Milburn James Crowe is considered a Mississippi treasure because of his devotion to preserving the history, arts, and culture of the state and particularly of the town of Mound Bayou. He was born on 15 March 1933 in Mound Bayou, one of America’s oldest and largest African American towns. His father, Henry Crowe, was among the first settlers in the Delta wilderness, having followed former slave Isaiah T. Montgomery on his quest to find a land where “God dwelt and liberty.” Milburn Crowe’s mother, Altie, the descendant of former slaves from Louisiana, was a community activist and entrepreneur.
Isaiah T. Montgomery; his father, Benjamin; and the rest of his siblings and family were the former slaves of Joseph Davis, brother of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Joseph Davis’s plantation located at Davis Bend in Warren County was unique because of its long history of social experimentation, which began with Joseph Davis’s stagecoach ride with Scottish social reformer Robert Owen. Owen, traveling to America to establish a utopian settlement in New Harmony, Indiana, espoused the idea that workers should be treated as “reasonable human beings,” though a certain degree of paternalistic control was also necessary. When Joseph Davis established his five-thousand-acre plantation, Hurricane, in 1824, he instituted unheard-of reforms for his slaves, including providing well-kept cottages and allowing his workers to be judged in court by a jury of their peers. The Union Army later attempted to establish a model colony on the same land. This history and Montgomery’s legacy inspired Crowe to collect and save images and memorabilia concerning Mound Bayou and the surrounding areas.
Crowe attended the Bolivar County Training School and the Southern Christian Institute in Edwards. He then relocated to Chicago, where he attended Wilson College. He became a member of the First Christian Church, which was founded by his maternal grandfather, Rev. James Turner. Crowe joined the US Air Force in 1953 and was trained in communications. He served one stint in Alaska, where he tried to organize a grassroots business cooperative among members of the local Native American community. He was honorably discharged from the Air Force in 1957 and returned to Chicago, where he worked for the Chicago Park District. He moved back to Mound Bayou in 1962 to care for his mother and began collecting information on the town.
Crowe was a community activist, businessman, and civil servant. He founded the Mound Bayou Historical Society and served as its president. He helped to incorporate the Historic Mound Bayou Foundation and establish its nonprofit status. He was a member of the Old Capital Museum’s Community Advisory Committee and helped to develop the museum’s Mississippi 1500–1800 exhibits. Crowe was a member of the Mississippi Historical Society board of directors as well as of the State Historical Records Advisory Board. He served as a commissioner for the Mid-Delta Empowerment Zone Alliance and as Mound Bayou’s city clerk and elections commissioner and manager. He received numerous awards for his public service, including a Public Humanities Achievement Award in 2000 and a 2005 Founders’ Day Award from the Mound Bayou Civic Club, which noted, “The rich history of Mound Bayou is shared from generation to generation, because of your knowledge and kind spirit of sharing.”
In the 1960s Crowe’s store and restaurant, the Crowe’s Nest, served as a meeting place for civil rights activists. Connie Curry, a field representative and lawyer for the American Friends Service Committee in Mississippi, remembered, “In Mound Bayou, Leon [Hall] and I stopped at a storefront—the Crowe’s Nest. It was a store and restaurant as well as a meeting and gathering place for local and visiting movement people. We went inside where I met Crowe, one of Mound Bayou’s longtime activists, who fed us some unforgettable barbecue ribs and then took us through a curtain-covered door to the back of the store where a poker game was in progress. Leon Hall and I played in some Atlanta games, so we poured ourselves a little scotch and joined in. I look back on that night when I sat with five black men and gambled and drank in the middle of Mississippi, and all I can say is, ‘It seemed perfectly fine at the time.’”
Crowe worked tirelessly to preserve Mound Bayou’s history, producing several extensive chronicles of events. He produced a newspaper, The Voice, as well as several other publications. He died on 10 September 2005 in Mound Bayou. Crowe’s extensive archive is housed at Emory University in Atlanta.
- Constance Curry, Silver Rights (1995)
- Janet Sharpe Hermann, The Pursuit of a Dream (1981)
- Mississippi History Newsletter (October 2005)