Sabra Wald­fo­gel writes his­tor­i­cal fic­tion about South­ern Jews and African Amer­i­cans in slav­ery and free­dom. Her most recent book, Freedom’s Island, about an all-black Mis­sis­sip­pi town men­aced in the 1880s by a greedy cot­ton planter and a for­mer Klans­man, and aid­ed by a Jew­ish mer­chant, has just been pub­lished. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Isaiah MontgomeryIsa­iah Mont­gomery,
founder of Mound Bayou

When James Marr, res­i­dent and alder­man of Mound Bay­ou, Mis­sis­sip­pi, under­took his duties as cen­sus enu­mer­a­tor on June 1, 1900, he count­ed the Fink broth­ers, Frank and Joe, who were work­ing as gro­cers. He list­ed them as black, but they were not. They were Jew­ish immi­grants from Russia.

Jews ran gro­ceries, dry goods stores, and gen­er­al stores in small towns all over the South, and any­where else, the pres­ence of two Jew­ish mer­chants would be unre­mark­able. But Mound Bay­ou was an extra­or­di­nary place, an all-black town where no white per­son lived with­out invitation. 

Who asked the Finks to live and work in Mound Bay­ou, and why did they accept? The answer lies with the man who found­ed and built Mound Bay­ou — vision­ary and entre­pre­neur Isa­iah Thorn­ton Mont­gomery. Mont­gomery was slave to one unusu­al man and son to anoth­er, and he brought his life­long expe­ri­ence with racial accom­mo­da­tion and racial uplift to his deal­ings with the Finks.

Joseph Davis: The Utopi­an Slaveowner

Isa­iah Mont­gomery was born in 1847 on the Mis­sis­sip­pi plan­ta­tion of Joseph Emory Davis, old­er broth­er to future Con­fed­er­ate pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis. Joseph Davis, a lawyer before he became a planter, was trou­bled by slav­ery, and when he met the utopi­an thinker Robert Owen, he decid­ed to apply utopi­an ideals to the pecu­liar insti­tu­tion. He became a man of sub­stance. On the eve of the Civ­il War, he owned 345 slaves. 

More than his wealth set him apart. He treat­ed his ser­vants” with a decen­cy and a dig­ni­ty high­ly unusu­al among South­ern slave­own­ers. For Davis, assur­ing his slaves com­fort­able hous­ing, food, and cloth­ing was only the begin­ning. He encour­aged their enter­prise, allow­ing them to sell pro­duce and to keep the prof­its, and he gave them the oppor­tu­ni­ty for self-gov­er­nance. Davis’ slaves had their own court, where they resolved dis­putes and reviewed com­plaints from over­seers. Isa­iah Mont­gomery recalled of his child­hood that we just bare­ly had an idea of what slave life was.” 

Ben­jamin Mont­gomery: The Entre­pre­neur­ial Father

Isa­iah Mont­gomery grew up observ­ing an equal­ly unusu­al rela­tion­ship between his mas­ter and his father. Davis believed in encour­ag­ing the tal­ents of his slaves, and the best exam­ple — and the great­est ben­e­fi­cia­ry — was Ben­jamin Mont­gomery, who first came to Davis’ atten­tion when he ran away. It was com­mon to pun­ish or to sell a run­away slave, but instead, Davis inquired close­ly into the cause of [Ben’s] dis­sat­is­fac­tion.” He dis­cov­ered an edu­cat­ed, tal­ent­ed man, whom Davis came to respect and depend upon.

Ben­jamin Mont­gomery was skilled as a machin­ist and an inven­tor, but his great­est tal­ent was for busi­ness. Davis set him up as the pro­pri­etor of a small gen­er­al store on the plan­ta­tion in 1842. Mont­gomery was soon was able to estab­lish his own line of cred­it, and in addi­tion to run­ning the ever-expand­ing store, he also began to act as Davis’ agent in sell­ing the plantation’s crops. On the eve of the Civ­il War, his store was patron­ized by the Davis fam­i­ly as well as by the Davis slaves, and Davis trust­ed him to man­age the plantation’s busi­ness affairs. He con­tin­ued to man­age the Davis hold­ings through­out the Civ­il War. 

