What we know about Mound Bayou’s fabled newspaper, The Demonstrator, comes from external accounts, not directly involved with the actual printing of the periodical, or even from the Mississippian town itself, and yet we know without the physical preservation of copies that this newspaper undoubtedly existed, that it circulated widely in town, and that residents read and discussed it. What about Joseph Wayland Covington’s mysterious printing press can we piece together with the artifacts left behind? More importantly, what can we speculate about the impact his press and published works had on the Mound Bayou community, Black readers in the South, and perhaps even readers on a national scale? If, as Pierre Nora writes, “imagination invests [the archive] with symbolic aura,” what happens when that archive in part becomes imaginary, or trace?
In the 19th-century United States hundreds of experimental communities formed and dissolved, characterized by a combination of chiliastic zeal and a faith in the rational and progressive basis — the science — of society. The communitarians behind these endeavors were motivated by the discrepancies in American life between freedom and bondage, affluence and want, capital and labor. They sought not revolution but resolution through reorganization: they viewed their communities as laboratories, where social scientists searched for the best way to organize society. These communities tended to fail, and at the time and in scholarship since, they have generally been described as idealistic separatist “utopias” that died out after the Civil War, when industrial capitalism became fully entrenched. But those who founded and peopled these experiments were more practical and tenacious than they have been given credit for.
My dissertation, “Communitarian Reform in Topolobampo, Mexico, 1870-1900,” follows communitarianism beyond the Civil War and the United States, which form the borders of existing scholarship. It tells the story of Topolobampo, a city founded on the northwestern coast of Mexico in 1881 by a civil engineer named Albert Kimsey Owen. Topolobampo was to serve as the terminus for a transcontinental railroad he designed. It was to be a marvel of technological innovation, commercial vigor, and global trade, but it was also to be a worker-owned cooperative and a model of how capitalism and community might reinforce each other rather than competing. With its combination of rigorous social examination and the business of railroads, shipping, irrigation, and mining, Topolobampo illustrates vividly the ways in which communitarians, far from withdrawing from mainstream society, were in fact deeply engaged in the project of national and global development. Communitarianism was not a passing moment in American antebellum reform, but rather a malleable and enduring international movement that evolved in order to address the increasing inequalities of wealth and power in the late 19th century.