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The Experiment at Davis Bend

It is difficult to think about race relations in the nineteenth-century South without evoking a stereotyped image of white oppressors and black victims. Like many stereotypes this view reflects a substantial portion of the truth. Historians of human nastiness and brutality can find innumerable examples in the annals of Southern slavery and segregationism. The institutions or systems of control devised by whites to extort labor and deference from blacks inevitably encouraged arrogance and cruelty on one side of the color line, and despair, degradation, or suicidal defiance on the other. But human beings do not respond in predictable or mechanical ways to the dominant forces in their environment. Some whites did not follow the doctrines of white supremacy and insisted on treating blacks with humanity and respect; some blacks found paths to achievement, pride, and independence within the confines of a racist society.

In this remarkable book, Janet Sharp Hermann tells a story that graphically illustrates these possibilities. Her subject is an interrelated series of communitarian experiments at Davis Bend and Mound Bayou, Mississippi—a quest for Utopia that lasted for a century. It is not, in the end, a success story; for the dreams of the founders of these communities were never realized. But the discovery that aspirations for a just and humane society could flourish under such unlikely circumstances should dispel some of the gloom that has made the chronicling of black-white relations in nineteenth-century America such a depressing undertaking.

In 1825 Joseph Davis, a Mississippi planter, encountered Robert Owen, the British industrialist and Utopian reformer. Impressed by Owen’s scheme for running a factory by treating the workers as rational beings capable of self-improvement and voluntary cooperation, Davis resolved to apply similar principles in the management of his plantation at Davis Bend, thirty miles below Vicksburg on the Mississippi. His most famous and remarkable innovation was a form of self-government for the slave community. No slave of the more than three hundred on his plantation could be punished without being tried and convicted by a jury of his peers. Davis was also quite generous by the standards of the time in providing for the material comforts of his “people.” Each slave cabin was a well-built structure with two large rooms, and foodstuffs were not strictly rationed at a subsistence level, as on most plantations, but were dispensed freely and in great variety. Eventually, the same combination of benevolent paternalism and limited self-government was put into practice on the neighboring plantation of Joseph’s younger brother, Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy.

It was possible under the Davis regime for an enterprising slave to acquire considerable influence, independence, and even wealth. The main “beneficiary of Joseph’s encouragement of individual talent” was Benjamin Montgomery, a Virginia-born slave, who by 1850 was running the plantation store and keeping the profits for himself. A skilled mechanic as well as a successful merchant, Ben Montgomery also managed the plantation gin; late in the 1850s he invented a new kind of boat propeller for which Davis unsuccessfully sought a patent in his slave’s name.

The success of the antebellum experiment at Davis Bend can be measured in two ways. First, it was profitable; the policies of Joseph Davis revealed that indulgent and “rational” treatment of slaves brought good returns to the owners. Second, it created a relatively peaceable and harmonious community. Between the mid-1830s and the Civil War there were apparently no runaways from the Davis plantations, an extraordinary record in light of the generally high rate of absenteeism prevailing elsewhere. “Nor,” according to Hermann, “is there any evidence of open discontent among the slaves….” But the author stops short of romanticizing this model plantation. Despite his belief that “some blacks are capable of independent living,” Joseph Davis never freed any of his slaves, and Hermann concludes that his plantation was only “comparatively benign and its members only relatively happy.” Slavery, in other words, was still slavery. Only by literally freeing his bondspeople could Davis have fulfilled his Utopian ideals.

During the Civil War, Davis Bend was deserted by its white residents and occupied by the Union army. As part of an effort to put the ex-slaves to work producing cotton for the Northern market, a new quasi-Utopian experiment was inaugurated in 1863 under Yankee auspices. Most of the abandoned plantations of the lower Mississippi Valley were leased to whites loyal to the Union, and available freedmen were rounded up by military authorities and forced to work under contract at low wages. But at Davis Bend, the land was leased directly to companies of blacks, many of whom were the former slaves of Joseph and Jefferson Davis. Once again, a qualified system of self-government was instituted; the freedmen on each plantation were authorized to elect a sheriff to keep order and three judges to resolve the disputes that arose within the black community.

