Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Natchez, Mississippi, a port in Adams County, was a river town on the mighty Mississippi. Based primarily on cotton and the steamboat trade, Natchez attracted people to the Deep South from all over the country and world. As a result of this great success, Natchez in 1860 had more millionaires than anywhere else in the United States. While it has long since passed its economic prime, Natchez continues to attract visitors with its many historic homes and celebrations that portray life in the Old South. Here, in the so-called “most Southern place on earth,” Jews have flourished for over two centuries.
Although no one can directly pinpoint the first Jewish presence in Adams County, peddlers probably came to this area as early as the 1700s when Mississippi was partially under French rule. In 1722, the French established the Black Code, which not only regulated slavery in the Natchez territory, but also expelled Jewish people from the Catholic-dominated region. While this was the law, it was not always enforced. Therefore, itinerant Jews most likely roamed the area. When Natchez fell under British rule, conditions improved for Jewish pioneers. Although they were not full citizens under British law, they were able to live legally in the region. After the American Revolution, the Spanish took over the territory, and its territorial court records between 1780 and 1800 featured suits containing such names as Isaac Mayes (Mayer), Robert Abrams, F. Abrams, and Pedro Siegle.
The most famous Jews to live in the area were the Monsanto brothers. Benjamin Monsanto owned 500 acres of land and eleven slaves. Living as a friend of Spanish Governor Gayosa de Lemos, Benjamin Monsanto and his wife, Clara, had a home on St. Catherine’s Creek until Benjamin’s sudden death in New Orleans in 1794. In the 1790s, other Jews who came to the area included Abraham Buckholtz, who changed his name to Buckels. When the United States took over the Natchez territory in the late 1790s, peddler Henry Jacobs got full American citizenship, a first for the Jews of the area. While other Jews lived in Natchez, it was not until the 1840s that the Jewish community began to organize.
In the 1840s, immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine as well as Bavaria started coming to Natchez. Since many had little experience with farming, they opened retail stores, selling dry goods in the crude, low-lying river region of “Under-the-Hill.” Most learned to speak English on the job. In 1841, John Mayer and his wife came from New Orleans to Natchez, where he served as a tailor and merchant for many decades. A few years later, merchants Aaron Beekman, Joseph Tillman, I. David, Solomon Bloom, and Simon Adler followed suit. Soon, businesses began to boom for these Jews, including Schatz’s ladies’ ready-to-wear, which existed until the start of the twentieth century. According to an 1858 survey, eight out of twelve Jewish businesses in Natchez traded either in clothing or dry goods. Without a doubt, the Jews were beginning to prosper even as a Civil War was starting to brew.
During the Civil War, most Natchez Jews were devout supporters of the Confederacy. Many joined the southern army and entered such groups as Quitman Light Artillery, Adams Light Infantry, the Natchez Fencibles, and Natchez Light Infantry. Simon Mayer fought for the Confederates during the Civil War, where he rose to the rank of major. Known to some as “too short to shoot” and the “Little Mississippi Major” because of his height of 4 feet 8 inches, Mayer served as aide-to-camp for a General Sharpe. S.L. Benjamin joined the Confederate forces as a private during the war. Captured in Grand Gulf, he found freedom through a prison release that eventually led him to Natchez. In Natchez, he once tipped his hat to an African American gentleman, which many saw as scandalous.
After the fall of Vicksburg in 1863, the U.S.S. Essex came to Natchez to get some ice for its wounded. When the Union Navy arrived at Natchez, the residents refused to help and began shooting at the ship. The U.S.S. Essex fired back, shelling the Under-the-Hill section of Natchez. Attempting to escape from the scene, a seven-year-old Jewish girl named Rosalie Beekman fell from a shrapnel injury, when she uttered her last words, “Papa, I’m killed.” She died, becoming Natchez’s only casualty during the war.