In 1866, a war-weary Joseph Davis struck a bar­gain with the Mont­gomery fam­i­ly. He agreed to sell them the Davis hold­ings, and Ben­jamin Mont­gomery applied his con­sid­er­able entre­pre­neur­ial tal­ent to run­ning a large plan­ta­tion. Isa­iah Mont­gomery, who man­aged the plantation’s store and over­saw one of his father’s three hold­ings, became his father’s right-hand man. 

By the end of Recon­struc­tion, the Mont­gomery fam­i­ly ran one of the largest and most suc­cess­ful cot­ton plan­ta­tions in Mis­sis­sip­pi. The fam­i­ly com­bined their belief in hard work with a ded­i­ca­tion to edu­ca­tion and cul­ti­va­tion. Isa­iah Mont­gomery clear­ly saw that suc­cess in busi­ness and moral uplift went hand in hand.

The decline in the cot­ton mar­ket dur­ing the 1870s, com­bined with Ben­jamin Montgomery’s death in 1877, put the Mont­gomery plan­ta­tion in jeop­ardy. Unable to repay their loan to the Davis­es, the Mont­gomerys relin­quished the plan­ta­tion to the Davis fam­i­ly in 1881.

Isa­iah Mont­gomery Builds a Refuge

Inspired by the spir­it of his father, Isa­iah Mont­gomery want­ed to cre­ate a refuge” where black auton­o­my, finan­cial suc­cess, and moral uplift could inter­twine and encour­age each oth­er. In 1887, he bought a tract of unde­vel­oped land from the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Rail­road, with the inten­tion of estab­lish­ing a Negro colony,” in the lat­er words of his friend Book­er T. Wash­ing­ton. After a year of back-break­ing effort, the town began to take shape, pop­u­lat­ed by farm­ers rais­ing cot­ton and small mer­chants in town serv­ing them.

The post-Recon­struc­tion years in Mis­sis­sip­pi saw the growth of share­crop­ping and debt peon­age, a new form of enslave­ment for black farm­ers with­out cap­i­tal. As the Repub­li­can Par­ty — the par­ty of Pres­i­dent Lin­coln and eman­ci­pa­tion — declined in strength in Mis­sis­sip­pi, so did the fran­chise for black vot­ers. Through­out the South, Demo­c­ra­t­ic politi­cians became con­vinced that the black fran­chise was the cause of polit­i­cal dis­rup­tion in South­ern elec­tions. Mis­sis­sip­pi became the first South­ern state to dis­en­fran­chise its black vot­ers in 1890

Isa­iah Montgomery’s feel­ings about black auton­o­my did not extend to par­tic­i­pa­tion in pol­i­tics. He was the only black del­e­gate at the 1890 con­ven­tion. He sat on the fran­chise com­mit­tee and argued for the poll tax­es and lit­er­a­cy tests that effec­tive­ly dis­en­fran­chised blacks, firm in the belief that the best course for black Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans was eco­nom­ic auton­o­my rather than involve­ment in polit­i­cal life.

Isa­iah Mont­gomery Pro­motes Mound Bayou

Mound Bay­ou became an incor­po­rat­ed town in 1898, and held its first munic­i­pal elec­tion the same year. To no one’s sur­prise, Isa­iah Mont­gomery was elect­ed may­or, along with three alder­men and a con­sta­ble. Mont­gomery had always been Mound Bayou’s great­est advo­cate, but his new respon­si­bil­i­ty as may­or spurred his efforts to encour­age the town’s devel­op­ment. In 1900, Mound Bay­ou became a depot on the rail­road that had always run through the town, which promised future growth. 

Mont­gomery also became involved in an orga­ni­za­tion with a mis­sion close to his heart: Book­er T. Washington’s Nation­al Negro Busi­ness League, which sup­port­ed the efforts of black busi­ness own­ers all over the coun­try, but par­tic­u­lar­ly in the South. Mont­gomery helped Wash­ing­ton orga­nize the League’s first meet­ing in Boston in Sep­tem­ber of 1900, where he spoke about Mound Bayou.