A previous historian of Mississippi Reconstruction, Vernon Wharton, uncovered some of the facts about this wartime community and presented Davis Bend as a model for what should have been done throughout the South during Reconstruction. According to him, it gave blacks what they most needed and generally failed to get—direct access to the land and a chance to govern themselves.* But Hermann shows that Yankee Utopianism suffered from some of the same paternalistic constraints as the earlier slaveholding variety. White superintendents retained ultimate control on each plantation and tended to act autocratically when their own desires or interests clashed with those of the freedmen.

It seems clear,” she concludes, “that equal justice was available only among freedmen, not between the races, even in this Union-sponsored Utopia.” Such self-government as existed was “simply a continuation of the tradition established by Joseph Davis.” It appears likely that the court system in particular was suggested and partially planned by the former Davis slaves rather than being re-invented by enlightened Northerners.

In 1865 tension between the new paternalism and the desires of freedmen to run their own affairs came to the surface in a complicated dispute between Ben Montgomery and Colonel Samuel Thomas, the local Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner. Reasserting his prewar leadership role among Davis Bend’s blacks, Montgomery petitioned Thomas to permit an association of black planters to lease the local cotton gin. Montgomery and his associates complained that the white man who had been granted the concession was charging excessive rates and failing to take proper care of the machinery. Thomas apparently did not believe that blacks were capable of running such a complex operation and denied the request. At this point, Ben Montgomery turned to his impoverished former master for help. Joseph Davis eagerly involved himself in the controversy and protested to higher authority on behalf of the black petitioners. Thomas responded by charging that the agitation was part of a conspiracy by Davis and Montgomery to have the Davis Bend plantations removed from government control and restored to their former owners.

There was some truth in this accusation; for the ex-slaveholder and the enterprising freedman had in fact worked out a mutually agreeable plan involving the leasing and eventual purchase of the plantations by Montgomery once Davis had regained title. Ben Montgomery’s grand design was to place the plantation community under black leadership (mainly his own) rather than that of Northern whites. If he helped his old master out of a financial bind at the same time, so much the better. Hermann deftly explores all the ironies and ambiguities implicit in this collaboration between a white planter who had staunchly supported the Confederacy (as befitted the brother of its president) and a resourceful ex-slave who dreamed of greater independence for himself and his associates. What apparently bound them together was a shared opposition to the agents of Northern interests and ideologies who sought to remake the South according to their own designs without consulting the inhabitants of the region.

In 1866 Joseph Davis regained ownership of his holdings and proceeded, over the objections of his brother Jefferson (who emerges from this account as a die-hard racist who should have known better), to convey the entire property to Ben Montgomery and his two sons, Thornton and Isaiah. The documents were signed in November 1866, and the Montgomerys assumed control under a contract obligating them to pay interest for nine years, and the principal at the end of that time. It was a difficult and precarious time for anyone to undertake planting on a large scale in the South. Floods and crop failures in 1866 and 1867 bankrupted many of the new planters of the lower Mississippi, including a number of Northerners trying their hand at growing cotton with “free labor.” The Montgomerys survived, partly because of their industry and ingenuity, and partly because Joseph Davis turned out to be as lenient a creditor as he had been a master. When the interest could not be paid after a bad year, he simply forgave it.

As the proprietor of one of the largest and most productive plantations in the entire South, Ben Montgomery emulated Joseph Davis in many ways. He retained and extended the tradition of community decision-making, but he also functioned as a shrewd businessman, retaining the power to set the rents for his tenants at a level high enough to give him a fighting chance to meet his financial obligations. In 1869, the black community at Davis Bend finally achieved a measure of prosperity, and the era of high yields and adequate profits lasted until the middle of the 1870s. The death of Joseph Davis in 1870 was sincerely mourned by Ben, but it was also a “liberating force” in that it “cut the cord of latent paternalism that had delayed complete independence for the colony at Davis Bend.” Besides the two Davis estates, the Montgomerys acquired a third plantation and enlarged their store, acting as furnishing merchants to a growing community of tenants.

Ben Montgomery, his wife, and their two daughters lived in the Jefferson Davis mansion, the only “big house” that had survived the devastation of the war, in a style similar to that of their masters before the war. The Montgomerys read voraciously in books, newspapers, and magazines; the women practiced the piano constantly, dressed in the latest fashions, and tended the estate’s flower gardens with loving care. Sensing his vulnerability as the largest black planter in the South, Ben Montgomery did not take a prominent part in Reconstruction politics. He was also extremely deferential to white visitors, sometimes waiting on them personally as if he were still a servant.

