Sabra Waldfogel writes historical fiction about Southern Jews and African Americans in slavery and freedom. Her most recent book, Freedom’s Island, about an all-black Mississippi town menaced in the 1880s by a greedy cotton planter and a former Klansman, and aided by a Jewish merchant, has just been published. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.
When James Marr, resident and alderman of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, undertook his duties as census enumerator on June 1, 1900, he counted the Fink brothers, Frank and Joe, who were working as grocers. He listed them as black, but they were not. They were Jewish immigrants from Russia.
Jews ran groceries, dry goods stores, and general stores in small towns all over the South, and anywhere else, the presence of two Jewish merchants would be unremarkable. But Mound Bayou was an extraordinary place, an all-black town where no white person lived without invitation.
Who asked the Finks to live and work in Mound Bayou, and why did they accept? The answer lies with the man who founded and built Mound Bayou—visionary and entrepreneur Isaiah Thornton Montgomery. Montgomery was slave to one unusual man and son to another, and he brought his lifelong experience with racial accommodation and racial uplift to his dealings with the Finks.
Joseph Davis: The Utopian Slaveowner
Isaiah Montgomery was born in 1847 on the Mississippi plantation of Joseph Emory Davis, older brother to future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Joseph Davis, a lawyer before he became a planter, was troubled by slavery, and when he met the utopian thinker Robert Owen, he decided to apply utopian ideals to the peculiar institution. He became a man of substance. On the eve of the Civil War, he owned 345 slaves.
More than his wealth set him apart. He treated his “servants” with a decency and a dignity highly unusual among Southern slaveowners. For Davis, assuring his slaves comfortable housing, food, and clothing was only the beginning. He encouraged their enterprise, allowing them to sell produce and to keep the profits, and he gave them the opportunity for self-governance. Davis’ slaves had their own court, where they resolved disputes and reviewed complaints from overseers. Isaiah Montgomery recalled of his childhood that “we just barely had an idea of what slave life was.”
Benjamin Montgomery: The Entrepreneurial Father
Isaiah Montgomery grew up observing an equally unusual relationship between his master and his father. Davis believed in encouraging the talents of his slaves, and the best example—and the greatest beneficiary—was Benjamin Montgomery, who first came to Davis’ attention when he ran away. It was common to punish or to sell a runaway slave, but instead, Davis “inquired closely into the cause of [Ben’s] dissatisfaction.” He discovered an educated, talented man, whom Davis came to respect and depend upon.
Benjamin Montgomery was skilled as a machinist and an inventor, but his greatest talent was for business. Davis set him up as the proprietor of a small general store on the plantation in 1842. Montgomery was soon was able to establish his own line of credit, and in addition to running the ever-expanding store, he also began to act as Davis’ agent in selling the plantation’s crops. On the eve of the Civil War, his store was patronized by the Davis family as well as by the Davis slaves, and Davis trusted him to manage the plantation’s business affairs. He continued to manage the Davis holdings throughout the Civil War.
In 1866, a war-weary Joseph Davis struck a bargain with the Montgomery family. He agreed to sell them the Davis holdings, and Benjamin Montgomery applied his considerable entrepreneurial talent to running a large plantation. Isaiah Montgomery, who managed the plantation’s store and oversaw one of his father’s three holdings, became his father’s right-hand man.
By the end of Reconstruction, the Montgomery family ran one of the largest and most successful cotton plantations in Mississippi. The family combined their belief in hard work with a dedication to education and cultivation. Isaiah Montgomery clearly saw that success in business and moral uplift went hand in hand.
The decline in the cotton market during the 1870s, combined with Benjamin Montgomery’s death in 1877, put the Montgomery plantation in jeopardy. Unable to repay their loan to the Davises, the Montgomerys relinquished the plantation to the Davis family in 1881.
Isaiah Montgomery Builds a Refuge
Inspired by the spirit of his father, Isaiah Montgomery wanted to create a “refuge” where black autonomy, financial success, and moral uplift could intertwine and encourage each other. In 1887, he bought a tract of undeveloped land from the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railroad, with the intention of establishing “a Negro colony,” in the later words of his friend Booker T. Washington. After a year of back-breaking effort, the town began to take shape, populated by farmers raising cotton and small merchants in town serving them.
