Isaiah Thornton Montgomery was an African
American leader best known for founding the all-black town of Mound Bayou,
Mississippi and for his public endorsement of black disenfranchisement. Montgomery was born enslaved on May 21, 1847 to Benjamin Thornton and Mary Lewis Montgomery on the
Hurricane Plantation at Davis Bend, an area along the Mississippi River near
Vicksburg, Mississippi. Hurricane
Plantation was owned by Joseph
E. Davis, older brother of future Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis. Benjamin and
Mary were unusual for the era; they were both born in Africa, they were both
literate, and had access to Joseph Davis’s extensive library. They passed that literacy on to their son
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By the beginning of the Civil War, Hurricane Plantation had 350 enslaved people
including Montgomery and his parents.
His father Benjamin was the plantation mechanic, machinist, and
wholesaler in New Orleans, Louisiana; he also managed its cotton transactions and those at
Jefferson Davis’s nearby Brierfield Plantation. Young Isaiah worked as Joseph Davis’s valet
and clerk from 1857 to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.
By 1862, as Union forces steadily moved down the Mississippi River from Memphis
and upriver from occupied New Orleans, Joseph Davis fled the region, leaving
Benjamin Thornton to manage the plantations.
Eventually the Montgomerys fled as well, to Union-occupied territory and
then to Cincinnati, Ohio. Isaiah
Montgomery, however, remained on the Union vessel that transported his parents
north and eventually served as Union Naval Admiral David D. Porter’s cabin boy.
In 1865, after the war ended, 18-year-old Isiah reunited with his parents at
Davis Bend, along with other former Hurricane and Brierfield Plantation
ex-slaves. The community began to
successfully farm land they had formerly worked as slaves but now controlled as
freedpeople. In 1867, led by Benjamin
and Isiah Montgomery, they raised $300,000 to purchase Hurricane and Brierfield
from a now nearly destitute Joseph E. Davis.
Under the leadership of Benjamin and Isiah Montgomery, Davis Bend (as the two
plantations were called) became a “community of cooperation,” as these
freedpeople made the area one of the region’s top cotton producers. This unique experiment lasted until 1877 when
hardening racial politics combined with falling cotton prices, floods, and the
death of Benjamin Montgomery sent Davis Bend into rapid decline. For the next decade Isiah Montgomery searched
for another Mississippi location where he could establish an independent black
In 1887, Montgomery and cousin Benjamin Green co-founded Mound Bayou. For 25 years, this 30,000-acre colony in
Northwest Mississippi was home to nearly 800 black farmers. Montgomery was Mound Bayou’s patriarch,
protecting it from white terrorism through political cooperation with white
supremacist politicians and businessmen. In 1890, for example, 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.
His accommodation to disfranchisement
was praised as pragmatic by white political leaders North and South but he was harshly
criticized by northern black leaders like T. Thomas Fortune. One rising black southern leader, Booker T.
Washington, however, was inspired by Montgomery’s actions and promoted the
strategy in his Atlanta Compromise speech in 1895.
Unlike Washington, Montgomery never completely repudiated black political
participation. In 1904 at the age of 57 he
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. Nonetheless, for the
next two decades, Montgomery remained publicly silent on the Jim Crow laws
sweeping across his region.
When he died on March 5, 1924, at his home in Mound Bayou, he was praised by a few prominent planter
politicians and unmourned by African Americans beyond his circle of family and