In Part I, described a trip that my wife, Lida, and I took to St. Francisville, LA, Natchez, MS, and Mer Rouge, LA, in July. Mer Rouge is the hometown of Lida’s great-grandmother, Eliza Davenport, (Click here to view her portrait.) but we had never been there. We knew little about Eliza and even less about the town. In Part II, I described our discovery of the rich history of Lida’s family in Mer Rouge, based on memoirs of its early days written by Eliza’s brother, C.C. Davenport. Eliza eventually came to Birmingham in the late 19th century, where Lida’s family has remained ever since.)
Christopher Columbus (C.C.) Davenport, Eliza’s brother, originally published Looking Backward: Memoirs of the Early Settlement of Morehouse Parish in 1911, as a compilation of weekly columns he’d had written while serving as editor of the Mer Rouge Democrat. Lida’s second cousin, Tommy Davenport Rankin, gave us copies of the memoirs, which the local Lions Club had recently reprinted in pamphlet form. Tommy still farms cotton and soybeans on lands that the Davenport family has held for nearly 200 years in Morehouse Parish.
As reminiscences of early life on the Louisiana frontier and as a record of Lida’s family history, C.C.’s memoirs by themselves would be a wonderful treasure of local history and genealogy. But the final chapter reveals why they are so much more than that.
Chapter XV, “Life on the Plantation When the Negroes Were Slaves,” represents C.C.’s careful effort to portray how humanely his father, James Barlow Davenport, treated his 110 slaves on the family plantation. C.C. writes that his father provided the slaves with good housing, food, clothing and medical care. He gave them small plots of land for gardening and paid them cash for some of the cotton they picked. He provided a children’s nursery, and he permitted religious services and marriages among the slaves. After James died in 1858, C.C., Eliza and their brothers took charge of the plantation and even added a “plantation negro band.”
C.C. goes on to write:
There was no law against the whipping of slaves, but it was seldom done, and, when done it was generally inflicted because of fusses—quarrels among themselves. All disagreements and troubles among the slaves were settled by the owners of the slaves. The courts were not troubled by negro trials. It was a rare thing to see a negro in jail or in a penitentiary…As a rule, masters were kind to their slaves. Occasionally there were cruel masters and, occasionally there were bad negroes that required severe punishment.
Those were happy days that can never be recalled, but it was Southern life and the negroes of that day were happier, much happier than I have ever seen them since those days.
And so C.C. Davenport sums up in his memoirs the near universal attitude of Southern whites at the beginning of the 20th century, as they attempted to justify the system of slavery that had existed within their own lifetimes—and in his case within his own life. Although he doesn’t acknowledge it, 1911 marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. Since he ended the memoirs in 1860, he also doesn’t mention that he and his brothers all served in the Confederate army. None were killed in the war, and C.C. went on to become a successful farmer, state representative and active civic leader. But did he don his old uniform of the Twelfth Louisiana Infantry, Army of Tennessee, to commemorate the anniversary? Did his rosy reflections on his own slaves help to perpetuate the myth of the “Lost Cause”—a romantic view of the Confederacy and its defeat—that swept the agrarian South during Reconstruction and reached a crescendo with the 50th anniversary celebrations? Was his pen—innocently I believe—an instrument of Jim Crow? History and family lore don’t point to anyone’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, for example.
From the vantage point of another century’s passage, I prefer simply to point out the irony of his writing in 1911. I also hasten to note that his sister, Eliza Davenport Cotten, and her descendants quietly but substantively contributed to Eliza’s adopted city of Birmingham. This includes Lida’s family standing against racism during the city’s darkest days of the Civil Rights Movement. In their journeys Americans—and Southerners in particular—have passed through time as well as space. Along the way, thankfully, they tossed many old ideas into the rushing streams of history.