The Life and Times of Isaiah T. Montgomery
Isaiah Thornton Montgomery was born enslaved on May 21, 1847, at Hurricane Plantation on Davis Bend, now Davis Island, below Vicksburg, Mississippi. This large and fertile estate near the Mississippi River was one of several Davis Bend plantations owned by Joseph E. Davis, elder brother of Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederate States of America.
Joseph Davis, a small, thoughtful man steeped in the utopian philosophy of the British social reformer Robert Owen, preferred persuasion to compulsion. Believing that he could maximize profit through “rational” and humane labor practices, he created on the plantation what he thought to be a “community of cooperation” based on a limited but still extraordinary degree of self-government and enlightened paternalism. These 350 Black “servants” — he never called them “slaves” even though they were enslaved — were permitted to operate an independent court that, for the most part, managed plantation discipline. His enslaved field hands enjoyed relatively good working conditions, comfortable quarters, adequate food and clothing, and a level of medical and dental care unknown to poor White people.
Isaiah’s parents, Benjamin Thornton and Mary Lewis Montgomery, made the most of such opportunities as Davis’s flawed utopia permitted. Ben managed to buy his wife’s time as a plantation worker from Davis, which allowed Mary to remain at home, work occasionally as a paid seamstress for White people, and rear their five children. Both were literate, and Ben, at least, was given access to the master’s extensive library. Mary’s life has largely escaped the attention of historians, but Ben is known to have been a brilliant and enterprising man who earned his master’s confidence and achieved a level of independence and responsibility that have few parallels in the annals of plantation slavery.
As the bond of this unlikely friendship between Joseph and Ben deepened, Ben emerged as the most favored and influential enslaved man at Hurricane. Joseph encouraged Ben’s desire for improved reading and writing skills, and Ben applied his developing talents as a mechanic, machinist, and civil engineer to the needs of a thriving plantation. Ben also managed the cotton transactions for both Joseph and his brother Jefferson, twenty-four years younger and the owner of nearby Brierfield Plantation. In 1842, five years before Isaiah’s birth, Ben was allowed to open his own small dry goods store at Hurricane. Although initially dependent on Joseph’s financial backing, this mercantile establishment flourished and Ben soon established his own credit line with New Orleans wholesalers. For a time, Ben even financed an extraordinary biracial education experiment in which a White tutor of his employ taught the Montgomery and Davis children in a single classroom.
Like his father, Isaiah was a quick study who rapidly rose in Davis’s esteem. As his master’s valet and clerk since age ten, Isaiah served the Davis household in varied capacities. Taught to read and write by his parents, and then formally educated, briefly, in the plantation school, he too enjoyed ready access to the Davis library and to the periodicals and newspapers that arrived at Hurricane through the mail. By his own estimate, he acquired, through “a great deal” of reading and daily interaction with educated White people, “a fair knowledge of history and current events, . . . language and composition.” He was thirteen years old when Jefferson Davis was elected President of the Confederacy, and fifteen years old when the American Civil War disrupted the plantation routine at Davis Bend — the war fought between Union (northern) and Confederate (southern) states.
Civil War and Reconstruction
In April 1862, as the Union forces tightened the grip on the lower Mississippi River, Joseph fled inland from his river plantations, taking with him his family and some of his enslaved workers. Ben and Isaiah remained at Hurricane to protect the plantation house and grounds. By that date, however, the war had exposed undercurrents of slave discontent not previously suspected by Joseph Davis, and his “community of cooperation” was collapsing. Threatened by intermittent raids by both Confederate and Union soldiers, Joseph could only watch from afar as his White overseers deserted, and his trusted “servants” joined in the looting of his possessions and fled his control in wholesale numbers. Confederate forces burned his cotton; Union raiders destroyed Hurricane and stripped Jefferson Davis’s Brierfield Plantation. Isaiah’s father closed his mercantile store and, for a time, he and Isaiah struggled to provide for the remaining Davis Bend labor force. Their best efforts were quickly overwhelmed by wartime social disintegration, however, and they too left Davis Bend.
Briefly, Ben was employed in the repair of Union naval vessels by David D. Porter, the commander of the Union’s Mississippi fleet who thought him to be “an ingenious mechanic.” After Porter helped the Montgomerys relocate to the safety of Cincinnati, Ohio, Isaiah remained behind as the admiral’s own cabin boy. In late 1863, dangerously ill with a persisting dysentery, Isaiah too was sent out of harm’s way to Ohio. At war’s end, Ben would return to Hurricane with his sons Thornton and Isaiah and reopen his mercantile exchange.
Meanwhile, amid the chaos of war, as growing numbers of destitute slave refugees became a Union responsibility, Davis Bend once again became the site of a utopian experiment. Initially known as “General Grant’s Negro paradise,” after the Union general who sought to create a haven for slave refugees, the fertile fields of Davis Bend were managed by the Freedmen’s Department of the military during the war and by the Freedmen’s Bureau immediately afterward. The land itself was farmed at first collectively by slave refugees, then in separate parcels of from five or ten to one hundred acres by black lessees, many of whom had no prior connection to Davis Bend.
