Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities - Vicksburg, Mississippi
Vicksburg, a historically diverse city with Catholic and Jewish settlers, later earned the name “The Red Carpet City.” The area which is now Vicksburg was previously part of the Natchez Native American people’s territory. By 1763, Spain controlled the east bank of the Mississippi where modern day Vicksburg lies. Noting the high bluffs and how the Mississippi River made a near perfect U shaped bend at the base of those heights, the Spanish rulers of the region thought it would be an ideal place to establish a fort to control river traffic and slow the progress of ever encroaching American settlers. In 1790, they constructed Fort Nogales on the site, taking its name from the abundance of walnut trees that flourished in the hot humid climate. The area gradually developed into a trading post called Walnut Hills. After the area was ceded to the United States in 1798, white settlers poured into the newly created Mississippi Territory. In 1812, Reverend Newitt Vick settled on some land not far from the Walnut Hills. A few years later, Vick began laying out lots for a town to be established on the bluffs just south of old Fort Nogales. Though he would not live to see his dream become reality, the town he planned would eventually come to life and take his name: Vicksburg. Today, Vicksburg has a large tourism industry surrounding the historic battlefield and museum. Vicksburg is also the place where Coca-Cola was first bottled, a fact that is immortalized at the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum. What is not often studied is the rich history of the town’s Jewish community. Jews have lived in Vicksburg since the city’s early years, and have been an integral part of the city’s history.
Given its proximity to the Mississippi river, Vicksburg was perfectly situated to take advantage of the new revolution in transportation that was changing the world. The invention of the steamboat and steam locomotive made transportation speedier and more reliable, thus enabling cotton planters to increase production and get their product to markets more efficiently. By 1850, more than 700 steamboats carried cotton, produce, and people up and down the Mississippi River while railcars hauled nearly 50,000 bales of cotton to the Hill City for transshipment to world markets via the river. Vicksburg’s importance as a transportation and economic hub, combined with its strategic importance as a chokepoint on the river, allowed the community to thrive over the course of the 19th century. By 1860, Vicksburg had become the second largest city in Mississippi behind Natchez, with a free white population of 3,138 and 1,402 enslaved blacks.
German Jews arrived in Vicksburg before the town was incorporated. Most Jews came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. By 1825, twenty Jewish families already lived in the area. Among them were the Sartorius brothers, who brought two Torahs with them to America. They are still in possession of the Vicksburg congregation. One of the brothers, Phillip Sartorius, left behind a biography of his life for his daughter, Rose Miriam Bock. He wrote, “None, except those who have lived and were raised in a pious Jewish family, can realize how solemn and beautiful our Phillip Sartorius and wife Sabbath and High Holy Days were celebrated.” Leaving Europe in 1845, Sartorius, accompanied by his older sister Caroline, landed in New Orleans before immediately traveling upstream to Vicksburg. He was lured to work in nearby Princeton by a higher salary, but eventually, at the request of his brother Isaac, he returned to Vicksburg. Though he and his family were deeply troubled by the Civil War, small pox epidemics, and the loss of several of their children, Phillip Sartorius was ultimately remembered as a great business leader and a pious Jew. Not only was he one of the region’s leading merchants, but he also served as secretary of Congregation Anshe Chesed.
Another important early figure in Jewish Vicksburg was Bernard Yoste. Born in Charlesville, France in 1805, his first home upon arrival in the United States was Berks County, Pennsylvania. By 1840, he was a naturalized citizen and established in Vicksburg. In addition to being the congregational president and spiritual leader of the early Vicksburg Jewish community, he was a prominent businessman in the wider community. He died on May 22, 1863 during the siege of Vicksburg when Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant besieged the town for 47 days. Yoste owned nine slaves at the time of his death, which placed him among the middle class of southern society. About 18 percent of Jewish families owned slaves, compared with about 25 percent of the general population. Though his original resting place is unknown, a memorial plaque was placed in the city cemetery where the rest of his family is buried. After Yoste’s death, John Mayer became the leader of the Jewish community in Vicksburg. Other early settlers include M. A. Levy, who served as a city selectman in 1832 and 1833. Louis Levy and David Brown arrived in 1834, and were closely followed by Julius Hornthal and Abraham Aaron.
As the community grew, Jews organized religiously. In 1841, Vicksburg Jews formed a congregation described in the local newspaper as the “Hebrew Benevolent Congregation of the Men of Mercy.” The congregation was formally incorporated in 1862 as “Anshe Chesed” (People of Loving Kindness). Local newspaper accounts suggest that they set up a cemetery around 1820, but the location remains unknown. They set up a second cemetery in 1864 and reinterred the bodies from the first location. The tract of land where the Jewish cemetery is located today was the scene of heavy fighting during the siege of Vicksburg. The cemetery, which contains several larger markers explaining the action that took place on that site, now adjoins Vicksburg National Military Park.
