Our conceptions of history depart from the facts.
Consider Daniel, a young slave in my soon-to-be-published novel Price of Passage.
Daniel felt like a motherless child. His heart thumping, he crouched in the weeds between two of Mister Davis’s warehouses, not far from Mister Davis’s wharf. . . . The steamboat idled a few yards away. Torchlight from the wharf made his task more difficult, yet not impossible. . . . Daniel darted across the open ground. He slipped into the water. His toes sank in warm mud. He waded chest-deep in brown water to the boat. With strong shoulders, he pulled his slim body over the low rail. . . . The deck gang shouted as they drew in the gangplank. The side wheels churned, and the boat backed away from Hurricane Landing. . . . Light from the landing faded away when the boat turned upriver. Daniel had been born on Hurricane Plantation, had never left its boundaries. Now he would see the rest of the world. As the wooded shore slid by, lit by stars and a sliver of April’s waning moon, he reckoned he had never traveled so fast. Oh, Mammy, look at me now.
Daniel is a fictional character, but Hurricane Plantation was a real historical place. It was owned by Joseph Emory Davis, whose younger brother Jefferson would lead the Confederacy.
Joseph Davis worked for years as a lawyer and invested his earnings in Mississippi Delta cotton land, and slaves to work it. He became one of the wealtiest planters in the state and owned more than three hundred African Americans.
Under the sway of utopian reformer Robert Owen, Davis sought to establish a harmonious, and therefore profitable, community based on the master-slave relationship. He provided better-than-usual quarters, clothes, and bedding, more varied and plentiful food. Going beyond physical measures, he established limited self-government, setting up a slave court “where no slave was punished except on conviction by a jury of his peers.” Davis also encouraged his slaves to gain skills in areas that interested them. He allowed them to keep money they earned beyond the value of their labor as field hands. And they could sell their own poultry, eggs, and firewood for in the local economy.
Davis believed Owens’s dictum: “There is but one mode by which man can possess all the happiness his nature is capable of enjoying—that is by the union and co-operation of all for the benefit of each.”
It never occurred to him that the very foundation of slavery—one person owning another—might be incompatible with an ideal society.
A Remarkable Slave
One slave stood out among all others at Hurricane. Benjamin Thornton Montgomery tried to escape but came to terms with Davis when he was made manager of the plantation store. His ability and enterprise led Davis to place him in charge of all purchasing and shipping operations.
Montgomery learned to read and write. He mastered land surveying, flood control, architectural design, machine repair, and steamboat navigation. He made himself a skilled mechanic and inventor and applied for a patent on a new steam-operated propeller for shallow-draft boats.
When the Civil War came and the master of Hurricane Plantation fled the advancing Union troops, it was Montgomery who kept the place going. Resourcefully, he found ways to keep his fellow slaves employed and fed. After the war, he bought the plantation from Davis on a land contract and continued to provide an economic base for the Black community. But in 1876, catastrophic floods made him default on payments, and the land reverted to the Davis family.
Montgomery died the following year. His son, Isaiah, struggled to keep his dream alive, leading a group of former slaves to establish the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, in 1887 as a majority African-American community.
Most Black slaves in the South worked and lived under far less favorable conditions. But they did not simply wait for the U.S. government to emancipate them. There was another option.
Colonies of self-liberated Blacks laid low in swamps and upland forests, sometimes under the noses of their former masters. Dubbed “slavery’s exiles” by historian Sylviane A. Diouf, these reclusive plantation refugees are known to history as maroons.
Unlike the better-documented maroons of the Caribbean basin, the ones who lived in ethe United States are poorly represented in historical accounts. Their colonies, hidden away in every slave state, were small compared to those ofd Brazil, Surinam, Hispaniola, or Cuba. Official records usually called them truants, runaways, or banditti.
But they were more than that. They were organized communities of sub rosa freedom.
Marronage was a hard life that involved hunger, cold, danger, and much privation. Many maroons were caught by professional slave hunters and driven back to the plantations. Many others perished in the woods. But there were those like Thompson West of Plaquemine, Louisiana, who held out until the Yankees arrived and then walked out of the woods, saying, “I’m a free man!”
What about those African Americans who were already free? At the start of the Civil War, almost half a million free Blacks lived in the United States, South and North. Their numbers were continuously augmented as enslaved people fled their masters and established lives of freedom in northern cities and rural areas.
These people had a powerful interest in seeing their enslaved brothers and sisters liberated. They almost unanimously sided with the Union in the war. Many of them wanted to serve militarily.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a self-liberated slave, declared, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
Douglass made this famous remark in April 1863, in the midst of a struggle to get Black Americans admitted to service in the U.S. Army. Everyone who has seen the film Glory knows that, despite African Americans’ willingness to serve, enlistment was denied them until about the mid-point of the war. The rationale was that “colored men won’t fight” or “they won’t make good soldiers.” It took the actual experience of several ground-breaking regiments such as the 54th Massachusetts to begin to dispel these myths.
A fact less well-known is that sailors of color were admitted to the U.S. Navy from the start. More than ten percent of the Continental Navy in the American Revolution was Black. Even more sewrved in state navies and on privateers. In the War of 1812, Blacks represented one-sixth of U.S. naval personnel. In the Civil War, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles authorized recruitment of escaped or liberated slaves in the Atlantic Blockading Squadron from September 1861. These new sailors supplemented many other African Americans already in the Navy. Blacks served on seven hundred Navy ships. Eight won the Medal of Honor for their service. These sailors of color were limited to low-level positions and served under conditions of inequality with white sailors. But serve they did, in large numbers.
A utopian plantation. An enterprising inventor/engineer slave. Self-governing communities of runaway slaves in the wilderness. Naval vessels with free Blacks and newly-liberated slaves in their crews.
None of these things are really surprising, if we remember that history is composed of millions of individuals with their own unique situations. They only seem surprising in the face of oversimplified assumptions gathered from popular sources.
I call these instances to your attention, Dear Reader, for selfish purposes. I want you to buy my book, Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, when it comes out August 23. It is filled with little things like this. Things that may be unexpected but are nonetheless true.
I began writing this novel in the conviction that fiction can be a good way to tell the truth.
HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.
Next Week—Some Uppity Women.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.