TheGrio Daily

Real Gangstas of Black History: Mound Bayou

Episode 172

Wypipologist Michael Harriot takes us back to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, the birthplace of the civil rights movement. A place where T.R.M. Howard, Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Katie Hall, Isiah Montgomery, and Aretha Franklin all have a connection. Learn why this sacred place is a part of “The Real Gangstas of Black History” series on theGrio Daily.

“It was the only place in Mississippi, and almost the entire South, where Jim Crow didn’t exist”

Full Transcript Below:

Announcer: You are now listening to the Grio’s Black Podcast Network, Black Culture Amplified.

Michael Harriot: It’s Black History Month, and instead of the usual heroes, we’re doing a series on the “Real Gangstas of Black History.” Not the gangstas like you like to think of it, but the people who were erased and whitewashed out of history because quite frankly, wypipo didn’t like them. But we can’t really tell those stories unless we tell and talk about where they came from. And that’s why I want to welcome you to the Grio Daily. The only podcast that will tell you about Mound Bayou, Mississippi, the gangsta headquarters.

I’m world famous wypipologist, Michael Harriot, and this is the Grio Daily.

Welcome back to the Grio Daily and of course, as you know, this is a podcast that celebrates Black history year-round. So for Black History Month, we thought we’d do this series on the Black gangstas. And not gangstas, as you’d like to think about them, but people who led groups that were largely seen as outcasts or thugs or undesirable by white America.

And you can’t talk about this without talking about this little town in Mississippi called Mound Bayou, Mississippi. But to understand this, we have to go back before Mound Bayou, Mississippi even existed. The story of Mound Bayou begins in a town called Davis Bend, Mississippi, which was started by a former enslaved man named Benjamin Montgomery.

Benjamin was born into slavery. But because he was so smart, he had been allowed to run a store on the plantation of the man who owned him, the brother of Jefferson Davis. His name was Joseph E. Davis and Benjamin Montgomery was so smart, and kept trying to free himself. So he was basically given autonomy and he made so much money at his little store that after the Civil War, he bought his former master’s property and started a free autonomous Black community.

But of course, you know, he wasn’t content because you know, the wypipo kept messing with him. So in 1887, Benjamin Montgomery’s son, Isaiah T. Montgomery got all the people to just leave Davis Bend and start their own community called Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Now, at the same time, even before the Civil War, there was a man named Moses Dixon who had this secret group called the Taborian Knights, the Knights of 12, you’ll find many different names of it, and they were going to organize a national slave revolt. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the civil war started. They didn’t need to because they had like 200, 000 people ready to fight. So the Taborian Knights organized this secret national fraternity called the Knights of Twelve, the Taborian Knights, and they paid dues and they took these dues and built the first Black owned hospital in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. The Taborian Hospital started and funded by the international order of 12 nights and the daughters of Tabor Dixon’s original group. Now, two-thirds of the landowners in Mound Bayou were Black farmers. So they hired a chief surgeon by the name of T.

R. M. Howard. I’d like to play this game called the 12 degrees of T. R. M. Howard because everyone. In Black history that, you know, has some connection to T.R.M. Howard, because he owned all of these businesses. He owned an insurance company. He was the NAACP president. He was a man who organized voters. He funded the civil rights movement secretly and he used Mound Bayou as a training ground for all of these civil rights activists that you might know.

For instance, in 1952, T.R.M. Howard hired this new insurance salesman that was fresh out of the army to sell life insurance door to door. And he was really training the dude to really organize communities and to talk to people in communities and convince them to get active in politics and Black liberation.

Well, that insurance salesman went by the name of Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s first Field Secretary in Mississippi. Mound Bayou had their own Black-owned banks, credit unions, insurance companies, a hospital, five newspapers, hotels, their own water company, and everything was patronized by Black residents.

They even held these Black seminars to train other Black farmers from around the country. One young lady came there for a conference for the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. And she decided to get involved with this new civil rights era. And her name was Fannie Lou Hamer. One of T.R.M. Howard’s friends was a preacher named C. L. Franklin and his daughter, C. L. Franklin’s daughter, got involved with the civil rights movement and became a really good singer. You might’ve heard of her. Her name was Aretha Franklin. Katie Hall, the U. S. representative from Indiana who introduced the legislation for. The MLK holiday was born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Mary Cordelia Montgomery Booze, the daughter of former slaves, who was the first African American woman to sit on the Republican National Committee. Oh, she was from Mound Bayou, Mississippi. You wonder where Jesse Jackson learned how to speak so well to anybody. Oh yeah. He sold insurance for T.R.M. Howard in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. And we could go on and on because again, because of the Taborian hospital, Mound Bayou provided healthcare for free for people all over the country who either weren’t allowed to get healthcare at white hospitals or just trusted the Black doctors at the Taborian hospital more people from Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King would go there to train young leaders and to spread the word about this new thing called ‘civil rights.’ And I’m not just being hyperbolic about the importance of Mound Bayou, because everybody used to know about it.

In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt ordered his train to make a special stop in Mound Bayou, where he declared that the town was an, “object lesson, full of hope for the colored people and therefore full of hope for white people too.” Booker T. Washington called it “a place where a Negro may get inspiration by seeing what other members of his race have accomplished and where he has an opportunity to learn some of the fundamental duties and responsibilities of social and civic life.”

Every summer they had this huge conference to train Black leaders where between 1952 and 1955, about 10, 000 people would come every year to this conference. It was like Coachella mixed with CBC weekend. And I’m not kidding because one of the things that would happen at this conference is that Black entertainers would come there and get activated and radicalized to join the fight for Black rights. And notice that I keep saying ‘Negro rights’ and ‘Black rights,’ because there wasn’t really a thing that was called the civil rights movement then until it started in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. That’s right. That’s where that term and that’s where that movement came from because in 1955 in Money, Mississippi, a young Black boy named Emmett Till was murdered by a group of white men.

And when they held the trial, the Black press didn’t really have a place where they could cover it because they were threatened by, you know, Klansmen, you know, just wypipo in Mississippi. That’s how it was back then. So T.R.M. Howard created a Black militia to protect the Black press who came down there to investigate and cover the trial and the reason this is important is because we wouldn’t actually know who killed Emmett Till. We wouldn’t know what happened that night if those Black investigative reporters weren’t protected by T R M Howard and Mound Bayou’s Black militia, that armed Black force that protected those Black media members. They stayed at T.R.M. Howard’s house. And they had armed escorts all around the county and to the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi. And most historians date the beginning of the era that we know as the civil rights struggle to the death of Emmett Till and the knowledge that spread around the country of what happened there. And it wouldn’t have spread without the protection of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, without T.R.M. Howard, without that Black autonomy that was created by this town. It was the only place in Mississippi, and almost the entire South, where Jim Crow didn’t exist. The Taborian hospital was one of the first hospitals and one of the few hospitals in the entire country that offered abortions to mothers because T.R.M. Howard was one of the forefathers of the pro-life movement. And from that oasis sprang what we know as the Civil Rights Movement. And that’s why Mound Bayou, Mississippi is the headquarters of Black Resistance. And that’s also why you got to listen to this podcast. That’s why you got to download that Grio app.

That’s why you got to tell a friend about it and subscribe on every platform you can. And that’s also why we leave you with a Black saying. And today’s Black saying is about the one thing that didn’t exist, that they didn’t have in Mound Bayou and the saying is from Anise Campbell, who was born in Mound Bayou in 1924.

And Anise Campbell said, “You name it, we had it. We had everything, but a jail to tell you the truth.” We’ll see you next time on the Grio Daily. 

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