By the time of the Civil War, many Jews lived and thrived in Vicksburg. Jews were readily accepted into the community. In fact, at the outbreak of the civil war, the mayor of Vicksburg - ‘Lazarus Lindsey’ - was Jewish. Several Vicksburg Jews fought for the Confederacy, including Leon Fischel who was an aide to Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston. He so admired the general that he named his son Albert Sidney Johnston Fischel. The first soldier to be wounded during the Battle of Vicksburg was Philip Sartorius, who was struck in the shoulder by a Union bullet at Milliken’s Bend, as Grant’s army began its march down the western side of the Mississippi River. According to his memoir, the bullet lodged at the end of his shoulder blade and was removed by a young surgeon using an old rusty pocket knife. Similarly, his brother, Emanuel Sartorius was shot, losing the tip of his finger. Other wounded Jewish soldiers included Herman Nauen and Louis Hornthal, both of whom came from prominent Jewish families. Confederate soldiers under the command of General John C. Pemberton surrendered on July 4, 1863. By the end of the Civil War, there were 90 Jewish families in town, and 35 Jewish-owned stores. Many of these recent Jewish immigrants came from Prussia as well as Poland. They quickly became an important part of Vicksburg’s civic and economic life, filling the role of the merchant class in a highly agricultural region where they provided goods and services to local farmers. Other Jews worked in professions of law and medicine and held political office. Washington Street was a thriving retail area where Jewish merchants closed their businesses on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Their homes were interspersed throughout Vicksburg, with Bazinsky Road, Kiersky Street, and Marcus Street all named for prominent local Jews.
Vicksburg Jews formed several organizations in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, including a Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1866 and a local chapter of B’nai B’rith in 1867. The congregation dedicated their first synagogue in 1870, and a year later formed a Young Men’s Hebrew Benevolent Association, which they later renamed the B’nai B’rith Literary Association. Popularly known as the “B.B. Club,” the group served as the social center for Vicksburg’s Jewish community. Their original building was located on Cherry and Crawford Streets. When it was destroyed by a fire in 1915, a new building was erected on Clay and Walnut Streets. It was handsomely equipped with facilities for Jewish social engagements, including a swimming pool, meeting rooms, a fine dining room, ballroom, and for the literary minded, a library. Members in the 1950s were often entertained by the Red Tops, a popular African American band of that era. In 1967, the building was sold to the city. Recently, the B.B. Club was restored to its original grandeur by Laurence Leyens, who served as mayor of Vicksburg until 2009.
During the 19th century, life was often difficult in this river city. Smallpox was quite prevalent as was yellow fever, and the epidemics in 1853, 1871 and 1878 would take their toll among the Jewish families. The yellow fever epidemics in 1871 and 1878 were particularly deadly for the Vicksburg Jewish community. Eleven Jews died in the 1871 outbreak, while the 1878 epidemic took 46 Jewish lives--one third of the Jewish congregation at the time. Among the dead was Rabbi Bernhard Gotthelf, leaving the already diminished Jewish population without leadership. In this time of crisis, however, Levi M. Lowenberg stepped up to conduct services to the ailing Jewish community. Lowenberg owned a dry good’s store, and served as the town’s Justice of the Peace until 1900. In his 1903 obituary, The Vicksburg Commercial Herald reported that he led a long life of service, became known in all the walks of life and had friends for many miles around Vicksburg.
Despite this deadly outbreak of 1878, the Jewish community of Vicksburg continued to thrive, and was bolstered by another wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These new émigrés formed their own Orthodox congregation, but due to financial constraints, soon merged with the long-standing Reform congregation Anshe Chesed, which adjusted to embrace the newcomers.
By 1905, 659 Jews lived in Vicksburg. Among them were citizens like Henry Kline, a prominent planter and merchant who operated plantations and stores in Cameta, Onward and Anguilla. He moved to Vicksburg in 1921, and each day, he drove the more than one hundred miles roundtrip from Vicksburg to his possessions on the lower Delta. He served on the board of directors of the Bank of Anguilla and First National Bank of Vicksburg, and of the O’Neil McNamara Hardware Company. Not confined to mere business pursuits, he also served the local Jewish community as a member of the board of the Anshe Chesed Congregation and was honorary president of the Jewish Welfare Board. Other prominent newcomers included Jack, Albert and Henry Ehrman, who started the self-proclaimed largest meat dealer in the south, running nine meat markets in total. Their father, Charles Ehrman, served as a member of the state legislature in Jackson.
But even these new additions to the community could not forestall changes in the county’s economy due the effect of mechanization of the cotton culture. This contributed to several waves of black migration from the South to industrial cities of the North, and to high rates of unemployment for those left behind resulting in less business for Jewish merchants. Between 1927 and 1948, the city’s Jewish population dropped from 467 to 280. Since then, the population has continued to decline along with the rest of the Mississippi Delta.