When the war ended in 1865 so too did this promising experiment in land reform and Black autonomy. Although Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured by Union forces and imprisoned for two years after the war, Joseph Davis and other Davis Bend planters were soon pardoned and their lands restored to them. The elderly and now nearly insolvent Joseph Davis did not return to his plantations, however. Even before he regained full possession of his land, he leased it to the Montgomerys soon after their return from Ohio. Then, in 1867, in one of the more astonishing turnabouts in southern history, this former master sold to his favorite former enslaved men both Hurricane and Brierfield for $300,000.00 at very liberal terms. Scarcely half a decade out of bondage, the Montgomerys now numbered among the region’s largest cotton producers.
A planter-merchant family
There is no other American story quite like that of the Montgomerys in the early aftermath of slavery. Having effectively freed themselves by taking refuge in Cincinnati, they returned to the place of their bondage, legally freed by the Thirteenth Amendment. In early 1865, Ben and his sons re-established their store at Hurricane as Montgomery and Sons. Isaiah was assigned the bookkeeping and correspondence. Once in possession of the Davis estates, they became the third largest cotton producers in Mississippi. They improved the land, diversified their crops, restored the buildings, and produced prize-winning long-staple cotton. Their cotton took first place at the famous St. Louis Fair in 1870, and the top awards again at expositions in both Cincinnati (1873) and Philadelphia (1878). They bought a third Davis Bend plantation, which increased their holdings and labor force to more than 5,500 acres and 1,000 field hands. They established a second mercantile store in Vicksburg. White people sometimes remarked that they were “the best planter[s] in the county and perhaps in the state.”
As was their custom, they all worked uncommonly hard. Ben assumed overall management of the estates and lived at Brierfield in the mansion once owned by Jefferson Davis. Isaiah, then twenty-three, married Martha Robb, a former enslaved woman, in 1872 and moved his bride into a home at Hurricane where he oversaw day-to-day plantation activities. His brother Thornton operated the store in Vicksburg. All of the Montgomery women took their place in the field, Isaiah’s mother Mary as an overseer and Isaiah’s sisters as pickers during the harvest.
But if the Montgomerys worked hard, they also enjoyed a lifestyle much like that of the wealthiest antebellum planters. By the standards of their class they were anything but extravagant, but they employed domestic servants, honored the traditions of abundant southern hospitality, and set an elegant table on festive occasions. They all read passionately. The Montgomery daughters, as befitted young ladies of the planter class, were accomplished at the piano, wore the latest fashions, and attended college in Ohio at Oberlin.
These, however, were exceedingly difficult years for planters everywhere in the South. Successive bad crops, low prices, flooding, and debt overtook the Montgomery’s operations. Their stores were bankrupted and ownership of their land reverted to the Davis family in 1881. Ben died in 1877, and Mary soon followed; both were buried in the Davis family cemetery. Isaiah nearly died of an illness, and he and Martha moved their family to Vicksburg.
Isaiah’s life’s work, however, was just beginning. His health recovered and so did his appetite for yet another experiment in “race building.” Having been raised on the philosophical conversations of Joseph Davis and his father, Isaiah shared their wish for a “community of cooperation.” It was his conviction, however, that utopia could not be built by bond “servants” as Davis believed, nor by tenant farmers as his father had hoped. Rather, he would pursue his dream of achievement, pride, and independence for his race in an all-black colony of autonomous landowners who farmed on their own account.
The Mississippi Delta proved to his liking, and in 1887, at age forty, Isaiah (with his cousin Benjamin Green) founded the town of Mound Bayou as the commercial center for a large colony of Black farm owners. From its early beginnings as a raw settlement carved out of the Bolivar County wilderness, Mound Bayou became a place of Black refuge in a hostile world and a laboratory for Black economic development. Reflecting the self-segregating tendencies of conservative Black thought during the age of Jim Crow, Montgomery liked to boast that “Not a single white person resides or owns property within [Mound Bayou’s] limits.” As the village grew and its commercial establishments expanded, he and other town leaders called it the “Jewel of the Delta” and the “Negro capital of Mississippi.” President Theodore Roosevelt thought it to be an “object lesson full of hope for the colored people.” Booker T. Washington described it as both a “school” and an “inspiration.” In an age of rigidly enforced racial separation, Montgomery’s community seemed to be the very model of separate Black economic development, a vibrant example of a “group economy” in which Black dollars circulated in a closed Black economic order.
Self-governing and self-sustaining, Mound Bayou grew in Montgomery’s lifetime into a town of some 800 inhabitants surrounded by a larger Black colony of some 30,000 acres. It had lighted streets, little crime, a bank, churches, schools, and more than forty retail establishments. Some of its homes were among the finest in the Delta. Montgomery, as first citizen of Mound Bayou and one of its more prosperous merchants and larger land holders, built a twenty-one room red brick mansion as his family residence.
After World War I, the town in the 1920s, like small agricultural centers throughout the region, began a rapid and irreversible decline, however, and by World War II in the 1940s it was no longer a showplace. But until the day he died in 1924, Montgomery had reason to think of Mound Bayou not only as the most notable achievement of his 77 years, but as an enduring monument to what he called the “genius of the Negro race.”
Neil R. McMillen, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Southern Mississippi, and the author of Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow and The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954-64.
Hermann, Janet Sharp. The Pursuit of a Dream. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981
McMillen, Neil R. Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989
Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Supplement Vol 10, Mississippi Narratives (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press,
Redding, Saunders. The Lonesome Road: The Story of the Negro’s Past in America Garden City. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1958
Silver, David M. “In the Eye of the Storm: Isaiah T. Montgomery and the Plight of Black Mississippians.” Honors Thesis, Amherst University, 1993.
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