Review: Portraits of the Past: The artwork of Johnny Montgomery 

Veteran, artist, historian, and activist. These are some of the words used to describe Johnny Montgomery, a painter from South Carolina and member of the Gullah nation. His work was recently presented for the Black Wall Street Rally on May 12-13, showcasing his art for many to see for the very first time. The event was to celebrate Black Wall Street, providing those attending with an experience of the historic Greenwood District. The events for the weekend included a motorcycle rally, live music, vendors, tours, and art exhibits for the second annual Black Wall Street Rally. The Black Wall Street Rally embraced the historical art of John Montgomery, sharing the untold history of indigenous Greenwood.

Johnny Montgomery was named the Black Wall Street Rally Artist of 2023.  

Although Montgomery was unable to attend the event in person, the TCC (Tulsa Community College) Connection interviewed the artist prior to the festivities. He resides in Charleston, S.C. and is scheduled to attend other art exhibits across the country.   

Montgomery was born in Summersville, S.C. His family moved to Charleston when he was still at a young age. He grew up and was raised in the Gullah culture. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Gullahs were formally enslaved Africans who preserved traditional West African customs, including the creole language, basket weaving, indigo dyeing, and a cuisine consisting “of preparations of seafood, rice, and seasonal coastal vegetables, such as okra and field peas.”  

“I kind of lived the life they did, the Gullah people. I was exposed to basket weaving and cast net fishing. These crafts were necessary because the Gullahs grew up in the wetlands,” said Montgomery.  

The Gullahs were forcibly taken from their original homeland to the ports of Charleston, S.C., to be put to work on plantations.  

“Some people say Geechee, but I’m going to say Gullah, because we’re supposed to be Geechee in South Carolina and the ones in Georgia are supposed to be Gullahs. But they all call us one and the same,” the South Carolina painter said. 

Gullahs have lived along the coasts of the southeast United States for decades. In the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, many established their own settlements. Throughout this period, the Gullahs preserved aspects of their African culture. And even now, their culture continues through the next generation.  

“I wanted to reflect my culture, being Gullah, in some of my paintings,” said Montgomery.  

Several of his paintings feature the lifestyle and culture of Gullah traditions. From clothing to tools and crafts used, as well as historical references and places. These paintings represent aspects of the artist’s culture and the mores for many descendants of the Gullahs.  

One painting shows a woman weaving baskets. “I started painting the basket weavers. I used to go along the coast sometime, along I-70 and 17 Ocean Highway (U.S. Highway 17). You see a lot of baskets weaving down there, some of the descendants still weave baskets. It’s still maintained today. I’m proud of that culture. They would also make fish nets. The men would be manning the cast nets for what they had to do (to catch fish).” 

Basket weaving and making cast nets were a vital part of Gullah life. They are traditions still continued today. Photo provided.

Cast net fishing was a technique used by the Gullahs, Geechee, and Indigenous Americans who lived near water. By using these hand nets, fishermen could stand on the shoreline while casting out their nets to trap nearby fish as well as other animals.  

“Gullahs used to hunt alligators. I ate alligator meat when I was growing up, just part of the norm that some people do. Some of the Gullahs had to go out and catch their own food. All sorts of fish, shellfish, eels, marsh hens. I wanted to reflect and capture some of that on canvas, which is what I did in (in one of my) painting(s).” The painting shows two Gullah men hunting alligator in the wetlands.  

For the Gullahs and many from the southern wetlands of the U.S., alligator was a reliable source of food, but a dangerous one. Photo provided.

Another painting that Montgomery created featured a man on horseback with cattle.  

“(Another one of my paintings) represents the area around the Negro Fort (or British Fort), which was blown up in 1816 in Florida. A place where free blacks could go and feel safe. The area around it for 50 miles, on all sides, grew large crops and raised cattle. That’s what this represents until Andrew Jackson ordered a gunboat to blow it up,” said Montgomery.  

The Negro Fort was attacked due to fear from nearby plantation owners in Georgia. They believed this posed a threat to their business of slavery. This started the beginning of Andrew Jackson’s conquest in Florida and would be one of the precursors for the Seminole (Indian) Wars.  

To accurately paint this picture, Montgomery did what any researcher or historian might do.  

“I went down there to do reconnaissance, because one of the guys was a descendant of the people who lived in that fort and still lived in Florida. And we went on a tour of the area. I took some pictures of the Negro Fort and the mass grave. Over 300 folks were killed; 270 blacks and 27 Choctaw Indians. Just an awesome sight to see. It was weird going all the way back, reflecting on that time period, 1816, on the ground where it happened, seeing where the fort was. It was one of those strange things. I was glad I went. I feel more comfortable doing a painting about that incident because now I have more knowledge about it,” said Montgomery.    

This painting was inspired by artist Johnny Montgomery’s trip to the site of Negro Fort that was destroyed in 1816. Photo provided.

His work also covers the Seminoles and Maroons. These groups were also a part of the Southeast, along the coast, and occupied Florida.  

