What is it about certain people that gives them the ability to rise above their circumstances, no matter how bleak? Is it a spirit? A gift? Whatever it is, Ferdinand “Ferd” Havis had it.
His rags to riches journey started on a plantation in Desha County in 1846. His mother was a slave, and his father was John Havis, a farmer and a slave owner. Ferd Havis grew up a slave, knowing that he was his father’s property, not his son. After John Havis moved his plantation to Jefferson County, Ferd attended school for a short time and then trained to be a barber. Thanks to a new state constitution that banned slavery in Arkansas, Ferd Havis found himself a free man at 17.
Though he had little education, Ferd Havis was charming and clever. He was also an entrepreneur, putting his new skills to work by opening a barber shop on West Court Street in Pine Bluff that ended up being highly popular—and profitable.
This initial taste of success at a young age whetted his appetite for more. Havis began investing in other businesses in the Pine Bluff area. With an eye for opportunity, Havis could talk himself into any deal in both the white and black business communities.
Havis began his political career in the 1870s. He was elected as a Third Ward alderman in 1872, serving five terms. He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1873 but resigned to accept the post of Jefferson County assessor. For 20 years, Havis served as chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, part of the new black Republican majority which agreed to share power with whites by guaranteeing political offices to both races during Reconstruction. He served as a delegate to the National Republican Convention in 1880, and in 1882, was elected Jefferson County circuit clerk, a position he held for five terms.
Despite his success, not everyone was a fan of Ferd Havis. In 1883, a grand jury investigated the county clerk’s office and learned that Havis had received double pay for his service. Though the grand jury did not indict Havis, his career was affected. In 1888, he was nominated for the U. S. Senate and lost the race. In 1898, President William McKinley nominated Havis for the position of Pine Bluff postmaster, but the Senate refused to confirm his appointment. White citizens of Pine Bluff, along with the local newspaper, had opposed his nomination.
Though relationships between the races were changing for the worse after Reconstruction, the charismatic Havis continued to have influence. In 1892, he built the Ferd Havis Building, an impressive two-story structure at Third and Main streets in downtown Pine Bluff. This building housed several African American-owned businesses over the years and was a popular meeting place for the city’s black society. Havis’ portfolio also included rental properties, a partial stake in several local businesses, and 2,000 acres of prime farmland in Jefferson County. His net worth was estimated at $1 million, an unimaginable fortune at the time, especially for an African American.
Havis died at his home in Pine Bluff in 1918 at the age of 71 after living a long and remarkable life. His relentless entrepreneurial spirit lives on in the lives of those he inspired.
Image Credit: Arkansas State Archives
Sources: Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Greenwood Democrat, African Americans of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County