How a former slave bought the plantation he was enslaved on in the 1860s

Mildred Europa Taylor August 01, 2022
Benjamin Montgomery. Public domain image

One of the first all-Black towns developed after the Civil War was Davis Bend. An enslaved Black man, Benjamin Montgomery, founded the town located on property he was once enslaved on. The property was known as the “Joseph Davis Plantation” before Mongtomery bought it and turned it into a town for his fellow Blacks to live safely. But he had to buy the property in secret as he was a Black man and a former slave.

Born enslaved in Loudoun County, Virginia, in 1819, sources say Montgomery learned to read and write from a young age while serving as a companion to his owner’s son. But by 1837, he was sold in a slave auction to Joseph Davis, the brother of the future president of the Confederate State of America Jefferson Davis. The two brothers lived south of Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they owned large plantations next to each other.

While working on the plantation of the Davis brothers, Montgomery was allowed to use the plantation library, where he honed his literacy skills and soon began learning land surveying and architectural drafting. He would enter history books partly because of his excellent work with machines. Montgomery invented a lot of machines, with the most popular being the steamboat propeller he designed for shallow waters in the 1850s. 

“This invention was of particular value because, during that time, steamboats delivered food and other necessities through often-shallow waterways connecting settlements. If the boats got stuck, life-sustaining supplies would be delayed for days or weeks,” Smithsonian Magazine said of his invention.

Despite the uniqueness of his invention, when he tried to apply for a patent in 1864, he was denied because of his status as an enslaved Black man. The infamous Supreme Court decision of Dredd Scott v. Sanford in 1857, which said that all people of African descent, free or enslaved, were not United States citizens and therefore had no right to sue in federal court, also made matters worse for Montgomery and other Black inventors. Per that decision, Montgomery was not a citizen, and could not patent his invention.

Jefferson Davis and his brother Joseph even tried to patent Montgomery’s invention in 1859, but they were not allowed to do so as they didn’t invent the device. The Civil War would begin in two years. During this period, Montgomery was a merchant and business manager on the plantation of Joseph Davis. He took over the plantation after it was burned to the ground by Union soldiers on June 24, 1862. In four years, Montgomery bought the plantation from Joseph and his brother.

As already stated, he had to do this in secret. Even though slaves were now free it was still not legal to sell land to Black people in Mississippi. At the end of the day, Joseph Davis sold the plantation to Montgomery for $300,000 in gold at a 6 percent interest rate and that plantation became Davis Bend. By 1867, Montgomery had been appointed to serve as a justice of the peace for Davis Bend, making him perhaps the first formerly enslaved to assume political office in Mississippi.

But along the way, Davis Bend’s surrounding white communities rose up to quash the town. A bad harvest and flooding also ruined Davis Bend. At this point, Montgomery struggled to pay his former owners, that is, the Davis brothers, the yearly interest. Joseph Davis wanted to let go of the interest payments but his brother, Jefferson, was against that. In 1870 when Joseph died, Jefferson took back the land from Montgomery. 

Montgomery passed away on May 12, 1877, but one of his sons, Isaiah T. Montgomery, followed in his footsteps by purchasing 840 acres of land to found the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi in 1887, along with some ex-slaves. Isaiah and his cousin, Benjamin Green, founded Mound Bayou after they and the other residents were forced to abandon Davis Bend.

Mound Bayou became the largest African-American community in the nation. It also became infamous in the 1950s for the role it played in the Emmet Till Murder case, which turned out to be one of the most heinous crimes ever committed. 


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