“I used to read about the history of the Gullahs and realized a lot of them went to Florida and joined the Seminoles,” Montgomery said. Because they were escaping from servitude, they did not want to work on the plantations anymore. I knew a little bit about it at that time.”  

The Gullahs who joined the Seminoles have been referred to by historians as Black Seminoles. It would not be until years later, after Montgomery served in the army and retired, that he would start working on his art on the Black Seminoles and the Seminole Wars.  

“After I retired as a Sergeant First Class, I started getting more involved in the history of the Gullahs and the history of the Seminoles.” 

“If you google it, I’m not saying everything is 100%. You must use multiple sources, but they were a part of the same related group because of the ones that went down there to join the Seminoles. The Seminoles were not an official tribe in the early days. We’re talking about (the) 1600-1700s. In that area, a lot of diverse groups went down to Florida. The Indian population of Florida was decimated and wiped out by disease in the 1500-1600s,” said Montgomery.  

During this period, under Spanish rule, European diseases played a leading role in the destruction of Florida’s early indigenous population around the mid-1500s. It wouldn’t be until the 1700s that many other groups moved to the area, like the Seminoles.  

“You had other groups drifting in there, free blacks, Maroons, Muscogee Creeks, some say the Yamasi. It was a mixed group, and eventually they became known as the Seminoles,” said Montgomery. 

“The Gullahs already had their culture implanted there amongst that group. That’s how I got involved that they had key people in the Seminole tribe who were black or of African descent. And they were in some of the key battles. So, I just took interest. Me, being a veteran, and I was in a guerrilla war in Vietnam, so I kind of know how it went and what they had to deal with.”   

Montgomery’s experience in the army, where he served in Vietnam with the 101st Air Division, helped him connect with those who fought in the Seminole Wars.  

Wild Cat was a Seminole leader. He was a fierce leader. Wild Cat and John Horse were close. They attacked American forts and sugar plantations. (Together, they) burned down almost 20 sugar plantations in Georgia and Florida to retaliate against the people who were wanting to destroy them,” said Montgomery.  

(They were) heroes that are not necessarily taught about in school. Heroes that Montgomery had to research for himself.  

Two famous Black Seminole leaders, Horse and Wild Cat, were pivotal figures in the Seminole Wars. Horse devoted most of his life to fighting to establish a free homeland for his people in Mexico. Wild Cat was another who fought for his people at that time. They both led a resistance during the invasion of Seminole lands in Florida during the 1830s. 

Artist Johnny Montgomery captures the essence of warfare in several of his paintings. The portrait illustrates the Seminoles fighting to defend their homeland during the great Seminole Wars. Photo provided. 

The Maroons are another group that Montgomery has portrayed in his paintings.  

“Free blacks, some of whom were Gullahs, eventually, a lot of them were known as the Maroons, had settlements in Florida even before Andrew Jackson invaded. Jackson invaded the territory when he destroyed that fort (Negro Fort). He was in Spanish territory, which was illegal, but the painting is about the people who lived there,” said Montgomery.   

This painting showcases the Maroon village lifestyle in Florida. Photo provided.

The painting, like so many of his others, is a time capsule. His artwork displays what life was like for the people of African and Native American descent.  

Montgomery even covers one of the most painful removals of Indigenous people, the Trail of Tears.  

“Most paintings you see of the Trail of Tears are of the Cherokees. But I did this because the Blacks that were in the tribe at the time during the Trail of Tears…represent that era; the Black Seminoles and Creeks were moved from Florida in route to their deportation,” said Montgomery.    

Artist Johnny Montgomery’s inspiration for this piece on the Trail of Tears is to highlight that there were Freedmen (along with Native Americans and as members of the tribes) who were forced to relocate. Photo provided.

In the artist’s career, there have been some who have tried to categorize his art in one simple label. But it is not that simple to label his art as just one dimensional.  

“As I was coming up as an artist, people tried to steer you into a certain type of art. They asked me, “Well, do you do Black art? Well, I do a combination. My art is about culture, not just Black art. It’s about culture because there are many Black Americans who have African descent and have Native (American) blood as well. Some don’t, but there are a lot that do. So, when their grandmothers and their great grandmothers pass down that there was an Indian person in their family, it goes unnoticed for many years because some of the younger people don’t take any interest in it.”  

Montgomery’s art is singular in its genre. It highlights the Freedmen, Black Seminoles, Gullahs, and Maroons. His art portrays a part of history many people are learning about for the first time. 

“A lot of people become very interested in my art because they say a picture is worth a thousand words,” he explained. “That creates a conversation to learn what that’s about, something they didn’t know about or learn in school. When I was in school, I didn’t get taught who the Seminoles were. There’s a problem in society thinking that the Seminoles weren’t all Indians, they were different groups of people.”   

Montgomery’s paintings portray a world, so few are taught in school. One painting can start you drifting from the warm palette of colors to researching the history behind the drawings. Through his art, Montgomery is helping change the perspective on what it means to be indigenous and what it means to embrace one’s culture. 

For more information about Johnny Montgomery’s art, contact Theresa Golden at (405) 450-2026. 

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