'The white man's favorite blacks'

Published:June 26, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Yesterday’s blog post included the remarkable fact that, after the Civil War, Jefferson Davis and his brother Joseph sold their Mississippi plantation to one of their former slaves, Benjamin Montgomery. The transaction was illegal and therefore secret, and the price was a whopping $300,000. According to this inflation calculator, that’s about $4 million in today’s money—a lot of dough, in other words, and Montgomery went into debt for most if not all of it. The interest was 5 percent in gold, 7 percent in paper currency. (No way such a deal would pass muster today in the midst of the subprime mortgage crisis.)

Montgomery’s plan was to create a utopian commune for the families of former slaves. So with a business partner and a few starter families, he fixed the plantation’s forge, advertised in the Vicksburg paper for additional labor, and, in 1867, brought in an initial crop of 600 bales. His fortunes went up and down after that, mostly depending on the weather. Joseph Davis was incredibly lenient about late interest payments, even making accommodations for Montgomery in his will. And by 1870, the Davis Bend colony, as it was called, was harvesting 2,500 bales per year and operating a steam-driven gin, a press, a store, and a warehouse. Montgomery and his associates were estimated to be the third-largest planters in the state.

Unfortunately, the weather turned bad again. Montgomery’s health did the same, and he died in 1877 at the age of fifty-eight. Jefferson Davis’s family swooped in, buying back the plantation in 1881 at the bargain-basement price of just more than $75,000.

This, to me, is a fascinating story, which is why I’ve risked boring you with the details. But what got me thinking about it in the first place were the comments Booker T. Washington made about Jefferson Davis’s relationship with his slaves—that it had always been “kindly,” “normal,” “happy,” and full of “good will.” Washington was no neo-Confederate, obviously, but his rhetoric could be mistaken for that of an apologist for slavery.

Add to this the recent controversy over whether Davis and his wife Varina “adopted” a freed black boy during the war—the Sons of Confederate Veterans say he did and want to erect a statue commemorating the fact—and I have to ask: what’s the story with Davis and Montgomery? Is this a case of Davis being “kindly,” or is it more complicated than that?

There’s no simple answer, of course, but the biographical dictionary African-American Business Leaders (1993) offers some intriguing clues. According to the dictionary, “There is some wonder that a person of Benjamin Montgomery’s talent and ambition could be content to remain a slave, but there is no evidence that he was discontent.” Which, let’s face it, is a remarkable statement. How exactly does a slave with ambition register discontent without, you know, forfeiting said ambition?

Anyway, a Union officer commented on Montgomery’s intelligence and wondered how such “a man could have consented to remain so long a slave.” Did he have a choice? One observer thought so, suggesting that “It seems unlikely that so sophisticated a man could have been held against his will.” All of which, in the end, adds up to an implicit defense of slavery. Only the truly unfit remain in bondage just as, these days, only the lazy stay poor.

The dictionary then makes precisely this point: “The Montgomerys were always the white man’s favorite blacks because they ‘proved’ the white philosophy that slavery and, later, segregation and racism were kind and benevolent systems under which blacks could flourish.”

Ironically, the Montgomerys did flourish, or at least until they didn’t.


12 Comments on “'The white man's favorite blacks'”

  1. Bland Whitley

    There’s an interesting book called Pursuit of a Dream that chronicles the Davis Bend experiment, which really started before emancipation when Jos. Davis modelled a plantation where slaves exercised an extraordinary degree of autonomy and authority. It was still slavery, of course, and subject to the same range of evils, but Jos. Davis (not certain about Jeff) was certainly as benevolent and unorthodox a slaveholder as one can imagine. Montgomery had been the plantation foreman, and his disciples went on to found the all-black town of Mound Bayou in the MS Delta.

  2. Brendan Wolfe

    Perhaps the best part of this project is stumbling across stories like these. Thanks for the extra infor, Bland.

    I think that Joseph Davis was, in general, and based on not terribly much research, more benevolent than Jefferson, at least as masters went. When Montgomery had trouble making even interest payments at the beginning — there were floods and various other obstacles to hurdle — Joseph was very lenient. Then, when he became ill, he altered his will to make sure that the terms of Montgomery’s credit were never too burdensome. (Like maybe he paid the interest for awhile? I forget the details.)

    Anyway, it was only after Joseph had died, and after Montgomery’s fortunes were somewhat in decline, that Jefferson and his family moved to get the plantation back.

    I’ll check out “Pursuit of a Dream.” Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. audrey

    I ran across a site on the net a couple of years ago that said Jefferson Davis had a son by one of Joseph Davis’slaves.She was of East Indian extaction and that right before the war he left the house with one of the rifles swung over his shoulder and said he was going off to war.I never bookmarked site and can’t seem to find it.I would love to be able to prove it.ANd JIm Limber is the boy that the Davises adopted.He was taken away from them.

  4. alisea mcleod

    This is an interesting blog. I am intrigued by its title.

    You know, W.E.B. DuBois also wrote in Black Reconstruction in America that there were “benevolent” masters and that there were some happy slaves. I’m not sure that describing slaves, slave masters, or slavery in this way makes one an apologist. First, I try to keep in mind that both Washington and DuBois lived closer to the slave era than I. Washington was a slave, and DuBois would have known many former slaves. In other words, they both had first-hand knowledge of the ex-slaves’ sentiments concerning his or her bondage. I think that it is a common opinion of serious scholars that slave masters varied, which means that experiences of slavery varied as well. This is not an apology but an attempt to get at other truths.

    Turning to the specific case of the Montgomerys, their situation was in some respects quite rare but in other respects not that uncommon. On most plantations where there were enough slaves to have a gang of field hands there would have been a driver, and it is common knowledge I think among scholars that these drivers were very often black. There were classes of slaves with various tasks on the plantation, and I have heard one person say that the driver was definitely at the top of the slave hierarachy. The driver was invaluable to the slaveowner, which is why the driver enjoyed many privileges. These slaves in some cases enjoyed so much mobility that they have been described as “virtually free.” In the best cases, the relationship between the master and his driver took on a business character. The driver did not just get his fellow blacks to work. His sole job wasn’t that of cracking the whip. (In fact, that was probably moreso the job of overseer.) Members of the driver class may also have been responsible for the whole crop production and for taking the product to market. In other words, the drivers were invaluable, key to the white family’s own bread and butter, and master knew this! Point: Joseph Davis wasn’t just good to the Montgomerys because he was kindhearted but because I suspect Benjamin Montgomery had played a key role in the Davises prosperity for years.

  5. Bytesland

    really, it is a fascinating story. but I believe that at present it has lost its charme already, cause thanks goodness nowadays people don’t make much difference between blacks and whites.

  6. Leo

    really, it is a fascinating story. but I believe that at present it has lost its charme already, cause thanks goodness nowadays people don’t make much difference between blacks and whites.

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