Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Known as the “Queen City of the Mississippi Delta,” Greenville had a reputation as the most cosmopolitan and open-minded city in the state. With the rise of cotton agriculture in the Delta, Greenville emerged as a major port town on the Mississippi River. Its status as the primary port city in the most fertile cotton-growing region in the country attracted growing numbers of Jewish merchants. For much of the 20th century, Greenville had the largest Jewish population in Mississippi, though in recent decades the community has declined along with the Delta itself.
In 1870, when Greenville was officially incorporated as a town, there were approximately 25-30 Jewish families who lived within its borders. This time period, however, was grueling for all Greenville citizens, causing major hardships for both the Jewish and non-Jewish members of the community. Like many other parts of the South, Greenville was decimated by the Civil War. Though their loss of life and property was great, Greenville citizens were quick to rebuild. Despite the warnings of fire hazards, wood was used as the major material for the renovation of the Greenville buildings. About a decade later, the citizens of Greenville paid dearly for this choice when the Great Fire of 1874 destroyed 45 homes and 62 businesses, reducing the population of 890 to about 500. The Jewish population felt this loss deeply, as 25 of the lost businesses were Jewish-owned. To make matters worse, the lost Jewish businesses generally had little or no insurance, leaving the store owners with nothing.
Hardship once again struck the citizens of Greenville when in 1878 an epidemic of yellow fever killed one-third of the population. Doctors did not know how to address the problem, recommending such treatment as reduced bathing, brandy drinking, and the wearing of woolen socks. Though the yellow fever epidemic was brutally tragic, it does provide insight into the racial and religious structures that existed within the society of Greenville. In order to deal with the massive loss of life, Mrs. Harriet Blanton Theobold, a major wealthy figure in the town, donated a large tract of her estate as a cemetery. The land was divided into three sections: one for the African Americans, one for the whites, and the third for the Jews. Not knowing what to do with the few Chinese who died in the outbreak, they were buried in the Jewish section of the makeshift cemetery. The former population of 2,000 was dramatically reduced, and of these losses, eighteen were Jewish.
Despite these disasters, a small Jewish community took root in Greenville. Morris Weiss, one of the earliest Jews in Greenville, opened the first Jewish-owned business in town in 1864. Weiss was born in Prussia and first landed in New York City. He later went to New Orleans, and from there peddled his way up to Greenville. He finally saved enough money to open a store. In order to expand the success of his dry goods store, Weiss hired Nathan Goldstein, who eventually married his daughter, Emaline Weiss. Upon the death of Morris Weiss, Hannah Weiss joined Nathan Goldstein in running the business of her late husband. She effectively became the family matriarch, asserting her influence over the Witkowskys, Witts, Brills, Hirsches, and Moyses, all of whom married into her family. She was influential in keeping the family close, with many of her children remaining in her home even after they were married. She was essential to business and community endeavors. Her efforts yielded not only a large, tightly knit family and a successful dry goods store, but also significant funding for the nascent Jewish congregation.
Hannah Weiss’ son-in-law and eventual business partner, Nathan Goldstein, also displayed the ingenuity and resourcefulness that marked the Jewish population of Greenville. Despite his upbringing in the Jewish orphanage in New Orleans, Goldstein was an entrepreneur from an early age. By the time he was fourteen, he had set up a stand in the French Quarter in order to provide for his poor immigrant mother and his sister Sara. Upon arrival in Greenville, Goldstein served as an important political figure in the community. When the town judge was found to be corrupt, Nathan Goldstein served on the committee to replace him. When Greenville was in a state of disarray from the Great Fire of 1878, he served as a member of the temporary operating government. He served as vice president of the local Jewish congregation and even donated $10,000 to the new Greenville High School. A plaque in the gymnasium commemorates his generous gift. Unfortunately, his charitable nature had detrimental effects on his overall finances, and at the time of his death he had lost much of his fortune.
Jews enjoyed tremendous acceptance and opportunities in Greenville. Nathan Goldstein was not the only Jewish Greenvillian who was involved in civic affairs. Leopold Wilzinski served as the first elected mayor of Greenville in 1875. Jacob Alexander also served as mayor of Greenville in the late 19th century. Alexander Street in Greenville was named after him. (Goldstein Street was named for Nathan Goldstein). Theodore Pohl also held many local offices. In the late 19th century, Alexander, Goldstein and Pohl were omnipresent in community affairs. During the Yellow Fever outbreak of 1878, much of Greenville’s population fled the city. Only three elected officials remained in the city during the outbreak, two of whom were Nathan Goldstein and Theodore Pohl.
