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The Pursuit of a Dream by Janet Sharp…

The Pursuit of a Dream

by Janet Sharp Hermann

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Life is stranger and more interesting than fiction. This excellent account brings to life the ups and downs of a Mississippi plantation, first owned by the twenty years older brother of Jefferson Davis, Joseph Davis, and later by an enterprising family of freed slaves by the name of Montgomery. In his management of his plantation, Joseph Davis was guided by both paternalistic and modern Theory Y ideas. He correctly noticed that healthy and content men work better than impoverished and sick ones. Thus, he provided his slaves with good basic infrastructure, food and healthcare. Furthermore, he tried to keep out of his slaves' quarrels. He established a slave jury system that protected slaves from the caprices of overseers (triggering a high fluctuation of those that could not accept the uppity slaves). It was still a slave system: When Ben Montgomery, the slave who would become the plantation's new owner, fled and was re-captured, Davis both punished him and reasoned with him. Montgomery learned to live within the system, managing the plantation store.

The Civil War freed the slaves and removed the plantation out of the hands of the Davis brothers. Davis was not a popular name in the early reconstruction period. Thus, they were quite willing to rely on Ben Montgomery's entrepreneurial spirit. He quite competently outmanoeuvred carpetbaggers and the freedman's bureau, relying on the Davis' network. Thus the former slave and his former master worked together against liberators and intruders. Davis sold the plantation to Montgomery for a rather steep annual payment, which proved to be the downfall of the experiment. The fickle nature of agriculture requires a large cash reserve to sustain a plantation in lean years. Unfortunately, the sons of Montgomery used the free cash-flow during the good years to expand into other businesses. When the downturn came during the mid-1870s, they lacked reserves to keep the plantation and keep the black community together. The plantation reverted to the Davis heirs.

The sons of Ben Montgomery tried again and established a black community in Mound Bayou. Smaller and less exposed to the cyclical cotton business, this community survived for a quarter of a century. The way to fortunes lay not in agriculture. Many of the young migrated to the big cities. One son, Isahiah Montgomery, together with a business partner, became the new patriarch of Mound Bayou. A blot on his record was his selling out black voting rights for minor political posts. As a leader of a segregated black community, he both advanced their economic independence and restricted their political rights. Mississippi still is America's least developed, doomed state. Not a good place for utopia.

Overall, the book is a true gem that works both as a family biography, a business history and a comparative history of the political and business climate during the 19th century. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote jcbrunner | Oct 22, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195028872, Hardcover)

This fascinating history set in the Reconstruction South is a testament to African-American resilience, fortitude, and independence. It tells of three attempts to create an ideal community on the river bottom lands at Davis Bend south of Vicksburg. There Joseph Davis's effort to establish a cooperative community among the slaves on his plantation was doomed to fail as long as they remained in bondage. During the Civil War the Yankees tried with limited success to organize the freedmen into a model community without trusting them to manage their own affairs.
After the war the intrepid Benjamin Montgomery and his family bought the land from Davis and established a very prosperous colony of their fellow freedmen. Their success at Davis Bend occurred when blacks were accorded the opportunity to pursue the American dream relatively free from the discrimination that prevailed in most of society. It is a story worthy of celebration.
Janet Hermann writes here of two men--Joseph Davis, the slaveholder and brother of the president of the Confederacy, and Benjamin Montgomery, an educated freedman. In 1866 Montgomery began the experiment at Davis Bend.
The Pursuit of a Dream, published in 1981, received the Robert F. Kennedy Award, the McLemore Prize of the Mississippi Historical Society, and the Silver Medal of the Commonwealth Club of California.
"Historical writing at its best . . . her research is impressive and is presented in balanced, ironic prose." --David Bradley, New York Times Book Review
"A marvelous story for all readers with a taste for the ironies, the ambiguities, and the surprises of history." --C. Vann Woodward

Janet Sharp Hermann, a freelance writer and historian, is the author of Joseph E. Davis: Pioneer Patriarch (University Press of Mississippi).

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:12 -0400)

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