Isaiah T. Montgomery was born a slave on May 21st, 1847. At the time of his birth, his entire family was the property of plantation owner Joseph E. Davis, older brother of future Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis. By the beginning of the civil war Hurricane plantation (which was the name of Joseph E. Davis’s plantation) had over 350 enslaved people including Montgomery and his parents.
By 1862, with union forces headed in his direction, Joseph E. Davis decided to flee the region leaving the plantation in the hands of Benjamin Thorton (Isaiah’s father) who at that point, was already the plantation mechanic, machinist, and wholesaler in New Orleans.
Ultimately, the Montgomery family fled to a Union-occupied territory for safety, then to Cincinnati, Ohio. Isaiah T. Montgomery remained on the vessel that transported his parents north and eventually served as Union Navel Admiral David D. Porter’s cabin boy.
In 1865, after the war ended, an 18-year-old Montgomery reconnected with his family as well as other former slaves at Davis Bend, which was the same property they were once enslaved on. As a community, they began to successfully farm the land. In 1867, led by Montgomery and his cousin Benjamin, they raised $300,000 to purchase the property from a nearly destitute Joseph E. Davis.
Under the leadership of the two cousins, the area became one of the top cotton producers in the region. In 1877, the death of Benjamin Montgomery along with hardened racial politics made it impossible for Davis Bend to continue. Over the subsequent decade, Isaiah T. Montgomery searched for another location in Mississippi to establish his all-black community.
In 1887, he founded Mound Bayou. For 25 years this 30,000-acre colony in northwest Mississippi was home to over 800 black farmers. Montgomery was Mound Bayou’s patriarch, doing whatever necessary to protect his community from white terrorism. Through political cooperation with white supremacist politicians and businessman he was able to keep Mound Bayou safe, but it came at a cost.
In 1890, for example, while serving as the only black delegate at the Mississippi Constitutional Convention, he publically endorsed the disenfranchisement of 123,000 black voters. His views were praised as pragmatic by white politicians from the north and south and he was harshly criticized by northern black leaders like T. Thomas Fortune. So, while Isaiah T. Montgomery was an innovator who possessed the vision and foresight to establish his own town, aligning himself with white supremacist and right-wing politicians had the potential to negatively affect black society as a whole.