By Ishan Sen
Benjamin Montgomery was an influential African-American inventor and freedman in Mississippi. Born into slavery in 1819 in Loudoun County, Virginia, he was sold to Joseph Davis in 1837. Montgomery tried to escape, but he was recaptured. Davis later assigned him to run the general store of his plantation at Davis Bend – a position rarely granted to slaves in those days.
Meanwhile, the Davis children had taught Montgomery to read and write, and he used his literacy to excel at running the store. Eventually, Davis was so impressed with his knowledge and abilities that he made Montgomery the supply and shipping manager at the plantation.
In addition, the Davis family also taught him several other difficult tasks, like land surveying, techniques of flood control, architectural design, machine repair, and steamboat navigation. Being a skilled mechanic with innovative ideas, Montgomery created a propeller that could cut into the water at different angles, thereby aiding easier navigation through shallow water.
Joseph Davis attempted to patent the device, but the application was rejected on the basis that Montgomery, being a slave, was not a citizen of the United States. Therefore, he could not apply for a patent in his name, nor in the name of his owner. However, once Montgomery was no longer a slave, he filed a patent application in June 1864 for his device only to find his application being rejected once again. Eventually, Jefferson Davis signed into law the legislation that would allow slaves to receive patent protection for their inventions.
After the end of Civil War, Joseph Davis sold his property and plantation to Montgomery in 1866 for a whopping sum of $300,000. The sale was made on the basis of a long-term loan. The following year, Montgomery assumed responsibility as the first African-American official in Mississippi when he became the Justice of Peace at Davis Bend. The cotton produced at his plantation was deemed to be the best in the world at an International Exposition in 1870.
Along with his son, Isaiah, Montgomery decided to pursue his lifelong dream of establishing a community for freed slaves. Unfortunately, catastrophic floods decimated the crops. When he failed to make a payment on the loan in 1876, the Davis Bend property reverted back to the Davis family as per the terms of the original contract.
Montgomery passed away in 1877, ten years before Isaiah succeeded in realizing his father’s dream and establishing the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, along with former slaves.