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Irony In Utopia: the Discovery of Nancy Lewis


ISSUE:  Summer 1984

I was born and reared in Fairhope, Alabama, a “utopian” community, a single-tax colony founded on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay in 1894, but until a few years ago I had never heard of Nancy Lewis. I might never have learned about her if I had not decided to write a book about the town’s history. I knew, or thought I knew, all of the main characters in the Fairhope story. It seemed ironic, then, that the first person my research in the colony archives led me to was Nancy Lewis, a person about whom I knew nothing. Before long, caught up in more ironies, I was obsessed with a need to discover everything I could about her and to learn what she had discovered about Fairhope.

II

An enigmatic entry in the minutes book of the Fairhope Industrial Association introduced me to her. The date was Jan.22, 1895. Negotiations were under way for the purchase of a 200- acre parcel of land, the second acquisition since the arrival of the colonists two months earlier. The minutes betrayed concern over a claim one Nancy Lewis was apparently making to part of the desired tract. Later, in the February 2 entry, I found out more about her and about the delicate negotiations. She and some of her family were, in fact, living on land which was said to belong to the estate of a John Bowen. Now, however, she was retreating from her previous position, admitting that the Bowen estate, not she, had the title to the land. She also was reconsidering her previous refusal to sell out and move and was reported to be “favorably inclined” toward the idea. The February 7 minutes report a successful outcome for the association: Nancy Lewis agreed to “surrender all her claims” to the land and, for $100, to sell to the association all her improvements on it.

With this impediment removed, the secretary reported the “purchase of 200 acres of Bowen land including 40 acres claimed by Nancy Lewis . . .for $250.00.” A later entry tells of a written contract sealing the Lewis agreement. I searched through the colony’s file drawer of deeds to find this document—charred by a 1951 office fire, but still legible—bearing Nancy Lewis’s well-formed signature. Here the improvements—”houses, sheds, fences, orchards, clearings”—are enumerated, and the owner is given 60 days to move. The records do not tell us when she left, but the March 9 minutes report that one of the association’s officers was preparing to move into her old home.

My first reading of this episode made me wonder why some arrangement had not been made to take Nancy Lewis into the association. Why, I wondered, had it been necessary to buy her out? If, indeed, she had been “squatting” on land legally purchased by the colony, why not swap an association membership for the release of her potentially troublesome claim? In this way one hundred scarce dollars would have been saved, the title to the land made secure, another member added to the tiny band of colonists, and Nancy Lewis might have gone on living where she was, on land cleared and fenced, in a familiar and comfortable home surrounded by vineyards and fruit trees.

What seemed especially incongruous was the hint that the very act of acquiring land to demonstrate the Fairhope plan— a plan above all else to free the land from monopolists and speculators and reserve it for honest users—trapped the Fairhopers in a compromise of principle. Surely it was not meant to work that way; how could it be when the idealists who had brought their few possessions and their many dreams with them from Iowa, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Canada were driven by an acute sense of the injustices under which men and women lived and a corresponding confidence in the power of their plan to right social wrongs?

My grandfather, Ernest B. Gaston, had led the founding party to Baldwin County where they were now starting up their experiment. He had been the chief architect of the Fairhope constitution, and, for the next four decades, he would be the community’s unrivaled leader and spokesman. He died a month before my tenth birthday (I was the youngest of his eleven grandchildren), but I can never remember when I did not have an enormous respect for his integrity and his passion for justice. I needed, then, to review the principles on which the experiment was formed and then to see how they could accommodate the troubling tale of Nancy Lewis and her lost land.

III

The Fairhope idea emerged from the suffering and creative ferment of the late 19th century, and the founding of the colony in 1894 was one statement of how Americans might simultaneously harness the power and subdue the cruelty of industrial capitalism. In my grandfather’s writings from this time I found powerful indictments of social wrongs—he wrote of the “enormous waste of human energy and natural resources” and of the “hideous injustice and cruelty” of rampant individualism and unrestrained competition—along with insistence that good theories, properly applied, offered a way out. In the history of reform, he believed, “those who make good theories work and prove the value of proposed social solutions by practical demonstration will do far more to move the world than the wisest and most brilliant theorists.”

The search for the right “good theory” on which to base a practical demonstration began soon after he was graduated from Drake University, in his home town of Des Moines, Iowa, in 1886; it was completed by early 1894, when he drafted a plan for a model colony which was to be called Fairhope. Out of the swirl of reform thought and experiments he gradually crystallized a unique scheme to realize his vision of a society in which free men and women would cooperate for the common welfare while they perfected their own skills and followed their own interests. When he began his quest, he was especially impressed by the writings of Edward Bellamy, Laurence Gronlund, and other socialist authors. He also followed closely the history of the many cooperative colonies that were founded in these years, and in 1890 he made an unsuccessful attempt to establish one of his own. This was followed by two years of intellectually enriching but politically barren work for the Populist Party in Iowa.

