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The Pursuit of a Dream

The Pursuit of a Dream

Janet Sharp Hermann
Copyright Date: 1999
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    The Pursuit of a Dream
    Book Description:

    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 ofJoseph E. Davis: Pioneer Patriarch(University Press of Mississippi).

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-223-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Preface
    (pp. v-xii)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xiii-xiv)

    • 1 An Antebellum Experiment
      (pp. 3-34)

      “Train any population rationally, and they will be rational. Furnish honest and useful employments to those so trained, and such employments they will greatly prefer to dishonest or injurious occupations.”¹

      Thus did Robert Owen, the successful British industrialist and social reformer, explain to his fellow stagecoach travelers on a trip across the back country of Pennsylvania and New York in midsummer 1825 the basic philosophy that had led him to found the model factory town of New Lanark in Scotland. Now he was hurrying back to England, he reported, to wind up his business there and to enlist additional support...


    • 2 The Chaos of War
      (pp. 37-60)

      The Civil War destroyed Joseph Davis’s model plantation experiment and replaced it first with chaos and then with several innovative communities established by federal officers for the benefit of the freedmen. In each case, the ideal of modified self-government through community cooperation, implanted and nurtured by Davis, survived as one element in the Yankees’ experimental colonies. Although these abortive attempts failed to create the utopias they sought for the freedmen, they managed to preserve and perpetuate the dream through times of great upheaval.

      The first year of war brought no appreciable change in the even tenor of life at Hurricane...

    • 3 The Problem of Reconstruction
      (pp. 61-106)

      With this characteristic blend of economic and philanthropic motives, Freedmen’s Department officials began implementing their optimistic plans. Following the navy’s precedent of a written constitution, Captain Gaylord Norton, provost marshall of freedmen at Davis Bend, with Colonel Thomas’s approval, drew up a set of “Rules and Regulations” by which some 5,000 acres, all of the cleared land except the Home Farm, would be leased to freedmen to work on their own account. They were to form themselves into companies of from three to twenty-five hands and select one of their number to be the head; all business was to be...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)

    • 4 A Difficult Beginning
      (pp. 109-142)

      By the documents signed on November 19, 1866, Ben Montgomery and his sons committed themselves to pay $18,000 interest for each of the next nine years, and at the end of that time, the entire principal of $300,000. Was $75 per acre a fair price for the two estates on the Mississippi? In 1859 and 1860 similar fertile cotton lands just across the river in Tensas Parish, Louisiana, sold for $125 to $130 an acre. Assuming the same per acre value, Hurricane and Brierfield would have been worth $520,000 before the war. In 1866, as a result of wartime destruction...

    • 5 Prosperity and Independence
      (pp. 143-194)

      The year 1869 ushered in a half decade of comparative prosperity and independence for the black community at Hurricane and Brierfield. Favorable weather, with only minor floods and insect blights, permitted abundant crops that yielded adequate rewards even in a declining market. The heavy burden of debt service for both tenants and proprietors hindered, but did not prevent, progress toward economic security. Reconstruction politicians and their white southern opponents impinged relatively little upon the Davis Bend community; even inflated tax bills were manageable irritants. With white attention largely centered elsewhere, the freedmen of the infant colony were left as free...

    • 6 The Decline of the Colony
      (pp. 195-216)

      Thus did the editor of theHinds County Gazettecharacterize the leader of the Davis Bend colony in early 1874, as native white forces in Mississippi began to organize for the overthrow of the Reconstruction governments. The “redemption” of Vicksburg and Warren County that year, and of the state government in 1875, produced racial hostility which threatened to penetrate the protective isolation of Davis Bend. In spite of Editor George W. Harper’s favorable assessment of Montgomery, the changes in political climate in 1874 exacerbated local economic and agricultural difficulties so greatly as to initiate a downward trend for the colony...


    • 7 Mound Bayou
      (pp. 219-246)

      Isaiah Montgomery tried to create a satisfactory life for himself and his family in Vicksburg’s black community. In 1885 he set up a small mercantile firm on the outskirts of town near the national cemetery. Perhaps by avoiding the central business district he hoped to minimize opportunities for racial harassment. He also became active in black civic affairs, joining James Hill and J. J. Spelman in organizing the first Colored Fair held at Jackson that year. The leaders succeeded in getting generous subscriptions from white merchants for prizes to be awarded to blacks who exhibited the best livestock, agricultural products,...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 247-274)
  9. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 275-290)