Dallas County came into existence in 1818, while the city of Selma was established two years later in 1820 by a group headed by later U.S. Vice President William Rufus King. While the county was named for Alexander J. Dallas, a Scottish immigrant lawyer, the city drew its name from Ossian’s poems. The name Selma which means “high seat” or “throne” came from the poem The Songs of Selma, one of William R. King’s personal favorites.
Dallas County had just barely come into its infancy when it was selected to be the location of Alabama’s first permanent state capital (now a ghost town and popular tourist destination), Cahawba.
This early settlement and development now means that Selma is the second-oldest surviving city in the State of Alabama, and numbers among its many historic districts an abundance of structures that date to the 1800’s. Thousands of tourists venture to Selma and Dallas County each year, many of whom are tracing their ancestors.
Development in the City of Selma was predicated on its excellent rail and waterway transportation arteries. At one time, as many as 49 different railroads operated into and out of the city. The city’s prime location high atop the Alabama River’s soapstone bluffs made Selma a natural hub for steamboat traffic throughout central and south Alabama. These routes ensured Selma’s place as a major transportation center for the region’s booming agricultural economy.
With this economic boom in full swing, Selma also becomes a commercial and professional center for an entire area of the state. This also ensured the city’s place as a nucleus for political power, and at one time, both of Alabama’s U.S. Senators hailed from Selma. While the county and region were dealt a serious political blow in 1825 when the capital moved from Cahawba to Tuscaloosa, power was maintained at the state and national level for decades to come.
The onset of war saw Selma’s sprawling industrial complex converted to the production of wartime materials and was second only to the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia in the production of munitions, canons, and armaments for the Confederate war effort.
The city was an easy choice for this role as it boasted not only the production facilities ripe for conversion, but also a central location and an extensive transportation infrastructure. By 1863, the majority of Confederate war materiel was produced in Selma, employing over 10,000. In fact, The Selma Ordinance and Naval Foundry was one of only two locations (the other being Tredegar in Richmond) that produced the technologically superior Brooke rifle, a massive naval and coast defense cannon. Additionally, the Selma works contributed to the production of at least five of the Confederacy’s Ironclads, including the CSS Tennessee.
Selma’s importance as a manufacturing and transportation center made it a prime objective for Union strategists, but the city’s location deep in the heart of the Confederacy made it a particularly difficult target on which to advance and several failed attempts were made between 1863-1865. Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, himself, led an attack on Selma from the west that was turned back to the Mississippi River near Meridian, just 107 miles shy of his intended target.
The Battle of Selma
In the closing days of war, Major General James Wilson led three divisions of Union cavalry deep into Confederate territory. These 13,000 or so men went first to Tuscaloosa, where they destroyed The University of Alabama. After their job in Tuscaloosa was complete, the Union lines made way for Selma which was defended by General Nathan Bedford Forrest and an under-equipped, outnumbered Confederate force.
On April 1, 1865, following a morning of running battles and skirmishes, Wilson’s advance guard made contact with Forrest’s line of battle near Ebenezer Church (in the vicinity of modern-day Plantersville, up Highway 22 from Selma). After a brief, but fierce, engagement, the Confederate lines were broken and Wilson’s men drove Forrest’s force back into the defenses of Selma. During the engagement, Forrest was wounded by a Union saber wielded by Captain James D. Taylor. Forrest subsequently shot and killed Taylor, the last of more than 30 men Forrest personally killed during the course of his tenure in the Confederate Army.
Early the next morning, Forrest rode into Selma, relieved Departmental Commander Richard Taylor of his post, and set about manning the fortifications around the city. Constructed two years prior and largely neglected during that time, the Selma works were still a formidable obstacle when General Wilson’s men arrived. Ranging from 8-12 feet in height with a base thickness of around 15 feet, the works were fronted with a five-foot-deep trench that was situated behind a picket fence of heavy posts, sharpened to a point. The works also consisted of earthen redoubts that positioned artillery at strategic points along the defense.
