Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities - Starkville, Mississippi
Starkville Mississippi is the county seat of Oktibbeha County and home of Mississippi State University. The town was granted a charter in 1837 and renamed Starkville in honor of Revolutionary War hero General John Stark. For much of the 19th century, the area consisted mostly of small farms and a few large plantations. When the first railroad arrived in 1874, the town slowly began to grow economically. Another railroad line came in 1884 that further enhanced trade for Oktibbeha County, attracting many enterprising Jewish merchants in the 1880s. These merchants were instrumental in the town’s development and continued to be over the 20th century. Mississippi State is now the largest employer for Jewish Starkville residents, and the university boasts an active and growing Hillel group.
In 1880, Max Stern and Aaron Goodman opened the first dry goods store in Starkville. The store eventually became known as The Goodman Brothers. Goodman’s son, Raymond, served as both president of the Starkville Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Merchants Association.
Simon Fried and his family settled in Starkville in 1880. Originally from Bavaria, he came to Pennsylvania in 1857 and was naturalized in 1865. In addition to running a dry-goods store, Simon Fried served as an alderman and was a member of the Knights of Pythias for 42 years. Fried had the honor of serving as the Grand Warden of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in 1894, a global altruistic and benevolent fraternal organization that had a strong presence in Mississipi during the 19th century.
In 1888, Simon’s daughter, Carrie Fried, married Bernard Blumenfeld, a senior partner of the firm Bernard Blumenfeld. The marriage initiated a long-term business partnership between the two families. Because there was no temple in Starkville, their wedding took place in the local Methodist church. The two families opened a dry good store in the 1890s, and it grew to be a successful wholesale grocery business.
Other early residents included Nathan Moses Falk, who settled in nearby Kosciusko, where he worked as a cotton buyer. His business thrived for over 50 years with the help of his son, Amos. Nathan Falk became quite well regarded among his peers and served on the board of a local bank.
20th-century Jewish Businesses:
Jewish merchants came to own several stores in Starkville. Thomas Katz opened a store on Main Street in 1904 and was one of the first people in the community to give credit to black customers. Sidney and Shirley Hart owned the Tip Top Café until 1949. Herman Kleban and his partner, Louis Matz, operated Kleban’s Shoe, which eventually became the most successful shoe store in the state. A nephew of Kleban, Joseph, also opened a dress shop. Max Rossoff and his daughter, Evelyn, operated a fine ladies dress shop as well.
Jews and Mississippi State:
Over the course of the twentieth century, many Jews came to be associated with Mississippi State. Rabbi Emanuel Stornheim of Greenville was invited to speak there in 1912. Mr. Henry Leveck, an MSU graduate served as the Director of the Animal Husbandry Department for many years. After his death, a university building was named in his honor. His wife, Hortense, a piano teacher, worked tirelessly to promote musical events in the community.
Jewish Organizational Life in Starkville:
Starkville Jews worked to cultivate an organized Jewish community. Articles from The American Israelite show that during the late 19th century, they held religious services on Friday nights in the Odd Fellows Building and at the old opera house. Mr. Isadore Newman often led services with assistance from other community members. Eventually, they did form a congregation under the advisement of Dr. Max Raisin of Meridian. In 1908, Rabbi Raisin conducted services and led a discussion that attracted residents representing all denominations in the city. Unfortunately, the congregation did not last. Starkville Jews had to travel 27 miles to nearby Columbus, Mississippi for worship and life cycle events. Throughout the twentieth century, many Starkville Jews became a part of the nearby Columbus, Mississippi congregation. For High Holy Days, they closed their businesses and went to Columbus. During the late 19th and early 20th century, Starkville Jews spent the night at the beautiful Gilmer Hotel so they would be there early the next morning.
