In the first half of this blog post, I explored to the best of my ability the shifting religious landscape from an often overlooked perspective: that of the small-town southern Jew. The South is not without its high concentrations of Jews, particularly in south Florida (north of Miami), a rapidly growing Jewish population in major cities like Atlanta or Houston, and—depending on whether one considers it a southern city—Washington DC. However, the general perception remains that the white population of the rural South is a relative monoculture: in some regions, over 90% of the white population identifies with Protestantism; the numbers for African Americans aren’t much lower. And in three states (Mississippi, Alabama, and Oklahoma) over 30% of the population belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Thus, an inference of relative religious homogeneity is not entirely unfounded.
But the rural south was not always a mere stronghold of Christianity; or exclusive Christian, for that matter. Though today they would qualify as small towns, in the 19th century, communities of over 5,000 people were often perceived as bustling commercial centers in the overwhelmingly agrarian south. Towns such as Donaldsonville and St. Francisville, Louisiana—both under 10,000 today—were flourishing communities that attracted Jews from Alsace, no doubt due in part to the shared French affinity. After the Industrial Revolution, the settlement patterns of the US marched aggressively toward favoring the large cities, though of course the South urbanized much later and at a much slower pace. However, by time of the Depression, the aforementioned towns in Louisiana began to feel their importance erode, as the major cities of New Orleans (long the commercial capital of the South) and a rapidly growing Baton Rouge left Donaldsonville and St. Francisville to relative stagnancy. The Jewish population plunged in these small towns, as their retail trades became engulfed by nationally recognized department and variety stores. The children in these Jewish families left town or—particularly in Catholic areas such as south Louisiana—intermarried with Christians. In many southern towns, all that remains of the Jewish heritage is a tiny cemetery on the outskirts, but a well-attuned eye can find other evidence throughout the Cotton Belt.
The Jewish presence of Mississippi is remarkably well-chronicled, especially considering that only about 1,500 Jews live in the state today, less than a quarter of the population from a century prior. One such town is Port Gibson, Mississippi, resting along the Blues Highway U.S. 61 about halfway between the state’s only two older cities, Vicksburg and Natchez, both of which also had much larger Jewish populations during their heydays over a century ago. Today, the significantly smaller Port Gibson (population 1,800) does not have an active commercial main street, but its principal residential artery, the leafy Church Street (also Highway 61 in Port Gibson city limits) remains remarkably well preserved and undoubtedly possessed the character that made it “too beautiful to burn” after General Ulysses Grant completed his Vicksburg Campaign, cutting off Confederate Control of the Mississippi River.
A good mile or so of Church Street features this canopy of live oaks and stately Victorian and Tutor homes. The Temple Gemiluth Chassed has not enjoyed regular use for over 30 years, yet it remains in remarkably good shape.
According the encyclopedia at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the Jewish population first arrived in Port Gibson by the 1840s, though not until the eve of the Civil War was the population large enough to sign a charter for their congregation. During the war, the Port Gibson Jewish population exhibited an unusually high level of support for the Confederate cause, with nearly half the population (and perhaps nearly all the adult males) joining the Army, even though only a few owned slaves. The building in the photo above did not break ground until 1891 and remains distinct as perhaps the only surviving example of Moorish architecture in all of Mississippi.
Like the Jewish congregation of St. Francisville, Louisiana (discussed in Part I of this blog post), Port Gibson struggled to retain a rabbi. One of the earliest, a graduate of Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College, noted with distaste the institutionalized racial discrimination of the region, and Gemiluth Chassed never truly prospered. However, the building still enjoyed some level of use up through the 1980s, when the Jewish population of Port Gibson numbered four. Both historical documentation and visual evidence suggest that the town’s Jewish community evolved from within: the Institute of Southern Jewish Life reports that active participation in Shabbat declined, as did keeping kosher. Some families even displayed Christmas trees in their windows. After the congregation closed in the 1980s, the City was about to demolish the temple for a parking lot, but a local gentile family bought it to preserve it; the 100th anniversary of the structure brought Jews and non-Jews together in a commitment to the preservation of the heritage of southern Jewry. Thus, Gemiluth Chassed stands to this day, in remarkably good shape, though its current use is unclear. Contextual observations reveal why its history seems anomalous in a variety of ways:
Yes, a gas station sits in the background, suggesting that a number of structures already faced the bulldozer as Port Gibson steadily depopulated in the second half of the twentieth century. Even more intriguing is the descriptive sign hanging out front.