Wilson’s force came upon the Selma works around 2pm on April 2. His plan was to wait until dark when he would send an attachment to flank the Confederate lines. Unexpectedly, Confederate forces attacked the rear of Wilson’s column forcing Union General Eli Long to prematurely begin his assault against the Selma fortifications in an effort to neutralize the assault on his rear. After 30 minutes of vicious fighting, General Long’s forces captured the works protecting the Summerfield Road and Union soldiers began pouring into the city. Shortly thereafter, U.S. flags could be seen flying along the entire length of the works. The remaining Confederates retreated to the inner works to make one final stand. During the devastating onslaught, General Wilson’s favorite horse was injured and he was sent hurdling to the ground. Wilson quickly remounted his horse to oversee the remainder of the battle, and by 7pm, the cannon rang silent. Selma had fallen.
Turn of the Century Selma
In the chaos that followed the Battle of Selma, Union troops burned over 600 buildings in and around the city (in addition to their target, The Selma Ordinance and Naval Foundry). Although this left Selma badly crippled, the city began the rebuilding process and quickly reemerged as a center for political power in Alabama.
Newly enfranchised citizens exercised their votes by electing Alabama’s first African American to the U.S. House of Representatives, Benjamin Sterling Turner. Born a slave in North Carolina, Turner was one of the wealthiest men in Alabama upon emancipation. He had saved what portion of the earnings he could from his role as manager of a hotel and stable in downtown Selma so that shortly after the war’s conclusion he purchased the hotel and stable operation for himself. In 1865, Turner helped establish the first school in Selma for African American children. Two years later, Turner began down the road that would lead him to Congress. First, Turner participated in the Republican State Convention in 1867. He then went on to be selected as tax collector for Dallas County. The following year, Turner won his first elected office when he was voted a Selma City Councilman. Then, in 1870, Turner was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. While in Congress, Turner worked to restore legal rights to Ex- Confederates, fought to repeal the tax on cotton (arguing that it hurt poor, rural African-Americans in his district), secured pensions for African American Civil War veterans, and succeeded in obtaining federal funds to repair war-damaged buildings and to build a Federal Building in Selma. After Congress, Turner returned to farming and confined his political activities to Dallas County. Upon his death in March of 1894, Turner was interred at Old Live Oak Cemetery in Selma.
The movement toward suffrage for Alabama women began in Selma early in the 20th Century. As early as 1892, Alabama women had begun organizing in support of suffrage, but their efforts were short- lived. The 1901 Alabama Constitution failed to grant any type of suffrage or expansion of rights to women and the movement unraveled for nearly an entire decade. Then, in 1910, the Selma Equal Suffrage Association was formed under Miss Mary Partridge with Birmingham following suit shortly thereafter. An annual convention in support of women’s suffrage was organized and hosted here in Selma. Realizing that there was strength in numbers, the Selma and Birmingham chapters combined their resources to create a statewide footprint in 1912. The inaugural state convention for this new organization, the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association (AESA), was held at the Hotel Albert in Selma in 1913. In 1914, the movement almost accomplished its goals when the State Representative from Dallas County put forth a suffrage bill in the house. The measure failed by just 12 votes. Then, in 1919, the AESA had their chance again as they were tasked with convincing the State of Alabama to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As with many episodes in Selma’s history, the fight for suffrage is wrought with irony. The leader of the AESA as well as the leader of their vehement opponent, the Women’s Anti-Ratification League, were both Selmians. Despite Alabama’s decision not to ratify, women were granted the right to vote in 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to approve the 19th Amendment. Dallas County women embraced these new-found rights and responsibilities and in 1922 elected one of their own, Hattie Hooker Wilkins, as the first woman to serve in the Alabama House of Representatives.
The World Wars
World War I
Selma’s participation in World War I as a community was primarily limited to a wildly successful campaign for the purchase of Liberty Bonds and War Stamps. So successful was this local campaign that the U.S. Navy named a ship after our city. The story of the SS Selma illustrates another episode of irony from Selma’s past.