Although they were unable to sustain a congregation, Starkville Jews organized a religious school in at least two instances. Simon Fried and Ms. Isidore Newman organized a school in the late 1880s, but the school eventually dismantled due to budget issues. During its short tenure, adult members of the community were able to come together and share their Jewish knowledge. Starkville merchant H. Winter frequently delivered lectures on several interesting Jewish topics, including ones that investigated the Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism. Community members described Winter in The American Israelite as a “gentleman of rare intellectual talent…too much praise cannot be given him for the eloquent manner in which he acquitted himself.” In addition to Winter, Rabbi Herz of Columbus gave lectures to the community as well. Starkville Jews organized a second school in the early 20th century. In 1915, Mena Blumfeld organized two religious classes. The Reform Advocate reported that she organized the classes so that Jewish children’s faith would be “something real and vital to them.”
Starkville Jews also organized social Jewish clubs as well. Jewish women formed a euchre, or cards club, in 1905. The club had several Jewish members including Mrs. M. Bloch, Mrs. M. Stern, Mrs. Phil Goodman, Mrs. B. Blumenfeld, Mrs. H. Kleban, Mrs. A. Tannenbaum, and Mrs. H. Cramer. Jews also united together in support of charitable causes. For instance, in 1906 they raised $278.50 to help with relief efforts for Russian Jews in the wake of violent pogroms. In nearby Kosciusko, the Falk family were leaders in The Twentieth Century Club, a federated charitable women’s club.
Starkville Jews and community relations:
Like Jews in many other small towns in Mississippi, Jewish residents of Starkville were highly integrated into Starkville society. Sigma Alpha Mu, a Jewish fraternity, was founded at Mississippi State University in 1938 with seven inaugural students. Jewish residents served as presidents of the town’s Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Merchants Association, and many civic clubs. Ralph Katz was one of the founders of the local Republican Party.
Over the course of the 20th century, Jewish women played an active role in improving their community. Miss Mena Blumenfeld and Alice Katz helped to establish the first library and supported it until their deaths. Lena Falk organized the first soup kitchen at the local school during the Great Depression. In the later part of the 20th century, Jewish women served as charter members of the Junior Auxiliary, the Community Theater and the Starkville Civic Orchestra, which evolved into the Starkville/MSU Association.
The Meyer family: Civil Rights Champions
The Meyer family left behind a rich legacy of valor and community activism in Starkville and beyond. In 1946, Henry and Morris Meyer, nephews of the prominent Blumenfeld family, purchased the Starkville News. Along with the paper, Henry Meyer also owned a printing and business supply company. As a liberal Jews editing for a paper in civil rights era Mississippi, he faced many challenges. Meyer, who didn’t abide bullies, won the town of Starkville over on the strength of his work ethic, his commitment to public services, and his dedication to developing substantial community programs to benefit young people. For his outstanding journalistic legacy, Henry Meyer was inducted into the Mississippi Press Association Hall of Fame.
After his brother Morris sold the paper to the Harris family in the 1960s, Meyer became a professor of journalism at MSU. He became a cherished faculty member and student advisor. Meyer was also the pioneer radio and public address announcer for Bulldog football, basketball, and baseball games. For all his MSU contributions, the student center was renamed in his honor. In writing his last editorial in the Starkville News, he set out his personal philosophy of what community journalism should be: “So long as we love, we serve; so long as we are loved by others, I would almost say we are indispensable; and no man is useless while he has a friend.”
Other members of the Meyer family exhibited great courage during the Civil Rights movement. Henry’s son, Melvin Meyer, became a lightning rod for controversy when he published an editorial in the Crimson White, Alabama’s student newspaper. His editorial urged integration at Ole Miss and elsewhere, earning Meyer the anti-Semitic ire of Ku Klux Klan sympathizers. When the controversy began, the Starkville County Board of Supervisors asked Henry to stop his son from making trouble. When he refused, they stopped giving him the county’s printing business. The Ku Klux Klan made regular visits to the Meyer home and burned crosses.
The fruits of Melvin Meyer’s efforts for change eventually won out. An African American woman that worked for the family for many years teared up the first time she saw Melvin after Ole Miss was integrated; for Meyer this poignant display of gratification served as a strong reminder for him to continue to fight for racial equality. Meyer became a co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. Part of the SPLC’s successes over the years has included putting the United Klans of America, one of the largest Ku Klux Klan organizations in the United States, out of business through a lawsuit.
