- Slavery in Alabama: A Call to Action
For the entirety of its 200-year history, Alabama has been plagued by racial inequality and injustice. The state gets considerable attention from historians and the general public for its Civil Rights-era history of activism, bravery, and violence. But after two centuries of fighting for equity, Alabama continues to lead the nation in some of its bleakest statistics, including the size and treatment of the prison population, poverty rates, and racial health disparities.1 Few scholars would argue with the contention that one of the significant roots of these problems is the state’s history of slavery. On the eve of the American Civil War, Alabama had the nation’s fourth largest enslaved population in terms of overall numbers and the percentage of enslaved people in the population. The 1860 census lists 435,080 people living in slavery in Alabama, constituting a staggering forty-five percent of the state’s population.2 The enslaved men, women, and children who built the state’s grandiose antebellum mansions [End Page 3] and government buildings, cleared the fields, and toiled to produce the wealth of the early state’s leaders have too often faded to the background of Alabama’s history as it is discussed in schools, in popular culture, and even in historical scholarship. Of course, there are numerous exceptions to this statement, but this potential overgeneralization is necessary, if only to emphasize and encourage our historians, teachers, and leaders to work harder to foreground this inescapable and essential history. Alabama must grapple with its full history to trace the origins of modern problems and seek a way forward. The history of slavery in Alabama is a story worth telling, and much of this rich history is still waiting to be unearthed and elaborated on by the next generation of scholars and students.
This essay provides a brief overview of slavery in Alabama by discussing the existing historical scholarship; more importantly, it hopes to encourage future research on the subject. Alabama’s history of slavery has gotten more attention in the past year because of the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s new Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, in Montgomery in April 2018.3 Thousands of visitors have toured the new museum’s exhibits detailing the slave trade and slavery in the state’s capital city. This renewed interest and attention provides an opportunity for further research into the many subjects connected to the institution of slavery in Alabama which, to this point, have been woefully understudied. Although scholarly histories of slavery have included Alabama in some of their broad discussions, the last statewide study specifically devoted to slavery in Alabama is almost seventy-five years old.4 In addition, much of the scholarship touching on slavery in Alabama that has appeared in more recent popular and scholarly articles, books, and textbooks relies too heavily on this 1950 account or takes problematic sources, like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Slave Narratives, at face value.5 It is time for an updated survey of the [End Page 4] state’s history of slavery or, at least, new scholarship focusing on more specific topics on the history of slavery in Alabama. While this brief article cannot accomplish either of these feats, it will lay out some potential topics relating to slavery in the state and suggest possible directions that are worthy of new scholarly treatments and popular interest.
Any history of slavery in Alabama must begin with Native American practices because the bulk of the modern state’s territory spent centuries in the hands of Creek and other Indian nations. This article will primarily discuss Creek practices of captivity and slavery, but it also draws on the broader scholarship on Native American slavery.6 In Creek and other Native American societies, slavery was one piece of a collection of captivity practices that originated with taking prisoners after battles fought against neighboring tribes. After capture, the captives could then be symbolically tortured and killed, adopted into Creek families, or enslaved. Some of these captives were used to replace fallen warriors or other members of the town.7 For...