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History

Isaiah Thornton Montgomery: From Enslavement to Prosperity

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Isaiah Montgomery
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Isaiah Thornton Montgomery is one of the most fascinating people to have lived in Warren County during the time of Emancipation.

Despite having been born enslaved, Isaiah was allowed to receive an education from an early age and proved himself to be incredibly intelligent even as a young man. His early education played an essential part in his future following the Civil War as he set out to create a life and refuge for other Freedmen and women seeking safety among the increasingly hostile Jim Crow South that had emerged in the late 1800s. Having served many roles throughout his time, his life’s work challenged the ignorance of the Old South philosophy of African Americans and set a precedent for the future of the Nation.

Born on Hurricane Plantation

Hurricane Plantation

Davis Island, Hurricane Plantation

Born in October of 1847 on Hurricane Plantation, Isaiah was the son of Benjamin and Mary Montgomery. Hurricane was the property of Joseph E. Davis, the older brother of Jefferson Davis, which was located on a bend in the river in the southern region of Warren County, Mississippi. Those enslaved at Hurricane had access to the Davis library on the property, an opportunity that was not given to the vast majority of enslaved people in the Old South. Isaiah was taught to read and write at an early age, and with these tools excelled through further self-education.  Recognized for his rapid intellectual growth, he was placed in charge of helping with the book and record-keeping on the plantation when he was still in his teens.

In 1862, just as War was heating up in Mississippi, Joe Davis took his slaves to Jackson, Mississippi and later further into Alabama. Isaiah Montgomery and his mother were told to stay behind as caretakers of the plantation, which they did. They were present when Admiral David Porter’s fleet arrived at Davis Bend on their campaign up the Mississippi River. Having spent some time there before departing in 1863, Porter had recognized Isaiah’s potential and invited him aboard his vessel as a cabin boy and record keeper. Isaiah was present with Porter’s fleet just a few months later during the Siege of Vicksburg and later at the Battle of Grand Gulf, before succumbing to illness from contaminated drinking water. He was sent back to his mother at Hurricane, but soon found upon arriving that his family had gone north to Cincinnati where transportation was secured for Isaiah to join them. He and his family remained in Cincinnati until the end of the War.

Montgomery buys the plantation

Once the War had ended, Joseph E. Davis reached out to Benjamin Montgomery with a proposition for the Hurricane property. Davis sought to recover his losses, and the Montgomerys saw this as an opportunity to claim their stake in the post-emancipation United States. Despite their agreement, laws were slow to change which hindered the rights of the Freedmen from purchasing the land. Isaiah along with his father Benjamin and brother William, went through the courts to secure an agreement that the State would recognize. They agreed to pay $300,000 over the course of the agreement, which was to be paid in installments of 6% of the total each year until complete.

Their first year working on the land was met with many struggles. Damage had accumulated from the lack of use throughout the War, flooding had devastated crops, and most of the money from crop sales had to be put directly back into the land to get it back into working condition. Despite these hardships, the Montgomerys knew the land well, and in time became the third-ranking producer of cotton in Warren County. They remained there for thirteen years until the death of Joseph Davis, which resulted in a land dispute between his children and the Montgomerys.

Hurricane Plantation library

Hurrican Plantation Library

A land dispute

Although they had lost their stake at Hurricane, Isaiah had already begun developing a plan for their futures.

For the time, Isaiah and his family moved into the City of Vicksburg and worked a sawmill and gin they had established during their time at Hurricane. The Y. & M. V. Railroad Company had been seeking Freedmen to “open up the country” by developing communities along their rail line, and Isaiah upon learning about this took several trips to scope out the lands available. After the end of Reconstruction, Federal troops left the area which invited the presence of racial hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan that sought to disenfranchise Freedmen in the South. Isaiah wanted a place void of this discrimination, where his people could prosper in a safe and self-sufficient environment.

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In 1887 he had selected a location in Bolivar County, Mississippi at the site of an old Native American mound. Although the territory was untamed and thickly grown, the soil was rich and Isaiah believed it would be an ideal location for a Freedman exclusive town away from the prejudices of the developing Jim Crow South. It was here that he established the settlement of Mound Bayou.

It was hard work

Early building of the community was slow and treacherously hard work. Without a levee system in place, flooding was almost constant, disease spread easily in the damp environment, boll weevil infestations devastated crops, and not all who came to the area had the patience to see Isaiah’s plan unfold. In time though, Mound Bayou turned from a small settlement into a thriving town and community. By the turn of the 19th century the town’s population had grown to nearly 3,500, and two large mercantile establishments had been created boasting a stock of $20,000 each. The Mound Bayou State Bank had $10,000 in capital with an additional surplus of resources valued at an estimated $200,000. A three-story schoolhouse had been completed at the cost of $100,000, and many other amenities were available that invested in the future of their community. Isaiah had a hand in every endeavor taken at Mound Bayou. He served as the town’s first Mayor, served on the Board of Directors, and was president of the State Bank. He had proven once again his capability as a leader, and his town had become a haven for many seeking refuge and opportunity.

A remarkable man

The life of Isaiah Thornton Montgomery stands as a remarkable testament to resilience, intelligence, and visionary leadership in the face of adversity. Driven by a vision of self-sufficiency and freedom from racial prejudice, Montgomery transformed the untamed Delta land into a thriving town and haven for African Americans in the post-emancipation United States. His life and legacy should continue to inspire generations, reminding us of the power of education, resilience, and collective action in the ongoing struggle for equality and justice.

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