Returning in late 1893 to the idea of a cooperative colony, my grandfather was guided increasingly by the writings of Henry George, whose ideas inspired him to work out his own blend of cooperation and individualism. His doctrine, “cooperative individualism,” identified land as the key element in the problem of social organization. By now Grandfather was concluding that most of the cooperative colonies, too rigidly bound to socialist theories, hemmed individuals in and warped community growth because they required too much central direction to determine what should be produced, by whom, and for what wages. In practice, these cooperative efforts were no antidote to the common enemy of unbridled individualism but only a recipe for frustration and failure. George believed that poverty amidst plenty and exploitation of free people in a democratic country stemmed from the monopoly of natural resources, from the private ownership of land. This theory seemed to offer a way out. According to George, there was no need for government to direct the behavior and confiscate the earnings of labor and capital if all people had equal access to the land, the common heritage of mankind. “We must make land common property,” he proclaimed. All else—or nearly all else—could safely be left to the individual.

To make a workable demonstration of this idea, Grandfather planned a colony in which all land would belong to the association. Members would pay into the common treasury an annual rental, based on the value of the land they leased, thus simulating the single tax on land values favored by George. It was in this way, Grandfather believed, that community-created values—that is, land values—would be returned to the whole community, while privately created values, the returns on labor and capital, would remain with the individual. Grandfather was too much of a cooperationist to think of anything but community ownership and management of public utilities (“natural monopolies,” he called them), and he had other cooperative ideas as well. He was strong for a community-owned merchandising store, and he believed that communal decisions concerning the setting and spending of land rents, along with full democracy in colony government, would result in cooperative ventures and attitudes, all free from coercion of any sort.

IV

Such was the theory and the plan. How, then, had it happened that the Fairhopers, in almost their first major communal decision, had wrenched Nancy Lewis’s homestead from her? Puzzling over the matter, but meanwhile carrying on with other research, I happened one day to ask my father, who was three years old when he arrived with the founding party and who would succeed his father as colony secretary 41 years later, if he had ever heard of a Nancy Lewis. “Oh yes,” he replied. “She was the colored woman who was living on the land the colonists bought.”

That answer, of course, opened up questions that had not been asked. As a Southern historian, I should have been alert to them all along because nothing happens in the South without race soon becoming a crucial issue—testing, defining, and illuminating values and assumptions and shaping public policies. Now I had to ask what race was to mean to these Northern reformers—these men and women who had grown up faithful to the party of Lincoln, the Emancipator— as they fashioned their Utopia in the Deep South. Before he left Iowa, my grandfather wrote that “use gives the only right to control of land,” and he thundered out his belief that legal titles to land were “no more evidence of moral right than the bills of sale in which the unfortunate blacks were held in bondage but a few years since in our land.” Nancy Lewis could hardly have said it better: human slavery and private ownership of land were moral equivalents, both abhorrent. In this first encounter, however, local custom easily overrode abstract principle, and Nancy Lewis was displaced.

Three years after this episode my grandfather wrote candidly and extensively about the intimate relationship between race and reform. The occasion was an editorial response to the criticism of a disillusioned potential supporter who had decided to give up on the Fairhopers because, as he put it, they “altogether refuse the entry of colored people on the same terms as others.” There was no evasion in the reply: “The criticism of our friend,” Grandfather stated, “illustrates anew the difficulties and differences of opinion arising in the effort to determine how far we can practically go in the “application of correct theories” within a general condition of applied incorrect ones, over which we have no control.” Racial discrimination—especially when it thwarted access to the land—was wrong, he wrote. “We believe,” he went on to proclaim, “in “universal equality”—equality of rights”; no man had “more moral or natural right to any particular portion of the earth, the common heritage of mankind, than any other of his fellow men.” This being so, the question was clear: should the Fairhope Association “follow the naked principle of equality unreservedly, regardless of conditions existing?” He could not recommend it, he concluded, for to do so would likely mean destruction of the colony.

