Ransom Montgomery was a hero.
But the day the slave owned by the Montgomery family saved hundreds of people from a burning railroad bridge over the Chattahoochee River was just one in a remarkable life, the reverberations of which are still ringing through Atlanta to this day.
During Black History Month, it is worth revisiting his incredible life while introducing some newly discovered details that speak to our city’s complicated history with race.
Maj. James McConnell Montgomery was “probably the first white man to settle permanently in what is today Fulton County,” according to a historical marker for the Montgomery family cemetery on Marietta Boulevard in Buckhead.
The major served at Fort Standing Peachtree during the Creek War in 1814. He returned to the area in 1821, the year the Creek signed a treaty selling the land that includes what is now Atlanta to the United States.
For $100 he purchased 1,000 acres around the former fort, which includes the area that is today Ridgewood Road and Moores Mill Road to Marietta Boulevard and Bolton Road.
He arrived with his wife, 10 of their children, two of their spouses, at least one grandchild, his brother and his wife, and their step-siblings.
Montgomery served as a road commissioner, kept the records for the Court of the Ordinary, was a commissioner for the “poor school,” a mail carrier, a census taker, a justice of the peace, a tax receiver and a tax collector. He also operated a ferry over the Chattahoochee River, a sawmill and a gristmill.
Ransom Montgomery was likely with the Montgomerys when they arrived. According to his obituary, he came to Atlanta when he was 12, which would have been in 1818.
In July 1849, he was working the ferry when the bridge over the river caught fire while a passenger train was stopped on it. By himself, over the course of the day, Ransom Montgomery battled the blaze. He eventually put it out, saving the passengers, the train and the bridge.
For his heroism, the state of Georgia purchased him. The state provided Ransom Montgomery with a home near the rail depot and gave him a job, earning money selling coffee and cakes. He was just the second African-American to own property in Atlanta. He is the only slave the state ever owned.
That alone makes Ransom Montgomery’s story remarkable, but there’s more. His brother, Andrew Montgomery, was a Methodist minister in the Black community. Together, they went to Lemuel P. Grant — of Grant Park fame — and received land to build a church for the Black community.
During the Civil War, the burning of Atlanta cost them their church.
Afterward, the Montgomery brothers sold that land and found a more desirable spot for a new church on Wheat Street. That original land, though, would become Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Thanks to the brothers and their original house of worship, Big Bethel is considered the first African-American congregation in Atlanta.
Ransom Montgomery was among the first “elite” Blacks in Atlanta, achieving a level of prominence and wealth unusual for a person of his skin color in the 1800s. When his health faltered later in life, he served as the custodian in Atlanta City Hall. He died in 1883 and is interred in Historic Oakland Cemetery.
Here’s where the story gets even more interesting. Montgomery’s great-great-great-grandson reached out to me after I wrote about Ransom Montgomery in a column three years ago. James Montgomery, who goes by Jim, was raised off Auburn Avenue. His father owned a dry cleaner next to Big Bethel AME.
Through a DNA test, Jim Montgomery found he is related by blood to James McConnell Montgomery. Ransom Montgomery may well have been his son. He thinks the original Montgomery, the white man who came here in 1821, is his great-great-great-great grandfather.
That may explain why Ransom Montgomery was given tremendous freedom and was able to own property when it was illegal for Blacks to do so.
Jim Montgomery said he understands how complicated things were and doesn’t hold anything against his white ancestors. He is glad to know how his family came to be in Atlanta all those years ago.
It is a remarkable story — the Black hero, born in bondage, who helped plant the seeds of Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Historic District, was the son of the first white settlers to arrive in the area that is today Atlanta.