Past Promised Lands: Davis Bend, Mississippi / "Cultural ideas that continue to live in the black imagination ... despite relatively brief moments in the sun"

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In describing America's Reconstruction period, W.E.B. DuBois noted, "The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then went back into slavery." Indeed, most historians of the nineteenth century will note that by almost every measure significant to formerly enslaved men and women, Radical Reconstruction was a momentous failure. Yet, we must be careful not to assign a fatalistic reading to all past events that do not yield immediate breakthroughs. The history of the black freedom struggle is littered with the stories of failed utopian experiments, stymied social movements and those who dreamt too dangerously. By blocking out the failures and missed opportunities we risk losing much more than esoteric minutia. Here, I want to argue that by forcing the black radical imagination retrace and recover the entirety of its inventory -- both its great victories and its most traumatic losses -- these once uncanny moments stretch our contemporary conceptions of what is politically possible.

Very few American experiments in freedom match the scope of what occurred in Davis Bend, Mississippi in the aftermath of the Civil War. Located on a peninsula formed by the Mississippi River just south of Vicksburg, Davis Bend began housed the plantations of Jefferson Davis and his brother Joseph. Joseph attempted to build a "model" slave community based on utopian socialist ideals. The slaves on Davis bend were better fed, better housed, and were given an opportunity to develop system of self-government which included, among other things, a jury system that enforced plantation discipline.

When the incursion of Union troops into Vicksburg forced Joseph Davis to flee his plantation in 1862, the former slaves appropriated Davis' mansion and began running the plantation themselves. When Union General Ulysses S. Grant and his troops uncovered this unusual black enclave a year later, he decided that 10,000 acre plantation should become a "negro paradise." Collective leasing agreements were arranged between the federal government and the freedmen and by 1865 the community had its own system of government with elected officials. In addition, Davis Bend emerged as an early model for black capitalism under the guidance of Benjamin Montgomery, who encouraged the freedmen to produce cotton for the marketplace rather than focus on just subsistence crops.

While Presidential Reconstruction saw the U.S. government wrench land away from freedmen and return it to former slave owners, Joseph Davis sold Davis Bend to Benjamin Montgomery on long-term credit. The land soon fell on hard times in the 1870s. A series of agricultural disasters, combined with racism from the state and falling cotton prices (as well as a national economic depression) left the now struggling black farm collective mired in debt. By 1878, the state of Mississippi foreclosed on the property and returned it to the Davis family.

Despite its tragic end, the memory of Davis Bend continued to live on. Benjamin Davis' son, Isaiah purchased the land that would become the town of Mound Bayou in 1887. Receiving considerable aid from Booker T. Washington, Mound Bayou became an island of black freedom and a model of economic self-sufficiency during Mississippi's Jim Crow era. Carrying on the legacy of its utopian beginnings, Mound Bayou would be one of the chief providers of low cost health-care in the Mississippi delta during the twentieth century and housed out-of-state black reporters covering the Emmett Till lynching. In this way, despite its relatively brief moment in the sun, Davis Bend as a cultural idea continued to live in the black imagination long after it saw its material foundation undercut by the nineteenth century racial order.

For Further Reading:
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988) 58-60

Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2005), 80-81.

Janet Sharp Hermann, The Pursuit of a Dream (Oxford University Press, 1981).

Originally Posted 6/13/2011

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