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Tullia Brown Hamilton to speak about 'Up From Canaan'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 24, 2012 - At the height of the post-Civil War South, Mound Bayou, Miss., stood as an oasis for its all-black community. The town, founded by freed slaves after the war, allowed its citizens to live their own lives, independent from the perils of the surrounding segregated Deep South.

The community flourished until its local economy, based on agriculture, collapsed. Once cotton was not king anymore, hard times began to set in during the 1920s. Also during that time, racial confrontations increased, causing irreparable damage to the community. As a result, many of the town’s citizens risked everything and joined millions of other African Americans in migrating to Northern cities.

Tullia Brown Hamilton’s "Up from Canaan" relates the lives of seven families, who fled Mound Bayou, once considered the “Jewel of the Mississippi Delta,” and relocated to St. Louis in hope of getting better jobs in a more welcoming environment that afforded a better place to raise their families.

As Hamilton points out, leaving the surroundings of your ancestors is not an easy thing to do. The process of uprooting a family to a new city is emotionally tough -- especially when racial violence and discrimination are involved. The ensuing migration of Blacks to Northern cities is an important part of American history that has been largely forgotten.

"Up from Canaan," delivers a sliver of what the Great Migration was like and how the lives of many St. Louisans who took part in that courageous and harrowing journey. Many of these folks arrived in St. Louis with intentions of moving on elsewhere but never left.

To fully grasp the significance of this event Hamilton goes back in time, offering a vivid account of how Mound Bayou grew out of Davis Bend, Miss., to become a thriving city that held its own against the adversity, racism and poverty that afflicted many parts of the South. This Jewel of the Mississippi Delta was a community that despite being frequently battered emotionally by a rough economy and ripped apart by violent racism held its own ground.

Hamilton’s tale is effectively told through the oral and written histories of the families she profile. Photographs, letters and personal reflections bring this heartbreaking exodus to life. These stories help her bring home the point that St. Louis served as a promised land of sorts to those fleeing from the persecution and deficiencies of the once sparkling Mound Bayou.

Tullia Brown Hamilton is a St. Louis resident and former Ford Foundation Fellow. She earned a doctorate in American Studies from Emory University in Atlanta and has taught at Ohio State University. Hamilton is an adjunct faculty member at Washington University.

"Up from Canaan: The African American Journey from Mound Bayou to St. Louis" is part of The Missouri Lives Series, which collects the history, generational family stories of Missourians. The books in this series are designed to increase awareness of cultural and life experiences of Missourians from all backgrounds and lifestyles.

Rob Levy is a freelance writer.