Thus, to preserve the experiment, he agreed that it must be for whites only. At the same time he made it clear that the “whites only” policy was a fundamental contradiction of the “good theory” on which the Fairhope practical demonstration was based. The compromise was perhaps made easier by the belief that, at bottom, racial prejudice was a function of economic injustice and that, insofar as the Fairhope demonstration might help to point the way to a better economic order, it was hastening the day when racism might disappear. Manifestations of racial prejudice, Grandfather wrote after the Springfield, Illinois race riot in 1908, “will continue and will increase in bitterness as industrial conditions get more severe. They constitute one of the most serious menaces of the future. The only remedy is economic freedom.” On other occasions he stressed the common predicament of whites and blacks. Southern sharecropping, for example, ensnared both races in a new form of slavery so that “the obligation yet owing to the negro and the white is to throw open to all the natural resources from which all human wants are supplied by labor.” Closer to home, always alert to the possibilities of practical demonstration, he wrote of starting up a single-tax colony in the black community adjacent to Fairhope: “It would be an excellent thing for them and us,” he wrote, “as well as greatly enlarge the possible magnitude of our demonstration of the advantage of the single tax.”

No such colony ever got beyond the talking stage. Nor did economic conditions in the country at large promise to mitigate the force of racial prejudice. In these circumstances, given their considered segregation policy, about all that was left to concerned Fairhopers was to speak out against racist excesses and, within the limits of their power and vision, hold to standards of decency and fair play. Thus Grandfather did such things as oppose the calling of a state constitutional convention because he believed, quite correctly, that its main purpose was to disfranchise blacks. “We shall certainly vote against it,” he warned, “and advise everyone else to do likewise.” Lynchings brought outrage to his newspaper; they were “never excusable,” he wrote, and their frequency “shows how thin is the veneer of civilization.” When it appeared in Fairhope in the 1920’s, he attacked and ridiculed the Ku Klux Klan. Lecturing the town council on the “Invisible Empire,” he said that the “creator had not endowed men . . . with invisibility,” and he told them he could see nothing American in an empire, “invisible or otherwise.”

V

Meanwhile, what of Nancy Lewis? Her exclusion from colony land is a poignant symbol of the ways in which racial values and customs have baffled and constrained even the most sincere reformers. But I don’t want to make this an essay on race and reform in Fairhope, interesting though that subject would be to pursue. From the beginning, from the first time I read her name in the minutes book, I developed an insatiable curiosity about her as a person. For one thing, it was easy for me to imagine where she lived for I had played on the very spot many times as a boy. Why, I wondered, had she come to that place? Who was she? What were her feelings about the land? Was there something she was searching for? Was there some intangible bond linking her search to the mission that had brought my grandfather to the identical plot of ground, to dispute its occupancy with her? How was I to find answers to these questions?

My search began with the federal census. The 1900 data told me that Nancy Lewis was then a 57-year-old widow who had had 12 children, only five of whom were still living. As I was to learn later, she was 59, not 57, and she had had six children, not 12—errors that surprised me less when I learned more about Mr. J.C. Finklea, the eccentric school-teacher who was the census enumerator for Fairhope that year. Unfortunately, the 1890 census has perished, but the census reports of 1870 and 1880 told me much more about her and her family.

These tantalizing fragments only made me hope to find more. In a public corridor of the county courthouse, carelessly piled in no particular order—untended, their great value unappreciated—I found many but not all of the county tax records I wanted. There was some startling information in them. The deed books, land books, and the records of sales of real estate for nonpayment of taxes were better guarded and also revealing. Back in the colony archives, I found quitclaims, references to several different Lewises, all somehow connected to Nancy, and a reminiscence with a description of the Lewis homestead. As I gathered and put the information in place, a picture began to form. Finally, after I had gone about as far as I could in the public record, I asked a friend if she thought there might be one of Nancy Lewis’s descendants to whom I could talk. There was. Rosetta Lewis, the eleventh and youngest child of William Alfred Lewis, Nancy’s firstborn, had strong memories of her grandmother as well as of her parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and cousins—memories which she generously shared with me. There was also a family Bible in which we could check some of my carefully gathered genealogical data.

Nancy Lewis was born a slave, probably on a farm or plantation, in Lauderdale County, Mississippi in 1841. Her father had been born in the District of Columbia and her mother in Tennessee, We have no way of knowing when Nancy met her future husband, John. Three years older than she, he was born near Richmond, Virginia, a son of Virginia-born parents. John may have done something to stir his master’s wrath—irascible planters sometimes turned their ungrateful slaves over to the slave traders as a means of punishment—or he may have been sold South with his mother as part of his owner’s strategy to recover from financial losses, a recourse one Virginia master has described graphically as his only means of escaping slavery. In any case, John’s experience was hardly unique, for thousands of Virginia slaves were sold to the cotton planters of the lower South in the antebellum years. Somehow John and Nancy met and were married, in whatever ritual sanctioned by their owner, when Nancy was still a teenager and John hardly much more. The family Bible in Rosetta Lewis’s living room tells us that their first child, a son named William Alfred, was born in Meridian, Mississippi on Dec. 18, 1858. The second child, a daughter named Betty—the last Lewis born into slavery—came three years later, after the beginning of the war that would emancipate her.

