Benjamin Thornton Montgomery was born a slave in Loudoun County, Virginia, in 1819. His early childhood was as privileged as was possible for a slave: he served as a companion to his owner’s son, who taught him to read and write. However, in 1836 Montgomery was taken to Natchez and sold to Joseph E. Davis, who was the older brother of future Confederate president Jefferson Davis and whose large plantation holdings lay south of Vicksburg in a large bend in the Mississippi River. Montgomery soon became the beneficiary of the elder Davis’s unconventional ideas regarding slave ownership.
Montgomery quickly displayed his intellectual potential, and Davis allowed the young man free access to the Hurricane Plantation library. Montgomery improved his literacy and developed skills as both a mechanic and a surveyor. In 1840 he married Mary Lewis, with whom he had four children who lived to adulthood. Their two surviving sons, William Thornton Montgomery and Isaiah Thornton Montgomery, became noted figures in Mississippi business and politics.
In 1842 Benjamin Montgomery opened a retail store on Hurricane Plantation, selling general merchandise to both slaves and their owners. Montgomery developed a personal line of credit with wholesalers in both Natchez and New Orleans and bought and sold goods in his own name. Montgomery demonstrated his mechanical ability by inventing a boat propeller that Joseph Davis attempted to have patented in Montgomery’s name. US law, however, did not allow a slave to hold a patent, so Davis’s effort failed, and Montgomery’s invention went unrecognized.
In the years leading to the Civil War, the Montgomery retail enterprise flourished, and the family’s stature increased. Davis and his family fled Davis Bend in 1862, but Montgomery remained behind, organizing and directing the Hurricane and Brierfield Plantation slaves as they planted and harvested crops. Benjamin and Mary Montgomery fled to Ohio with their daughters, Rebecca and Virginia, in 1863 and were soon joined by Isaiah and Thornton. Benjamin Montgomery worked at a canal boat yard in Cincinnati and was allowed to show his boat propeller at the Western Sanitary Fair there in December 1864.
The Montgomerys returned to Davis Bend in 1865, and Ben Montgomery reassumed his leadership role among the former slaves. Davis Bend had been the location of a grand experiment in freedman-operated farming conceived by Union general Ulysses S. Grant and administered by local US Army authorities.
In 1865 Montgomery began regular correspondence with Joseph Davis, opening his letters “Dear Master.” Beginning in 1866, however, Montgomery started his letters with “Kind Sir,” a form of address that clearly indicates a more equal relationship between the two men. In October 1866 Montgomery asked Davis to lease the Hurricane and Brierfield Plantations to him. Davis countered with an offer to sell his plantation holdings to his former slave. They agreed on a price of three hundred thousand dollars, with yearly interest-only payments of eighteen thousand dollars and the principal due in nine years. As a result of this sale, it is quite probable that Benjamin Montgomery owed more money than any other ex-slave in the country. Montgomery wasted no time in publicizing his purchase and in setting up what he hoped would be a great opportunity for himself and other former slaves. Less than a week after the sale papers were signed, Montgomery placed an advertisement in the 21 November 1866 issue of the Vicksburg Daily Times: “The undersigned having secured for a term of years the ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Brierfield’ plantations in Warren County . . . proposes on the 1st day of January, 1867, to organize a community composed exclusively of colored people, to occupy and cultivate said plantations, and invites the cooperation of such as are recommended by honesty, industry, sobriety, and intelligence, in the enterprise.” The ad went on to outline the rules of the “Association,” as Montgomery called the undertaking. Montgomery signed the ad simply, “B. T. Montgomery, Colored, formerly a slave and one of the business managers of Joseph E. Davis, Esq.” It was an audacious beginning of an effort that endured for twenty years.
Raising a cotton crop on lands that were only a weakened levee away from the Mississippi River floods was a perilous business. The farmers succeeded admirably in some years, with Montgomery raising and shipping some two thousand bales of cotton in 1870, the year that Davis died. But far too many years found prime cotton lands covered with floodwaters well into late spring, and Montgomery found it impossible to plant and harvest a sizable crop. As a result, he was frequently unable to pay his former master or his heirs the yearly interest, though he did make partial payments. The Montgomery and Sons grocery and dry goods business flourished, however, and the R. G. Dun Mercantile Agency assessed Benjamin Montgomery’s net worth in 1873 as $230,000, placing him among the top 7 percent of all southern merchants and planters.
In September 1867 Maj. Gen. E. O. C. Ord, commander of the Fourth Military District of Mississippi and Arkansas, appointed Montgomery to serve as justice of the peace for Davis Bend, making him perhaps the first former slave to assume political office in Mississippi. In 1872 Montgomery sent his daughters, Virginia and Rebecca, to Oberlin College, where they studied for two years.
Montgomery was severely injured in late December 1874 when part of a wall fell on him as he was helping to demolish a house. His spinal cord was damaged, and he never quite recovered from the accident. He died on 12 May 1877.
- James T. Currie, Enclave: Vicksburg and Her Plantations, 1863–1870 (1980)
- Janet Sharp Hermann, The Pursuit of a Dream (1981)