Alabama Bicentennial Park
The State of Alabama was formed in 1819 and so the Alabama Bicentennial Park dedicated in 2019 was designed to provide a brief history explaining the major events that influenced who we are today. Here is a summary of the content found on these monuments along with a few personal thoughts.
A 65-foot whale was a predator in the shallow sea that covered much of Alabama during the Eocene Epoch of the Cenozoic Era, 33.9 to 56 million years ago. This is why you will find most of south Alabama to have relatively flat and rich dark sandy soil known as the Black Belt as compared to the more mountainous clay and limestone found in north Alabama.
Alabama’s First People
The first people are thought to have arrived in Alabama after the last Ice Age that occurred about 25,000 to 100,000 years ago. Sophisticated societies developed by 1000 AD, including artisans creating pottery and tools. At Moundville near Tuscaloosa, they built the second-largest mound city in North America. It held influence over towns and villages for hundreds of miles in every direction, but by the mid-1500s, war and disease introduced by Europeans devastated the native population.
In Alabama the Creeks formed a network of towns with similar language and traditions. Clan affiliation was passed through the mother’s line so Creek women and white men were considered Creek and they and their offspring served as mediators between Creek and white society. Trade and change grew rapidly with the formation of ranches and plantations leading to conflict over private land ownership and the Creek’s tradition of communal land ownership.
Resistance and War
In the 1790s to early 1800s US treaties recognized Creek land ownership but encroachment by whites began cycles of violence by both sides. The Creeks disagreed on how to respond leading to a civil war among the Creeks in 1813. In 1814 US troops led by Andrew Jackson joined the fight against the Creek traditionalists and destroyed them in the battle at Horseshoe Bend near Dadeville.
The Creeks were forced to surrender most of their communal land in Alabama. Thousands of white settlers moved into the region following routes along a newly constructed Federal Road through Alabama and the Natchez Trace bringing with them implements for setting up farming operations with slave labor.
In 1817, Mississippi was formed as a state and the Alabama Territory was formed. The territorial governor was William Wyatt Bibb, a doctor and former US Senator from Georgia. The population boomed with settlers coming in from the east and north to settle lands. Most formed small family farms and some brought slaves from the east to set up larger plantation operations. This is about the time when my ancestors moved in family groups from South Carolina to Bibb County where some of them likely purchased and brought slaves to Alabama.
Path to Statehood
In 1819, delegates assembled in my home town, Huntsville Alabama to begin formation of a state constitution and draw up the county boundaries. Elections were held for state positions and documents were sent to congress for approval. Alabama’s first constitution was printed by printing press and distributed for public review.
Over the next 30 years the cotton industry grew in Alabama where it produced 23% of the nations cotton from the Black Belt up to the Tennessee Valley. The term Black Belt refers to the rich dark soil in this region but after the Civil War the term was also used to designate the counties where there are large black populations. Cotton was distributed primarily by steamboat to Mobile to supply British and northern factories and returned with slave labor to support plantation production.
Enslaved blacks were central to the growth of the cotton industry in Alabama and supported the development of infrastructure, public buildings, and private facilities. State laws prohibited slaves from owning property, learning to read and write, and severely restricted the ability of whites to free them. By the start of the Civil War, enslaved blacks accounted for 45% of the population in Alabama.
Secession & Confederacy
Alabama was central to the secessionist move that formed the Confederacy in 1861. After Abraham Lincoln was elected with his platform to restrict the expansion of slavery, Alabama delegates met at the capitol in Montgomery and voted to secede from the Union. Alabama invited other slave holding states to join where they adopted a constitution for the Confederate States of America, and inaugurated Jefferson Davis as president. Authorization to fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor was telegraphed from Montgomery thus beginning the Civil War.
About 75% of all white men of fighting age served in the Confederate militias and about 27,000 of them died. Many in the rural hill country disagreed with session and some 8,000 slaves fled and joined the northern Federal army. White women, their families, and the enslaved kept the plantations running to support themselves and the war effort. Ironmaking for the war effort expanded and was the target of Federal campaigns.
Approximately 400,000 enslaved blacks in Alabama were freed by the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. African Americans sought out their kin, and established religious and educational institutions for their communities. Many left the area and many others stayed and continued to farm the land they had worked as slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau was established to help freed slaves establish themselves as independent farmers or workers for their former slave holders.
In Alabama the economy was devastated and led to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan where whites sought to regain control by violence against blacks and white allies. Efforts to diversify the economy with railroads and the iron industry failed and by 1874 whites had regained control of the state legislature where they wrote a new constitution that reduced the size of state government.
In the 1870’s, the expansion of the railroads and investments from northern capitalist and southern plantation owners helped new industries to form around lumber production, textiles, coal, and iron making. By 1900, diversification led to about 33,000 Alabamians working in over 5,000 factories producing a wide array of products. Unions formed to negotiate better pay and working conditions where child labor was an issue. Also, low-cost labor was obtained through a convict lease program where many blacks were put in labor camps over misdemeanor or false pretenses.
In 1871, Birmingham was founded where a railroad junction became the primary shipping line for iron ore. By 1900, the combination of iron ore, coal, and limestone in the area made it a prime location for the production of many products, and attracted a diverse labor population. Today, Birmingham has the largest metropolitan population in Alabama.
