Isaiah Montgomery was born into slavery at Davis Bend, the plantation of Joseph Davis, brother of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Southern Confederacy. His father, Benjamin, had managed the plantation for Davis until the end of the Civil War and was able to purchase it after the war. He established a prosperous colony of fellow freedmen for several years, but agricultural prices fell and severe winter flooding ruined their levees. When his loan fell overdue, the property was sold back to the Davis family. Ben Montgomery died in 1877, but his dream of establishing an independent black colony was taken up by his son Isaiah, who later founded the settlement of Mound Bayou.
Montgomery purchased 840 acres situated midway between the Memphis and Vicksburg railroad lines. He named the settlement Mound Bayou after a large Native-American mound located at the center of the colony. The first settlers cut down trees, drained bayous, built up the land, fought off wild animals, and lived as frontiersmen. Using axes and dynamite, they transformed the wilderness into farmland, building crude log cabins and selling timber for cash crops. Women and children worked for whites on nearby plantations to earn money. When the colonists, many of whom had been slaves in Mississippi, complained about the rigorous conditions, Montgomery challenged them: "You have for centuries hewed down forests at the request of a master. Could you not do it for yourselves and your children into successive generations that they may worship and develop under your own vine and fig tree?”
In 1890 Montgomery was the only elected black representative allowed into the Mississippi Constitutional Convention, which was called for the express purpose of disenfranchising blacks. At the convention, Montgomery spoke in favor of the measure, winning the applause of whites and the anger of many blacks. Whatever his reasons for doing this, his town continued to prosper.
Mound Bayou eventually grew to some 4,000 inhabitants, with 30,000 acres of land owned by the community, producing 3,000 bales of cotton and 2,000 bushels of corn annually on 6,000 acres of farmland. It had a town hall, a depot, lighted streets, a half-dozen churches, more than 40 businesses, a train station, a saw mill, three cotton gins, a telephone exchange, schools, and a photographer. It was the self-governing and self-sustaining all-black community that Isaiah Montgomery had envisioned. Mound Bayou received national recognition from Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, both of whom visited and praised it. By World War I, bad investments and a weak economy had led to the gradual decline of the community. Today, Mound Bayou is a National Park Service historic site.
--adapted from the website The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
Narrator: But in this sea of violence there were islands of hope. One was in the Mississippi Delta, a town called Mound Bayou.
Mrs. Holmes: There was no other place for me other than Mount Bayou. To me it was the greatest place around. People could have our own offices. I didn't have to walk down the street afraid.
Ken Hamilton (V.O.): This was something that was unbelievable in this very racial conscious era where there was so few opportunities other than manual labor for black people.
Mrs. Johnson (V.O.): We had everything in Mound Bayou that our hearts could desire. We had oil mills, we had stores, we had bottle works, we had hospitals, we had zoos, we had swimming pools, we had lots of things that people would enjoy.
Narrator: Mound Bayou was founded in 1887 by black businessman Isaiah T. Montgomery. A Southern man with a simple philosophy ‘It’s a white man’s country let them run it.’
Ken Hamilton: Isaiah Montgomery is a true American. And in a sense he was extraordinarily opportunistic. Isaiah Montgomery had the ability to identify those individuals who had goods and services and political power and esteem in the community and ingratiate himself with those persons.
Narrator: Following the lead of men like Pap Singleton, Montgomery planned to create a safe harbor for blacks.
Isaiah Montgomery: It was not easy to find settlers in the early days. The task of clearing a wild country seemed hopeless to men with so few resources and so little experience.
Ken Hamilton: (V.O.) The Delta Mississippi in the mid-1880s was nothing more than a wilderness. These black people, who came to Mound Bayou area had to cut down trees, had to drain bayous, had to build up the land, had to fight off wild animals and snakes, and they lived as frontiersman…live throughout the world.
Narrator: Day by day a town began to take shape. Churches, a post office and schools replaced the forest.
Mrs. Holmes (V.O.): My grandmother was Ada Simmons. She came here from Virginia…She wanted something other than what she had been doing in slavery, and the people telling them what to do.
Mrs. Holmes: She had in her mind that there must be something else, there must be something better than what she was living under.
Milburn Crowe: Unlike some black communities, the whites did not come in and destroy the community like some instances of other black communities, I believe, because there was a notion that a separation of the races was an answer to the race problem.
Newspaper Article “The Situation On Mississippi”
Narrator: By 1890 Mound Bayou was on its way to becoming one of the most prosperous black communities in the country, the jewel of the Delta as it would later be called. That year Mississippi assembled a convention to pass its new Jim Crow constitution. The only black delegate was Isaiah T. Montgomery
Ken Hamilton: Black people were looking for somebody that whites would accept and so they elected Isaiah to go to this convention.
Isaiah Montgomery: My mission is to offer an olive branch of peace to bridge a chasm that has been developing and widening for a generation that threatens destruction to you and yours while it promises no enduring prosperity to me and mine.
Narrator: Isaiah Montgomery, burning with desire to protect Mound Bayou from white intervention, agreed to vote in favor of an amendment to keep illiterates from voting. The law’s real meaning was clear.
James R. Vardaman: There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter...Mississippi's constitutional convention was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics; not the 'ignorant but the nigger....
Newpaper Article “A Noble Speech”
Narrator: Mississippi whites cheered. But to black leaders Montgomery was a traitor and a turncoat.
Frederick Douglass: He has virtually said to the nation you have done wrong in giving us this great liberty. He has surrendered part of his rights to an enemy who will make this surrender a reason for demanding all of his rights. He is not a conscious traitor but his act is an act of treason, treason for the cause of the colored people not only of his own state but of the United States.
Narrator: Montgomery claimed the black vote was lost anyway. He hoped he had won a measure of safety for his people. "Mound Bayou is the ship," he said. "All else is an open, raging, tempestuous sea."
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