Bayouans initiated the project and had control over the site and the subsequent interpretations. Second, a dialogue between Mound Bayouans and professional archaeologists was facilitated through mutual interests and through involvement of the youth of Mound Bayou. Third, involvement of the youth of Mound Bayou in the excavations tended to open the doors (and memories) to outsiders. In this way, elderly residents felt they were sharing their memories and oral histories with their younger residents rather than outsiders who might not understand. Third, Mound Bayouans are proud of their history and want to share this history with everyone. They believed that archaeology would be an effective way of gaining the attention of the public to educate them about Mound Bayou.

Because of the work of the volunteers, those who excavated and those who shared their knowledge, we now know more about the activities that took place within the Bank of Mound Bayou and City Hall. We have a secure date of ca. 1920 for the construction of the city hall building. But perhaps even more important, the youth of Mound Bayou have a deeper appreciation of the history of their important community and can now share that history with others across the state.

More than anything else, working with descendant communities in discovering and uncovering the past makes the work or archaeologists very relevant. Most archaeologists want to make a difference through their work and this is a very rewarding way to make a difference.

Another reward of working for a descendant community is the access to oral history. While there is little in surviving documents concerning the African-American experience in the United States, especially written by blacks, there is a wealth of information in the form of oral history. When the descendant community is in control of a project, they feel ready to share the crucial information in oral history with the archaeologist.

The overall success of the "Digging for the Dream" project is, in part, attributable to the unique character and culture heritage within the community of Mound Bayou. This case study of working with descendant communities, therefore, is ideal. However, in archaeological and cultural investigations of black life in and around Natchez, Mississippi, the same basic principles were adopted and also have been successful. One of the biggest problems to overcome in working with African-American descendant communities is the perspective shared by part of the community that there is something shameful in the history of slavery. In other words, there is some degree of shame within the black community concerning slavery and descent from slaves. In the case of Mound Bayou, this was not an issue. However, through trust, respectful discussion, and mutual education, this can be overcome. Building trusting relationships, though, is very time consuming for the archaeologist and for members of the descendant community. One final step in working with descendant communities is do not force any beliefs or issues on that community until there is a general willingness to be open and trusting in the exchange of information.


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Hamilton, Kenneth M. 1991 Black Towns and Profit: Promotion and Development in the Trans _Appalachian West, 1877-1915. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

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Written by:
Amy L. Young (Department of Anthropology and Sociology The University of Southern Mississippi)
Milburn J. Crowe (Mound Bayou, Mississippi)

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