Isaiah Thornton Montgomery was born enslaved on May 21, 1847 on the Hurricane Plantation at Davis Bend, an area along the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, Mississippi to Benjamin Thornton and Mary Lewis Montgomery. Hurricane Plantation was owned by Joseph E. Davis, older brother of future Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Hurricane Plantation had 350 enslaved people including Montgomery and his parents. Isaiah father Benjamin was the plantation mechanic, machinist, and wholesaler in New Orleans, Louisiana. He also managed the plantation cotton transactions and those at Jefferson Davis’s nearby Brierfield Plantation. While Isaiah worked as Joseph Davis’s valet and clerk from 1857 to the start of the Civil War in 1861.
In 1862, while Union forces moved down the Mississippi River from Memphis and upriver from occupied New Orleans, Joseph Davis left the region, leaving Benjamin Thornton to manage the plantations. Later the Montgomery’s fled as well, to Union-occupied territory and later going to Cincinnati, Ohio. Isaiah Montgomery, however, stayed on the Union vessel that transported his parents north and served as Union Naval Admiral David D. Porter’s cabin boy.
In 1865, once the war ended, 18-year-old Isaiah reunited with his parents at Davis Bend, alongside former Hurricane and Brierfield Plantation enslaved people. The community started to farm land they had formerly worked as slaves, however, now controlled as freed people. In 1867, led by Benjamin and Isiah Montgomery, the pair raised $300,000 to purchase Hurricane and Brierfield from a destitute Joseph E. Davis.
Now under the leadership of Benjamin and Isiah Montgomery, Davis Bend (as the two plantations were called) became a “community of cooperation,” as these freed people made the area one of the region’s top cotton producers. This would last until 1877 when politics combined with falling cotton prices, floods, and the death of Benjamin Montgomery sent Davis Bend into rapid decline. Then the next decade Isiah Montgomery searched for another Mississippi location where he could establish an independent Black community.
In 1887, Montgomery and his cousin Benjamin Green co-founded Mound Bayou. For the next 25 years, this 30,000-acre colony in Northwest Mississippi was home to nearly 800 black farmers. Montgomery would become Mound Bayou’s patriarch, protecting it from white terrorism through political cooperation with white supremacist politicians and businessmen. In 1890 while serving as the only black delegate to the Mississippi Constitutional Convention, he publicly endorsed the disenfranchisement of 123,000 black voters, hoping to trade their rights for protection for Mound Bayou from neighboring white encroachments and violence. The accommodation to disfranchisement was praised as pragmatic by white political leaders North and South but he was criticized by black leaders like T. Thomas Fortune. At time Booker T. Washington, was inspired by Montgomery’s actions and promoted the strategy in his Atlanta Compromise speech in 1895.
In 1904 at the age of 57 Montgomery served as a Mississippi delegate to the Republican National Convention, and the following year he persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to briefly visit Mound Bayou by train. For the next two decades, Montgomery remained publicly silent on the Jim Crow laws sweeping across his region. Montgomery died on March 5, 1924, at his home in Mound Bayou.
Leon Litwack and August Meier (eds.), Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois
Press, 1991); David H. Jackson, A Chief Lieutenant of the Tuskegee Machine: Charles Banks of Mississippi (Gainesville, FL: University of
Florida Press, 2002). Ruffin II, H. (2007, January 17). Isaiah T. Montgomery (1847-1924).
Link to original source