December 14, 1819 – Alabama Joins the Union as the 22nd State

A mound-building Native American culture once flourished before the arrival of Europeans in what is now the southeastern United States. One of the major centers of this culture is today aptly named Moundville, Alabama, where some 29 earthwork mounds survive.

Moundville Archaeological Park in Alabama

The history of Alabama’s Native American peoples is reflected in many of its place names. Among the Native American people living in the area at the time of European contact were the Alibamu, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Koasati, and Mobile tribes.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to enter Alabama, claiming land for the Spanish Crown. They named the region “La Florida,” which extended to the state now bearing that name.

The English also laid claims to the region. Charles II of England included the territory of modern Alabama in the Province of Carolina, with land granted to certain of his favorites by the charters of 1663 and 1665.

The French came to Alabama as well. In 1702 they founded a settlement on the Mobile River near its mouth, constructing Fort Louis. For the next nine years this was the French seat of government of New France, or La Louisiane (Louisiana). In 1711, settlers moved the fort to higher ground in what eventually became Mobile, the first permanent European settlement in Alabama.

The French and the English engaged in competition for Indian trade in what is now the state of Alabama between roughly the 1690s and the 1750s. After that time, various conflicts resulting in the territory being divided among Britain, Spain and France, and eventually being ceded to, sold to, or taken by the United States.

By 1812, the whole area of the present state of Alabama was under the jurisdiction of the United States. Several Native American tribes still occupied most of the land, with some formal ownership recognized by treaty with the United States.

In 1817, the Mississippi Territory was divided. The western portion, which had attracted population more quickly, became the state of Mississippi. The eastern portion became the Alabama Territory, with St. Stephens on the Tombigbee River as its temporary seat of government.

Mississippi Territory changes 1798-1817

In 1819, on this day in history, Alabama was admitted as the 22nd state to the Union.

In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act under the leadership of President Andrew Jackson, forcing the removal of southeastern tribes, including the Five Civilized Tribes of Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole. Further “removals” were enacted from 1832 to 1837.

After the eviction of Native Americans, white settlers arrived in large numbers, bringing or importing tens of thousands of African slaves in the domestic trade. By 1860 African Americans (nearly all slaves) comprised 45 percent of the state’s 964,201 people.

One of the largest slaveholding states, Alabama was among the first six states to secede, declaring its secession in January, 1861 and joining the Confederacy in February. Following the Civil War, though blacks had been emancipated, the whites in the South were unable to countenance the freedom of their former slaves. They tried to suppress blacks in every way they could, with many joining the newly formed Ku Klux Klan to ensure that blacks stayed “in their places.”

Nathan Bedford Forrest, former Confederate Army General and 1st leader of the KKK

The Klan in essence launched a new civil war by clandestine means, with a violent spate of domestic terrorism, both against blacks, and against any whites who dared sympathize with them. Efforts by some in the North to deter the horrifying incidents of beatings, rape and murder in the South were thwarted by increasing moral fatigue and widespread racism.

From Harper’s Weekly, 1876

Birmingham was founded in 1871 by real estate promoters who sold lots near the planned crossing of the Alabama & Chattanooga and South & North railroads. The site also had rich deposits of iron ore, coal and limestone—the three principal raw materials used in making steel. Its founders adopted the name of England’s principal industrial city to advertise the new city as a center of iron and steel production. The population of this ‘Pittsburgh of the South’ grew from 38,000 to 132,000 from 1900 to 1910, attracting rural white and black migrants from all over the region. By 1915, twenty-five percent of the nation’s foundry pig iron was produced in Birmingham. By the 1920s, Birmingham was the 19th largest city in the U.S and held more than 30% of the population of the state.

Casting pig iron, Sloss Furnaces, Birmingham, c. 1906. (Detroit Publishing Co., Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Meanwhile, “Jim Crow” laws taking rights away from blacks were enacted in one state of the South after another. In Alabama, Democrats pushed through a new constitution in 1901 that restricted suffrage and effectively disenfranchised most African Americans and many poor whites through requirements for voter registration, such as poll taxes, literacy tests and restrictive residency requirements. The damage to the African-American community was severe and pervasive, as nearly all its eligible citizens lost the ability to vote. In 1900 45% of Alabama’s population were African American and more than 181,000 African Americans were eligible to vote. By 1903 only 2,980 had managed to “qualify” to register, although at least 74,000 black voters were literate. The shut out was long-lasting. Disfranchisement also meant that blacks and poor whites could not serve on juries, so were subject to a justice system in which they had no part.

