Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Rolling Fork, today a town of 2,000 inhabitants in the southern part of the Mississippi Delta, was originally a junction formed by the Deer Creek and Rolling Fork Creek. Founded as a plantation in 1826, Rolling Fork was prone to flooding, as it was close to multiple waterways. Although was a problem at times, it also made the land extremely fertile for the growth of cotton as well as for corn, alfalfa, and soy beans. Growth and profits from agriculture led to commercial trade, which eventually brought Jewish merchants to Sharkey County, especially with the coming of the railroad in 1883.
Rolling Fork, Mississippi
The 1870s marked the earliest existence of Jewish settlers in the Sharkey County area. In 1875, Ben Pearl came from Germany and settled in neighboring Anguilla as a cotton farmer. His cousin, Henry Kline, joined him nearly a decade later. Kline and his wife Dora farmed with Pearl as well as started a business called Kline’s Department Store. Kline’s store and cotton business were both quite successful, which inspired his brother to leave Lithuania and move eventually to Alligator, where he started a political and economic dynasty in the northern Delta. Henry Kline not only served as a member of the Pure Milk Association and as chairman of the Sharkey County Democratic Party, but he also taught Sunday school for the local Jewish kids in an area with no nearby synagogue. Kline continued his good work and kept his farm for many decades even as he moved his family to Vicksburg in 1921.
While the Kline family certainly influenced Rolling Fork and its surrounding towns, other Jews began arriving in the area as well between 1880 and 1900. In the 1880s, Charles Blum started a business in Nitta Yuma called The Blum Co.; he served as the town’s treasurer in 1898. Issaquena’s Mayersville came into existence in 1870 as a major shipping point along the Mississippi River for Sharkey and Issaquena Counties. Named after the Jewish David Mayer, the town soon depopulated from changes in the railroad. In Cary, a former Russian immigrant peddler from New York named Morris Grundfest came to the area in the late 1880s and became a cotton grower with his wife, Mollie Bernstein Grundfest. Receiving citizenship in 1899, Grundfest’s land always served as a family farm, as it does today under the guidance of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Lamensdorf. In addition, the Grundfest roots also became intertwined with such people as Clarksdale’s Jack Ross of “The Style Shoppe” and Greenville’s Stein family known today for SteinMart.
While the Jewish population of the area was not great enough to support many Jewish organizations, there was an interesting exception. According to the 1907-1908 American Jewish Year Book, there existed a group called the Deer Creek Zionists under the guidance of Secretary S. Levin, which affiliated itself with the Federation of American Zionists. Levin was a Jewish immigrant from Russia who was a Delta merchant. It's unclear how large or active this group was, but in an area where assimilation was the goal, identifying oneself with the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine was extremely rare.
While Sharkey County in the early twentieth century was home to multiple cotton farms, towns like Rolling Fork were still quite small and undeveloped. In 1920, only 500 people lived in Rolling Fork, a town that had no sidewalks, paved streets, recreational facilities, or industry. According to a Jewish population study of 1937, Rolling Fork had fourteen Jews at the time. While Rolling Fork was officially incorporated as late as 1919, the town would not change until the emergence of one man.
In the late 1890s, two Russian immigrants named Charles and Alice Rosenthal gave birth to Sam Rosenthal in Brooklyn, New York. By age three, the Rosenthals moved to Natchez, where Sam enjoyed his childhood. After a short stint in New Orleans, Rosenthal moved to Rolling Fork in 1919 to join his brother’s clothing store. An outspoken gentleman, Rosenthal found himself elected as an alderman by April 8, 1924. A few months later, the mayor of Rolling Fork resigned, as he moved outside the city limits. Although Rosenthal had no real interest in the position, future Governor Fielding Wright nominated him as a mayoral candidate. Sam Rosenthal was elected on July 3. From 1924 until 1969, Sam Rosenthal, nicknamed “Mr. Sam,” served as mayor of Rolling Fork continuously in a place with few contested elections.
As mayor, his first acts in the 1920s were to introduce a credit structure for the local lumber yard and to invest in a new generating motor in order to improve electricity in this rural Delta area. When the levee broke in the 1927 Great Mississippi River Flood, Rosenthal evacuated everyone on a train to Vicksburg before the town completely flooded, while Rosenthal stayed to watch over the city. Sources say that as much as seven feet of water flooded the town in the late 1920s. While the Great Depression caused most places to struggle, Rosenthal used the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal to pave the roads of Rolling Fork. With 100 men paid a dollar per day, the project was complete by the end of the 1930s.
Even as the boll weevil hit Rolling Fork’s cotton crop, Rosenthal’s work to build a successful town did not end. He modernized Rolling Fork with schools and a library, while also bringing textile work to an area full of textile raw materials. After World War II, Rosenthal organized the Deer Creek National Gas District, which served five municipalities. He was chairman of the district for nearly fifteen years. During the 1960s, Rosenthal held community discussions to allay tensions during the civil rights movement. Rosenthal was also a city judge and a charter member of the Lions Club along with fellow Jews Sam Lamensdorf, Ed Danzig, and H.C. Glazier Jr. He was also active in the local Jewish community, serving as president of the local congregation. On July 11, 1968, Sam Rosenthal Day was proclaimed, and the city hall of Rolling Fork later renamed its building in honor of him in the 1970s. In 1969, Sam Rosenthal lost his reelection bid, causing him to retire as one of the longest consecutive termed mayors to ever serve.
While Sam Rosenthal certainly dominated the twentieth century history of Rolling Fork and its surrounding areas, other Jewish businesses and institutions existed in the area as well. While a short-lived Zionist club did exist as early as 1908, an official congregation was not founded until the 1950s. Most Rolling Fork Jews were members of the Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville. The Henry Kline Memorial Congregation was created as an offshoot of the Greenville congregation and lasted almost forty years.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, Lamensdorf’s was in business selling quality goods up until the 1990s. The Lamensdorfs were an Austrian family who settled in the Delta after coming to the United States. Benjamin Lamensdorf arrived first in the 1880s. His descendants married into the Grundfest family, who continue to farm cotton today. Sam Rosenthal owned a Furniture and Dry Goods store, which later became Mr. Sam’s Clothing Store. Dr. Kornblum advertised his services as an optometrist. In the 1930s, Rolling Fork was home to businesses such as Silver’s Dry Cleaners. By the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Sam’s reforms and improvements of Rolling Fork made the area popular among Jewish merchants, as the area had nearly sixty Jewish residents during these decades. These Jews served as bankers and as dry goods merchants. Business was so prosperous at this time that merchant Ed Danzig had to use a cow bell on Saturday night to tell town shoppers that the businesses were ready to close at midnight. These were prosperous times in Rolling Fork; however, they would not persist.
While the 1970s and the 1980s marked a steady decline in Sharkey County, many local merchants described the 1990s as the worst times. With little industrialization except for a small textile mill as well as agrarian mechanization, people started to leave Rolling Fork for opportunities elsewhere. With cotton not being as lucrative as it used to be, bigger cities appealed to those with higher education, where they could find better jobs with higher wages. Many longtime Jewish residents died during this period, as the Jewish population did not replenish itself.