Unfortunately, we learn much less about the life of the ordinary tenants and laborers at Davis Bend than about the dominant family. This is not the author’s fault; the sources simply do not exist. The crucial question is whether the tenants were really better off under the management of Ben Montgomery and his sons than they would have been if white planters had been in control. On the basis of admittedly slim evidence, Hermann argues that they were. She finds that the credit charges at the store were not excessive by the standards of the time and asserts that the Montgomerys were guided in their actions by a sense of responsibility to the black community. But it is also possible to view Ben Montgomery as an opportunistic black capitalist who had succeeded in giving an aura of benevolence to the pursuit of wealth for himself and his family. Whatever his real aims may have been, he deserves to be remembered as a notable survivor and achiever in an era when it was extremely difficult for a Southern black to be either.

In the mid-Seventies, at the time when Radical Reconstruction was coming to an end in Mississippi, the Montgomerys suffered a series of economic reversals that brought them to the edge of bankruptcy. In part this decline of their fortunes was owing to short crops and a depressed cotton market, but Hermann writes that their plight was worsened by “mismanagement” and “premature expansion.” Efforts to extend their mercantile activities beyond Davis Bend were a disaster and the firm of Montgomery and Sons went bankrupt in 1879. In 1881 the mortgage was foreclosed on the former Davis plantations, and they were put up for auction. Ben Montgomery did not himself see the final collapse of his dreams; he died in 1877, his spirits dampened by the irreversible deterioration of his financial position.

Ben’s younger son Isaiah made a final effort to achieve the family ideal of black independence by founding the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, in 1887. By 1907 the town had 4,000 inhabitants—all blacks—and was the center of “a thriving agricultural colony.” This was the largest and most prosperous all-black town in the South, and its streets were lined with black-owned stores and small manufacturing enterprises. Isaiah Montgomery not only became Mound Bayou’s leading citizen, but also emerged as a nationally known black leader in the accommodationist style of Booker T. Washington. In 1890, he was the only black to sit as a delegate at the state constitutional convention that in effect deprived Mississippi blacks of the right to vote.

In conformity with the family tradition of caution and conservatism in political matters, Isaiah voted in favor of the disfranchising clause. In 1900 he joined with Washington in founding the National Negro Business League. Mound Bayou went into decline when efforts to give the town a solid industrial base by establishing a cottonseed-oil mill came to nothing in 1915. But Isaiah himself continued to prosper from his investments in local real estate and commerce. In 1920, four years before he died, he built a twenty-one-room red-brick mansion with room for “his extensive library and the family’s ‘collection of handmade furniture of the antebellum type.’ ”

Hermann tells this story extremely well, and she succeeds in convincing the reader that a communitarian impulse was indeed passed down from Robert Owen to Joseph Davis to Benjamin Montgomery and, finally, to Isaiah Montgomery. But she tends to be vague or lyrical when it comes to describing the content of the “dream,” and its ideological implications remain unexplored. She never uses the term socialism to describe what was attempted—and for good reason. If Utopia was sought, it was a predominately middle-class or capitalistic version of the ideal community. Joseph Davis, Samuel Thomas, and the Montgomerys all subscribed to the essential principles of nineteenth-century economic individualism. Collective ownership and cooperative enterprises involving the entire community did not exist and were not seriously contemplated at Davis Bend or Mound Bayou. Owenism may have been the initial inspiration, but the Utopian-socialist implications of Owen’s theories apparently did not travel well to Mississippi.

The experimental or “radical” aspects of what occurred in these communities had to do with race and not economics. Blacks there had a chance to pursue the American dream of self-help and individual success, relatively free of discrimination and the presumption that only whites can manage things. This was no small achievement in the nineteenth-century South, and Hermann is right to celebrate it. But the legacy of the Montgomerys for our own time is an ambiguous one. They can provide an inspiration for black self-help and achievement, but the fate of their endeavors may also suggest that it is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for blacks as a group to achieve a better life unless they challenge the prevailing economic system and question its governing assumptions.

  1. *

    Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi 1865-1890 (University of North Carolina Press, 1947).

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