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…

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