As in the Civil War, the Jewish citizens of Vicksburg were highly active in World War II. Forty-eight Vicksburg Jews served in the military during the war. The local B’nai B’rith Club invited servicemen from around the nation to dances and other forms of entertainment. Ditty bags were sent to Vicksburg boys overseas as a reminder that they were not forgotten. The Temple sponsored two families who had fled Europe from Nazi rule. One of these German Jews was Albert Friedlander, who after attending high school in Vicksburg later became one of the leading Reform rabbis in the world.
Just as nature had impacted the community in the 19th century, tragedy again struck the Vicksburg community on December 5, 1953. Vicksburg’s main business street was already crowded with Christmas shoppers on that unseasonably warm December day when an unexpected tornado hit on December 5, 1953. Thirty-seven people were killed including two Jewish children: 3 year old Harlan Fried and 17 year old Kay Warren. Rabbi Herbert Hendell came from Greenville, Mississippi to officiate at the burial of the victims. Two other Jewish community members, Herbert Bloch and Regina Jacobs, died of shock following the tragedy. 937 buildings were demolished or received damage, while nearly 1,300 people lost their homes. Damages approached $25 million. Members of the Jewish community worked side by side with the 1,500 neighbors of all faiths and 1,500 U. S. Army men in excavating the ruins searching for bodies and survivors.
Despite their declining numbers, over the course of the twentieth century, Vicksburg Jews made important contributions to life in the river city. Lee Kuhn, along with his two brothers, Abe and Archie, operated a very successful dry goods store. He and his two brothers remained bachelors while his two sisters eventually married. Lee Kuhn was devoted to his family, particularly his mother, Caroline. Every evening, he took her for walks on Cherry Street. When she passed, he followed his two brothers to New York where they entered the investment banking business. When he died in 1953, he left the entirety of his estate, $400,000, to the City Catholic Charity Hospital. His will contained the provision that the hospital was to be enjoyed by all people, regardless of race, religion, or financial status. Similarly, he left $20,000 to the temple fund for the purpose of administering aid to the underprivileged local children.
Jews were also active in the city’s civic life. Several served on the city’s board of trade. Maurice Emmich, who served on the Vicksburg Bridge Commission and as president of the local rotary club, was named “Man of Year” by the Jaycees in 1963. Other Jews served as elected officials, including Abe Kiersky, who served as city tax assessor from 1889 to 1937. Henry Haas served as county tax assessor in the 1950s and 60s. Other Vicksburg Jews rose high in the military ranks. Max Feibelman was recommended to West Point by Congressmen Dan McGee. His maternal grandfather was Joseph Hamburger whose name as an alderman was engraved on the cornerstone of City Hall. Feibelman served as an officer in the Air Force, was promoted to a Lieutenant Colonel and served four years in the Pentagon while fellow Vicksburg resident Leon Jacobs also served as a major in the Air Force.
Jewish women were active in Vicksburg affairs as well. Celia Aarons taught high school English in the Vicksburg Municipal Separate School District from 1943-1987. Aarons was sponsored by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to represent the South in a conference on education in Washington DC. She received a Gold Key award from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. Carolyn Meyer served as a charter member of the Matinee Music club and the Vicksburg Community Concert Association. Meyer also served on the board of the Vicksburg Art Association, the local school board and was Girl Scout commissioner for Warren County. Beginning in 1969, Meyer served for three years as director of United Way. In recognition for her work, in 1971, she received the Community Council Volunteer Service Award.
As in other southern towns, the Jewish merchant class faded as changing economics led many young Vicksburg Jews to pursue opportunity in bigger cities. In 1970, there were eleven Jewish businesses. Today, only two remain: Marcus Furniture and The Attic Gallery. A historic quarter has been created for tourists learn about downtown Vicksburg, and browse amongst what are now museums and craft and coffee shops. Jewish cotton factor David Shlenker’s historical house on Cherry Street is now a bed-and-breakfast complex and open for guided tours. About 20 Jews live in Vicksburg, most of them elderly. Services are still led every week by the congregants and by the Institute of Southern Life’s Rabbi, Jeremy Simons, on high holidays. One non-Jewish couple supports the synagogue and comes to services every week. Richard Marcus is still affectionately known as "Chief Jew," and serves as a philanthropist, civic leader and chairman of the Anshe Chesed cemetery. Stanley Kline serves as the congregation’s president. Though the community is small, they remain committed to keeping the congregation active for as long as possible.
Julios Herscovici, The Jews of Vicksburg Mississippi. Xlibris. 2007
Julios Herscovici, The Jews of Vicksburg Mississippi. Xlibris. 2007