The volatile social environment of the early 20th Century contributed to a renaissance of the Ku Klux Klan after 1915. Tens of thousands of African Americans from Alabama joined the “Great Migration” of blacks out of the South from 1915 to 1930. They left for their own safety, as well as better opportunities in industrial cities, mostly in the North.

In the 1950s, many African-Americans became activists for civil rights, and Alabama was a center of such activity. The Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955 to 1956, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy (and begun after Rosa Parks famously refused to move to the back of the bus) was one of the most significant African-American protests against the policy of racial segregation in the state.

From 1947 to 1965, Birmingham suffered some 50 racially motivated bomb attacks. In 1963 civil rights leaders chose to mount a campaign in Alabama for additional desegregation, in schools, restaurants, department stores, and the police force.

In the spring and summer of 1963, national attention became riveted on Birmingham thanks to newspaper and television images of Birmingham police using police dogs and powerful streams of water against black protesters. The Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing during a Sunday service, which killed four African-American girls, also caused a national outcry and gained support for the civil rights cause in the state.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to ensure state and local governments did not pass laws or policies denying American citizens the equal right to vote based on race. But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, removing a critical tool to combat racial discrimination in voting. Under Section 5 of the landmark civil rights law, jurisdictions with a history of discrimination had to seek pre-approval of changes in voting rules that could affect minorities. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court invalidated Section 4 — which determines the states and localities covered by Section 5 — arguing that current conditions required a new coverage formula, averring that “blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.” Since the ruling, several states previously delineated in Section 4, including Alabama, moved to restrict voting rights with tactics ranging from racial gerrymandering to closing poll sites. (A federal court found that Alabama legislators unconstitutionally relied on race in redrawing 12 state legislative districts.)

There are positive features about Alabama too, of course. A relatively new popular event takes place in downtown Mobile every year. Ever since New Year’s Eve in 2008, a twelve-foot tall electronic MoonPie weighing some 600 pounds is dropped from a 34-story building.

The event is known as “MoonPie Over Mobile.” (A traditional MoonPie consists of two round graham cracker cookies with marshmallow filling in the center, dipped in chocolate.)

MoonPie Over Mobile

MoonPie Over Mobile

Chattanooga Bakery started making MoonPies in 1917, in response to a request from local coal miners who wanted something they could eat without stopping for an actual break which they couldn’t take. When the bakery salesman asked how big this treat should be, a miner held out his hands, framed the moon, and said, “About that big!”

220px-Moon-Pie-Single

You may ask, isn’t Chattanooga in Tennessee? Why does a MoonPie drop in Mobile? The answer is related to Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebration. Mardi Gras in Mobile is the oldest annual Carnival celebration in the United States, having started in 1703. This was fifteen years before New Orleans was founded, although today the celebrations in New Orleans are more widely known. (Mobile, it should be noted, was the first capital of French Louisiana, which is not the same thing as the Louisiana Territory. A map of French Louisiana is shown below).

French Louisiana was the name of French-controlled land in North America; this map shows territorial holdings in around 1750.

French Louisiana was the name of French-controlled land in North America; this map shows territorial holdings in around 1750.

In Mobile, some 33 different groups stage the major parades each year for Mardi Gras over a three-week periods.

Cache of Mobile Mardi Gras throws

Cache of Mobile Mardi Gras throws

During the parades, members of societies (“krewes”) on floats toss gifts known as throws to the public. The gifts have included plastic beads, doubloon coins, decorated plastic cups, candy, wrapped cakes/snacks, stuffed animals, and small toys, footballs, frisbees, or whistles. Cracker Jack boxes used to be thrown, but their rectangular boxes could injure people, and they were banned in the early Seventies. MoonPies had been used by a few groups as throws since the 1950‘s, but after the Cracker Jack ban, the soft wrapped treat took over as the signature throw. In 2012, more than 3 million Moon Pies were tossed from floats. With the MoonPie now being an unofficial emblem of Mobile, and Mardi Gras being very big business in Mobile, the MoonPie was first used for the New Year’s Eve drop in 2008. In addition, the Chattanooga Bakery creates a giant edible MoonPie to carve up for partiers.

50-pound MoonPie served to revelers on Dec. 30, 2008, in downtown Mobile

50-pound MoonPie served to revelers on Dec. 30, 2008, in downtown Mobile

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