Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Summit, a small town in the heart of southern Mississippi, was home to many Jews during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Located in northern Pike County, Summit was built by cotton, the railroad, and the timber industry. Though the Summit Jewish community has long been distinct, it left an important legacy.
Around, 1848, Pike County issued a peddling license to Samuel Isaacs. Like many Jews of the nineteenth century, Isaacs was probably a salesman in the Deep South, traveling by foot from farm to farm to make a living. He was likely based out of New Orleans, where he could be outfitted by Jewish-owned peddler supply businesses. Isaacs, however, was probably only passing through Summit. Not until the arrival of the railroad in the 1850s, did Jews first permanently settle in Pike County. After the railroad was built, Jews from New Orleans came to Summit to escape the yellow fever epidemic then threatening the Crescent City. While most planned to return to the coast when the epidemic lifted, many Jews chose to stay in this budding village.
In the 1850s, Summit was a town of 200 people with no churches or schools; only four stores, two of which were Jewish-owned, stood in town. One store was owned by Louis Alcus and his nephew, Isaac Sherck. The Hyman family, who arrived in the area from Russia in the 1850s, owned the other store. Solomon Hyman arrived in Summit in 1850, and he lived with his wife, Pauline Lichtenstein of Holmesville, in a house that some believe to be the oldest still standing in the town today. Solomon and his brother Sam ran a shop called Hyman and Brothers, which, by the turn of the century, became Hyman Mercantile Company. The store specialized not only in hardware, furniture, and dry goods, but the business also added a cotton trading department, which handled more than 8,000 bales of cotton per season. The business was quite successful and Hyman lived in the area for over fifty years. He contributed to the city not only economically with a $25,000 donation to the town itself and by organizing the Bank of Summit, but also civically by serving as the town’s first mayor. Solomon retired from his business in 1897, and his son took over an enterprise that served customers in five counties. The store still existed into the 1930s and 1940s.
While the Jews arriving in Summit were mostly foreigners either from Alsace or from Russia, many of these new arrivals were not afraid to show loyalty to their new home: the American South. Nearly twenty Jewish young men fought for the Confederacy with the Summit Rifles during the Civil War. Max Frauenthal was one of those who enlisted for the southern cause. Serving in Mississippi’s Company A, Sixteenth Regiment, Frauenthal fought in the Shenandoah Valley with Stonewall Jackson and later joined ranks with General Richard Ewell. Described by some as a great soldier for his heroic fighting at “Bloody Angle” at the Battle of Spotsylvania, Ewell once remarked of Frauenthal: “If I had ten thousand men like Frauenthal I would drive the Yankees into the Potomac before the night.” Frauenthal suffered only slight wounds during the war.
Isadore Moyse of Alsace served as private for the Confederacy as well. Moyse with his wife, Rosalie, stayed in Summit after the war and opened a store called Levy, Moyse, and Company. Moyse, between 1868 and 1869, was also Master of the Summit Lodge of Masons, which had many local Jews as members. He and neighboring merchant Ben Hillborn helped establish the first public school in Summit at a time when the state of Mississippi did not have a statewide public school system. Moyse eventually served as the director of the Peabody Public School.
Summit had a flourishing Jewish community as, already by 1878, nearly eighty Jews lived in the northern parts of Pike County. Jewish businessmen included A. Heidenrich, who ran a ladies hat shop, and E. M. Forchheimer, who ran a dry goods business accompanied by Abraham, Hertz, and Matthew Hiller. As late as 1905, such stores as Hyman, Hiller, and Company were in business, while H. Perlinsky ran a shop on West Robb Street. Interestingly, some Jewish merchants came to trade in Summit all the way from New Orleans. Many of the merchants used the Bank of Summit, founded by Solomon Hyman and run by such Jews as J.L. Moyse, in the early 1900s.
By 1877, Summit Jews had formed congregation Ahava Shalom. From the outset, the congregation was Reform, with services held mostly in English on Friday nights and holidays. A choir sang “Hebrew hymns” while laymen conducted services. Neighboring rabbis occasionally visited, helping Summit Jews when necessary. By 1882, the congregation had found a meeting space, as the city’s Masonic Hall was split: the first floor became the home of Ahava Shalom while the second floor remained the Masonic Hall. Ahava Shalom’s arrangement at the Masonic Hall was maintained until 1916 when a declining Jewish population caused the congregation to disband. Ahava Shalom was Summit’s only congregation, as an attempt to from another congregation in 1906 had been short-lived.
Living a traditionally observant Jewish life was not quite feasible in isolated Pike County, and these Jewish pioneers worked to assimilate into general society. As in many other small towns, Jews were largely welcomed by their gentile neighbors. And yet, despite this acceptance and the desire to fit in, intermarriage was rare. In fact, there were many cases of Jewish weddings in the area performed by rabbis from New Orleans. These marriages established family connections between the Hiller, Hyman, Moyse, Levy, and Kirschner families.
During times of social upheaval, Jews in America have sometimes been the targets of anti-Semitism. This was the case in Summit in the 1890s. During the economic depression of that decade, some whites resented the growing economic power of merchants who had acquired land from poor farmers for nonpayment of debts. In Mississippi, this issue became a racial one, as many merchants rented to black sharecroppers. In the minds of some whites, these black farmers were given too much independence. Since many rural merchants were Jewish, those aggrieved began to lump all merchants, regardless of their religion, into a “Jewish conspiracy.” An underground group, known informally as “whitecappers,” targeted black sharecroppers and their Jewish landlords. During the elections of 1892, so-called “White Caps” began to force black renters from Jewish-owned farms in southern Mississippi. In Summit, they targeted H. Hiller, a successful Jewish merchant who owned 400 small farms in the area. During a two month period, White Caps burned down 27 tenant houses on Hiller’s land, and Hiller was unable to find renters to work his land. He eventually sold his business and moved to New Orleans. This incident, however, appears to have been short-lived and localized.
While Ahava Shalom closed in the 1910s, Jewish businesses such as J.E. Wolfe’s and Sons and F.C Kornrumpf’s rival shop, “The Corner Grocery,” remained in the area. Nevertheless, the Jewish population shrank so much that no one ever sought to rebuild the old Jewish house of worship when a tornado destroyed it in the mid-1920s. Certainly, Jewish families existed in the area well into the 20th century as nearby McComb supported a Jewish population of twelve in the late 1930s. However, the Summit community never regained its previous size and strength. The infestation of the boll weevil and its devastation of the crops most likely caused Jews to leave Summit. While McComb grew from industry related to the railroad and oil as a result of the 1936 “Balance Agriculture with Industry” Act, Summit remained a small town relying on its traditional lumber and cotton output. The old Summit Jewish cemetery still exists to tell the story of nineteenth century Summit life. Jews once dominated the town in the 1850s; today, none remain.