Bolivar Countians Making an Impact

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by Jack Criss

The Bolivar Bullet

The celebration of Black History Month began as “Negro History Week,” which was created in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, a noted African-American historian, scholar, educator and publisher of the time. It became a month-long celebration in 1976 with the month of February chosen to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

“It’s ironic that February is the shortest month of the year,” said lifelong public servant and current Commissioner of Transportation for the Central District, Willie Simmons of Cleveland. “To me, Black history takes place and should be recognized 365 days a year.”

A business owner, entrepreneur, Vietnam veteran, activist, school teacher, and former State senator–Simmons is a living embodiment and testament to the traits that Black History Month seeks to honor and observe. However, he said he just sees his career trajectory as a part of giving back and serving his fellow citizens in Bolivar County and the Delta as a whole. “Which is another important aspect of this month,” he said. “The idea of serving others to better the Black community–and the greater community–as a whole.

“Black history is made every day and should be taught and recognized every day of the year,” said Simmons. “This month means a great deal to me; however, again, it is also a rich part of American history and should be studied, as part of the fabric that made and makes this country great. I was so pleased, for instance, as a State senator, to have had the support of then-Governor Haley Barbor and others to put forward the Two Museums and Civil Rights Museums and have them come into fruition side by side,” said Simmons.

“Mound Bayou history is black history in my mind,” said the town’s mayor, Leighton Aldridge. 

“I say that because one of the most interesting and intriguing Black History stories is located in Bolivar County here in the City of Mound Bayou. There is a special motivation that comes with the history of Mound Bayou. I.T. Montgomery and Benjamin Green, two Black men who were born and raised on a Mississippi plantation, focused on a vision and worked together to bring it to fruition. The stories are fascinating and filled with history lessons about  Black people in the Mississippi Delta,” he said.

“Mound Bayou has 135 years worth of stories of thousands of Black men and women whose names and faces are not well  known to those outside the community,” said Aldridge. “We share those stories of well-known and unfamiliar citizens in our history as often as we can. Again all of the stories of experiences, growth and the people  of  the City of Mound Bayou  and its citizens is Black History.

“The City of Mound Bayou is currently working to honor the legacy of Charles Banks.” said Aldridge. “Mr. Banks moved to Mound Bayou in the early 1900’s and  built the Charles Banks Building. The building provided a financial institution that offset the demise of farmers and other businesses wanted and needed in the newly developed community of Black people. The building commemorates the togetherness of the community since it was that togetherness, and the idea of leadership, built by citizens with a mission to help the families of our community sustain, that held us together during the most tumultuous and the most prosperous eras in Mound Bayou’s history.  

The Charles Banks Building housed the Mound Bayou Bank and was the only bank owned and operated by Black people,” he said. “The building also served as the Post Office, offices for Knights & Daughters of Tabor, office space for a number of doctors and also the site of many important meetings. The building served many diverse roles in each era of Mound Bayou’s history.  The City of Mound Bayou, in partnership with Mississippi Heritage Trust and the Mound Bayou Historic Preservation Commission, are fundraising to complete this crucial monument of our history.”

Kierre Rimmer is the founder and CEO of FlyZone, a 501c3 organization formed in 2013 and based in Cleveland — standing for “Forever Lifting Youth”– as well as a Program Coordinator with the Foundation of the Mid-South, working with middle school students in Bolivar County to prepare them for college through the GEAR (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness) program. 

A longtime community activist and advocate, Rimmer said that Black History Month is indeed a special time to observe the role of past activists as well as those working tirelessly today to lift their communities up. “It’s good to have the awareness of this month for all Americans,” said Rimmer, “and it’s important that we continue to honor the efforts of those who came before us, many of whom have, sadly, not been properly recognized by history. Our young people, especially, need to learn and know more about what has taken place in Black history.”

Pam Chatman, known throughout the Delta as the “Boss Lady,” describes herself as a “servant.” “That’s always been my driving force, throughout my career–to serve,” she said. “And that represents a major part of what Black History Month is all about. And service work can and should take place in one’s career, just as it did in my own television career: set an example and help others reach their highest potential.

“Black history should be celebrated every single day of our lives,” said Chatman. “I personally went through many hurdles to get to the place where I am today and many of us have heard the stories of our elders and the literal dangers they went through to help people like me get ahead. That’s history, but it’s also heroism. And we should keep that in our minds all the time,” she said, “but as inspiration, not to divide.”

Looking ahead, Chatman said there is still much work to be done, especially in educating Black youth on the importance of giving back and serving others. “Black History Month helps symbolically and brings national and local attention every year,” she said. “But, again, we must educate and promote that history every month–not just in February.”

In summary, Willie Simmons made an interesting observation: “This month alone, we saw a record number of Black artists be nominated for and win Grammy Awards; we saw Lebron James break an incredible NBA scoring record held for many years by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; and we’re seeing, for the first time, two Black quarterbacks square off against each other in the biggest sporting event in the world, the NFL Super Bowl. We have come a long way, but there is still much to be, for sure.”