Church in Mound Bayou

Our week ended in the same place it began — at the First Baptist Church. On Tuesday, we’d gathered in a back room of this red-brick building, meeting residents over a dinner of catfish and sweet tea; on Sunday, we filed into the third pew to attend services before traveling home.

That first night at the church dinner, I remember being struck by how frequently our conversations with Mound Bayouans turned to religion. The very first woman I talked to told me that God had drawn her to Mound Bayou to head up a social services center. “I have trust in what He planned for me,” she said.

At college, I think it’s rare to hear such a strong sense of religious purpose expressed so confidently. Princeton’s stone chapel is architecturally beautiful, but not a common gathering place for our whole community. So it was really meaningful to hear again and again about the role of religion in Mound Bayou – from the doctors who said they were guided by their faith towards the field of medicine, to the unofficial town historian who played hymns for us on the piano.


On Sunday, from the moment the choir entered the church in their brightly-colored robes and the pastor approached the pulpit, that strong presence of faith in Mound Bayou became much more palpable. The church was not just a religious service but a community gathering. Right away, the pastor urged those in attendance to cast their vote in the upcoming November election. “Offer a ride to your neighbor,” he suggested. Mound Bayou Mayor Eulah Peterson sang in the choir and, at one point in the service, checked a thick binder to confirm the local candidates running for office. One parishioner read a list of announcements for upcoming events throughout the town. You could feel how tightly the web of community in Mound Bayou was wound; how one’s responsibility in the church wasn’t just to God but to neighbors, figuratively and literally.


While the lines between being a reporter on and a participant in the community had blurred throughout the week, it was on this final day that I felt most conspicuous — I was sitting in a pew and flipping through the hymnbook, but also holding a recorder in the air to catch the voices of the preacher and the sounds of assent from the congregation. I feel very thankful that Mound Bayou and Mayor Peterson were gracious enough to welcome us into their church, especially because our group was majority white. “Black churches” have a long and rich history in America, and Mound Bayou, as the oldest black township in the country, contains an important piece of that heritage.


I don’t think I appreciated how much my own hometown church drew my community together until I left for college. I took for granted the feeling evoked by seeing crowded pews on a Sunday morning or by standing beside my younger brother during his Confirmation ceremony, when he was accepted as an adult into the faith. The church was where our community mourned together at funerals and celebrated at Baccalaureate during high school graduation. One of the most remarkable things about the tiny town of Mound Bayou is its ability to sustain so many thriving churches — so many places for its residents to come and be together.

Northside’s Superteam

Visiting Northside High School in Shelby, Mississippi today, it’s hard to see why there would be any anger about the consolidation of what was formerly Broadstreet High School with John F. Kennedy Memorial High School in neighboring Mound Bayou. Sure, the decision resulted in JFK’s closing, but JFK had only 300 students, and Broadstreet had less than 200. Since Broadstreet had a bigger facility, consolidation seemed like a logical solution for a school district struggling with a declining population, a limited teacher pool, poor academic performance (though JFK often tested at higher levels), and a lack of state funding.

Up until consolidation in 2017, the schools had been long-time rivals, duking it out in football, track, and basketball and each claiming to have better test scores. But any resentment seems to have faded quickly. The men’s track team won a state championship in its first year and the women’s track team came up a close second. This year, the football team has gone 10-0, scoring over 300 points and allowing only 20. It’s led many to call the newly formed Northside Gators a “superteam”.

We had the chance to talk to the football coach, Tavaris Johnson. He’s well known in Mississippi, where football, particularly high school football, is king. Before coming to Northside last year, Johnson turned around a previously failing academic school, making sure his players were an example on the field and in the classroom. Talking to him, you can see why they would listen. He’s a compelling character, about 6’1”, with a deep gravely voice, and a weathered but firm and serious face. When he speaks, he speaks directly to you and you listen. His players did. At that last school, within a few years, they won 3 state championships in a row and went from an academic rating of F to B. It’s a seductive story. An inspiring leader using sports to turn a failing community and team around. It’s one we’ve been fed since we were young. But it’s not the whole story.

Later that day, we met up with two kids who’d attended JFK but left the school district when they heard it would close, choosing to attend schools in neighboring Cleveland rather than go to Northside. Callum and Kiera, both seniors, met us outside what used to be JFK. Though the grounds were clean, it looked deserted, with just a few cars in the large parking lot originally intended to accommodate the cars of students, teachers, faculty, and school buses. The JFK signs had all been stripped from the building, except for a stone one too heavy to be removed, dedicated by the class of ’92.

