Isaiah Montgomery was an African American leader best known for his politics of accommodation and founding the all-black town Mound Bayou. Montgomery was enslaved at Hurricane plantation, near Vicksburg, Mississippi. During the Civil War, he served in the Union as cabin boy on several ships engaged in the capture in 1863 of Mississippi from Confederate control. After the war, Montgomery and his family returned to Hurricane where his father purchased the plantation and several other plantations that collectively became the black community, Davis Bend. In 1872, Montgomery managed Hurricane, the largest plantation at Davis Bend. After his father’s death in 1879, falling agriculture prices, floods, and declining political conditions sent Davis Bend into decline and forced Montgomery to search for a new location to establish another black community.
In 1887, Montgomery co-founded Mound Bayou. For twenty five years, this community in Northwest Mississippi was a land of promise for African Americans similar to Nicodemus, Kansas. Until death, Montgomery was Mound Bayou’s patriarch, protecting it from white terrorism through political cooperation with white supremacist politicians and businessmen. For example, in 1890, Montgomery served as the only black delegate at the state constitutional convention in Mississippi and publicly endorsed the disenfranchisement of 123,000 black voters to make peace and protect Mound Bayou from white violence. His sacrifice was praised by white politicians, harshly criticized by Northern black leaders like T. Thomas Fortune, and understood by some Southern black leaders like Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. By 1903, the economic strangulation of Mound Bayou, and his own purged from public office as Mississippi’s Receiver of Public Money, shook Montgomery’s faith in white elites and political accommodation. Still, in 1904 he served as a Mississippi delegate to the Republican National Convention, and in 1905, he persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to briefly visit Mound Bayou by train. By the 1910s, white opposition to black equality forced Montgomery to reevaluate political accommodation as the best path towards black freedom.
Leon Litwack and August Meier (eds.), Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1991); and David H. Jackson, A Chief Lieutenant of the Tuskegee Machine: Charles Banks of Mississippi (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2002).
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