Alabama Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Alabama is in the southeastern part of the United States, between Mississippi to the west and Georgia and Florida to the east.

History of Alabama

Alabama is in the southeastern part of the United States, between Mississippi to the west and Georgia and Florida to the east. Most of Alabama’s southern border adjoins Florida, but a small portion of the state extends down to the Gulf of Mexico. The northern part of Alabama, just below Tennessee, is known as the Appalachian region. It is made up of high plateaus, ridges, valleys, and the high Talladega Mountains. The Piedmont Plateau, another rocky region, extends from the Talladega Mountains to the Georgia border. Until well into the twentieth century, many of the people in the highlands of Alabama lived the isolated lives of mountain and hill dwellers. The Interior Low Plateau region is the part of northern Alabama drained by the Tennessee River. Below the northern uplands, the Gulf Coastal Plains extend south to the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Coastal Plains include the Black Belt, a dark-soiled prairie.

The Tennessee River area and the Black Belt have rich soil. Together with Alabama’s hot, humid climate, this has made these territories ideal for agriculture. As a result, agriculture tended to dominate the state’s economic activities until the second half of the twentieth century. Worldwide demand for cotton in the nineteenth century led the state to specialize in cotton production. Since cotton was a crop that required a great deal of unskilled labor, this created a reliance on slavery that profoundly affected the state’s history.

Early History

Before the arrival of the Europeans, Alabama was dominated by Native Americans known as the Mound Builders, after their ceremonial earth mounds. The best-known archaeological site of the Mound Builders in Alabama is at Moundville on the Black Warrior River in central Alabama. Moundville was a large and complex society, second in size and organization only to the Cahokia site of Mound Builder culture in Illinois. Both a populous town and a political and religious center, the Moundville community itself probably housed about one thousand people at its height and was surrounded by around ten thousand people living in the Black Warrior River Valley. This settlement lasted from about 1000 c.e. to about 1450.

In the eighteenth century, the Creek were one of the largest and predominant Native American groups in Alabama. The Creek, who lived in villages of log houses, sided with the British against the Americans in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. At war with the Americans, they were defeated by General Andrew Jackson, and by 1828 they agreed to give up all of their lands and move to Indian Territory in modern Oklahoma. The Cherokee, who were spread throughout the Southeast, were also well represented in Alabama. In 1838 most of the Cherokee were also forced to relocate to Indian Territory. Similarly, most of the Choctaw and the Chickasaw were removed from Alabama and the adjacent states.

Exploration and Colonization

Spanish explorers reached Alabama around 1540. The Spanish attempted to establish a settlement at Mobile Bay but soon deserted it, leaving cattle, hogs, and horses behind, all of which became part of local Native American ways of life. The French claimed much of Alabama as part of their vast Louisiana territory, and they built forts and trading posts. After France and Great Britain fought the French and Indian Wars (1754-1763), Alabama fell under the control of the British. The coastal area, including Mobile Bay, became part of West Florida. North of West Florida, all of Alabama was reserved by the British for the Native Americans.

During the American Revolution, Spain captured Mobile from the British, shutting the British out of Alabama. After the Revolution, West Florida became Spanish land, and interior Alabama was turned over to the new United States. After several years of border disputes, the United States and Spain finally agreed in 1795 that 31 degrees north latitude would be the boundary between U.S. land and West Florida; this would continue to be the boundary between Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. In 1798 the U.S. Congress formed the Mississippi Territory, made up of modern Mississippi and Alabama. The portion of the territory along the Mississippi River became the state of Mississippi in 1817, and in 1819 Alabama was admitted to the Union as the twenty-second state.

Slavery and Civil War

Alabama’s rich soil led to an influx of settlers. Worldwide demand for cotton made this crop enormously profitable for a few wealthy landowners. Black slaves worked the cotton plantations, and between 1830 and 1860 the state’s slave population grew by 270 percent, while the white population grew by only 170 percent. Although the big plantation owners made up only about 6 to 7 percent of Alabama’s population, they were enormously influential and dominated the state’s society. The majority of white Alabamians, especially in the hills and mountains, were small subsistence farmers.

Slavery became a contentious issue in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. As new territories entered the United States, many northern leaders opposed the spread of slavery. The southern political leadership, dominated by the plantation owners, saw slavery as essential to the southern agricultural way of life and feared falling under the control of the populous north. In 1861 Alabama joined other southern states in seceding from the United States and forming the Confederate States of America. The bitter Civil War ensued. By 1865 Alabama and the other southern states were defeated and occupied by northern troops.

With the end of the Civil War, Alabama’s slaves received freedom. However, there were few economic opportunities for them, and most had to take jobs working as low-income agricultural laborers for white landowners. The American Missionary Association and the Federal Freedmen’s Bureau helped to establish schools that formed a basis for future African American education. Although African Americans received the right to vote during Reconstruction, the period from after the Civil War to 1877, when Union troops withdrew from the South, relatively few Alabamian blacks were able to take positions of political leadership because of the former slaves’ lack of education and experience. By 1874, white southern Democrats managed to take control of the state government. Throughout the nineteenth century, the white state government established legal segregation and restricted the rights of African Americans.

The Civil Rights Era

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, African Americans in Alabama and other southern states began organizing to oppose segregation and racial discrimination. In 1955 Rosa Parks, a black citizen of Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. In response, the African American residents of Montgomery, under the leadership of the clergyman Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., organized a boycott of the city’s public transportation system. The successful boycott made King a national civil rights leader, and he went on to advocate desegregation campaigns and marches throughout the South.

Alabama governor George Wallace, first elected in 1962, came to national prominence as a result of his opposition to integration. Wallace had experienced defeat in a first run for governor in 1959, when he refused the support of the Ku Klux Klan and ran a campaign of racial moderation. After that defeat, he became a staunch segregationist and attempted to block the integration of Alabama’s schools and universities. On the basis of the national recognition brought by his segregationist policies, Wallace ran for president of the United States in 1968 as the candidate of the American Independent Party.

Although racial inequality continued to be a problem in Alabama, segregation became illegal, and black Alabamians achieved substantial social and political influence. From 1969 to 1970, the percentage of African American students attending integrated schools increased from 15 percent to 80 percent. In 1982, when George Wallace was elected to his third term as governor, he actively appealed to black voters and renounced his earlier racial positions.

Alabama’s Industrialization

Alabama saw substantial industrialization over the course of the twentieth century. In 1907 United States Steel Corporation established a steel industry in Birmingham. Iron and steel became leading products of Alabama, concentrated mainly in the Birmingham area.

The port city of Mobile became a center of shipbuilding during World War I. Shipbuilding and ship repair continued to be important on the Alabama Gulf Coast, but the area around Mobile also began to produce paper and chemical products. The city of Huntsville became a focal point of U.S. government missile manufacturing and the aerospace industry after World War II. Cutbacks in federal government spending caused Huntsville to diversify its economy after the 1970’s, and other high technology industries located there.

Despite the rapid industrialization, agriculture continued to be a major economic activity. However, most modern agricultural activities in Alabama are heavily mechanized and use relatively little labor. Cotton remains important, but many of the old cotton fields now produce peanuts, soybeans, corn, and other crops.

As Alabama has industrialized, its population has shifted from rural areas to urban areas. In 1990, 60 percent of the people in the state lived in places with more than 2,500 inhabitants. Birmingham had the largest concentration, with a population of 266,000. African Americans, who lived almost entirely in rural areas in the early twentieth century, were heavily concentrated in larger cities in the southern and central parts of the state by 1990.

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