Dear Friends of LOFC,
As we begin a new year, the Board joins me in thanking those of you who generously responded to our Thanksgiving campaign. The response has been heartwarming and a reminder of the many generous and loving hearts that support LOFC. Thank you from all of us.
I am pleased to announce that Norman Weathersby, III, has joined our Board as a member for a two-year term. For some time, Norman has been an invaluable asset to LOFC, bringing a myriad of talents to support our team. With IT and business acumen, Norman has spent countless hours improving our website and database. Simply put, LOFC would not be where it is today without Norman’s contributions.
In this month’s newsletter, I am pleased to share a contribution by Morris Lewis, III about the early Jewish settlers in Holmes County. Personally, I found it fascinating the connection that he makes with a small Polish village. Many of the early Jewish settlers, such as the Sontheimer family, mentioned in Morris’ story are buried in LOFC, and it was only later in 1902 that the Jewish community was large enough to support its own Jewish cemetery, Temple Beth El Cemetery, which is now maintained by LOFC.
In 1870, it is estimated that there were approximately twenty Jews in Holmes County, Mississippi—predominantly, the families of Jacob and Mary Sontheimer and Solomon and Fanny Sontheimer. Jacob and Solomon, brothers from Waldmannshofen, Wurttemberg (now Germany) typified the early wave of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, who immigrated to America fleeing antisemitism, restrictive laws, and discriminatory taxes. Both began their American life -- Jacob in the early 1840’s and Solomon a few years later -- as peddlers who ultimately became merchants when they settled in Lexington, which had been incorporated less than a decade before. A second wave of Ashkenazi Jews began in the 1850’s as Jews from further east (now Poland, Western Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and other nearby lands) began to leave Europe in large numbers; this wave peaked in the early twentieth century. Like their brethren who preceded them, they were also escaping antisemitism and economic hardship, but in some regions, they also faced violent pogroms. Most of these immigrants settled in port cities of the east coast of America, but a substantial number sought their fortunes elsewhere across America. This intensified in the early 1900’s with the port of Galveston becoming an entry point for more than ten thousand Ashkenazi Jews, leading many to settle in the South. Like other immigrant groups, Ashkenazi Jews practiced chain migration, whereby immigrants from a particular area follow others, often family members, from that area to a particular destination. This becomes an important feature of Jewish communities throughout the country, including Lexington. In addition, Ashkenazi Jews commonly practiced a form of endogamy, or marrying within a tribe or clan, that would also become a key element among Lexington’s Jews.
Over the next forty years, the Lexington Jewish community expanded and flourished, as Eastern European Jews made their way to this small but growing market town. Robert Lewis Berman, in his book, House of David in the Land of Jesus, provides a detailed accounting of the Jews who arrived during this era and their descendants who stayed in Lexington and had an impact on the history of this community. He discusses the many reasons that these immigrants might have chosen Lexington -- for instance it’s welcoming community and burgeoning commercial base. While he does mention some known links among these families, Berman’s book focused on their lives in Lexington rather than their histories or prior relationships. As one reads his book, some surnames -- Hyman, Flower(s), and Lewis—start to appear repeatedly among the Jews who arrived in Lexington in this era. This suggests that there might be more to this story, details of which may come to light with a genealogical analysis. Over the past five years, my analysis has yielded a deeper story about the links of these three families, along with extended family that included the surnames Goldstein and Lichtenstein.
To explore this further, let us focus this narrative with my great grandfather, Morris Lewis, Sr., an integral figure in the history of Lexington and Mississippi, who contributed in many ways to the growth of the town and state during the first half of the twentieth century. Why did Morris come to Mississippi from Lipna, a small village in central Poland? How did he end up in Lexington? Was it happenstance that many families from a handful of nearby towns in central Poland -- Lipna, Wloclawek, Kolo, Dobrzyń nad Wisłą and Poznan— congregated in Lexington and other nearby communities?
Morris was thirteen when he arrived in America in 1886 with his father, Jacob, and a his ten year old brother Myer. Their mother, Emma (nee Goldstein) Lewis, had died in the late 1870’s and their father had remarried. Jacob had previously come to America in the early 1870’s accompanying a family friend, a “Mrs. Flowers,” to reunite with her husband . This trip to America gave him the understanding that America represented a great opportunity for his two oldest sons, even at their young age.
