Title: Mississippi Slave Narratives from the WPA Records
Submitter: MSGenWeb Slave Narrative Project
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From the WPA Slave Narratives:
Isaiah T. Montgomery, Born 1847 Warren
Isaiah T. Montgomery was born May 21, 1847 on Hurricane Island, Warren County, Mississippi -- the property of Joseph E. Davis, brother of the celebrated chief of the Southern Confederacy. His parents were Benjamin Thornton and Mary Montgomery. He was taught the elements of common education by his father. Isaiah was set to work at the age of 9 years in the office of Mr. Davis in the capacity of assorting and filing papers. Later he assumed entire charge of Mr. Davis' public and private offices and held this responsible station until the outbreak of the Civil War. His family, with other slaves, were refuge by Mr. Davis to the interior of Mississippi and Alabama. With his father, he was left, to aid in the conservation of the plantation interest. For Rear Admiral David D. Porter of the United States Navy, he served as cabin boy, subsequent to the running of the batteries at Vicksburg by the Federal Fleet. Montgomery enjoyed the extreme satisfaction of remembering that he contributed in some measure to the entertainment of General Ulysses S. Grant and his son on the memorable occasion of the crossing of the Federal Army from the opposite side of the river at Brunswick. He was at the battle of Grand Gulf, with the first expedition up the Red River, and present at the surrender of Vicksburg. On account of ill health, he was released from service in the United States Navy 1863, and went to Cincinnati, Ohio. Through the kindness of Admiral Porter the Montgomery family had been removed.
Isaiah T. Montgomery was a business man and a scholar. He was a lifelong member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a practical surveyor and an expert accountant. At the International Exhibition held in the city of Philadelphia, Pa., 1876, the firm of Montgomery & Sons was awarded a medal for production of the best sample of raw cotton. In 1892 Montgomery was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, to be Receiver of Public Moneys with headquarters at Jackson, Miss. The following is a direct copy of a speech he made at the Laying of the Corner Stone of the Lincoln Memorial Building at Lincoln's birthplace farm at Hodgenville, Kentucky, February, 1909.
"At this the birthplace of the immortal Lincoln I speak as one of the four million slaves that received the priceless boon of liberty through a stroke of his pen, and as a representative of ten millions of Negro citizens of our beloved country.
"I would speak of him as one of exceeding humble birth, rocked in the cradle of adversity, but chosen of God the prophet of human liberty and not the liberator of merely the body of four million black men, but of the minds and hearts of his countrymen. I wish that words of mine could not merely recall but impress upon you the fact that he entered the mighty contest that engaged his great talents not as the enemy but as the true friend of the South, opposing slavery in the spirit of Kentucky's great statesman, Henry Clay, whose sublime utterances he frequently quoted in the famous anti-slavery debates with Douglass.
"From the moment he entered that contest we see him rise, and tower above all the other figures of his day. Whether in pleading in suffering or in commanding, his rugged character stands out as a beacon light marking the pathway of truth and righteousness until the culminating act of his career: the promulgation of the immortal "Emancipation Proclamation", a copy of which I now have the honor to deposit among the archives of this commemorating cornerstone. I deposit this proclamation:
"First, on behalf of ten millions of grateful people who will ever remember the noble man who espoused their helpless cause without hope of fee or reward.
"Second, on behalf of a free and united people still impressed with the presence of grave and unsolved difficulties, yet all alike cherishing the life and example of this great man, looking upward full of hope, with an abiding faith in the great Author of our national destiny."
Of all the great achievements of I. T. Montgomery, and of all the distinctions that have come to him in the course of his useful life, he will be longest remembered for the founding and building of Mound Bayou, with his faithful cousin B. T. Green and worthy colleagues.
I. T. Montgomery died March 16, 1924.
"About the year 1885", says Montgomery, "I wound up my connection with cotton planting, having left the Davis property a few years previous, and took up a small mercantile business near the National Cemetery, Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was at this place that Major George W. McGinnis, Land Commissioner of the Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railway (now the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad), began a correspondence with me, resulting in a personal conference and made a trip of inspection through the Delta, accompanied by a civil engineer; then selection of the site for our settlement. An enormous mound, situated at the junction of two bayous that comprise the principal drainage system of two-thirds of the lands in this locality, gave the place its name."
"There are two of these mounds that can be easily pointed out to the traveling tourist. One mound is located one and three-guarter miles from the depot, northeast of highway no. 61, and the other about three miles northeast of highway 61, counting from the same place. Early settlers delight in telling of Indian tomahawks, arrows and whetstones unearthed from these mounds."
