Donum Montford.

by Lisa Y. Henderson

Donum Montford (Mumford) (1771-1838), New Bern brickmason, plasterer, and brickmaker, was prominent among the city’s early 19th century builders and became one of the wealthiest of the city’s free people of color. Memoirist Stephen Miller recalled that he was ‘copper-colored, and carried on the bricklaying and plastering business with slaves, a number of whom he owned. Whenever a job was to be done expeditiously, he was apt to be employed, as he could always throw upon it a force sufficient for its rapid execution.’

“Born a slave, Montford was owned by the prominent Richard Cogdell family until 1804. During his more than 30 years as a slave, he mastered the related trades of bricklaying, plastering, and brickmaking. He gained his freedom in 1804, when the widow Lydia Cogdell and her daughter Lydia Cogdell Badger sold him to the wealthy free man of color John C. Stanly, who emancipated him the next day, doubtless carrying out a strategy planned by all parties. As a free man, Montford promptly established his shop and began acquiring property. Although he was illiterate, signing documents with his mark, he was successful in his business. In 1806 his former owner, Lydia Cogdell, gave him a young slave, Abram Moody Russell, to train as an apprentice, then to emancipate upon his maturity; Abram Moody Russell Allen, as he was later known, was identified by Montford as his nephew and also became his heir and executor. In 1807 Montford took the first of many free apprentices to his trade. In 1809 he married Hannah Bowers. By 1811 he was purchasing real estate, and he eventually owned several town lots and houses, plus a farm. By 1820, according to the United States Census, Montford was head of a large household of free people of color, and had twenty-two slaves in his employ; whether he owned all of these is not certain. In 1827 Montford petitioned to emancipate his only child, Nelson, a plasterer who had worked with Montford until he attained his majority.

“Both Hannah and Donum Montford were members of Christ Episcopal Church in New Bern, and their burial services were recorded in the parish register noting them each as a ‘colored communicant.’ Montford’s stature in the community was indicated by his appointment to a committee, along with the leading white brickmasons in town, Bennett Flanner and Joshua Mitchell, to inspect repairs to Christ Church in 1832. He was regularly employed to work on public buildings. Along with taking free apprentices to his trade, he also trained slave artisans, such as Ulysses, ‘a plasterer by trade, who served his time with Donum Mumford, in the town of New Bern afterwards worked at his business upwards of four years, in Hyde County,’ and who could ‘read and write tolerably well.’ Ulysses had run away from William S. Sparrow, who advertised for his return in 1818.

“Despite his long and active career, few of Montford’s projects have been identified. For the Craven County Jail (1821-1825), a handsome and formal civic building, detailed construction records show his versatility. Montford supplied 100,000 of the roughly 400,000 bricks, at $5 per thousand, and he and his workers accomplished the lathing and plastering, including laborers (probably slaves) Charles, Edmond, and Romey at 5 shillings a day, and skilled workers Tony and Lawson at $1 a day. He typically charged 12 shillings and sixpence per day for his own work and a few other skilled men in his shop. Montford also supplied many of the bricks for the John R. Donnell House (1816-1818), which was among the finest of the city’s Federal style, brick townhouses, where Wallace Moore was the chief brickmason and Asa King was the lead carpenter. Montford also did some work beyond New Bern, including an unnamed project for Tyrrell County planter Ebenezer Pettigrew, who paid him in 1819 for delivering bricks and lime, building the foundation for a smokehouse, and mending plaster.

“At his death in 1838 Montford had a considerable estate in land, slaves, and personal possessions. Illustrating accounts of the prosperity and gentility of New Bern’s leading people of color, he left to his wife, Hannah, such household furnishings as a secretary, a sofa, a mahogany candle stand, a dining table, and a breakfast table; numerous serving pieces, including two dozen plates of Liverpool ware, silver teaspoons and tablespoons, decanters and wine glasses, and two oyster dishes; and two pictures, one of Napoleon, and one of Christ on the Cross. Among the many items sold from his estate were a musket and a shotgun, window sash, brick moulds, shad nets, and farm implements. His estate also included slaves Bob, Dick, Jim Carney, Dinah, Alexander, and plasterer-bricklayer Isaac Rue (Rew). Montford stated in his will that Isaac was to be freed after Hannah’s death; Isaac Rue continued to practice his trade for many years as a free man and a property owner.”

Author: Catherine W. Bishir.  Published 2009.

As published in North Carolina Architects and Builders: A Biographical Dictionary,  (All rights retained.) This web site is a growing reference work that contains brief biographical accounts, building lists, and bibliographical information about architects, builders, and other artisans who planned and built North Carolina’s architecture.