As talk of emancipation entered their daily conversations, Nancy and John Lewis must have thought about the future with a mixture of elation and apprehension. Earning a living had to be their first concern. The famous rumor that freedmen were to begin their new lives with 40 acres and a mule, however inaccurately it foretold federal policy, correctly reflected the unique importance slaves attached to possession of the land. For one thing, they had a deep sense that their uncompensated toil had given them a right to the land they had made productive. In the thousands of pages of slave testimony that have come down to us, one finds over and over the moral claim that he who works the land should reap the benefits of that labor. Slavery had denied that fundamental principle. Emancipation, if it was to mean anything, must affirm it. A South Carolina slave put it this way: “the land ought to belong to the man who . . .could work it,” not to those who “sit in the house,” profiting from the labor of others. Many spoke eloquently of the impossibility of freedom without access to the land. To earn a living, rear a family, gain an education—to live the life of a free man—one must have land. One of Nancy and John Lewis’s fellow Mississippi slaves put it this way: “Gib us our own land and we take care ourselves; but widout land, de old massas can hire us or starve us, as dey please.”

A powerful statement of Grandfather’s belief that the “two great questions of chattel slavery and land monopoly . . .are nearer than Siamese twins,” these declarations of Southern slaves were unvarnished Fairhope philosophy. Henry George asked: “What constitutes the rightful basis of property?” What was it, he wanted to know, that justifies one in saying “It is mine!”? His answers echoed the cry of the freedmen: “As a man belongs to himself, so his labor when put in concrete form belongs to him.” For this reason, “that which a man makes or produces is his own, as against all the world. . . . No one else can rightfully claim it, and his exclusive right to it involves no wrong to any one else.”

VI

A historian of Mississippi tells us that there was a “general belief” among blacks in the autumn of 1865 that “they were to receive land from the government as a Christmas present.” If Nancy and John Lewis believed this, they, like other Mississippi freedmen, were soon sorely disappointed. Probably they knew better, for they decided sometime shortly after the end of the war to strike out on their own in fresh territory. Stories reached them of good opportunities in the pine forests of Baldwin County, Alabama, where there had been no plantation tradition. The land was sparsely settled, one might easily find unused acreage for a home and farm site, and the need to extract and distill the sap from the ubiquitous pine trees meant there were good jobs. By the summer of 1870, when the census enumerator came around, John Lewis was employed as a turpentine hand; Nancy was listed as “keeping house” for her husband, their two Mississippi-born children, and the three-month-old baby Mary, their first “freedom child,” born on the site that one day would become Fairhope.

“Gib us our own land and we take care ourselves,” the Mississippi slave had said. John and Nancy Lewis now set out to prove him right. Precisely how they got their land we shall likely never know, but a good guess would be that, perhaps on the advice of some of the local blacks they met when they arrived, they simply settled down on land belonging to an absentee owner. The site they chose was part of more than 6,000 acres owned by Oscela and Sallie Wilson of Mobile. In 1881 the Wilsons sold these Baldwin County holdings to John Bowen, also of Mobile. Bowen, like the Wilsons, left the land undeveloped. He apparently had no interest in it, except for sport and speculation. One can only surmise that now John Lewis and John Bowen, or Bowen’s agent, worked out an agreement—which we may be sure was informal and unwritten—that gave the Lewises use of the land in exchange for payment of the taxes on it. In any case, the incomplete records of tax payments show John—and then Nancy, after John’s death in 1891—paying the taxes on 80 acres of land that belonged to John Bowen. For annual levies ranging from $1.35 to $2.33 John and Nancy Lewis got their land—80 acres of it—and set out to look after themselves.

In the Baldwin County wilderness, on the site of the future Fairhope, the young couple had found a good place to start their lives as free people. Eighty acres must have seemed like a dream come true. On 15 cleared acres they built their home and looked after their animals—a horse, several cows, hogs, and goats (and, no doubt, dogs and cats and chickens, not mentioned in the tax records)—planted vegetables, fruit trees, and vineyards, and reared their family. Three sons— Joseph, John, and James—were born in the seventies. When Betty died in 1883, giving birth to her firstborn, a daughter named Rosa Lee Denton, the granddaughter joined the family, to be reared by Nancy.