The post-Reconstruction years in Mississippi saw the growth of sharecropping and debt peonage, a new form of enslavement for black farmers without capital. As the Republican Party—the party of President Lincoln and emancipation—declined in strength in Mississippi, so did the franchise for black voters. Throughout the South, Democratic politicians became convinced that the black franchise was the cause of political disruption in Southern elections. Mississippi became the first Southern state to disenfranchise its black voters in 1890.
Isaiah Montgomery’s feelings about black autonomy did not extend to participation in politics. He was the only black delegate at the 1890 convention. He sat on the franchise committee and argued for the poll taxes and literacy tests that effectively disenfranchised blacks, firm in the belief that the best course for black Mississippians was economic autonomy rather than involvement in political life.
Isaiah Montgomery Promotes Mound Bayou
Mound Bayou became an incorporated town in 1898, and held its first municipal election the same year. To no one’s surprise, Isaiah Montgomery was elected mayor, along with three aldermen and a constable. Montgomery had always been Mound Bayou’s greatest advocate, but his new responsibility as mayor spurred his efforts to encourage the town’s development. In 1900, Mound Bayou became a depot on the railroad that had always run through the town, which promised future growth.
Montgomery also became involved in an organization with a mission close to his heart: Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League, which supported the efforts of black business owners all over the country, but particularly in the South. Montgomery helped Washington organize the League’s first meeting in Boston in September of 1900, where he spoke about Mound Bayou.
Montgomery was more than the town’s mayor. He was its foremost merchant, but also it and its leader and biggest booster. By 1900 he was clearly overextended, with three businesses to run: his own, the town’s, and the League’s. He needed someone to mind the store in Mound Bayou. Sometime around 1900, he met the Finks, who were working as grocers in nearly Beulah.
Enter the Finks
The experience of the Fink brothers was typical of Jews of their generation. They were born in the Russian Empire. Their father, a grain and coal merchant, left for America in the wake of the rise in anti-Semitism after the czar’s assassination in 1881. Once established in New York, Abe Fink sent for his wife and seven children, who settled there and became citizens. After their father’s death in 1892, the children made their way in the world, the daughters marrying and the sons going into business. Frank and Joe’s sister Celia married a man named Barnett Wolf, who moved to Mississippi to run a grocery in Beulah, and Frank and Joe followed shortly after.
The Finks must have struck a chord with Montgomery: refugees from persecution, hopeful to advance themselves through the business of storekeeping, with ties to grocery suppliers and a line of credit. Their manner must have struck him, too. Like many Jewish merchants in small Southern towns, they had become used to serving black customers and treating them with courtesy. They must have been unusually open-minded to contemplate the prospect of living among black people as social equals.
“No white man has ever lived here”
Everything in Mound Bayou occurred under the paternalistic scrutiny of Montgomery, and the transformation of the Finks into black people in the census was no exception. It was a way to protect the Finks, who were breaking the rules of proper racial behavior in Mississippi. But it was also a way to protect the image of Mound Bayou, which would become highly visible after Booker T. Washington began to help Montgomery publicize and raise money for “a town owned by Negroes.”
By 1901, the Finks had left Mound Bayou—Frank married, and he and Joe bought land in Duncan, north of Mound Bayou, where they ran a store and grew cotton. Three years later, when Booker T. Washington visited Mound Bayou, he wrote, “no white man has ever lived in this community since it was established, except the man who introduced the telephone system, and he remained only long enough to teach some of the townspeople to manage the exchange.” The Fink brothers, white and Jewish, who briefly threw in their lot with Mound Bayou’s, slipped from view and from the town’s history.
The best source on the intertwined history of the Montgomery family and the Davis family remains Janet Sharp Hermann’s book, The Pursuit of a Dream (Oxford University Press, 1981). It is fascinating to read Booker T. Washington’s 1904 piece on Mound Bayou, “Mound Bayou, Mississippi: a Town Owned by Negroes.” Information on the Finks comes from the census and from Fink family descendants—I’m especially indebted to Joe Fink’s grandson, Mark Hein. Also see Margery Kerstine and Judy Tucker, “Jake Fink: A Delta Entrepreneur,” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies; December 2000, Vol. 31, Issue 3, p. 214.
For more information about Sabra Waldfogel and her work, visit her website.