I left the Waffle house and drove downtown. Montgomery had a different feel than Birmingham. It felt older, steeped in more tradition, a city with a long past. Turns out that’s true. Birmingham’s story is about a steel industry that evolved after the Civil War. Montgomery’s history is about cotton and was shaped before that war. Here’s the short story on Montgomery. Let’s see if I can sum up a couple hundred years of history into less than 1200 words by getting down to the important stuff.
In 1785, Abraham Mordecai, a Sephardic Jew from Philadelphia, established a trading post on the Alabama River in land then held by the British. When Mordecai got there the indigenous Coushatta and Alibamu peoples had already moved on to current day Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, territories controlled by the Spanish. They thought the Spanish white men were easier to get along with than the British. Creek Indians had migrated there, so Mordecai married a Creek woman, and traded with her tribe. Business was good. His little post prospered. While the Creeks accepted Mordecai, they were successful in keeping other white people away. Could be they were a tad meaner than the Alibamu and Coushatta. But that didn’t last.
While Abraham Mordecai was wheeling, dealing, and making money off the Creek Indians, Eli Whitney, born in Massachusetts and schooled in Connecticut, found himself on the Mulberry Grove plantation in Georgia figuring out how to get seeds out of the local cotton. Southerners had been trying to adapt a mechanical engine (shortened to “gin”) from India that worked fine on long fiber cotton grown in tropical areas of Asia, but not worth a damn on the cotton produced in the American South, which requires only 200 frost free days, can be grown almost anywhere south of Virginia and Kentucky, but holds its seeds tightly packed in shorter fibers. Southern plantations could process only about a pound of cotton a day with existing gins, a huge bottleneck in an industry that was poised to produce a lot more cotton with the right technology.
Eli persisted despite setbacks. He later said he was inspired one day by a cat trying to pull a chicken through a fence, and observed that it was only able to extract some of the feathers. Using that observation, he made a wooden drum stuck with hooks that pulled cotton through a mesh big enough that cotton fibers could pass through but small enough that the seeds could not. The seeds fell outside the drum. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin could clean 50 pounds of cotton a day. He and a partner were successful in getting a patent on that new cotton gin validated in 1807. Soon after they were for sale.
Back on the Alabama River where Abraham Mordecai lived it was decided the Creek Indians were standing in the way of progress. The U.S. Government, now in control of the surrounding territory, sent General Andrew Jackson there who fought and defeated the Creek Tribe in 1814, and forced them to cede 23 million acres to the United States, land which now makes up Georgia and most of central and southern Alabama. Mordecai’s wife left with her people who were removed to Indian Territory. In 1816, the Creek lands in present day Alabama were sold off at ridiculously cheap prices to white settlers who had their eye on growing cotton. Alabama was admitted to the Union in 1819 and Montgomery was incorporated that same year.
Abraham Mordecai said goodbye to his native American wife, stayed in Alabama, bought one of Eli Whitney’s first cotton gins, brought it to the new town of Montgomery, and before you could say “Dixie” cotton became king in the South, with Montgomery, Alabama smack dab in the middle of it.
American cotton was soon being sold in markets all over Europe, feeding new industrialized textile mills.
Those buyers of cheap Alabama and Georgia land were said to become millionaires after producing but three successful cotton crops. Cotton production expanded from 750,000 bales in 1830 to 2,850,000 bales in 1850 (a 380% increase for those who think that way) and wealth was created at a mind boggling pace.
As the cotton industry grew it became even more dependent on plantations and slaves. Cotton could be cleaned by machine but only human hands could pick it efficiently. Those hands were virtually all black, and they were in huge demand. The number of slaves in the South rose in concert with cotton production, growing by 450% from around 700,000 in 1790 to 3,200,000 in 1850.
Slave traders used the Alabama River to transport and deliver African slaves from the Caribbean, via New Orleans, to the heart of cotton country. A large slave holding facility and auction house was established in Montgomery near the river. The offices of slave agents surrounded that facility and grew the downtown. Dealing in slaves was profitable too.
Montgomery was designated as the county seat in 1822, the state capital was moved from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery in 1846, and for a short time in 1861 it was the capitol of the Confederacy before it moved to Richmond, Virginia. Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the confederacy’s first president on the steps of the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery.
By 1860, black slave labor was producing two-thirds of the world’s cotton supply including 80% of the cotton required by the crucial British market. The American South was the world’s first international agricultural powerhouse, and Montgomery was central to all of it, as was the cotton gin. In fact, many attribute the invention of the cotton gin, the expansion of cotton plantations in the South, and the dramatic corresponding increase in the number of imported slaves as the primary causes of the American Civil War. Some even credit Abraham Mordecai and Eli Whitney. Whatever the case, Montgomery, Alabama epitomized the rise of the South. It was one of its crown jewels. But its time in at the top was short.
On April 12, 1865, following the battle of Selma, Major James Wilson Union soldiers captured Montgomery for the North. The Montgomery I walked into in 2019, its history forever altered by the abolishment of slavery in America, was of course very different than the antebellum South. I figured that, but I was surprised at what I was to learn, not just about Montgomery but the rest of the South, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. In Montgomery I became witness to what I believe is the most painful and most shameful period of not only the South’s history, but America's.