Jews helped to open a school in town in the days before public education. On October 18, 1875, local Jews opened the nonsectarian German and English School, which was to serve the entire white community. In charge of the school was Rabbi Rawitzer. A thankful editorial in the local newspaper stated, “The establishment of this school on a permanent basis is the highest ambition of our Jewish citizens. They appeal to the public to sustain their efforts to make Greenville as noted for its excellent educational advantages, as it is for enterprise in other businesses.” In 1890, when Greenville celebrated its first graduating public high school class, five of the thirteen students were Jewish.
Greenville Jews have long asserted that there has been an absence of anti-Semitism in the community. Certainly the number of Jews elected to local office is one indication of this. Also, the local newspaper covered the Jewish community’s activities in great detail. Local Jews were also welcomed into fraternal societies and social clubs. In 1882, the Christian ministers of Greenville drafted a resolution condemning Russia for its persecution and violence against its Jewishpopulation, and calling on the US government to exert its influence on Russia. The ministers proclaimed that such persecution was “contrary to the spirit of Christianity.” According to one Greenville Jew, the Jewish community “was part of the surging current of the Mainstream of Greenville.”
Greenville Jews worshipped together during the 1870s, and even had a rabbi to lead them. But it was not until 1880 that they officially chartered their congregation as the Hebrew Union Congregation. In 1903, they officially embraced reform Judaism, joining the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The Greenville temple served Jews throughout the small towns of the Delta. In 1871, Greenville Jews formed a local chapter of the B’nai B’rith. By 1877, they had a second chapter in town. That same year, local Jews formed a Young Men’s Hebrew Benevolent Society with 23 charter members that raised money for charitable causes.
The Jewish community of Greenville continued to grow during the first part of the 20th century. One correspondent in 1908 reported that 85 Jewish families lived in town. In 1937, 450 Jews lived in the city, and they made up a significant part of Greenville’s merchant class. As early as 1877, one local Jew writing to the American Israelite newspaper in Cincinnati claimed that “the business of the town is almost wholly in the hands of our co-religionists.” At the turn of the century, there were three large Jewish-owned department stores in town: Leyser & Co.; Hafter’s; and Nelms & Blum. Perhaps the most notable Jewish store was opened by Sam Stein in 1908. Stein had come to New York from Russia in 1905, and eventually settled in Greenville. He started as a traveling peddler selling merchandise to farmers throughout the Mississippi Delta. After a few years, he opened his own clothing store in downtown Greenville. From these humble beginnings in Greenville, Stein Mart has grown into a large, publicly-traded retail chain, with stores across the country.
Jews also worked directly in the cotton trade, some as factors and others as plantation owners. Many early members of the Greenville Jewish community came to own large farms. Other Greenville Jews joined the professional ranks as doctors and lawyers. David L. Cohn, the writer who famously observed, “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel [in Memphis] and ends on catfish row in Vicksburg” lived in Greenville.
Jews became part of the community and culture of Greenville. During the civil rights era, members of the community were torn between support for the “southern way of life” they had embraced, and the values of their Judaism. In 1963, when the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the national organization of Reform Judaism, invited Dr. Martin Luther King to speak at its biennial convention, members of the Greenville congregation wrote to the Union protesting the invitation. Congregation president Bernard Goodman wrote that such outward support of civil rights would endanger the acceptance Jews had long enjoyed in Greenville. The congregation board voted to stay neutral on the issue of civil rights. This letter reflects the unique position of southern Jews, showing that on some issues they had more in common with southern whites than northern Jews.
In some cases, however, Jews were able to serve as an intermediary during the struggle for civil rights, and sometimes played a quiet role in accommodating social change. When local newspaper editor Hodding Carter angered Greenville segregationists with his cautious support for racial justice, Jewish businessmen continued to advertise in the paper despite calls for a boycott. This financial support gave Carter the freedom to challenge the status quo in Mississippi. Other examples involve personal relationships. Goldie Williams, an African American woman, was able to escape the often oppressive work of picking cotton when she was hired by Sidney Goodman, who owned a clothing store that prided itself on a policy of “treating people like people.” Goldie Williams recalls receiving an unheard of “thank you” for the first time at Goodman’s, as well as enjoying a workplace atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. The friendship between Sidney Goodman and Goldie Williams developed into a long term sharing of troubles and joys, and lasted more than four decades.
The Jewish community of Greenville reached its peak size in 1968, with 700 Jews. Since then, the Jewish population has declined sharply as economic opportunity has withered in the Mississippi Delta. In 2001, only about 120 Jews lived in the Greenville area. What was for a long time the largest Jewish community in Mississippi has now followed the demographic trend of so many other small town communities. Today, the Greenville community is aging with no new generation growing to replace it. Despite this demographic reality, the Jews of Greenville still work to preserve their religious and cultural traditions.