As we walked around the school, Callum and Kiera pointed out vacant classrooms, especially English which had been their favorite. They’re both on the smaller side, Callum standing at around 5’7” and Keira a bit shorter. When we asked them what they did at school and if they played any sports, they told us that they were mostly academic.

As we turned a corner, they slowed. A bus had just arrived, dropping off the football players from Mound Bayou after practice. As the players got off the bus and started to head home, I recognized Coach Johnson walking over to a car that was pulling into the lot. Beside him stood two younger men, both fit and a bit taller than him. When I said hello, he introduced me to his two sons, one who is a player and one who had just become his assistant coach. When I asked his sons whether they cared about the closing of the high school, they looked around dismissively and said no. “It’s just Northside now, you know. It doesn’t really matter. We gotta move forward.” I nodded in agreement.

When I turned back to meet Callum and Kiera, who were waiting for me, I felt uneasy. I’d just dismissed them to go talk to Coach and his sons. It was an awkward juxtaposition, a cliché. The football players vs. the academics. As we continued our walk and arrived at the front of the school, where students would’ve arrived every day, Callum pointed out what I was missing.

“It’s the academics that mostly left.” He explained that it was the academics who cared most about the spirit and history of Mound Bayou, a town founded by ex-slaves and sustained by education as a means of self-sufficiency for over 100 years. With the loss of JFK, they lost that heart, that history, without many even noticing. They’d fallen into the same trap I had. Looking at the “superteam,” seeing the potential for change, seeing it in the well packaged, easily digestible image: the coach with a winning history, striving for a state championship with his two sons. But in a place where most businesses seem to be on their way out as the population ages and more people leave for greater opportunities elsewhere, that same story doesn’t seem like enough. People like Callum and Kiera recognize that. It’s the uniqueness — the history of the town — that is it’s hope. But with the high school gone, that hope may be fading too.

Sweet Tea Chronicles

This past fall break , slightly over a dozen students and faculty from Princeton University descended on several key cities in the southern United States. Our foray into the cotton belt was marked by in-depth discussions, harsh realities, inconceivable warmth, and… Sweet Tea.

Meals often functioned as the grounding moments of our trip; we dined together for the majority of our visit, breaking bread and rehashing stories from the day, and other times, simply learning more about one another. We could always count on breakfast meetings at the hotel, or a group lunch at Joni’s to bring us all back together again, while in the evenings we would explore a bit more, checking out local eateries our new friends had recommended, or spots we had seen in passing. Over time though, as schedules grew more busy, and specific interviews spread our team out around the delta area, our shared meals grew a bit less consistent. One thing we could always count on though, was sweet tea.

A staple beverage of the region, traditional southern sweet tea isn’t like the mess you get from Dunkin’ Donuts in July, or from an Arnold Palmer can at your local convenience store. Sweet tea is brewed with care and served with love down here. Whether from artisanal mason jars, or clattering plastic cups, or in a bulging styrofoam vessel brimming with ice cubes (the best kind), we found sweet tea everywhere we went–  and indulged accordingly.  

Eventually, sweet tea began to become something we looked forward to each day. Perhaps it was because we had to ration ourselves to one cup a day to avoid a sugar rush and long term health concerns. Or, maybe we were simply looking forward to the moments we shared over sweet tea. Our experiences this past week were transformative in many senses, but I think what’s transformed most markedly is our relationships with one another. Cheers to Mound Bayou, our team, and of course, sweet tea.


Chronicling the Trip

By Bryant Blount, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Students:

When I was invited to accompany Joe Richman’s Audio Journalism class on their fall break trip, with only the context of a civil rights tour in the deep south, two thoughts flashed through my mind:  First – how did I get tapped for this?  Then, almost as quickly – I have to do it!

As an assistant dean at Princeton University, my work is almost exclusively the support of students in non-academic and co-curricular contexts.  While my colleagues and I often assist students in the pursuit of activities and events that run adjacent to their academic interests, I can’t say I’ve had much, if any, proximity to credit-bearing work since I was last a student.  Having supported traveling Princeton groups in the past, the opportunity to travel with this class on this unique excursion to Mound Bayou, Mississippi was altogether new.  In addition to making sure we left Princeton’s campus with ten students (and perhaps more importantly, could account for all ten upon our return!), I hoped to be useful by picking up loose ends (or restaurant checks), taking advantage of the rich and deeply embedded lessons of the past found in the region (lapsed history major here), and perhaps most crucially, by documenting the experience.