A Messianic congregation? Really? If this is truly the case, then its position on the ISJL website is questionable, since Messianic Jews believe that salvation depends on the acceptance of Jesus Christ as a savior—a position that both Jewish and Christian theologians would agree places it under the fundamental rubrics for Christianity. It is unlikely that the Jewish population in Port Gibson always had Messianic origins, since the movement did not emerge into the mainstream until the 1960s. But this declaratory sign may help to explain the community’s continued isolation, its inability to secure a rabbi, and—I’m going out on a limb—its comparatively high level of support for the Confederacy when most other Southern Jews were ambivalent. The Jewish population in Port Gibson may have lingered into the 1980s, but Judaism as a faith waned decades before, as the congregation passively allowed the overwhelmingly dominant Christian culture to encroach. By the time of Gemiluth Chassed’s closure, the Jews of this Bible Belt region identified with enough features of Christianity that they were willing to articulate it.
Although shadow of its former self—the main street of Port Gibson is big enough to suggest a much larger city—Port Gibson’s religious buildings, most of them appropriately flanking Church Street, remain in conditions ranging from good to impeccable. Today the town is 80% African American, yet the structures of these European derived, mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities survive as references—signaling to passers-by the town’s diverse heritage, a time when Mississippi’s towns and towns across all America wielded enough economic influence to attract entrepreneurial immigrants.
Selma, Alabama’s commercial growth and decline somewhat parallels that of Port Gibson, but with a peak population of 28,000—the amplitude of its changes has understandably been greater. Together with the state’s capital Montgomery (50 miles to the east), the population here rests in the heart of the state’s Black Belt, a strip of counties across the mid-southern part of the state, named for the rich, black topsoil so suitable for growing cotton, but also associated with the high percentage of African Americans living there. Most Americans today, if they are familiar with Selma at all, associate the city with the March 1965 voting rights marches that stretched from the town to the state’s capital. But Selma was a prominent small city prior to the Civil War, thanks to the processing of the abundant cotton and proximity to the distributional hub in Montgomery. According to the chronicles of the ISJL, Sephardic Jewish merchants began arriving to the city within twenty years of its 1820 incorporation, though for the entire 19th century, the population held services at private residences or space rented in churches. During the War, Selma was an epicenter of manufacturing supplies and weaponry for the southern cause; considering that nearby Montgomery was the initial capital of the Confederacy, sentiments among Jews in Selma toward secession were wide-ranging. Not until 1900 did the Congregation Mishkan Israel dedicate a synagogue.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Selma’s Jewish population was robust—for about forty years, the city claimed an Orthodox congregation as well—and, as the historic marker above indicates, three of the city’s mayors were Jewish. The Civil Rights Movement polarized the community much as it did a century earlier: some of the most prominent Jewish retailers were ardent segregationists, though modern historians estimate that the majority of Selma’s Jews supported integration, even as they resented the paternalism of northern Jewish intervention. The population peaked at over 300 at around 1940, which at that point was approximately 1.5% of the city’s population. The decline was gradual at first, but then hemorrhaged after the 1977 closure of the nearby Craig Air Force Base, which in turn triggered a steady departure of industry from the city. Selma has lost over a fourth of its population since that time; the 2010 will likely reveal a city depopulated by more than a third from its 1960 peak of 28,000. The precipitous decline of the city is manifest in the downtown, which, as Alabama’s largest historic district, hints at former prosperity in the embellished buildings, many of which have long since been abandoned.
Only about twenty Jews remain in Selma today, most of whom are elderly; the congregation only holds worship services a few times a year in the original structure.
My first reaction when I passed the building was that it must be abandoned, largely due to the disheveled appearance of the grounds, and partly, I confess, due to my somewhat prejudicial disbelief that a city so economically depressed would still have a Jewish population. But closer observation of Temple Mishkan Israel reveals that it is in generally good shape: the roof (one of the first features to decay in an unmaintained building) looks fine, and the complete absence of wood obviously means painting is unnecessary. The congregation probably hires a groundskeeper to do just the minimum requisite lawn mowing and hedge trimming in order to save money.