Today, Starkville boasts a number of Jewish professionals affiliated with the university, such as Seth Oppenheimer, who officially became the lay rabbi at B'Nai Israel in Columbus in 2007. Oppenheimer teaches mathematics and is the director of undergraduate research at Mississippi State University's Shackouls Honors College. Carolyn Adams-Price, associate professor of psychology at MSU, serves as B'Nai Israel's board president. In addition to these residents, about 20 Jewish students at Mississippi State University organized a Hillel group that continues to grow every year. Unlike some small towns that continue to loose Jewish members, the future looks bright for this small but growing Jewish community.
Carolyn and her husband of 57 years ran Starkville’s Katz’s Department Store. The store was first opened by her father-in-law at the turn of the 20th century. It began as a mercantile establishment and later grew into a department store specializing in clothing for men and women. When it eventually closed in 1995, much of the store’s business focused on selling bridal gowns and formal wear.
The New Orleans native had to drop out of Milsaps College after two years of study in order to support herself and her mother following the death of her father. She worked for a telephone company before marrying into the Katz family. She and her husband Ralph moved to Starkville in order to continue his father’s business. As a Starkville resident, Carolyn Katz served as a charter member of the Starkville Symphony and the Junior Auxilary and theater company.
At the age of 65, Carolyn Katz enrolled at Mississippi State in Starkville. She earned bachelor’s degree with honors five years later. At 70, she was listed as the oldest graduate in Mississippi State University history.
“About People.” The American Israelite. Dec. 19, 1912.
“Carolyn Falk Katz, 85, merchant and author dies in Houston.” Crescent City Jewish News. June 28, 2013. Dec. 24, 2010. Accessed Feb. 19, 2015. http://www.crescentcityjewishnews.com/carolyn-falk-katz-85-merchant-and-author-dies-in-houston/.
“Correspondence” The American Israelite. Jan. 26, 1905.
“Domestic.” The American Israelite. Jan. 21, 1887.
Carolyn Katz. Interview by Mark Greenberg. Video recording. August 1999. Institute of Southern Jewish Life Oral History Archives.
“Keeping the faith: As Jewish population in the South declines.” The Dispatch. March 25, 2013. Accessed March 6, 2015. http://www.cdispatch.com/news/article.asp?aid=23109&TRID=1&TI
“’Kick that damn Jew out’: Meyer took heat for pro-integration editorial at Bama.” Southern Jewish Life Magazine. Sunday, June 02, 2013. Accessed Feb. 19, 2015. http://www.sjlmag.com/2013/06/kick-that-damn-jew-out-meyer-took-heat.html.
“Jottings.” The American Israelite. Feb. 13, 1908
Morgan, Ruth. “Starkville’s Jewish Heritage.” Starkville Daily News. Accessed February 19, 2015. http://www.starkvilledailynews.com/node/3648_br ().
Nelander, Betty. “Emanu-El women to hear Goldner’s story of growing up in the Deep South.” Palm Beach Daily News. Nov. 22, 2012. Accessed Feb. 29, 2015. http://www.palmbeachdailynews.com/news/news/local/a-complicated-story/nTDCx/#sthash.qFjn3KuU.dpufm/articles/170453/-years-of-integration-began-with-jewish-students/?p=all#ixzz3Ld7wp2nr.
“Russian Relief Notes.” The American Israelite. Jun, 11, 1906.
Salter, Sid. “Salter pays tribute to journalism mentor.” New Albany Gazette. Feb. 2, 2000. 2A
Sisson, Carmen K. “Keeping the Faith: As Jewish population in the South declines, local Jews bond to maintain traditions.” The Dispatch. March 25, 2013. Accessed Feb. 19, 2015. http://www.cdispatch.com/news/article.asp?aid=23109&TRID=1&TID=#ixzz3RNKpZ2OU.
“Starkville, Miss.” The American Israelite. Oct. 12, 1888
Weinstein, Dina. “50 Years of Integration Begin with Jewish Student’s Editorial.” The Jewish Daily Forward. Feb. 8, 2013. Accessed Feb. 19, 2015.http://forward.com/articles/170453/-years-of-integration-began-with-jewish-students/?p=all#ixzz3Ld7wp2nr.