There was seldom much extra cash in the household, but work was steady—William Alfred had joined his father as a turpentine hand by 1880—and the farm yielded an abundance of good food. Charles Hall, the tax collector in the 1880’s, recalled many years later, when he was a judge and prominent political figure, that riding through Baldwin County was a lonely business. It was a welcome relief to reach the Lewis household. There, day or night, John Lewis would “set me down to the best his farm could yield,” which appears to have been both good and memorable. Special family occasions were marked by feasts of freshly roasted hog, according to Rosetta Lewis, who also remembers that her grandmother was a hardworking woman who could plow as well as John Lewis.

In this apparently economically secure world Nancy and John Lewis reared a close-knit and happy family. It is easy to imagine the childhood joys of the Lewis boys and girls. There were deep ravines and endless woods to explore and, less than a mile from home, the sandy beaches and safe waters of Mobile Bay. It was then, as it was to remain for many decades, a children’s paradise.

This was the world, too, the single-taxers from the North entered in January of 1895. By that time John Bowen was dead, and his heirs were apparently ready to reap the unearned increment from the sale of the Baldwin County lands. The colonists were invited to come to Mobile to talk over terms. No one ever mentioned an agreement with Nancy Lewis, now a widow for the past three years. The estate agent, of course, knew that she had no legal leg to stand on. Nancy, quite understandably, felt differently. Too much of her life was invested in that land to give it up without a protest. She had also just paid the 1894 taxes on the place. It was appraised at $105, and the records show that she owned a horse, ten hogs, five cows, six goats, and personal property valued at $18. William Alfred was married and living nearby; Mary, also married, was living on the place with her husband. Rosa Lee and the boys were still at home. Denying the legal claims of the colonists when they were first shown to her, she soon had no choice but to make plans to start over somewhere else. The law required that she be paid for her improvements—three years of peaceable and undisputed possession of a piece of land were grounds for compensation when dispossession resulted from proof of a better title to the land—and the $100 the colonists paid probably more than met the letter of the law.

VII

What, then, was next for Nancy Lewis? What was to become of her, and her association with my grandfather, as a result of the agreement they both signed in his office?

In June, three months after Nancy had left her old homestead, Grandfather rode his mare Dolly the four miles up to Daphne, the county seat, to attend the annual sale of land for nonpayment of taxes. This was the chance to pick up bargains, and the impecunious colonists needed a lot of these if they were to acquire the land they must have to conduct their demonstration. When he arrived, he found that there was one 40-acre parcel, very close to land they already owned, that was on the market. He could foresee the importance this tract would have for the colony and he seemed confident, in his report to the council later, that he could have acquired it. But he decided not to try, and he came home empty-handed.

He obviously owed his fellow colonists an explanation. When he arrived at the courthouse, he told them, he met Parker Young, a longtime black resident of the area, and Nancy Lewis. He discovered that the two of them, and their families, were presently living on the very tract now to be sold. They too had ridden up to Daphne that day—to pay the back taxes so that they might acquire a secure title. Because of what had happened previously between the Fairhope Association and Nancy Lewis, Grandfather told the council, he “did not deem it advisable” to acquire these 40 acres. So he stepped aside and came home. And Nancy Lewis became a landowner again, only this time with a legal deed.

Rosetta Lewis, recalling her father’s penchant for visiting the courthouse, wondered aloud with me when we talked about this episode if perhaps he had not been there that day. The record of sales of real estate for unpaid taxes proves her right. Those 40 acres were sold to him for $4.58. Subsequently, he arranged a transfer of title—properly recorded in the deed book so there could be no displacement this time— assigning 20 acres to his mother and 20 to Parker Young.

Nancy Lewis’s new home was less than a mile from her old one. She lived there until she died 15 years later, at the age of 69. The value of the land increased steadily. For Nancy Lewis those 20 acres were like a passport to freedom and security, a guarantee that she was fiercely determined to pass on to her children and to Rosa Lee. She subdivided the land—a few old-timers still remember talk of the “Nancy Lewis Subdivision”—and saw to it that her heirs received a legal title to their share. Meanwhile, she supported herself with odd jobs, occasionally as a gardener in Fairhope, continued to eat from her own garden, and accepted the care and support of her children as she grew older. By this time they were managing well on their own, but their mother took pride and satisfaction from knowing that she had given them land that could guarantee their independence in whatever uncertain years might lie ahead.

When she died in July 1910, my grandfather wrote in his newspaper: “Nancy Lewis, one of our old and respected colored citizens, died suddenly Monday morning. At the time Fairhope was founded, she lived in a cabin on what is now the Creswell property but being bought out by the Colony moved a little farther away where she has since lived. She left a large family of children and grandchildren.”

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David Casler's picture
David Casler · 4 years ago

My great great grandfather was John Bown. Great story!

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