MOUND BAYOU, Miss. (AP) — A block down from Kennedy Johnson's new barbecue restaurant sits a boarded-up symbol of a Delta town's haunting past and optimistic future.
Taborian Hospital was one of the first modern medical facilities in Mississippi that was built, owned and operated by African-Americans. The old medical center here has been shuttered for three decades, but the "no trespassing" signs will soon come off.
"I made a promise to my mother in 2002 that I would work to get Taborian Hospital restored," said Johnson, who served as the town's mayor for 12 years. "Even though she is not here to see it, I made good on that promise."
The hospital, later renamed Mound Bayou Community Hospital, closed in 1983 due to increased regulations, competition from new clinics and hospitals and federal cutbacks. The long effort to revive it by Johnson, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and descendants of the hospital's founders paid off when the town received a $2.9 million federal grant in 2011.
In July, crews began working to turn the old hospital into the new Taborian Urgent Care Center. Officials hope the center is the shot in the arm needed to trigger economic development in the 126-year-old town.
Mound Bayou is a place with a storied past. Isaiah T. Montgomery and his cousin, Benjamin T. Green, both born into slavery, founded the town in 1887 during the post-Civil War era when many were debating how to mitigate "the Negro problem."
The phrase was a crude way of questioning the place of black people in American society. Some advocated the back-to-Africa movement. Many worked for integration. And others, like Montgomery and Green, supported all-black townships where African-Americans lived in self-sufficient cities that provided some insulation from the racial violence of the day. While some former 19th century black townships now boast diverse populations, Mound Bayou remains 99 percent African-American, according to recent Census figures.
"When I was first elected mayor, the town had a $1 million debt; we were suspended from receiving state and federal grants, and the town's water ran brown and was undrinkable," said Johnson, who lost his bid for re-election two months ago to another man named Johnson. "We cleaned up these problems, but the town still needs jobs. The urgent care center can bring much-needed jobs and training for those jobs, and also attract other businesses just like the old hospital did."
The historic Taborian Hospital came to life about 72 years ago, after members of the fraternal organization the International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor launched a fundraising campaign to build the facility at the urging of the group's Mississippi leader, Perry M. Smith.
"Papa told the story that when he visited one of the members of his order at a hospital in Jackson, that they were treating black people in a dirty basement," said Smith's granddaughter, Myrna Smith-Thompson.
"When he came home, he went to the members in the Mississippi chapter with the idea of building a hospital for the black community where we could come through the front door — not be left to die in a dirty basement."
Members paid annual dues of $8.40 for adults and $1.20 for children, which entitled them to 31 days of hospitalization and a burial policy. Leaders also went to meetings held in churches from Benoit to Yazoo City, where sharecroppers and farmers bought into the dream of a hospital to call their own.
"They were poorer than poor," Smith-Thompson said about the sharecroppers. "But they paid for the memberships because they wanted to be treated with dignity and respect at a hospital."
After raising $100,000 over 12 years, the Knights and Daughters of Tabor opened Taborian Hospital in February 1942.
Smith-Thompson, 64, was born there seven years later.
She remembers that the hospital on Edwards Avenue was a hub of activity in downtown Mound Bayou and helped the town rebound after The Great Depression.
"There were people coming to town to see the doctor or going to Norman's Pharmacy or eating at the restaurants that opened when the hospital came to town," she said.
"The hospital served as the catalyst to bring back the economic growth," she added. "We see the urgent care center doing the exact same thing today."
Smith-Thompson, who for more than a decade has fought to get the old hospital restored, was hired as the center's educational development director.
She now lives in Illinois but commutes monthly to Mound Bayou, a Delta town of 1,500 residents 100 miles south of Memphis.
The federal grant is also paying for computers and the video conferencing equipment for a distance learning medical training program through Coahoma Community College. Now, students studying medical billing and coding won't have to travel 40 miles to the course in Clarksdale. Ten residents have already completed a health care sanitation class in a separate Workforce Development program.
The idea to turn the old hospital into an urgent care center was conceived by Margo Christian-Brooks, who wrote the grant that secured the federal dollars for the hospital's restoration.
Since the mid-20th century, Mississippi has received a generous portion of federal dollars. Today, for every dollar its residents pay in federal income taxes, the state collects more than two dollars of federal funding, which includes money for military spending, farm subsidies and industrial development. Yet, for years, the federal projects pipeline had bypassed Mound Bayou despite its anemic economy and median household income of $20,000 a year.
"The grant was for $6 million, and we asked for approximately half of it and we received it, which did not sit well with others that also applied for the money," said Christian-Brooks, hired by the town to serve as the contract administrator and project manager for the urgent care center.
When it opens next year, the center in Mound Bayou will be the first one in Bolivar County. Currently, the closest urgent care is 80 miles away in Batesville, Miss.
The center is just the beginning of economic redevelopment for the area, said newly elected Mayor Darryl Johnson, who envisions opening a museum to showcase the town's unique history.
"President Theodore Roosevelt called Mound Bayou, the 'Jewel of the Delta' after a trip here," added Darryl Johnson. "Well, we are pulling that jewel straight out of the dirt, cleaning it off and we are going to make it shine again."