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Montgomery, Benjamin Thornton VA

American National Biography Online

Montgomery, Benjamin Thornton (1819-12 May 1877), businessman,
was born a slave in Loudoun County, Virginia. As the boyhood
companion of his owner's son, Montgomery completed in the afternoon
the lessons the young white boy learned from his tutor in the
morning. In this manner Montgomery gained a basic education.
In 1836 he was sold to a trader who transported him to Natchez,
Mississippi, where he was purchased by Joseph Davis, elder brother
of Jefferson Davis, and settled on Davis Bend below Vicksburg.
Davis had determined to apply the reform principles of Robert
Owen, who sought order and efficiency in the management of industrial
labor, to the management of his plantations. This required a
rational relationship between owner and worker that, in Davis's
application, meant a relationship between master and slave based
on kindness, not cruelty, and on wholesome living conditions,
not squalor. Davis sought and gained the confidence of Montgomery
in his reform endeavor and gave the young slave access to his
library. Montgomery learned to survey the land, construct levees,
and design architectural plans for the construction of plantation
buildings. He also gained the mechanical skills necessary to
operate the plantation's steam-powered cotton gin. As a slave
on Davis Bend, Montgomery enjoyed significant privileges and
emerged as the leading figure of the slave community.

On Christmas Eve 1840 Montgomery formed a conjugal union with
Mary Lewis, the daughter of Virginia slaves who had been among
the earliest settlers on Davis Bend. Marriage among slaves had
no legal standing, but Montgomery worked successfully to establish
a nuclear family. From his earnings, Montgomery paid Davis the
equivalent of his wife's earnings to ensure that she would live
and labor only in the Montgomery household. Four of their children
lived to become adults, but slavery severely limited Montgomery's
ability to maintain an independent household. When Davis and
his wife Eliza wanted to take the Montgomerys' youngest son,
Isaiah Thornton Montgomery, into their house as a servant, the
child's parents could only express their anguish. Davis, in his
role as Owenite manager, attempted to console the Montgomerys
by promising to oversee the boy's education.

With the initial assistance of Davis, Montgomery became a successful
merchant, importing manufactured goods from New Orleans and selling
them to the slaves on Davis Bend in exchange for chickens and
vegetables they raised on their garden plots. Davis subsidized
Montgomery's first consignment from New Orleans in 1842, but
thereafter Montgomery maintained his own account with his New
Orleans suppliers. Montgomery's store also provided the white
planters and their families with a convenient means of purchasing
goods from distant points of manufacture. The produce that Montgomery
acquired in this trade supplied the Mississippi River steamboats
with fresh food. Montgomery's combined store and home were located
near the Davis Bend steamboat landing, where he became a key
figure in Davis's efforts to achieve, within a slave labor system,
aspects of the Owenite ideal of harmonizing the moral virtues
of agrarian life with the material benefits of industry.

The Civil War and, specifically, General Ulysses S. Grant's
campaign against Vicksburg thoroughly disrupted life and labor
on Davis Bend. Joseph Davis sought refuge for himself and his
family in the interior of the state, but most of his slaves,
Montgomery included, did not follow. Freed under the terms of
the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863, Montgomery resettled
his family in Cincinnati in June 1863. Both of his sons briefly
served with Admiral David D. Porter's Mississippi Squadron before
joining their father in Cincinnati. After Vicksburg fell on 4
July 1863, Union forces commanded by Admiral Porter took control
of Davis Bend. Almost completely surrounded by the Mississippi
River, the bend was easily defended by gunboats. With a detachment
of black soldiers guarding the neck of the bend, Porter reported
in the fall of 1863 that about six hundred freedmen had returned
to the bend and were preparing enthusiastically for the 1864
agricultural season.

In March 1864 President Abraham Lincoln placed freedmen affairs
in the Mississippi Valley under the control of the army, whose
Bureau of Negro Affairs appointed Colonel Samuel Thomas as superintendent for the bend. Federal authorities confiscated the Davis plantations as "abandoned lands," and Treasury Department agents leased much of the Davis plantation to white speculators. Nevertheless, under Thomas's direction 180 black lessees farmed an average of thirty acres each on the bend during the 1864 season and raised 130
bales of cotton despite an army worm infestation. When leases
expired in November 1864, Thomas excluded white planters from
the bend, declaring that the land was reserved for "military
purposes" and that it would be devoted to the "colonization,
residence and support of the Freedmen." In March 1865 Congress
created the Freedmen's Bureau (officially the Bureau of Refugees,
Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands), and Thomas became bureau commissioner
for Mississippi. In the spring of 1865 the Montgomery family
returned to Davis Bend. Montgomery became a central figure in
a dispute between Thomas and Davis as Davis led his family's
efforts to regain control of their antebellum plantations.

