Since time immemorial, African-American inventors have held their own in their chosen fields of endeavor and made several contributions to make the world a better place. Whether enslaved or freed, African Americans did invent and innovate but were often not allowed to patent their inventions. Such was the case of Benjamin T. Montgomery. In 1864, Montgomery tried to patent his new propeller for steamboats but the U.S. Patent Office rejected his application because he was enslaved.
Montgomery was born enslaved in Loudoun County, Virginia, in 1819. Sources say he 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 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. But it was his excellent work with machines that put him in history books. As historians pointed out, Montgomery invented a lot of machines, though the exact number remains unknown. The most popular of his inventions was the steamboat propeller he designed for shallow waters in the 1850s.
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“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 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. Curiously, the Patent Office during this period didn’t demand race to be a factor when applying for a patent, yet Black inventors had to often use White third parties to obtain patents in order not to be discriminated against. Though the first known Black inventor to successfully get a patent was Thomas L. Jennings of New York in 1821, Black inventors often faced discrimination. Laws regarding patents did change at any point in time. There were times that people applying for an American patent were required to be citizens of the United States. Other times, non-citizens were allowed to receive American patents.
But what perhaps complicated the issues of many Black inventors including Montgomery was 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. Joseph Holt, head of the Patent Office at the time, who was from Kentucky, applied this to patent law. In other words, 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. Slaveowners at the time challenged this but to no avail. A senator even submitted a bill in 1859 that would have allowed slaveowners to patent the inventions of their slaves, but that also did not materialize. Following the Civil War in 1860, the new Confederate States of America formed its own patent office, but sources say that no one ever filed a patent with it as the war was ongoing and people were just busy fighting.
Montgomery, who was a merchant and business manager on the plantation of Joseph Davis, took over the plantation after it was burned to the ground by Union soldiers on June 24, 1862. The following year, however, he traveled to Cincinnati to have his propeller displayed at the Western Sanitary Fair. People in the North used the Fairs to raise money during the Civil War. Amid all the segregation and discrimination, Montgomery felt unwelcome while there so he returned to Joseph’s plantation after the Civil War and bought the plantation from Joseph and his brother in late 1866.
But he had to do this in secret as 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. It became known as Davis Bend, an all-Black town made up of former enslaved African Americans. 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 made matters worse for 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, would have none of that. In 1870 when Joseph died, Jefferson took back the land from Montgomery.
In four years, Montgomery got injured while demolishing a home. He never fully recovered and passed away on May 12, 1877. But a year before he died, his inventions were displayed at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia. At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, some of his inventions were also put on display. His children, William Thornton Montgomery and Isaiah Thornton Montgomery would become influential figures in politics and business in Mississippi.