The Visual South, Part IV: Getting Lost In Mississippi

May 10, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 9:48 am

The current issue of Oxford American magazine, known as "the Southern magazine of good writing," is nicknamed the "Visual South Issue." In its 100 under 100 list, the magazine identifies "the most talented and thrilling up-and-coming artists in the South." This week, we're looking at five of the photographers on that list.

We all have our ways of escaping the daily grind. We watch TV, or go for a run — or a drive. When Texas photographer Brandon Thibodeaux wants a break from the "constrained world of deadlines," he gets in his car and heads down Highway 61 to the areas around Mound Bayou — a black-majority area of Mississippi with a history as rich as the Delta soil.

PBS has the story of Mound Bayou, which, in short, goes like this:

Jefferson Davis, the president of the Southern Confederacy, had a brother, Joseph. And Joseph had a plantation. And on that plantation, a man named Benjamin Montgomery was born into slavery.

Montgomery managed the plantation until the end of the Civil War, when he bought it from Davis and built an autonomous community of freemen. Hard economic times ensued, and Montgomery sold it back — but his son, Isaiah, executed his father's dream: He bought more than 800 acres in the wilderness of northwest Mississippi and founded an independent black community called Mount Bayou.

"There is this elegance," Thibodeaux says of his wanderings through the area. "You might see the parking lot party, trailer, white-washed chapels — but when you venture off the road and into the communities, you realize there is a sense of pride. You see it in the family unit, in their ties at church."

The story of Mound Bayou gets complicated when you fast-forward to today. Most recent estimates put the population at around 1,900. And historic and cultural riches don't always translate in hard numbers: According to the U.S. census, about 35 percent of the population in Bolivar County lives below the poverty line.

So, while Thibodeaux may come here to escape his deadlines, plenty of Mound Bayou residents leave the city limits to find better work. The economic hardship is real, but that's not his focus. He's off duty and exploring, making friends and finding an appreciation for one enclave of people after another.

"There's so much fertile ground to explore," he says. "There's so much in your own backyard."

(See Part I, Part II and Part III)

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