While Natchez surrendered to the Union, United States control did not completely dominate life in the city. Some military governors left life as it had been before occupation. Others such as General Brayman began arresting people for spying, including a Jewish girl who had called the general a tyrant. Some Jews such as John Mayer continued their work as merchants. The Civil War brought new Jewish settlers to Natchez; many of them were northerners who followed the Union Army as private support staff. Henry Frank and Isaac Lowenberg were examples of new settlers who prospered greatly after the war. Although these men were Union supporters, the Jewish Confederates of Natchez accepted them because of their common religion. Indeed, both Frank and Lowenberg found southern Jewish wives in Natchez. After the Civil War, an era of prosperity reigned, bringing great wealth to the Natchez Jewish community, which soon reached its height not only in numbers but also in prominence.
After the Civil War, Natchez’s Jewish population grew rapidly. While Jews throughout much of the late 1800s made up only 5% of Natchez’s population, they owned nearly a third of the city’s businesses. New families such as Geisenberger, Coleman, Frank, Beekman, Coleman, and Lemle were prosperous during this period. In 1863, Henry Frank started his successful dry goods, boots, shoes, and notions business on Pearl Street. As a manufacturer and salesman, Frank was successful enough that he later became president of the Natchez Board of Trade. Around the same period, his fellow northern Jew started I. Lowenberg & Co., which sold groceries, cigars, and tobacco. It eventually became the largest cotton handler in the city. Julius Roos sold supplies to sharecroppers and farmers in the area. While David Moses was in the “cheap cash store” business, I.N. Moses sold buggies and accessories in the 1870s and 1880s. While these Natchez businessmen increased in wealth, the Jewish population grew to over 200 individuals by the late 1870s.
Jews became an integral part of the town’s economy, politics, and society. Many were involved in civic affairs. Isaac Lowenberg served two terms as mayor between 1882 and 1886. Later, Saul Laub served as mayor from 1929 to 1936. In 1884, Cassius L. Tillman, the owner of a cigar store and saloon, was Natchez’s sheriff. In addition, many Jews served as aldermen and county representatives. Jews volunteered for the fire department and joined the Masons, Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Pythias Lodge. Jews also started banks and businesses such as the Natchez Cotton and Merchants’ Exchange. Jewish businessmen were also involved with Moses Bank, First National Bank, Joseph Adolph & Son Banking, and First Natchez Bank.
Natchez Jews from this era left their mark on the city. In the 1880s, many successful Jewish merchants built beautiful homes on Linton Avenue and Clifton Heights. Adolph Jacobs, a city alderman and Temple B’nai Israel’s president, owned what is now Bailey’s Bed and Breakfast on the corner streets of Orleans and Commerce. The Moses family built the lovely home Glen Auburn, located across the street from the temple. Henry Frank, one of the richest and most influential citizens after the Civil War, bought a beautiful home named Myrtle Terrace. The Neoclassical Guest House, an antebellum structure, was owned by the Ullman family; the Elks Club later occupied it.
This growing Jewish community began to form Jewish institutions in the mid 19th century. Natchez Jews first organized a congregation in the 1840s, though it became inactive during the Civil War. After the war, the congregation reformed under the leadership of merchant John Mayer. Although Mayer and others ran the congregation in the Orthodox tradition, women and newcomers such as Sam Ullman began to call for the adoption of Reform Judaism. After a fierce rivalry, Ullman won out, and Reform Judaism became the congregation’s mode of worship. By 1866, the congregation had purchased land for the construction of a synagogue. By 1872, the group, now calling themselves B’nai Israel, was worshipping in a temple at the corner streets of Washington and South Commerce streets. They solidified their adherence to Reform Judaism, becoming a charter member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873. In 1903, faulty wiring caused the synagogue to burn to the ground. Despite this tragedy, the Jews of Natchez persevered and continued worshipping together at a temporary location in a Methodist church. Two years later, the group erected an even larger building on the former temple’s site. In 1902, the congregation had nearly 150 member families and 75 children in their religious school. By 1905, when the community dedicated their new synagogue, Natchez had 450 Jews, the apex of this port city’s Jewish community.