To this end, I shadowed the news team, taking photographs, some of which have been featured in this blog.  I also captured video of the memorials, interviews, and people that made this trip an indelible one, in order to craft an audio/visual highlight that I hope will live on long beyond the week’s exploits.  While the students in this class have a lot of work ahead of them as they drive toward their goal of producing a podcast series at semester’s end, this trip was more than the miles of bus rides, years of history, or hours of recordings that will be left on the cutting room floor.  I hope that this video helps lift up their experience in fuller detail.

Veganism in the South

I would say my diet on this trip consisted primarily (in the first few days) of pink lemonade, sweet tea, fried pickles, French fries, fried okra, and iceberg lettuce (not fried). But on the first night in Mound Bayou, at the welcome dinner, I found a comrade in veganism: Rolando Herts. Mr. Herts is a native of the Arkansas Delta region and Director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning. We talked about how veganism is sometimes difficult in this area. Mr. Herts said that becoming a vegan was incredibly difficult because food was the way people communicate love here; so for a while he was attempting veganism but eating catfish at friends’ houses. Now that his social system is more solidified, he is a full vegan.

Though many of my friends expressed worry over what I would eat when I told them about the location of my class trip, there are actually many vibrant black southern vegan communities, even if we did not come across one.

According to a VRG report, 7 percent of the black respondents indicated that they did not eat any meat, versus 3 percent of white respondents. Note that a different survey also reported higher rates of vegetarianism among minority groups. This diversity of vegetarians is belied by their cultural representation. Media and social media conceptions of vegetarians and vegans tend to be dominated by whiteness. For example, if you search the phrase “vegan person”, Google will return 486 pages of results that are primarily photos of skinny white woman with bleached teeth eating salads.

That said, modern white veganism is dominated by cultural appropriation: foods most associated with vegan meals — tofu, quinoa, chia pudding, “wraps” made from collard greens instead of tortillas, pulled-pork sandwiches composed of jackfruit — originated in communities of color who have been eating these items for hundreds of years before their rebranding as “superfoods”. One example is Thug Kitchen, New York Times best-selling cookbooks that have sold millions of copies collectively. Thug Kitchen built a name for itself writing expletive-laced directions for its vegan recipes. The tongue-in-cheek style borrowed heavily from African-American, vernacular English. In actuality, the blog was written by a white man and white woman.

Back in Mound Bayou, in Joni’s Nook, I assemble miniature sandwiches of iceberg lettuce and fries and listen to the squerching noises of my classmates chewing wet ribs. Occasionally, I beg for the white bread slice they are given to slop up the gravy dripping off their meat. Hopefully, the next time I go to the South I’ll be able to visit a black owned vegan soul food restaurant.

The Woman Behind Joni’s Nook

After completing our first rounds of interviews in Mound Bayou Wednesday morning, we decided to meet all together for lunch. It didn’t take long to find somewhere to eat because there is only one dine in restaurant in this small town – Joni’s Nook and Laundromat. 

Joni’s Nook is run by a sweet lady named Tamika Gant, who named her restaurant and laundromat after her late daughter. It’s a narrow space with a small booth, a table with six chairs, and large pink paper flowers that lined the walls. Joni’s Nook quickly became the place where we would eat and rest in between interviews. 

Students deciding what to order at Joni’s Nook

Since my story focuses on local businesses, I quickly got my recorder out and started to gather scene of Tamika getting our orders ready in her kitchen. She was overwhelmed by our massive group order since there was only one other cook, but she didn’t mind me taking up space in her tiny kitchen, following her around with a microphone five inches away from her face. Immediately, I sensed that she was a hard working lady, but also very kind.

I soon learned that she embodied that entrepreneurial spirit Mound Bayou had from its heyday, when they were a thriving, self-sufficient town with multiple laundromats, grocery stores, restaurants, theaters, ice cream parlors, and more. In addition to running the restaurant and laundromat by herself, she also drives a school bus at 6:45am and at 2pm. Then she comes back to her restaurant until closing at 8pm and prepares food for the next day.

Yet she is still thinking about new businesses that she could start to help her community. She noticed many people complaining about having to drive to Cleveland just case checks and pay bills since there isn’t somewhere to do that in Mound Bayou. So she started envisioning building an add-on to the restaurant where locals could do just that, saving both gas and time. 