Mont­gomery was more than the town’s may­or. He was its fore­most mer­chant, but also it and its leader and biggest boost­er. By 1900 he was clear­ly overex­tend­ed, with three busi­ness­es to run: his own, the town’s, and the League’s. He need­ed some­one to mind the store in Mound Bay­ou. Some­time around 1900, he met the Finks, who were work­ing as gro­cers in near­ly Beulah.

Enter the Finks

The expe­ri­ence of the Fink broth­ers was typ­i­cal of Jews of their gen­er­a­tion. They were born in the Russ­ian Empire. Their father, a grain and coal mer­chant, left for Amer­i­ca in the wake of the rise in anti-Semi­tism after the czar’s assas­si­na­tion in 1881. Once estab­lished in New York, Abe Fink sent for his wife and sev­en chil­dren, who set­tled there and became cit­i­zens. After their father’s death in 1892, the chil­dren made their way in the world, the daugh­ters mar­ry­ing and the sons going into busi­ness. Frank and Joe’s sis­ter Celia mar­ried a man named Bar­nett Wolf, who moved to Mis­sis­sip­pi to run a gro­cery in Beu­lah, and Frank and Joe fol­lowed short­ly after.

The Finks must have struck a chord with Mont­gomery: refugees from per­se­cu­tion, hope­ful to advance them­selves through the busi­ness of store­keep­ing, with ties to gro­cery sup­pli­ers and a line of cred­it. Their man­ner must have struck him, too. Like many Jew­ish mer­chants in small South­ern towns, they had become used to serv­ing black cus­tomers and treat­ing them with cour­tesy. They must have been unusu­al­ly open-mind­ed to con­tem­plate the prospect of liv­ing among black peo­ple as social equals.

No white man has ever lived here”

Every­thing in Mound Bay­ou occurred under the pater­nal­is­tic scruti­ny of Mont­gomery, and the trans­for­ma­tion of the Finks into black peo­ple in the cen­sus was no excep­tion. It was a way to pro­tect the Finks, who were break­ing the rules of prop­er racial behav­ior in Mis­sis­sip­pi. But it was also a way to pro­tect the image of Mound Bay­ou, which would become high­ly vis­i­ble after Book­er T. Wash­ing­ton began to help Mont­gomery pub­li­cize and raise mon­ey for a town owned by Negroes.”

By 1901, the Finks had left Mound Bay­ou — Frank mar­ried, and he and Joe bought land in Dun­can, north of Mound Bay­ou, where they ran a store and grew cot­ton. Three years lat­er, when Book­er T. Wash­ing­ton vis­it­ed Mound Bay­ou, he wrote, no white man has ever lived in this com­mu­ni­ty since it was estab­lished, except the man who intro­duced the tele­phone sys­tem, and he remained only long enough to teach some of the towns­peo­ple to man­age the exchange.” The Fink broth­ers, white and Jew­ish, who briefly threw in their lot with Mound Bayou’s, slipped from view and from the town’s history.


The best source on the inter­twined his­to­ry of the Mont­gomery fam­i­ly and the Davis fam­i­ly remains Janet Sharp Hermann’s book, The Pur­suit of a Dream (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1981). It is fas­ci­nat­ing to read Book­er T. Washington’s 1904 piece on Mound Bay­ou, Mound Bay­ou, Mis­sis­sip­pi: a Town Owned by Negroes.” Infor­ma­tion on the Finks comes from the cen­sus and from Fink fam­i­ly descen­dants — I’m espe­cial­ly indebt­ed to Joe Fink’s grand­son, Mark Hein. Also see Margery Ker­s­tine and Judy Tuck­er, Jake Fink: A Delta Entre­pre­neur,” Arkansas Review: A Jour­nal of Delta Stud­ies; Decem­ber 2000, Vol. 31, Issue 3, p. 214.

For more infor­ma­tion about Sabra Wald­fo­gel and her work, vis­it her web­site.

Relat­ed Content:

Sabra Wald­fo­gel earned her B.A. inHis­to­ry from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty and a Ph.D. inAmer­i­can His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Minnesota.She is cur­rent­ly writ­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. Her nov­elSlave and Sis­ter, about a Jew­ish woman in Geor­giawho owns her slave half-sis­ter, was pub­lished ear­lierthis year.