African American Heritage
From slavery to freedom to modern day, the African American history in the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area (MSNHA) has been one of tears and triumph. African Americans from the MSNHA have impacted the social and political worlds of the nation, brought birth to new styles of music, and have traveled in space.
Towns Created by Slavery
The counties in the Muscle Shoals region were divided when it came to the amount of slaves. Counties that were in the valley and relied more on agricultural crops such as cotton had more slaves than the counties that were situated in the hills. This differing between communities dependence on slave labor caused violent riffs during the Civil War and even after the war had ended.
In addition to the slaves that worked in the fields, many were hired out as blacksmiths, bricklayers, plasters, and other skilled tradesman. These slaves built many of the historic buildings in the region's towns, including the Old State Bank in downtown Decatur.
Fighting for Freedom – The U.S. Colored Troops
During the Civil War, African Americans served on both sides of the war. Many of the African Americans that served in the Confederate Armies were menservants that were brought along with their white owners. For the Union Armies, it was not until the war was in full swing before African Americans were allowed to join the ranks and the U.S. Colored Troops were formed. These regiments were made up of escaped slaves, freemen, and slaves in the border states. Most of the African Americans from North Alabama who were Union soldiers were most likely former or escaped slaves.
In Alabama, there were five African American regiments:
11th U.S. Colored Infantry
55th U.S. Colored Infantry
106th U.S. Colored Infantry
110th U.S. Colored Infantry
111th U.S. Colored Infantry
A sixth regiment, the 137th U.S. Colored Infantry was created in Selma after federalization.
Rapier and Other African American Delegates Take On Congress
Following the Civil War, the 14th and 15th Amendments gave African American men the right to vote and hold office. One of the most influential political leaders to emerge from the Muscle Shoals region during this period was James T. Rapier. Rapier had been born a free man in Florence and had returned to the south after having attended Montreal College, a rare experience for most southern African Americans during that time. Rapier served as the Florence representative during Alabama's Constitutional Convention in 1867 and later served as U.S. Representative (1837-1875, working on such legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Rapier was one of only three African American congressmen from Alabama during the reconstruction period.
Other Notable African American Politicians
Other notable early African American politicians came from the MSNHA. These included Oscar Stanton De Priest (born in Florence in 1871), a Republican who was Chicago's first black alderman and the first African American to be elected to Congress in the twentieth century.
include Jeremiah Harrison (Congressman from 1875-1877), Sandy Bynum (Registrar for Lawrence County), George Garth (Registrar for Limestone and Morgan Counties), Sandy Osbourne (Registrar for Colbert and Franklin Counties), Oscar Stanton DePriest (Chicago's first black alderman).
Getting an Education
During the period of segregation, several area schools were built to provide education opportunities to African American students. In Alabama, around four hundred schools and houses were built through the Rosenwald Fund, a matching grant program created by Julius Rosenwald, then president of Sears Roebuck and Co. This program helped communities build African American schools by providing a portion of the funds needed, while the community raised the rest of the money.
One of the more well-known of the African American schools in the region was Trinity School. The school was initially built by the American Missionary Association and local African Americans to provide education opportunities for the children of former slaves. The school, constructed between 1881-1882, was an important institution for the African American community through the 1970s. Nationally-known graduates from the school include Patti Malone, a singer with the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers; C. Eric Lincoln, an educator and author; and Ross Baity, an artist whose work has been on display throughout the nation.
Starting a Musical Revolution
In the late 1800s a new style of music emerged from the African American community. The blues blended the traditional sacred songs and spirituals with more secular influences and one of the earliest musicians to develop the blues style was Florence-native W.C. Handy. While Handy was not the first musician to create the blues style, he was the first to arrange, publish, and popularize it. His basic blues sound laid the foundation for hits like St Louis Blues, Memphis Blues, and Beale Street Blues and helped to influence countless other musicians and composers, including George Gershwin, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles. The blues sound also was influential to the creation of the "Muscle Shoals Sound."
Handy, born William Christopher Handy, was born in 1873 in a one-room house in Florence. He moved to Memphis at the age of 19, where he served as a musician, bandleader, composer, and publisher. His legacy and impact on the music world is celebrated each year at the W.C. Handy Music Festival in Florence, a multi-day event that draws thousands to the area each year. Handy's home still exists in Florence and can be toured.
Another well-known African American musician from the MSNHA is Percy Sledge. Sledge, known for his hit When a Man Loves a Woman was born in Leighton, Alabama in 1940.
Running to Greatness
Oakville, Alabama-native Jesse Owens won four gold medals during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, setting an Olympic record in the 100-meter run and a world record in the 200-meter run. In the previous year to the Olympics, Owens set four world records in less than an hour at the 935 Big Ten Track and Field Championships. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford in 1979. Owens, the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves, lived in Alabama until the age of nine. A memorial park and museum dedicated to him is located in Oakville (Lawrence County) and a memorial run is held each year in his memory.
Breaking Barriers in Space
In more recent times, African American pioneers have continued to break the barriers of race. Mae Carol Jemison, who was born in Decatur, became the first African American woman to travel in space when she orbited the earth on the Space Shuttle Endeavor on September 12, 1992.