TAZ History: Mound Bayou, Mississippi

A Short History of Mound Bayou

I’ve been collecting a history of Temporary Autonomous Zones. I’m grateful to Hakim Bey for the conceptual phrase, but his history was more romantic than tactically useful…and after all, he is something of a pedo. So in honor of the TAZ going down right now in PDX — YOU KNOW ABOUT ESOZONE, YES?? — I’ll be sharing some of the best stories this weekend.

One of my favorite corners of Southern History was an all-black community hidden in Northern Mississippi. The story of Mound Bayou stretches across centuries and winds through everything from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement. Sadly, Mound Bayou exists almost nowhere online. The Wikipedia is shallow filler, and most of the online histories are short and sloppy.

Isaiah Montgomery and Ben Green founded Mound Bayou in 1887, but the story begins with Montgomery’s father, Ben, who was a slave on the David Bend plantation. For most folks alive today, our images of a plantation are based on Roots, but things were very different at Davis Bend. It was owned by Joeseph Davis (the brother of Confederate president Jefferson Davis) and he was heavily inspired by the “socialist utopianism” of an obscure thinker named Robert Owen.

As a side note, Technoccult readers might be interested to know that “Owen insisted he could communicate with great minds of the past by means of electricity.” The precise details are lost to history, but it should be noted Owens was unusually blunt after death, telling Spritualist mediums who summoned him “Oh! How you have misunderstood the laws which connect spirit with spirit…you will never understand these things…”

David Bend was an experiment in education and empowerment, and yes, I do realize how absurd that sounds when I’m still talking about white people owning slaves. Rather than draconian dormitory conditions, though, Joeseph Davis encouraged his slaves to educate themselves and even own businesses. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Davis sold his land holdings to Ben Montgomery, who had run the plantation store. The price was $300,000 in gold, and with that David Bend became one of the first autonomous black communities in the South.

The Owen-inspired focus on learning and skills carried into Mound Bayou, especially when Booker T. Washington got involved later on. This isn’t just a look into the past, though: I think that Mound Bayou has a signifigant lesson to offer us here in 2008. During the many “exodus” movements which happened throughout the history of both Davis Bend and Mound Bayou, the Montgomery family was adamant about building a strong foundation instead of leaving for the mere promise of something better. Most importantly, the education they focused on was agricultural tech and self-sufficiency techniques:

Through outlets like the town’s newspaper, The Demonstrator (1900), Mound Bayou promoted education as an essential path to community survival, in particular vocational education in scientific agriculture through the Mound Bayou Normal and Industrial Institute.

Here in 2008, John Robb, one of my favorite Big Thinkers and the author of Brave New War, has been doing an amazing series of short, potent articles revolving around global systems collapse and the concept of the Resilient Community. Although fairy tales like Gabriele D’Annunzio taking over Fiume are beautiful, they’re not realistic or sustainable solutions. Mound Bayou is a model that lasted, and it was based on smart design and hard work, not poetry and wine.

11 Comments

  1. This is a great piece of history Justin, thanks for posting this. I wish I could be a part of Esozone this year, unfortunately I’ve been visited by the unenjoyment fairy so funds are low. Maybe next year.

  2. Justin Boland

    October 11, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Same here. That’s how I got the invite to help hold the fort down here at Technoccult during Esozone weekend. Bummed I’m missing out on the PDX pyrotechnics.

    (As a side note, I have never had such an absurdly, depressingly hard time finding even crap jobs in my life. It’s been a great Clarifying Force, though, really getting my writing and music into gear.)

  3. What was the name of the taz-like slave communities in Brazil broken up by the Portuguese around 1795 ?

  4. As always, this is exactly the brain food I needed. Thanks for taking advantage of not being able to find work by working your ass off.

  5. How can anything be a TAZ that relies upon the Federal Reserve for its currency? ((ticket prices, drinks, ect)) How can it be a TAZ if it closes and clears people out every night? How can it be a TAZ if the substance and obscenity laws of the united states are still recognized as law within its boundaries?

  6. Justin Boland

    October 11, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Buy some tickets and find out for yourself?

  7. I understand the appeal of cronyism and everything, but if these already obscure terms get thrown around senselessly as buzzwords they lose all meaning and power. If you want to contribute to that, be my guest.

  8. Justin Boland

    October 11, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    Of course you’re factually right, I was just rather peeved that all you found important enough to comment on from this piece was a line from the intro.

    I apologize to you for my blatant and warm-hearted misuse of “TAZ” in reference to an event you’ve clearly got some sort of problem with.

    I would ask you to consider how much damage my hyperbole can really do to the concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, ESPECIALLY in the context of the actual post.

  9. This is a great piece about a part of history that some people don’t know too much about. Thanks for posting this Justin.(And it seems to be the same story everywhere job wise. Even in the big city.)

  10. I think that the stories of Ben Montgomery and his son Isaiah would make a great miniseries, or even a pair of miniseries. Maybe someone like Oprah Winfrey or Will Smith might want to bankroll it. If started now, it might be completed in time for Black History Month in 2010, but 2011 is more likely.

    [By the way, the name of the plantation was "Davis Bend". Please correct this in the three places where this error occurs.]

    Did you know that Ben Montgomery was denied a U.S. patent because he was a slave? When his master tried to get the patent in his own name, that was also denied. Finally, Jefferson Davis, his master’s brother, had the Confederacy pass a law allowing slaves to patent their inventions. Interesting.

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