In 1854, Pleasant Reed was born into slavery on the John B. Reed plantation, Enon, in Perry County near Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He was the fourth son of Benjamin and Charlotte Reed’s eleven children. Following the Civil War’s end in 1865, Pleasant’s older brother George Reed Sr. left Perry County for the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1869. The entire Reed family was in Biloxi by 1871, just as the Reconstruction era of state government was ending.
By 1871, three members of the Reed family were shown on Harrison County tax rolls as paying taxes. According to The Buildings of Biloxi: An Architectural Survey, “Benjamin Reed, the patriarch, was listed as owning ‘4 cattle paid Poll taxes’; by the time of Benjamin Reed’s death in 1908, the Reed family was the largest African American family in Biloxi, and its members had become involved in the early development of every segment of local industry considered basic to the area’s economy: fishing, lumber milling, railroading, tourism and fuel supply (charcoal).”
An elderly George Reed was interviewed in the 1930s for a project called The Slave Narratives. These narratives were oral histories conducted with aging African Americans who had once been slaves. Noted American writers conducted and transcribed the interviews for the Work Project Administration (WPA) under President Franklin Roosevelt. In Slave Narrative 241, “Uncle George” Reed tells of the booming timber industry on the Gulf Coast: “I was married right here in (18)’78 and the church was built some time before, about (18)’69 or ’70. I hauled the first timbers here for it.”
Pleasant and Georgia Anna Harris, known to their family and friends by the nicknames of “Plez” and “Georgie”, married in 1884. Emanuel, the first of their five children, was born in 1886. While receipts show that the couple had previously rented housing during the first years of their marriage, in May of 1887 the Reeds entered into a contract with Jacob Elmer, a local merchant and the developer of Elmer Street in Biloxi, in the purchase a plot measuring 50 feet by 104 feet. Over the next four years, Pleasant Reed paid for the purchase of his land through a working agreement with Elmer, in part exchanging labor for cash to retire the debt by 1891. Families of other ethnic and religious backgrounds joined the Reeds on Elmer Street during this period, making it a diverse, multi-racial neighborhood. The brothers August and George Ohr owned lots along Elmer Street for a while, having bought land at Elmer and Division streets in 1891. Neither brother ever lived on this property but held it for speculative purposes.
Pleasant Reed provided for his family by working primarily as a carpenter, but he also took on work in other trades to supplement his income. Few of Reed’s clients are specifically known. Receipts in the family collection identify large and small construction jobs completed for local merchants and others. Additional income for the family came from a variety of sources. Pleasant’s brother, Benjamin, was a fisherman, and it was likely Benjamin who taught Pleasant to make fish nets which they used and also sold to other local fishermen. A hand-made wooden net shuttle was found among the tools contained in Pleasant’s tool chest. Apart from her role as wife and mother, Georgia Reed contributed to the family income by occasionally performing domestic work for other families in the community.
By all appearances, Pleasant Reed could not read and write, relying instead on his wife Georgia to interpret documents and letters that required his attention; Georgia’s skilled penmanship suggests that she had been well-schooled as a girl. The value of an education was impressed on the Reed children, who all received at least an elementary education, according to family members. It is probable that the Reed children attended the city’s first “Colored” public school, which opened on Main Street in 1886, just a few blocks from the Reed home on Elmer Street. It is not known if any of the children continued their education to the high school level.
Pleasant instilled in his children the value of hard work and the value of their citizenship, in spite of the boundaries imposed on their lives by the system of segregation. Pleasant consistently paid the $2.00 annual poll tax to maintain his privilege to vote. The $2.00 per year that Reed invested in his voting privilege translated to an equivalent tax of over $60.00 today. Payment of Property taxes was sometimes made by swapping his labor on City maintenance projects as payment in lieu of cash.
The Reed family was of modest income, but the family managed to live well despite their limited means. In addition to the convenience of public water, the Reed’s kitchen was outfitted with an icebox, and they received regular deliveries of block ice to preserve their food. The family maintained good credit at several local stores where Georgia bought groceries and household goods “on account.” The family’s furnishings suggest that Pleasant may have built some simple tables and cupboards when he and Georgia first set up housekeeping; but over time, they “traded up” these pieces for factory-made chairs, settees, tables, cast iron beds and other furniture. Mass-produced popular framed prints hung on the walls, and a shelf clock – probably a luxury for a family of their income – marked time in the parlor. The family could also afford another occasional luxury, having their portraits taken by local studio photographers, which they again faithfully paid for over a period of several months “on account.”
Sons Paul and Percy entered the military service during World War I, and then returned to Biloxi to marry and raise families. Percy’s only known occupation was that of a laborer, but Paul followed his Uncle Benjamin’s example and worked as a boatman. Theresa, the only other child for whom we have information, remained in her parents’ home, working outside the home as a domestic servant and later as a cook while helping to take care of her aging mother and father. A story maintained by the Reed family is that around the early 1920s, Theresa was engaged to be married to a fisherman, only to lose her fiancé to an accident or a storm at sea. Her continuing grief over this tragedy has been cited by family members as the cause of her reclusive and brusque character as an adult, wearing only dark clothes on the rare occasions when she was seen in public.
By 1929, Pleasant and Georgia Reed were both elderly. Georgia Reed died in 1933; Pleasant in 1936. Although Pleasant’s life had been that of a modest man the Biloxi newspapers noted in his obituary that he was a man “well known in Biloxi by white and colored.” After her parents’ deaths, Theresa lived in her parents’ home until the 1970s until she moved to New Orleans to be cared for by another family member. Theresa died in 1979.
An Overview of the 19th Century Coastal Economic Structure
The population of Biloxi at the time of Pleasant’s father, George Reed’s arrival in 1869 was about 1,000. The specific reason for the Reed family move to Biloxi is unknown, but anyone who had a cast net, a little practice, and an hour of time could gather food from the Gulf to feed a large family. As the Mobile and New Orleans Railroad expanded to include passenger service between the two cities in the 1870s, new job opportunities related to the railroad became available. Brick factories in the Back Bay and Ocean Springs provided building materials for the region, as did the saw mills, charcoal burners, and turpentine distilleries on Back Bay. Seasonal employment was available in the hotels, restaurants, and summer guest houses. The seafood industry was beginning to use the rail lines to ship fish and shrimp packed on ice to cities across the country. The fish canning industry grew exponentially over the next few decades, providing millions of dollars in wages. The dynamic environment of Biloxi was a magnet for freedman and immigrants.
Compared with the inland parts of Mississippi in the early 1870s, coastal communities were cultural crossroads; a place where the diverse populations of New Orleans and Mobile mixed for both business and pleasure, expanding the population in the summer to three or four thousand. Long before the Civil War, families of Spanish, French and American descents had mingled here with Creoles, Cajuns and freemen of color, to work or to enjoy the Gulf breezes and recreational pursuits that included numerous gambling halls and hotels.
By the mid-1880s, Biloxi had become the center for milling lumber harvested from Southern Mississippi’s “Piney Woods” forests. Logs felled many miles inland were floated down the Biloxi River or delivered by rail to sawmills in Biloxi and Gulfport to be sawn, milled and transported by rail to the Midwest and by ship to the south for use on projects. Lumber in Biloxi was at its least expensive during the period from 1880 to 1910 and local millwork companies were busy at work producing sashes, doors and other architectural elements available at low prices.
The heyday of Biloxi’s place as a bustling center for lumber production began to wane soon after World War I as the great pine forests of Southern Mississippi were cleared of their timber, leaving the seafood industry and tourism as the major sources of employment in the area.