African-American History in Vicksburg
By David Maggio
The African-American's story in the South is one of both tragedy and triumph brought to this part of the world in chains or born into bondage. They none-the-less made great contributions to the tapestry of the Old South. Even after freedom in the post Civil War era they struggled against all odds and became a vibrant and thriving community. Today African-Americans along with every other ethnic group are part of what make Vicksburg such a special place.
The history of African-American people in Vicksburg is, just as other ethnic groups, diverse and intertwined within the pulse of the community. Slavery in America started in 1619, when a Dutch ship brought 20 African slaves ashore in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. In our area, the first European settlement in the area was French and located north of the city in Warren County called Fort. St. Pierre. Also known as Fort St. Claude and the Yazoo Post, it was established in 1719, and served as the northernmost outpost of French Louisiana. Black slaves accompanied many of the earliest immigrants to Warren County, and in 1729, a black servant of the French Jesuit, Father Soule, was baptized at the settlement and was later killed by the Yazoo Indians when they destroyed the fort, never to be rebuilt.
Between 1774 and 1804, many states abolished slavery, but there were a number of slaves across the entire United States at the time; it was in the rural south where many captured Africans were brought by slave ships to be sold into slavery. Tobacco was produced in the Upper South, rice was along the coastal plains areas and sugar was cultivated along the Gulf Coast. The tobacco market was notoriously unstable, rice demanded substantial irrigation and needed an exceptionally long growing time, and sugar cultivation required intensive labor and a long growing time. Cotton would not start to be the lucrative cash crop of the south until 1794 when Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin, a machine that revolutionized the production of cotton by greatly speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton fiber. With this invention, the slave population in the U.S. nearly tripled over the next 50 years.
In 1800, there were 3,489 enslaved laborers in the Mississippi Territory and 182 free blacks, but this started to change greatly as Whitney's Gin was incorporated into the Southern cotton culture. Many slaves to this point were house servants or worked for railroads, but as the production of cotton grew, so also did the population of slaves. In the publication, The Root, on 3/04/2013, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reported that in the year 1830, the year most reported, the total slave population of the 26 states was 2,009,043, of which 13.7% - 319,599 – of the black population in America were free. Of these freed blacks, 3,776 owned 12,907 slaves. The percentage of freed black slave head of families by ownership of slaves was 26% in Mississippi. By 1840, the population of Vicksburg was 1968 whites and 1065 slaves.
The Civil War took a great toll on the Vicksburg area, with Union forces coming to the city in mass in the summer of 1863. Their explicit reason to be in Vicksburg was to open the Mississippi River to northern commerce. After a prolonged siege, the city fell to Northern forces, and the river was once again open to trade. After the fall of the city, many former slaves flocked to the city, "going to freedom," and the population of Vicksburg grew from about 5,400 to nearly 15,000 with this influx of former slaves. For many of these freedmen, life was hard in that very few had received any form of education, and with so many people of like background, finding jobs was very hard. Vicksburg did prosper again and quickly grew because of its location on the Mississippi River. Cotton produced by the new owners of the plantations, using indentured servants, fueled the production. But many of these newly freed people chose to remain in Vicksburg, and became draymen, blacksmiths, carpenters, and various other occupations; they also worked in brass foundries, cotton-gins, lumber mills, and various other endeavors.
Even before emancipation, many slaves attended church with their owners at Christ Episcopal Church, First Presbyterian Church, and Catholic Church. But there were also churches belonging to the African-American community. Bethel African American Methodist Episcopal Church was the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Mississippi, organized by Reverend Page Tyler in January 1864. The church is known as "The Mother Congregation of African Methodism in the state of Mississippi."The original 1828 building was formally the First Presbyterian Church. The first African American Masonic Lodge in the state was organized in the church in 1875. In 1890, Campbell College, with branches in Frair’s Point and Vicksburg, became the first African American college in Mississippi to be established without the aid of whites, was organized. Campbell College moved to Jackson in 1897, and later became part of Jackson State University. The original church was demolished in 1912, and the present church on Monroe Street was constructed.
In 1846, the Methodist Church at Cherry and Grove Streets was given to the African American Methodist when Crawford Street Methodist Church was built and renamed Wesley Chapel Methodist Episcopal. In 1860, this church moved to 1318 First East Street and a new church dedicated in 1865. In 1886, this building was demolished and a new one dedicated. The first African American Boy Scout Troop in Vicksburg was founded in Wesley.
In 1863, Holly Grove Missionary Baptist Church was located on Warrenton Road, where Jett School was located (editor’s note: just south of I-20 on Warrenton Road), and the cemetery behind. In 1860, a one-story frame building was purchased for the Baptist African Americans on the southeast corner of Farmer and Crawford Streets. This became King Solomon Baptist Church in 1869. These and other churches of various denomination helped establish a vibrant religious community for people of color in the City of Vicksburg.
At the conclusion of the War, things in Vicksburg were on a fast track to change. In March of 1865, the headquarters of the Freedmen’s Bureau moved from Memphis to 1001 Cherry Street in Vicksburg, where it remained until the bureau was abolished. Hiram Rhodes Revels came to Vicksburg with the Freedmen’s Bureau and was, in 1864, the minister of Bethel AME Church. In 1870, he became the first African American United States Senator in the United States, filling a post previously held by Jefferson Davis. He later became the first president of Alcorn State University.
The National Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company, Freedmen’s Bank, was established in Vicksburg in 1865 at 1100 Washington Street. Organized and controlled by whites, the Freedmen’s Banks statewide closed in 1872, with the bank in Vicksburg holding the 10thlargest deposits of all the 34 branches. In 1902, Lincoln Savings Bank, located at 1106 Washington Street, became the first of twelve African-American owned banks to open in Mississippi.
Through business ventures, many African-Americans became prominent business persons in the city. W. H. Jefferson’s Funeral Home, shoemaker Thomas Broadwaters, Cox and Harris Barbershop, Confectioner W. E. Robinson, tailor A. H. Johnson, the Union Grocery Company became one of the largest African-American owned grocery stores in Vicksburg, owned by Thomas Dillon, Edward Williams, William Ware, Albert Judge, and Ferdinand Sims. Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana and lived in Vicksburg until 16, created specialized hair products for African-American hair and was one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire.
These along with many other businesses, help the city prosper.
The former slaves were anxious to obtain an education, and they did not leave this important task entirely in the hands of strangers. The African American community instituted a voluntary tax upon themselves that was used to help pay educational costs for blacks in the city. By November 1865, over 2,200 black students were taking courses in Vicksburg, in subjects ranging from elementary reading and
arithmetic to high school offerings. Soon African American children were attending Magnolia Avenue School (later to be Bowman School), McIntyre School, the Vicksburg Industrial School, and St. Mary's Catholic School, as well as others.
Mississippi is the Birthplace of the Blues, and the African American influence of this genre of music was deeply embedded in Vicksburg. As one of the greatest American songwriters of all times, Willie James Dixon, was born in Vicksburg in 1915, moving to Chicago at age 17, helping the Blues evolve from the 1940's through the 1980's. One of the most storied night spots in the South, the Blue Room, at 602 Clay Street, was operated for more than thirty years by flamboyant owner Tom Wince. Ray Charles, Fats Domino, B. B. King, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, and Little Milton were among the many stars who played in the club.
From St. Pierre until today, the African American population has contributed to the growth and prosperity of Vicksburg with businesses, professions, educators, musicians and a variety of other offerings. Vicksburg would not be the city it is today without the input of not only the African American community but all of the various ethnic groups that have made 2018 Vicksburg.