Something that I quickly picked up on is how much the community means to the people of Mound Bayou. People don’t start businesses solely to profit from for themselves, but because they see a real need for it in their community. That was a big part of Tamika’s reason for opening Joni’s Nook since there was no proper dine in restaurant for Mound Bayou residents before. 

That deep sense of serving your community was not as familiar to me as I wish it was because I grew up in an area where individual success was valued more than serving the community you live in. And it was refreshing to see that theme not only in Joni’s Nook, but almost everywhere else in this small town of Mound Bayou.

The Future of Food in the Delta

Two members of the Delta Health Alliance gave us a tour of the garden planted by students at Sanders Elementary in Hollandale.

I’ve never been to the south before but coming to Mound Bayou has felt like coming home. In a literal sense, I’ve been blessed to have been invited into the heart of the community — Mayor Eulah Peterson and several community members hosted a welcome dinner the night we arrived, Reverend Charles Young and his wife brought us into their family home to talk about education and faith, Mr. John Coleman drove us through land his family has owned and farmed for decades. Mound Bayou is a community where everyone knows everyone, where the neighbors you grew up with became your classmates, colleagues, and family.

One of the most interesting things that has resonated with me on this trip so far has been the town’s emphasis on self-ownership, whether that be prioritizing education or owning your own land and growing your own crops or starting your own healthcare centers, businesses, and churches. A lot of that stems from the town’s history — Mound Bayou was founded by two freed slaves during the Jim Crow era. The town was created by African Americans, for African Americans. By creating a space where people who were historically marginalized were prioritized, the founders created an unshakable sense of pride.

I’ve spent the past few days looking specifically at what land means to people in Mound Bayou. Mississippi — specifically the Delta region — is known for its fertile soil, but the state has been ranked the most food insecure state for eight years in a row, according to Feeding America. How does a state with so many acres of farmland simultaneously suffer from high rates of poverty, malnutrition, and obesity? One answer, given by a FoodCorps fellow with the Delta Health Alliance: The Delta is surrounded by agriculture, but none of it is edible. And that fact is evident driving along the 10-mile stretch from Cleveland to Mound Bayou every day, where all we see are miles and miles of wheat, soybeans, and cotton.

We stopped by a cotton field on the drive out of Mississippi.

Trying to piece together the story about food in the Delta has been frustrating at times, mainly because the topic is so pervasive. I’ve spent my days talking to cafeteria workers at an elementary school, an agriculture educator at a high school, physicians at a health center, instructors at a university demonstration farm, farmers in the region, and community members and activists working to promote healthy living. Things didn’t click into place until Friday, when I sat down with Ms. Judy Belue, the executive director of an initiative working to create sustainable, equitable food systems in Mound Bayou, Shelby, and Winstonville. Agriculture has been the lifeblood of the region since it was first settled, even as towns and younger generation try to move away from it. Selling land to larger commercial farmer has led to a disconnect with those roots of self-sufficiency and loss of sight of the importance of healthy eating habits.

But nearly everyone I’ve spoken to so far is hopeful about educational programs that have cropped up to reteach kids and adults those values. Elementary schools have started planting gardens and community centers have started running cooking classes. These efforts are community-driven — the main initiatives in the region are identifying and empowering local representatives to take charge of their own food production and consumption, tapping into Mound Bayou’s original emphasis on self-ownership. At the end of the day, the answer to revitalizing agriculture in Mound Bayou may very well depend on what it has since its inception: its community.

Thank You, Delta Meat Market

By Katie Heinzer

Just to the right of a vast revolving door, tucked away to the side of The Cotton House Hotel’s ornate lobby, rests the Delta Meat Market. It functions as an upscale dinner spot, a trendy place for your weekend brunch, and best of all, it can accommodate a horde of hungry, exhausted journalism students.

In our six days at the hotel , not a single one went by without a meal at the Delta Meat Market. Its menu boasted something for all: biscuits and gravy for those who wanted the experience of true Southern food, sizeable steaks for the hungriest among us, and salads as a saving grace for the unfortunate vegetarian and vegan on the trip.

And of course, who could forget about the grits? Certainly not our group, who likely ordered the most grits-per-capita at every breakfast. 

Despite our failure to ever remember what we ordered, the restaurant staff were nothing but kind to us. Thanks to Macayla’s stellar meal recommendations, and Elizabeth’s contagious positivity, every meal we ate at the market was better than the last.

Delta Meat Market, you have our gratitude.