The frosted look of the stained glass windows on either side originally gave me the impression that the place was sealed and vacant, but I now believe they have just been protected from thick exterior glass, no doubt to ward-off vandals or potential burglars. The structure’s metaphoric and literal relation to the surrounding city resembles Port Gibson’s Gemiluth Chassed in a number of regards: both appear in excellent physical shape, yet the owners have transformed them into mausoleums, protected from the outside world and left in stasis, and signaling to the passers-by a heritage all but removed from the region. Temple Mishkan Israel has also intermittently hosted multi-faith gatherings that drive home the importance of cultural preservation, but Selma offers no visible incentive to encourage young Jews to move there, or its meager remaining population to stay. Preservation advocates may have to step up to the plate before too long, because comparative evidence in other communities suggests that the Jewish population in Selma will soon shrink to nothing—at that point, without a sponsor, Mishkan Israel may soon face the wrecking ball.
The cost for preserving a religious building when no subscribers to the faith live nearby must be astronomical. Yet Port Gibson and Selma both offer examples of intensified stewardship for obsolescent structures that would struggle to find a renaissance. Jews in the South have clearly reorganized itself significantly over the past forty years, but, if the above buildings are any evidence, their prejudicial histories will remain standing for decades to come.
Stay tuned again for the third and final part in this series, in which I explore the further evidence of prior Jewish settlements in the South, only this time using large metropolitan areas.
4 thoughts on “Vestigial Judaism, Part II: Rural/urban distinctions in the South.”
I love this series and hope there is more to come even after the original 3 part series. Your comment “The Jewish presence in small southern towns ostensibly peaked in the decades from 1890 to 1930.” We might never know definitely why this was true and what caused the decline that followed but after thinking about it I would like to offer up my opinion. At first glance 1930 stands out as the beginning of the depression and one could surmise that the Jewish communities left the rural south due in part to the depression and WWII. I think that answer would be too simplistic, even though I think the Great Depression and WWII played a part but for deeper reasons than just “they moved to major cities”. I think the previous two decades started the ball rolling on the decline of Jewish Communities in the south. If you think back on what was happening in the previous two decades. WWI took young men to die in foreign lands and women joined the workforce. You just can’t return to your “normal life” after experiences like that. That theory can be backed up by prohibition. In 1920 society was trying to dictate morality by banning alcohol so it’s fair to assume that the general voting public was not happy about the way “the country/ next generation was heading. Next you have, the 100 year suffrage movement that came to a head in 1920 when the 14th amendment giving women the right to vote passed in 1920. This had to have been a huge upset figuratively to “the apple cart”. Now you have the “new woman” she drank, smoked, danced, and voted, cut her hair wore make up and showed off her legs in short skirts. Now in the rural south Flappers where probably not very common but young girls would “know of them” here stories, see pictures etc. Society then was entering into uncharted territory; things are happening that never happened before. So now women have some/more rights I don’t think it’s a very far leap to say that women had more of a say in who they married. I think that marring non Jews is what happened to a lot of the Jewish Community. It wasn’t a big Exodus; it was a slow assimilation into the surrounding culture. I can see a young headstrong girl wanting to marry the good looking Jean Boudreaux that she has grown up with vs. the dull humble Jewish boy from the next town over that her family picked out. I’m not saying all Cajuns are good looking or all Jewish boys are dull, I’m just saying it had to happen at least occasionally. Jewish parents may have been able to stick to their guns in the good times but here we are in the 1930’s in the middle of the Great Depression. Now its survival mode, maybe Boudreaux’s family is well off and there are not a lot of well off single Jewish men around. Ideals are noble but they may be compromised when parents are worried about keeping their children alive. Also it may have been seen as prudent to have a connection to a non-Jewish family. After the entire south is not known for its racial tolerance and people where desperate during the depression. Jews, especially prosperous Jews had to be fairly easy targets. Now we have intermarrying between Jews and Christians. Judaism is matrilineal but I would think that a Jewish girl marring into a Catholic/Protestant family would be expected to raise the children by the father’s faith. After all it’s traditionally it’s seen as the bride joining the husband’s family. Again I’m not saying that all Jewish girls were married off to Christians, I’m just saying that it probably started happening more than it did the 1800s. ….continued….
