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.