Early in October 1865 Davis, now eighty years old, moved to
Vicksburg. Since his only remaining assets, the Davis Bend plantations,
were a prime target for federal confiscation, Davis eagerly sought
a business partnership with Montgomery. On 21 October Davis leased
the Davis Bend land to Montgomery for the 1866 agricultural year.
Thomas fought this effort to wrest the Davis plantations from
bureau control and described Montgomery as a "shrewd and intelligent"
agent serving the interests of his former master. In April 1866
President Andrew Johnson replaced Thomas as bureau commissioner.
In September the president pardoned Davis, and the Freedmen's
Bureau settled its dispute with the Davis family by agreeing
to pay Davis the income from the Montgomery lease while maintaining
management of the estates until January 1867. Rather than resume
direct control of the Davis Bend estates, Davis agreed to sell
the land to "Montgomery & Sons" for $300,000 over a period of
ten years. With the approbation of the New York Times and the
suspicion of whites in Vicksburg, the Davis Bend estates began
production in 1867 entirely under black direction and control.

In partnership with Davis, Montgomery flourished as a merchant
on the bend. Montgomery & Sons extended credit to 80 percent
of the freedmen on the bend, accepting cotton in exchange for
merchandise. Montgomery had become a prominent figure in Reconstruction
era Mississippi. In 1867 he became Mississippi's first black
justice of the peace, and by 1872, despite serious financial
difficulties, the Montgomerys were the wealthiest black family in the South.

Unfortunately for Montgomery & Sons, the spring of 1867 brought
devastating floods that cut a channel across the narrow western
neck of the peninsula, turning Davis Bend into the more isolated
Davis Island. The 1867 and 1868 seasons put Montgomery & Sons--plantations
and store--in debt, and although their fortunes improved somewhat
over the next several years, the Montgomerys were never able
to pay any of the principal of the debt they owed Davis.

Late in December 1874, while Montgomery was working with a crew
to raze an old building, a wall collapsed. Montgomery sustained
severe injuries from which he never fully recovered. His death,
combined with repeated floods, poor crops, and declining cotton
prices, made the economic status of the Montgomery firm increasingly
unstable. In 1878 the Mississippi State Supreme Court awarded
one of Joseph Davis's plantations to Jefferson Davis. In 1881
foreclosure proceedings forced the Montgomery family to sell
all their mortgaged lands to Jefferson Davis and the heirs of
Joseph Davis. In 1887 Isaiah Montgomery, already a prominent
spokesman for black accommodation to segregation, relocated his
family to 700 purchased acres in northern Mississippi, where
he founded the new black town of Mound Bayou.


Approximately two hundred letters from Montgomery and his sons
are in the Joseph E. Davis Family Papers in the Mississippi Department
of Archives and History, Jackson, Miss. Substantial materials
relating to Montgomery and his activities on Davis Bend during
the Civil War and Reconstruction, including his disputes with
the Freedmen's Bureau, are located in the Records of the Bureau
of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Mississippi, Assistant
Commissioner, Letters Received, RG 105, National Archives, Washington,
D.C. On Reconstruction in Miss. see the classic study by Vernon
Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi, 1865-1890 (1947), and
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution,
1863-1877 (1988). The history of Montgomery's enterprise is the
subject of Janet Sharp Harmine, The Pursuit of a Dream (1981).
The family's status as the wealthiest black family in the South
is recorded in Loren Schweninger, Black Property Owners in the
South, 1790-1915 (1990). The hopes that abolitionists attached
to the Davis Bend community and the impact of Federal wartime
policies toward southern blacks on that community are treated
in Louis S. Girds, From Contraband to Freedman: Federal Policy
toward Southern Blacks, 1861-1865 (1973).

Louis S. Gerteis

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Louis S. Gerteis. "Montgomery, Benjamin Thornton";;
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
Access Date:
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18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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