Living with relatives in Brooklyn for four years, Morris and Myer, shined shoes and worked as errand boys to earn money and learn English. Then in 1890 the boys’ grandmother, Dina (nee Lichtenstein) Goldstein, brought her youngest daughter, Regina, to New York City to marry Eddie Hyman, a decade-older man from their hometown, Wloclawek. Eddie, a successful merchant, had immigrated to Sidon, Mississippi many years before, and would later be joined by his brothers—Isadore and Simon—and many years later by his sister, Esther (nee Hyman) Flower. In a common occurrence in chain migration, they were preceded in Mississippi by their uncles, Solomon and Samuel Hyman, who lived further south in Summit. Living with them in Summit were at least two other Jewish families from the same region of Poland—the Aaron Goldstein and Hart Lichtenstein families. As it turns out, Aaron was the brother of Morris’ mother and Hart was the brother of his grandmother. So, through Morris, we can link five families 2 -- Lewis, Hyman, Flower(s) , Goldstein, and Lichtenstein -- from their ancestral home in central Poland to their new home in central Mississippi.
Morris, now seventeen, accompanied the newly married couple back to Sidon and became the bookkeeper and clerk for his uncle’s store. Myer, then fourteen, was sent to live with another of his aunts, Ernestine (nee Goldstein) Melasky, who lived in Texas at the time, but had spent a few years near Grenada, Mississippi. Just a year later, Regina died in childbirth or as the Greenwood newspaper described it, “after suffering for five days from the curse of Eve.” Over the next few years, Morris continued to work for his uncle and over time became acquainted with Jewish families in Lexington. In fact, an 1895 item in the Greenwood newspaper mentioned that Eddie Hyman and his new wife, Elizabeth, hosted a dinner party for young Jewish singles from the surrounding area. In attendance was Morris’ future wife and Lexingtonian, Julia Herrman. A year later, Morris took $500 in savings and moved to Lexington to partner with Julia’s brother, Sam, starting the grocery business that would eventually become Lewis Grocer Company. In 1899, since there was not a local synagogue, Morris and Julia married in Lexington’s brand new First Methodist Church. Morris was soon joined by his brother, Myer, who moved to Lexington and ultimately, to Jackson, where he became a successful businessman and banker. Of note, Myer married his cousin, Viola Lichtenstein, the daughter of Hart Lichtenstein, in 1904. Viola passed away just a year after their marriage.
Morris likely felt at-home in Lexington being among many landsman (the Yiddish word for “person from the same town, geographical area”). His uncle Eddie’s brother, Isadore, had move to Lexington from Greenwood by 1890 to marry Rosa Sontheimer. In Lexington, Isadore became a downtown merchant and owner of the 1,200-acre farm known as the Sontheimer Place. After a twenty year plus marriage, Rosa died, leaving Isadore a widower. Isadore later married Rosa’s niece and Julia’s sister, Claudia Herrman. Their only son, Herbert Hyman, with his wife Henrietta, was a mainstay of the Lexington community until his tragic death in 1991. Isadore’s granddaughters, Barbara and Gina, are Lexington born and bred.
Morris would have also known Isaac Flower and his wife, Esther (nee Hyman) Flower, who immigrated directly to Lexington around 1890. Isaac, a skilled tailor, established I. Flower, a discount clothing store that went through multiple iterations and eventually would be known as J. & A. Flower, owned by sons, Jake and Aubrey. In another marriage among these families, Jake, would unite with his cousin, Adele Hyman, the daughter of Esther’s brother, Simon, who was living in Greenwood. Later, in the early 1900s, a second branch of the Flower(s) family found a home in Lexington. Isaac was joined in Lexington by four of his brother’s children—Abram, Meilo, Samuel, and Mildred. Over many years, the Flower(s) family owned several retail businesses in downtown Lexington. And Mildred’s husband, Morris Flink, operated a meat market in town.
The Jewish diaspora is thousands of years old and through that time, Jewish communities have come and gone, sometimes leaving a mark and sometimes not. No doubt, these five families and the rest of the Lexington Jewish community, while vastly diminished, left their mark. What we now know is that their presence was not happenstance. The five families clearly had links -- as family and as friends -- going back well before their arrival in Lexington and central Mississippi. We do not know how far back the links go, but we do know they continued for many generations after their immigration as demonstrated by newspaper reports of visits among the families and attendance at each other’s life events. In modern time, the Lexington Jewish community experienced its own diaspora with the descendants of these families spreading far and wide; however, many connections remain among them, sometimes without even realizing their mutual history.
2 The original family name was Kwiat, which is Polish for Flower. Jewish immigrants with the name Kwiat often changed their surname to Flowers or the Yiddish word for flower, which is Blum or Bloom. In this instance, some family members chose Flowers and others chose Flower.
If you have a family story that you would like to share with the LOFC readership, I look forward to hearing from you. Until then, best wishes for a banner 2023!
Amanda Povall Tailyour, Editor
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