Farmers of the Delta

October 31, 2019

I was nervous. I sat at Joni’s Nook, which had become our Mound Bayou fortress of sorts, waiting for the arrival of Mr. John Coleman. We had spoken on the phone multiple times, but this was the moment I would finally get to meet him. When the door swung open and a man with kind eyes and a smiling face walked in, my nerves evaporated. 

“We’ll take you to the farm,” Mr. Coleman said. 

We drove about a mile to a demonstration farm run in partnership with Alcorn State University. Mr. Coleman manages the small farm, which was established by the university in 1995 and serves as a resource for the local farming community. 

One of the highlights of the interview came when Mr. Coleman showed us a booklet chronicling the Coleman family history, written by a relative who had conducted extensive research on the family origins of the Colemans. As we report on Mound Bayou, the importance of family has emerged as a key theme that weaves into many of our pieces. I could sense that theme in Mr. Coleman’s story as he flipped through the pages and showed us black and white photographs of his aunties and siblings. 

Mr. Coleman’s ancestral roots run deep in Mound Bayou. His great grandfather was one of the first African Americans to purchase land from the founders of the town at the end of the 19th century. Today, the Colemans and their descendants still own about 700 acres in and around Mound Bayou. As we drove through the town on his pickup truck, he pointed proudly to the tracts of farmland we passed on either side of the gravel road. “That land’s black owned,” he would say. “And that’s black owned. That’s my uncle’s land right there. And that’s my cousins’.” I asked myself, where else in America would I hear something like that? Perhaps only in Mound Bayou.  

Another memorable moment came when Mr. Coleman told us about his great grandfather. He worked as a sharecropper in Alabama before settling in Mound Bayou. While he was a sharecropper, he asked his landlord if he could buy shoes for his son. The landlord replied: “It’ll be a cold day in hell before your son gets shoes.” Nevertheless, Mr. Coleman’s great grandfather purchased his own land and became a successful, enterprising black farmer in Mound Bayou. Now, Mr. Coleman wants to continue the legacy. His 29-year-old son has also chosen farming as a career. The pride in Mr. Coleman’s voice as he talked about his son’s decision was moving for me. 

I enjoyed speaking with Mr. Coleman — who spent about two hours with us — so much that I almost didn’t want our time together to end. Fortunately, he is a member of the local school board and will be attending this week’s football game. His leadership in the education system of Mound Bayou didn’t surprise me. So much of this week has been about uncovering the many ways Mound Bayouans support one another in different aspects of life. Education, health, business, agriculture — these have been the pillars of Mound Bayou since its founding in 1887. It’s impossible to tell one story without the other. As our stories start to take shape, I’m filled with excitement to see the connections across our different stories and to have a role in piecing the wider story together. I also feel a sense of responsibility. Farmers like Mr. Coleman are essential to Mound Bayou. I hope to tell their story well.



Our First Attempt at Line Dancing

By Katie Heinzer

Dr. Yolanda Clarke is a Mound Bayou native, an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Community Development at Delta State University and a highly experienced line dancing instructor.

So when she graciously extended to us an invitation to her class, we were ecstatic. Who could miss out on the opportunity to line dance in the South, a social staple?

Three of us from the Princeton crew took Dr. Clarke up on her offer. We showed up to Renova’s City Hall on Thursday evening at 6 o’clock, ready to learn some moves with some of the town’s “more seasoned” population. Two of us were clad in jeans and sweaters, and all of us were expecting a fairly laid-back time.

How wrong we were.

We were sweating within minutes, striving to keep up with Dr. Clarke’s upbeat remixes, enthusiastic choreography, and a move she likes to call “the Beyoncé.” Much to our amazement, the mothers and grandmothers around us were astoundingly well-versed in these dances, with Dr. Clarke’s own mother the most proficient of them all. Even Renova’s mayor was giving it all he had, calling out the steps ahead of time (a saving grace to the three of us). With time and enthusiasm, we got the hang of the steps, and danced our hearts out alongside this welcoming community,

Our places of origin and status as visitors made no difference to our fellow dancers, who they welcomed us with hugs, laughter, and plenty of conversation. That’s the beauty of these Mississippi small towns: Even as an outsider looking in, you’re greeted with an incredible, genuine warmth, one that you’d have to actively search for in the Northeast. Even if we weren’t quite prepared for some of Dr. Clarke’s more advanced moves, we left Renova City Hall with a sense of satisfaction (and soreness).