New Book by Rosen Links African-American Community to Scottish Reformer Robert Owen

A new book by Joel Nathan Rosen, associate professor of sociology and coordinator of Africana studies, sheds new light on a mystery that has puzzled social historians for more than a century. Rosen’s From New Lanark to Mound Bayou: Owenism in the Mississippi Delta offers evidence to explain why Isaiah T. Montgomery, an ex-slave and the only African-American delegate at the 1890 Mississippi Constitutional Convention, would vote for the restrictions that would keep blacks out of Mississippi politics for the next 70 years. By definitively linking Isaiah Montgomery to the Scottish reformer Robert Owen (through Mississippi planter Joseph E. Davis, founder of an Owen-like slave community at Davis Bend)  the book creates a more complete understanding of Mound Bayou, Miss., the state’s first entirely African-American town established by Montgomery in 1887.

The book, which represents nearly 20 years of research, is a departure from Rosen’s usual field of study, the sociology of sport. “This was the first major project I’d ever attempted, and it just happened to fall into my lap,” he says. “I was in grad school trying to establish myself as a blues scholar, and I traveled to Mound Bayou because the musician Charlie Patton had a house there.” Intrigued by the stories and mystery surrounding the town’s establishment, Rosen’s scholarship took a different path, one that involved numerous interviews and visits to Mound Bayou and nearby Delta towns, as well as to the University of Illinois and the Owenite town of New Harmony, Indiana.

The visit to New Harmony proved to be a turning point. There, with the help of archivist Josephine Elliott, Rosen located a previously unexamined letter that connected Owen to Davis and, in turn, to Davis’s bondsman Benjamin Montgomery and his son Isaiah, “who virtually grew up in Davis’s library.” Davis had turned his plantation community Davis Bend, which consisted of three separate plantations, into a model plantation slave community based on Owen’s belief that a better educated and more autonomous workforce is more productive. Davis eventually sold the entire community to his former slave Benjamin Montgomery, and Benjamin’s son Isaiah later established Mound Bayou, the first all-black community in the region. “Mound Bayou has all of the hallmarks of Owenism,” says Rosen. “You see it in the abundance of schools and churches, and also in the way people conduct themselves socially and economically—their libertarian drive for wealth and progress.”

Debra Young ’10, Rosen’s 2007 SOAR student, assisted with the project, helping Rosen develop years of accumulated notes into what eventually became the manuscript for the book.

From New Lanark to Mound Bayou: Owenism in the Mississippi Delta (202 pp.) was published by the Carolina Academic Press. It is available from the publisher as well as from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Read Preface: Discovering Mound Bayou (.pdf)