Earlier this week, Sabra Waldfogel wrote about the Jews who lived in Mound Bayou. Her most recent book is 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. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
On October 3, 1869, in Marianna, Florida, a crowd of twenty men ordered merchant Samuel Fleishman to leave the town where he had lived and done business for sixteen years. He told them that he would rather die than leave. That night, four men removed him from town by force. He never returned. A little more than a week later, his body was discovered in rural Jackson County. No one was ever charged with his murder.
Street Scene in Marianna, 1880s, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
Living South, Looking North
Samuel Fleishman was born in the 1820s in Bavaria, where Jews were severely restricted in their occupations, their residences, and even in their opportunities to marry. He left Germany in the 1840s, settling in New York City, where he worked as a peddler and swiftly became an American citizen. By 1850, he had moved to Gadsden County in Florida, joining a relative already there, to set up a dry goods store. Three years later, he moved again, to Marianna in neighboring Jackson County, where his business prospered.
Fleishman lived in the South, but he retained close ties to the North. He traveled to New York to buy goods for his store, and he married Sophia Altman, born in New York, whose family had also come from Germany. Sophia’s brothers were dry goods merchants in Manhattan; the younger, Benjamin Altman, would rise to fame as the founder of a retail empire by the end of the 19th century. Fleishman had business dealings with his brothers-in-law until he died.
Fleishman’s new home was hospitable to business. Jackson County was a Whig stronghold before the Civil War. The Whigs, political opponents to the Democrats, felt that the federal government should promote internal improvements and the free flow of trade. Their views appealed to cotton planters, particularly those who had strong ties to the Northern brokers who bought their cotton and the Northern mills that wove it into cloth. Fleishman, who benefited from the freedom to do business and who had close connections with his relations in New York, must have found the Whig platform congenial.
When the Civil War broke out, Fleishman did not rush to join the Confederate cause, and when the Confederacy subjected men over forty-five to the draft, making him eligible for the Confederate Army, he fled to New York. He spent the war assisting his Northern brothers-in-law in their dry goods business. His business interests helped him to cast his fate with the Union.
Free to Do Business
When Fleishman returned to Marianna in 1865, he found the place greatly changed. The war had ravaged the county, destroying his business. Emancipation had freed half of the population. The Union Army was garrisoned there, represented by a black regiment, which galled the defeated Confederates of Jackson County. And early in 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau, charged with enforcing the rights of former slaves, opened an office in Marianna. The Bureau agents were unapologetic supporters of the Radical Republicans, who believed that Emancipation meant social, political and economic equality for former slaves.
Fleishman sided with the Union and the Radical Republicans. He was one of the few residents of Marianna to befriend the agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau, who thought so highly of him that they recommended him for the position of tax collector in 1867. The Bureau’s regard for him infuriated his neighbors. Later that year, someone shaved the manes and tails of his horses and vandalized two buggies worth $200. It was the beginning of the harassment that would end with his expulsion from Marianna and his death.
To rebuild his dry goods business, Fleishman turned his attention to a new set of customers: freed black people. He treated them with common decency, which offended his Confederate neighbors. Much more threatening to the planters of Jackson County was Fleishman’s willingness to sell directly to former slaves and to extend them credit. After the war, cash-poor cotton planters hired black laborers by employing them as tenants and extending them credit against the future crop. A merchant like Fleishman threatened the cycle of credit and debt that became a new form of white control over black people. And for that, even more than his sympathy with the Bureau and its politics, or his courtesy to his black customers, he was in deep trouble in Jackson County.
During Reconstruction, the counties that suffered the most violence were evenly divided in population between black and white. In Jackson County, which was the scene of murderous violence between 1868 and 1871, the racial ratio was fifty-fifty. As elsewhere throughout the South, the Jackson County planters who despised free blacks and their allies, the Radical Republicans, found their own allies in the organization that used violence and murder to terrorize both: the Ku Klux Klan.
In Jackson County, the relationship between planter and Klan was literally familial. James Coker had been one of the richest planters before the war and afterwards, was still one of the town’s leading citizens. His son Billy, whose tendency to violence was fueled by alcohol, was foremost among the “redeemers” who harassed, intimidated, and assaulted black people, whether political or not, and who targeted whites who were Radical Republicans.
On September 28, 1869, the local redeemers shot and killed the town’s constable, a free black man named Calvin Rogers, along with a number of bystanders, including women and children. After the murders a rumor spread that Fleishman was urging black people to retaliate and offering to provide them with guns. The rumor sealed Fleishman’s fate. He was forcibly removed from Marianna a few days later, and ambushed on the road a few days after that.
Samuel Fleishman never intended to die for freedom. He wanted the freedom to do business. But on October 9, 1869, his dedication to that freedom made him a martyr.
I am deeply indebted to Daniel Weinfeld’s biographical essay, “Samuel Fleishman: Tragedy in Reconstruction Florida,” Southern Jewish History (2005, Volume 8), pp. 31 – 76, as well as his fuller treatment of the context, The Jackson County War: Reconstruction and Resistance in Post-Civil War Florida (University of Alabama Press, 2012). On the role of the Klan throughout the South, the best source remains Allen W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (Louisiana State University Press, 1979).
Sabra Waldfogel writes historical fiction about Southern Jews and African Americans in slavery and freedom. For more information about her and her work, visit her website.