please forgive my long response…Now we run into the 1940’s and WWII. The men went off to war and women went to work. There was not a lot of work in rural south Louisiana but there was a lot in New Orleans. Ninety two percent of the entire US Navy in WWII was built by 30,000 workers at the 7 Higgins plants in New Orleans. That had to be a huge draw for young women in the rural parts of Louisiana and other southern states. Now the young women enjoy 4 years of working/freedom and “the boys” come home, they get married. Now who married who isn’t as important as they got married started a new life together. The world had opened up at their feet. America was at its peak it was truly the land of opportunity. I can’t see the opportunities for these young people where very high in the rural south. I can see these young people moving closer to bigger towns and cities. So now the young blood has moved, Jewish or Christian it doesn’t matter the small towns will start to fade and America gets suburbanized. The Jewish faith is rich, wonderful and steeped in tradition. As Christians we can get away with being “twice a year Christians, Christmas and Easter whether you need it or not” but in my opinion being Jewish is like being pregnant your either Jewish or you’re not. Look at the Amish they survive because they separate themselves from “the world” or as they call us “the English”. It takes a lot of discipline to eat kosher day in and day out in today’s society. That’s just one of many things that separate the Jews and the Gentiles.
So back to the original question: where did they go? After all my rambling I still don’t know, your guess is as good as mine. I have deep respect for the Jewish Faith and community and I am glad to see that you are documenting their part in southern history.
As always, keep writing and I’ll keep reading!
Thanks, Nici, for your great and entertaining worm’s-eye-view perspective on why Jews left the small southern towns. I think you raise some great points, and I hope to draw some broader conclusions in the third and final part. The Depression had to be a major factor since it uprooted communities all across the country. Look at any historic Census population chart and most towns stopped doing what they were doing (growing or shrinking) during the 1930s, and then resumed it again by the 1940s.
Which leads to the question: how does money impel people to move? Do people move when they have lots of money (and the freedom to travel) or when they have none and are desperate for employment? Obviously both are true, but I suspect that the Jewish population fell more under the former category. Many of these Jewish entrepreneurs were quite successful and wealthy thanks to the retail enterprises they founded, yet small-town department stores suffered heavily in the 1950s and 1960s (just as downtowns suffered because of suburban shopping malls). These Jewish families still usually had the wherewithal to move where the opportunities were greater. So the Jewish shift was largely a reflection of the rural to urban migration that went into overdrive after World War II–at least that’s my guess. Then again, during the Depression, huge numbers of impoverished people moved great distances as well, either the Great Migration of blacks from the south, or the Dust Bowl and small-town farms from Oklahoma and Texas heading west to pick fruit. Clearly the push and pull comes from both ends of the economic spectrum.
And in regards to your observation about not too many flappers in small-town south, you’re probably right. But don’t forget Zelda Fitzgerald, a quintessential flapper type and a Southern belle from Montgomery, which was most likely a small town back then.
Keep reading, and thanks for your comments!
My grandfather told me a story once about how a hair cut at the barbershop only cost five cents when he grew up during the depression but he rarely if ever had his cut there because there was just no money. He wasn’t talking about they were trying to save money or they where trying to trim their budget, there was no money. He said it would be easier to come up with a hundred dollars today than it was to come up with five cents back then. He told me this10 years ago so I’m sure with inflation that amount is even higher. He said people didn’t buy things; they did with out or bartered with neighbors. So it’s not a big leap to surmise that the Jewish merchants left the rural south for the cities where people where dependent on store bought goods.
I thought more about flappers and their influence on rural girls’ outlook on life and remembered two photos I have. One is of my grandfather and siblings after the Great Flood of 1927. You could tell his sisters had had their hair cut short in a Flapper type bob. The other is of my grandmother around the same time and she had the short bob of a Flapper and a coat with a fur collar, the coat must have been the Bee’s Knees back then. So it seems that you are correct, Flappers did have a bit more influence than I gave them credit for in small towns like Lafayette, La.
I ran into a couple at the Hebrew Rest in Lafayette yesterday, apparently I was very lucky as they told me it’s usually locked. During our conversation I asked them if they were Jewish and it turns out,……… imagine a drum roll ………………. Eric, the man said he was from New Orleans, his mother was Jewish and his father was Catholic. As crazy as this sounds I’m not making this up. It didn’t dawn on me until I was driving home that I had met living proof of my theory. I can’t seem to come up with the right words to tell you how excited I was, the only thing that comes to mind is TOUCHDOWN! If you can picture me spiking the ball in the end zone you’re on the right track of figuring out how excited I was and couldn’t wait to share this information with you!