(Montgomery, Isaiah T., HE TELLS HIS OWN LIFE STORY, His Early Life and the Path to His Success)
THE WORLD presents to its readers today a story of the life of this remarkable man, written by himself for it at the request of this journal. Not a line has been changed. Just as he wrote it it is published. Its content will show something of the possibilities of the race to which he belongs. Its manner and style will show some additional characteristics of the man.
"My father, Benjamin Thornton Montgomery, was born in Loudoun County, Va. Before arriving fully at the age of manhood he was taken without warning and sold to a trader, who brought him south to Natchez, Miss., where Joseph E. Davis, Esq., a distinguished planter purchased and took him to his extensive plantation in Warren County, Miss., known as Hurricane, and afterwards, in connection with Brierfield, the plantation of Hon. Jefferson Davis, known as the Davis Estate -- giving the title of Davis Bend to a large section of country in the southwest portion of Warren County.
"The plantation was newly settled, and my father did not take kindly to the change from Virginia town life to plantation life, so he ran away, but was soon recovered by Mr. Davis, who was a man of superior judgment in the selection and management of slaves. He inquired closely into the cause of father's dissatisfaction, and as a result they reached a mutual understanding and established a mutual confidence which time only served to strengthen throughout their long and eventful connection.
"Father possessed a slight knowledge of reading and writing. Mr. Davis encouraged it and he came to have a fair education and learned to be a proficient mechanic, machinist and civil engineer using his talents for the advancement of his master.
"He conducted a small mercantile business on his own account, keeping accounts with all members of the family, Mr. Jefferson Davis included. He gradually accumulated a fair library.
"My mother, Mary Montgomery, came of Virginia parentage, who were among the earliest settlers brought to the Davis plantation.
"They have four children now living: William Thornton Montgomery and the writer, Isaiah Thornton Montgomery; Mary Virginia Montgomery; Rebecca C. Montgomery.
"I was born on the historic plantation heretofore named on May 21, 1847, received my first instruction from a Webster blue back speller on Sabbath mornings at the hands of a slave of Jefferson Davis named George Stewart. Father taught me the art of writing, and gave me lessons at night to be recited on the following night. At the age of ten my mistress desired to have me about the house to begin training for such a position as they desired me to fill in the future.
"Father objected for awhile because he thought my studies would be neglected. My mistress overcame his scruples and I was inducted into the domestic life of that remarkable man, Joseph Emery Davis. He soon established with me relations of the uttermost confidence. I do not remember distinctly how he accomplished it, but the fact remains. His wish became law, and I was almost totally free from responsibility to any one else.
"My duties to a considerable extent were those of a private secretary and office attendant, at night sleeping in his room and performing such services for him as a boy my age could render. Shortly after leaving home my regular lessons ceased, but being regularly employed in one of the finest libraries for which this section was proverbial, and having free access to all reading matter which came daily, weekly and monthly to the parlor and library of the Davis family, I read a great deal, but it was without method and served only to give a fair knowledge of history and current events, of language and composition by familiarity and use -- which has stood me well in hand to this day, for I have never studied either.
"Hon. Jefferson Davis was in public life at Washington and generally visited his brother once or twice per annum. Whenever he came without his family it was one of my special duties to look after his comfort. He appeared to be pleased and we became such fast friends that I was always pleased to hear of his intended visits.
"During the war one of my duties was to carry the United States mail bag from Hurricane post office to Ashwood, where connection was made with the great mail steamers or Southern floating palaces of former days, the Natchez, Princess, Vicksburg and Charmer. The clerks of these steamers having extensive business with my father on his own account, and as a representative of both Joseph and Jefferson Davis, were careful to supply me with the latest papers and chat over the latest news whenever time allowed.
"As a rule I read the dispatches and principal editorials as soon as possible after getting the papers. Consequently, on reaching home the Davis family expected news from me before opening their mail. After the bloody conflicts at Donelson, Belmont, and the capture of Corinth, my master, with his stock and great body of slaves, went as refugees to Alabama. He desired to carry me but father objected strongly on the grounds that the charge of the places and his family imposed more duties than he could perform without a confidential assistant.
"Mr. Davis finally yielded to my father's solicitations, and I remained on the plantation till a portion of Admiral Porter's fleet ran the Vicksburg blockade. Having seen the position of the United States gunboat Indianola before she was sunk caused me to be brought into the presence of Admiral David D. Porter to furnish such information as would enable him to locate a cannon that had been thrown overboard.
"The big gun was never found, but Admiral Porter persuaded father to let me go with him, and also recommended that father and his family leave the country and go North to escape the hardships of war, and upon the acceptance of this recommendation he supplied father with transportation to Cairo. Through the influence of Captain Richardson, commanding the transport, father, mother, and two sisters located in Cincinnati, O.