Through the late 1800s, depressed cotton prices and control of the state by industrialists created hardships for both black and white farmers and industrial laborers. Called the Populists, they demanded better wages, funding for schools, and an end to the convict lease program. Even though they outnumbered those in control of the state government they lost elections due to election fraud and intimidation.
In a false effort to improve representation a constitutional convention was held in 1901 to form a new state constitution. Instead it disenfranchised blacks and poor whites by requiring a literacy test, poll tax, and other barriers to voting. Out of the 180,000 black Alabamians eligible to vote in 1900, only 2,980 actually became registered voters. In addition the women’s suffrage movement was growing where women were demanding the right to vote.
Up until the 1940s most Alabamians lived on small farms where cotton was still the primary crop. This was forced in part due to lending practices that would not support other crops, thus keeping cotton production high and prices low. Many farmers both black and white could not afford their land and became sharecroppers working the land through lease agreements with larger land owners. My grandfather was a sharecropper in Bibb County and farmed throughout his entire life. Many small towns formed across the state creating close knit communities that supported family farming.
In 1910 a bole weevil infestation destroyed most cotton crops in the state leading to agricultural technology assistance from Tuskegee and Auburn universities. New programs from the federal level encouraged diversification of crops and ways to control the bole weevil population.
In 1929 the US economy collapsed leading to the closure of all types of businesses nationwide. Farming had been difficult for years but now the depression was impacting the urban areas where people could not find work. Politicians pleaded with businesses not to lay off workers but to instead cut wages or reduce hours to help work through the economic problems.
In 1933 President Roosevelt proposed the New Deal as a series of federal relief efforts. Alabama’s congressional district was one of the most influential and took in hundreds of thousands of dollars to build Alabama infrastructure that put Alabamians back to work. Some of the results included the formation of the Tennessee Valley Authority building dams with generators to provide electricity across north Alabama, and the construction of roads and recreational areas across the state.
World War II
Over 321,000 Alabamians served around the globe during World War II including the noted Tuskegee Airmen. Civilians at home bought war bonds, helped convert factories to war materials production, and made numerous sacrifices for the effort. Over 6,000 Alabamians died, and for the remainder that returned, the experience and exposure to new ideas, places, and people changed them.
The war economy helped many areas further recover from the depression years, where Birmingham was noted as the great arsenal of the South and Mobile became the most crowded port city in the US. Women stepped into new roles in manufacturing, and blacks found more opportunities in industry like the all black team that produced the SS Tule Canyon in Mobile in a record 79 days.
In the late 1800s Alabama law adopted segregation practices claiming separate schools and public accommodations for blacks and whites was fair. Interracial marriage was illegal and social norms forced black Alabamians to take a back seat to white privilege. These laws became known as Jim Crow, a racist character popularized in the early 1800s poking fun at black slaves. African Americans built their own businesses, churches, and homes, but public services like education, voting, and justice were major issues under contention.
In the 1960s African Americans and their white allies began to break down the segregation doctrine through demonstrations, litigation, economic boycotts, and media exposure. Resistance by state and local officials, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Citizens’ Council of white businesses pushed back leading to violence in many cases. A march from Selma to Montgomery drew about 25,000 from across the country because of the violence against voting rights activists at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma that was captured on TV and broadcast across the country.
Made in Alabama
Arts and entertainment life played a part in Alabama like Hank Williams who launched his career with country music in Montgomery radio and night clubs, and Muscle Shoals sound which created a new mix of blues, gospel, and country. Writers like Harper Lee, and sports legends like Hank Aaron and many others have made noted accomplishments from Alabama that placed our state on the national stage.
In the 1960s Alabama became a part of the space race to put humans in space and on the Moon. Rockets were developed by the Wernher von Braun team at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and later the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville making north Alabama a key to high technology research and development. Developments included the Saturn V in the 1960s, Skylab in the 1970s, the Space Shuttle in the 1980s, the Hubble Space Telescope in the 1990s, and the International Space Station in the 2000s.
The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement saw the loss of 17,000 manufacturing jobs at apparel and textile plants across Alabama, but recovery in new areas was in the making. Growth in medical technologies at UAB in Birmingham, engineering in Huntsville at NASA and Redstone Arsenal, fishing and agriculture supported by many immigrant families, and new vehicle assembly plants across the state revived the economy and created a more global connection to people and products from around the world.
21st Century Economy
At the turn of the century about 40,000 Alabamians worked in the automotive industry, Mobile became a center for both aviation and container port shipping, the Tennessee Valley built rockets, satellites, and new biotechnology areas, Birmingham expanded from medical to e-commerce and software development, and tourism has flourished across the state. These major developments in key city centers has contrasted with still lacking industries in some of the more rural sections of Alabama.
Alabama’s Third Century
In conclusion, Education, healthcare, and economic opportunity for all is still lacking but great strides have been made. We still struggle with racism and disagreements over the rights of women and minorities, but I am hopeful that in the generations to come that these issues will be overcome.
Notes and References
Story and photographs by David Smitherman.
Sculptural reliefs are by Caleb O’Connor at O’Connor Art Studios.
You can read each plaque word for word and see details of the sculptural reliefs by visiting the park in Montgomery Alabama or online at https://www.al200park.alabama.gov/.
The park is located in front of the Alabama State Capitol.