Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Holly Springs, Mississippi
Holly Springs, a town of 8,000 people in northeast Mississippi, was once the antebellum capital of the mid-South. This county seat of Marshall County, not far from Memphis, was not only a railroad trading depot, but also an agricultural and industrial center in Mississippi. Trade was always part of this border town, a land ripe for the emergence of Jewish settlers.
While most records detail Jewish life after the Civil War, life in Holly Springs certainly felt the presence of earlier Jewish pioneers. Most of these Jews were immigrants, coming from places like Alsace to a land that reminded them of their former homes. Typically, these Jews came from either New York or New Orleans, peddling from farm to farm. With the advent of the railroad, Holly Springs became a passing trade route for merchants traveling between New Orleans and urban cities in the North. In the 1870s, “New York stores” opened, selling goods, particularly clothing, produced in New York. Other merchants passed by Holly Springs selling cotton or providing warehouses for raw materials, which then relocated to the manufacturing centers of the United States. While the railroad promoted trade in northeast Mississippi, it had also provided a worthy winter headquarters for the Union Army during the Civil War.
In the winter of 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant and his troops wintered in the bustling antebellum town of Holly Springs. In order to control the cotton trade in the area for use in the North, the United States Treasury Department mandated that all merchants in the Deep South sell their cotton at a price of 25 cents per pound. Merchants and farmers had to take an oath on this order and follow this government-created cotton monopoly system. While this rule was in place, many Union officers believed that Jewish traders were trying to make a profit through the practice of smuggling; the officers claimed that the Army had to act in order to maintain economic order within the region. On December 17, 1862, General Grant issued General Orders Number 11, a decree that expelled all Jews from Holly Springs and the rest of the military district under his control. This even applied to Jews who were not involved in the cotton trade. General Grant claimed that Jews were “a curse to the army.”
This order angered Jews nationwide, and after intense lobbying from Jewish leaders, President Abraham Lincoln soon rescinded it. Despite this turmoil, Jewish life persisted in Holly Springs. In 1878, around fifty Jews lived in the Marshall County area. In 1858, I.C. Levy, a French immigrant, started his clothing store in Holly Springs, and his family remained successful for over three generations. Levy was also a member of the building committee for the local Masonic temple. While Charles Schneider sold dry goods in 1870, new families began to arrive in the area with names such as Shumacker, Behr, Meyer, Grosskin, Leibson, and Sessels. While most were French, some were Russian immigrants, representing the new wave of immigrants sweeping the United States.
Although Holly Springs once had a small vibrant Jewish community, the town was close to Memphis and was not large enough to have its own synagogue. As a result, most Jews attended High Holiday services and followed any other important religious practices in Memphis. Many members of the Holly Springs community remember Jews attending the First Presbyterian Church. According to these stories, these Jews were under no pressure to worship there, but the church’s tolerant and wholesome nature attracted Jews to come on Sundays. This practice continued even as late as the 1970s when some of the last Jews left Holly Springs. Interestingly, most Jews were buried in Memphis, but the Kohner family of the 1960s specifically requested burial in the Presbyterian Hillcrest Cemetery.
The story of Jews attending First Presbyterian Church certainly reflected tolerance among the Holly Springs community as well as assimilation by Jews into southern society. In small places like Holly Springs, assimilation also led to interfaith marriages. In the 1920s, the South Reporter described an Oxford gentleman named Sam Friedman marrying a Christian woman and celebrating Easter with non-Jewish families. While wishing everyone a good Christmas or a happy Easter was commonplace among Jewish businessmen, celebrating Christian holidays was fairly rare for Jews. Nevertheless, these stories show how Jews felt accepted in their communities.
While religion represented an important dimension of life for the Jewish settlers of Holly Springs, business was central. In the early 1900s, Isidor Blumenthal’s Lady’s Clothing Store sold his quality goods at fair prices. Blumenthal’s shop became known throughout Marshall County for its bargain fairs, which attracted people to his store. About the same time, the Shumacker brothers outfitted men with all types of clothing, and their success translated into other ventures. For example, one of the brothers became a director on the executive board of Merchants’ & Farmers’ Bank. Successful merchants typically entered this field of commerce, and this bank of Holly Springs always featured at least one Jewish member for many decades. In the 1920s, Mr. H. Myers ran his haberdashery called “The Style Shop,” while Leo Leibson excelled in high quality shoes and shoe repair. While fewer Jewish businesses existed between 1930 and 1950 aside from the longstanding I. C. Levy Department Store and the shorter-lived Esler’s store, Dr. J.W. Rothchild, an optometrist, used to advertise his Oxford, Mississippi, business in the Holly Springs newspaper. Although some came to see him, Dr. Rothchild for many years traveled to an outpost in Holly Springs on a weekly basis to assist with the eye needs of the community.
While Cotton had once been king in Holly Springs, this proclaimed capital of Northern Mississippi changed economically with the times. In 1936, the state legislature passed a law called “Balance Agriculture with Industry,” which attempted to entice northern industries with lower taxes and labor costs. This effort was successful in Holly Springs. While industry as enabled prosperity to continue despite the decline of cotton between the 1940s and 1950s, the Jewish community was unable to grow as a result of these changes. Without cotton, Jewish merchants were not a necessity in Holly Springs anymore. Along with tighter immigration laws, deaths in the Jewish population decreased numbers to as low as twenty people by 1937. While death did decrease the Jewish population, Holly Springs was close enough to Memphis that most younger generations were attracted to the lucrative opportunities of Memphis and left Marshall County for good.
With the passing and the migration of the last two families, the Levys and the Kohners, the Jewish community of Holly Springs was extinct by the 1970s. Despite great prosperity today, many locals remember the great Jewish citizens that once resided in Holly Springs, members who contributed to multiple facets of society. In a place where southern culture is still very strong, some believe Holly Springs will rise again. As a possible future bedroom community for Memphis, maybe the Jewish community of Holly Springs will rise again as well.