"I entered the United States service on the United States gunboat Benton, but followed Admiral Porter to any steamer where he intended stopping for awhile. I was at the battle of Grand Gulf, and saw Gen. Grant cross his troops below there to assault Port Gibson, Jackson and finally encompass Vicksburg. I went with the fleet to Alexandria, La., and returning took part in naval encounters at Vicksburg, being present at its capitulation in July 1863.
"Meantime the fortunes of war had freed my brother and he also entered the United States naval service on the gunboat Carondelet. The water during my trip up Red River on the gunboat made terrible inroads on my health, and Admiral Porter having promised my father to care for me in every particular, decided to send me home, and I was discharged at Mound City, Ill., during the Fall of 1863, and given transportation to Cincinnati.
"All through that dreary Winter I lingered between life and death. During the year 1864 I worked at the carpenter's trade and in a canal-boat dockyard near, Cumminsville, O., with my father. In 1864 both of us barely escaped being enlisted for the draft, he being one year too old, and I one year too young. Brother was discharged in 1864 and came home to join father and myself in work.
"At the first dawn of peace brother returned South in 1865 to see what outlook there was for the resumption of business. He soon opened business on the old plantation and father invested all of our little Capital in merchandise, to be shipped South by river, while I came via Cairo, being shortly followed by father himself, who established the firm of Montgomery & Sons, and assigned me to the bookkeeping and correspondence. I made a brief study of mathematics and bookkeeping with the aid of such assistance as could be had.
"In 1866 I made a trip to Cincinnati and brought the family home. With the first return of peace, correspondence between Mr. J. E. Davis and my father was resumed, which resulted in the sale of the Davis Estate, some 4000 acres, to us, in 1867.
"In this year occurred the disastrous overflow. Mr. Davis remitted three-quarters of the interest for that year. On the Davis property and a place adjoining, called Ursino, we conducted a cotton business of between two and three thousand bales annually for a period of ten years. Losses by the continued decline in cotton and a branch business in Vicksburg finally engulfed our entire capital, and we retired from the cotton business in 1885. Father died at the old Jeff Davis mansion in 1878, mother died in 1883; and they sleep the last sleep in the old Davis burying ground close by the master and mistress of former days. My brother having become discouraged at future prospects in the South, embarked in the business of grain raising in North Dakota, where he now owns an elevator and plants between 700 and 1000 acres in grain.
"In 1872 I married Miss Martha Robb who was born of a slave mother near McNutt, Miss., in May, 1852. After the close of our cotton business in 1885 I removed to Vicksburg, and, being in had health, did very little for two years.
In the Fall of 1886 my attention was attracted to the Great Yazoo (Miss.) Delta. After investigating that section closely, I opened a colony which now numbers about six hundred persons, and laid out the growing little town of Mound Bayou on the L. N. O. and T. R. R., in Bolivar County where I now conduct a business of $30,000.00 per annum, exclusive of cotton shipments which amount to 250 bales, crop 1890. My real estate interests are worth about $20,000.00. The colored people in that vicinity own 5,000 acres and are increasing their holdings rapidly.
"I was a delegate to the Warren County Republican Convention during the Blaine Campaign. From said county convention I was sent as a delegate to the District Congressional Convention where I delivered my first public speech, naming Mr. R. F. Beck. One of the State Republican electors having died or resigned. I was substituted in his place and took an active interest in the campaign especially in the Congressional district but only made one speech, that at Magnolia Hall in Vicksburg.
"In 1888 I was placed on the Republican County Committee in Bolivar County, where in all County affairs I have actively indorsed a fusion movement in county elections. But the Democratic party having ignored that arrangement in the selection of delegates to the Constitutional Convention I was earnestly pressed by the Republican County Committee to become a candidate in company with Hon. Geo. P. Melchoir, and as a result of the election held July 29, 1890, I hold my first commission to any elective office, viz: as delegate from Bolivar County to the Constitutional Convention.
"In May 1890 I visited Washington with a committee representing the Republicans and citizens of the Mississippi Valley to represent the valley interest in relation to obtaining Government assistance in restraining overflows and controlling the Mississippi River, and was one of the Sub-Committee who presented our case to the Senate Committee on Commerce.
Transcribed by Linda Durr Rudd
The Federal Writer's Project of
The Works Progress Administration
For the State of Mississippi
"If you teach them where they come from, they won't need as much help finding where they are going!"
Cordelia Carothers " Aunt Dee" Geoghegan (1894-1987)
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Assistant State Coordinators and
Transcriptionists: Ann Allen Geoghegan, Debbie Leftwich, and
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