It is debatable whether the story of Benjamin Montgomery is indeed a sad one as the man seemed to have achieved a lot in his lifetime, especially when said lifetime coincided with a period of untold hardship for anyone with black skin.
He’d been born into slavery in 1819 in Loudon County, Virginia. At the age of 18, he was sold to Joseph E. Davis, a Mississippi planter, who was the older brother of Jefferson Davis, the later President of the Confederates States of America.
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Benjamin Montgomery showed such promise that Davis assigned him the responsibility of running his general store on the David Bend plantation. He had at the time been taught to read and write by the Davis children and excelled in running the store where he served both white and black customers, trading them dry goods for whatever poultry or other items they had. He was further put in charge of running the entirety of Davis’ purchasing and shipping operations on the plantation.
Benjamin learnt to survey land, draft architectural plans and techniques for flood control. In response to a problem that arose from differences in depth of water, which hindered navigation, Montgomery created a propeller for the steamboat that allowed for better navigation through shallow water. His owner, Davis attempted to patent the device but was turned down, the black history channel website, samples this part of a reply from the then attorney general;
Inventor: *Steamboat Propeller. Status: Slave
“…a machine invented by a slave, though it be new and useful, cannot, in the present state of the law, be patented. I may add that if such patent were issued to the master, it would not protect him in the courts against persons who might infringe it.” – Attorney Gen. Jeremiah Black, June 10, 1858
The brothers also attempted to patent the device in their name but were denied because they were not the actual inventor. On June 28, 1864, Montgomery, no longer enslaved, filed for a patent for his device and was again denied. The attorney general’s opinion regarding the patent for Montgomery’s invention stood until the end of the Civil War.
After Jefferson became the Confederate President, attempted to back a legislation to allow an owner to apply for a patent when his slave had invented machinery; and only then was Benjamin able to to get credit for his invention.
After the end of the Civil war, Davis sold his plantation to Montgomery and his son Isaiah in 1866, the sale was conducted on the basis of a long-term loan amounting to $300,000. The plantation did well at first and Montgomery was even able to buy a smaller one, while he and Isaiah pursued their dream of establishing a community of formerly enslaved people. Unfortunately, the realities of the post-Civil War economy soon caught up with him as cotton declined in value, and his credit began to dwindle. He descended into bankruptcy, fell into a deep debt and died on May 12, 1877.
In 1881, Benjamin’s son, Isaiah had to give up the land due to the exorbitant interest of $140,000 on property that originally cost $300,000. The Davis’ descendants soon took over the property once more. Isaiah Montgomery did however buy 840 acres of land, and along with a number of other former enslaved people, founded the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi in 1887.