In some individuals, there is a certain indomitable spirit that allows them or pushes them to rise above the well of despair that their lives may be. Long after others have given up and often in spite of crushing obstacles, they will push on. Such is the story of Ferdinand Havis, perhaps the ultimate rags-to-riches story in Arkansas History. Born a slave, he rose to become a millionaire businessman.
Havis was born as a slave on a plantation in Desha County in November 1846. His mother was a slave, and his father was slave owner John Havis. Whether his mother consented to this relationship or not is unknown. Such relationships between slave owners and slaves were not unusual and often did produce children. This was a violent age in America, and enslaved men and women had no rights. Regardless, Havis did not grow up as his father’s son but as his father’s property, to dispose of as he pleased.
In 1859, John Havis moved his plantation to Jefferson County. The slave population was approaching one-quarter of the total population of the state, and the Civil War was growing closer. The plantation remained in the area throughout the war.
In 1863, the Confederates were thrust from power and a Unionist government began to organize. In March 1864, the new state constitution banned slavery in Arkansas, and Ferdinand Havis was freed at the age of 17.
Havis had little education, but he was known to be charming and clever. He moved to nearby Pine Bluff and trained to become a barber. Soon, he owned his own barber shop, which became extremely popular in the city. Already a successful businessman at a very young age, Havis was not content. He began investing in other local businesses and in local properties, building a considerable portfolio in the process. He had an eye for opportunity, and he could talk himself into any deal, in both the white and black business communities. Along the way, he became a respected leader in Pine Bluff.
In the 1870s, he dove into local politics. He was elected to the city council, and in 1872, he was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives. After the chaotic legislative session in early 1873, Havis resigned and accepted the open position as Jefferson County Assessor. He was elected circuit clerk in 1882. Along the way, he did have his detractors. He was accused of double-dipping as circuit clerk, but not enough evidence emerged to send it to trial. He was also accused of illegally operating a tavern he partially owned on Sundays.
In 1888, he was nominated for the U. S. Senate. Senate elections at that time took place in the state legislatures, and he lost the race. Ten years later, President William McKinley nominated Havis for the position of postmaster for Pine Bluff. A presidential nomination was a coveted honor, but the nomination died in the Senate.
Nevertheless, he continued to expand his business interests. In 1892, he built an impressive two-story building in downtown Pine Bluff called simply the Ferd Havis Building, which housed several African-American-owned businesses over the years. By this time, he owned not only rental houses and partial interests in businesses across the area, but he also owned 2,000 acres of prime farmland in Jefferson County. He had amassed a fortune, which was steadily growing. In a time of immense poverty for Arkansas, for both blacks and whites, researchers and contemporaries believe that Havis had become a millionaire, an amazing accomplishment and even more so for a man who started with less than nothing.
He died at his home in Pine Bluff in the summer of 1918 at the age of 71.