MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - We continue to re-examine Alabama’s past in a partnership with the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
To better understand the present, we must look back at a time when the ADAH admitted it made a mistake by ignoring African-American history as it promoted the Confederacy.
Today, Alabama reigns supreme in the automobile industry. Just a week ago, Hyundai announced it would soon add a fifth vehicle to its Montgomery assembly line.
But years before Alabama relied on the automobile industry to drive its economy, another precious product powered the state, and slave labor was a big part of its future.
Alabama achieved world-wide fame thanks to the contributions of African-Americans with one key industry: cotton.
Once ‘king of the South' and a critical commodity for the regions’ survival, at one point cotton covered more than five million acres of land in Alabama. It was shipped to mills and markets all over the world, and it all depended on the back-breaking labor of slaves who made it possible.
“Well, slavery was not a benevolent institution. I think slavery was an evil,” said Derryn Moten of Alabama State University department of history and political science.
“They are still in legal servitude. and the property of the white people on the land they live and work,” said Steve Murray, director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
In 1860, There were 965,000 people in Alabama. Enslaved African Americans accounted for 435,000 of the state’s residents, and their labor made up 42% of Alabama’s income.
The economy was booming and white Southerners were ready and willing to do anything and everything to keep it intact. Even leave the union.
“At its essence, it is undeniable that the cause of the American Civil War was slavery,” explained Murray;
“Oh, I think for Black folks, it was always about slavery,” added Moten.
Cries to leave the union started to grow during the mid-1800s and the South had the political clout to make waves. Southern states had more seats in Congress thanks to the Three-fifths Compromise, which counted three of every five slaves as “people,” adding to the South’s population over non-slaveholding states,
“The argument in 1860, and four years going leading into 1860, had been specifically about the authority of new territories and states as the country continues to grow westward," said Murray, "whether slavery could be extended into those new territories and states. That was an important issue because it would determine what the balance of power would be in the federal government. Admit a free state but don’t admit a slave-holding state at the same time, suddenly the free states have a larger numerical majority.”
Some northern democrats were fed up with the South and its authority and that prompted the rise of a new political power, the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln.
“He is running on a platform that is not at the time calling for the destruction of the institution of slavery. He’s opposed to the expansion of slavery into the western territories and states,” Murray explained.
And that threatened the Southern way of life.
In February of 1860, members of the Alabama legislature drafted a joint resolution on why a Republican should not become president. It stated "It would be an act of suicidal folly and madness, almost without a parallel in history.”
Lincoln was soon elected President and some Alabamians were furious.
“That’s the immediate trigger that then, when Lincoln is elected, prompts the Southern states to call for succession conventions," Murray stated, “and in a decision sooner rather than later on whether to leave the union.”
Alabama Gov. Andrew B. Moore called for a convention and the election of delegates to take up the matter saying "the contingency contemplated...has happened. We are on the eve of great events.”
So why was the state so divided on the issue of slavery and why did some slaveholders in the southern part of teh state have more to lose than those in north Alabama?
We’ll take a look at those issues as we we continue our reexamination of Alabama' history next Tuesday night at 10.
To read more about the state’s history, check out the Alabama Department of Archives and History’s website. There, you’ll find a detailed history of the state, including photos, artifacts and other pieces that tell the state’s story.