Other Jewish institutions were founded during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1865, the Hebrew Ladies’ Benevolent Association was founded, later becoming the Hebrew Ladies’ Aid Association, which ran the temple Sunday school and visited the sick. A local chapter of the Council of Jewish Women formed in 1896. The local Hebrew Relief Association helped incoming immigrants to get settled by finding them jobs and places to live. Prominent Jewish merchants in Natchez also formed a Jewish social club. Located at the corner streets of Franklin and Pearl, the Standard Club was founded in the early 1890s as a Jewish clubhouse. The Standard Club sponsored balls and dances and offered a comfortable environment to play cards and billiards.
By 1886, the Jewish community was well established with most Natchez Jews being born in the United States. Others were born in Germany, Russia, and Alsace. Natchez Jews were merchants, clerks, insurance agents, shoemakers, peddlers, and even lawyers and doctors. Dr. Phillip Beekman began a private outpatient center for surgery and obstetrics while A.H Geisenberger, Sim H. Lowenberg, and Julius Lemkowitz were local lawyers. Kullman Brothers Wholesale and Geisenberger Brothers Drug Company were examples of successful businesses of the era, along with A.D. Oppenhiem and Brothers, and M.M. Marks Tailor Shop. In 1867, Karl Lehmann of Landau, Bavaria, came to Adams County, where he got involved in the jewelry and grocery business. Like the first generation, this turn of the century group of merchants prospered as well.
Natchez’s economy was largely based on cotton. With the arrival of the boll weevil in 1908, the local economy and the Jewish community suffered a serious blow as some Jewish-owned businesses were forced to close. A series of floods also affected the city. As a result of these events, membership at B’nai Israel became so low that the synagogue had trouble paying its dues to the UAHC. Natchez’s Jewish population lost nearly 300 residents by 1927, as the community would never again reach the size it enjoyed when it dedicated its grand new synagogue in 1905.
Despite decreases in population, business as usual continued for many in the city of Natchez. While many young Jewish men served in the Great War, women worked with the Red Cross to support the troops at home. In 1919, the Seiferth family established a dry goods business that stayed in business in the area for over fifty years. B. Kullman and Company was still open in 1925, and in the 1930s the Kullman family was successful in saving some of their relatives still living in Europe before the start of World War II. In 1927, Isadore and Leon Levy of New Orleans and Natchez built the beautiful Eola Hotel named after Isidore’s daughter. The Levy family ran the hotel until the stock market crash in 1929, when poor finances forced them to sell it. In 1936, there were still nineteen businesses still under Jewish ownership in Natchez. Places like Geisenberger & Friedler, Krouse Pecan Co., and Abrams Department Store were Natchez institutions.
Jews continued to enjoy close relations with their gentile neighbors. When the synagogue burned in 1903, many non-Jews in Natchez generously donated to B’nai Israel’s building fund. Natchez Jews adapted to the culture of the South. In 1932, Jane Wexler, a Jewish woman, was the second queen of the Natchez Mississippi Pilgrimage. Her mother was one of the founding members of the Pilgrimage organization, which celebrates the mythic heritage of the old plantation South with elaborate balls and historical re-enactments.
Over the course of the 20th century, the Natchez Jewish community continued to decline. With few remaining members, B’nai Israel could no longer support a full-time rabbi. Much of the younger generation left for greater opportunities elsewhere. The Jewish community of Natchez today is small and predominately elderly. In 1991, Temple B’nai Israel went into partnership with the Museum of Southern Jewish Experience as a way of preserving the temple into the future. Once the temple closes its doors for a final time, the temple will turn into a museum telling the story of Natchez’s once prominent Jewish community.
Natchez is a classic example of how Jewish life has changed in the South. Initially, peddlers settled down in an area and started mercantile businesses. Eventually, they prospered and built a magnificent synagogue. As in so many other small cities and towns in the South, declining economic fortunes had a direct impact on the Jewish community. Despite the current state of the Natchez Jewish community, its important legacy remains and will be preserved through the efforts of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.