Near the end of the First World War, our nation was experiencing serious steel shortages. As a result, President Woodrow Wilson commissioned the construction of 24 experimental concrete vessels. Only 12 of these mammoth ships were ever built, with the SS Selma being the largest at 425ft. The ship, constructed in Mobile, AL specifically to support the war effort, was launched on June 28, 1919, the same day Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, ending the war.
With its wartime mission void, the SS Selma found use as an oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico. During its first year of service, the vessel hit a jetty in Tampico, Mexico that ripped a gaping hole in her hull. Repairmen attempted to patch the hole in Galveston, TX, but attempts proved futile. In March of 1922, U.S. officials decided to intentionally scuttle the ship near Pelican Island in Galveston Bay. Since then, the exposed hull has been a popular attraction for local adventurers and continues to provide a wealth of information to concrete engineers around the globe.
World War II
Selma found itself centrally important to the national effort to defeat the Axis Powers in World War II. One primary reason for this importance was the Air Force’s decision to locate Craig Field here in Selma. On May 2, 1941, just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, news agencies across the nation received the following notice over the press wire service:
“SELMA, ALA., May 2 - As determined and void of frills as a volunteer - which she really is – this one-time arsenal of the confederacy opens tomorrow as an “arsenal of democracy” the largest flying field in the United States, civilian or military. It is a new unit of the Southeast Air Corps Training Center, where flying cadets will get advanced schooling in the handling of multi-mile-o-minute pursuit planes – the kind that go up to intercept bombers, beat off machine gunners.”
So it was that Craig Field was born. Within a year, Craig boasted a post mechanic school, sheet metal school, classes in radio, link trainer, map reading, meteorology, chemical warfare, and a variety of technical aspects of Air Force work – in addition to its regular mission of training cadets to fly. Thousands of cadets, both American and Allied, spent time at Craig Field and many will always consider Selma home.
From the very beginning, Craig had a reputation for innovation and pioneering. The facility continues that legacy today serving Dallas County as the Craig Field Airport and Industrial Park, one of our 4 industrial parks. Operated by the Craig Field Airport and Industrial Authority (CFAIA), this 2,200- acre complex is complete with paved roads, utilities, fire protection, perimeter fencing, and rail access. Central to the complex is the general purpose airport, with a newly-renovated 10,000 ft. lighted runway (capable of handling C-130 and 747/777 sized aircraft) new hangars, and 70 acres of tie downs.
In 1965, our quiet city was the stage for the climax of the struggle to extend the vote to all Americans. A century after the American Civil War ended slavery, Jim Crowe laws across the South were still discriminating against African-Americans in education, housing, transportation, jobs, and especially voting. To force politicians to change unfair policies, many took to the streets in deliberate, non-violent protest to demand equal rights under the law. Their bravery and courage inspired suppressed minorities as far away as South Africa, Poland, and China to confront their oppressors.
In 1950, African Americans made up about half of Dallas County’s voting-age population, but since 1901 had been denied the right to vote through poll taxes and literacy tests enacted by Alabama’s State Constitution. In fact, in 1961, only 156 of Dallas County’s 15,000 voting-age African Americans were registered. When African Americans would try to vote, Sheriff Jim Clark, an ardent segregationist, would harass them, and on several occasions assaulted voting organizers.
Beyond its record of low voter registration and assault, Selma and Dallas County were a natural choice to launch demonstrations because of our vibrant church community. Religious institutions have played a critical role throughout Selma’s history, but perhaps never quite as pronounced a role as during the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s. In 1963, Tabernacle Baptist Church (on Broad Street, built in 1922), led by Rev. L. L. Anderson, hosted the very first of the mass meetings. First Baptist Church, the oldest African American Baptist congregation in the city and the third oldest in the state, was also a pivotal player in the movement. In fact, marchers injured on Bloody Sunday would be treated in the church’s basement. Dozens of other local churches proved to be vital organizational and support hubs for the foot soldiers throughout the movement in Selma.
The effort to extend voting rights to all citizens began in Selma long before the highly-publicized events of 1965. Local foot soldiers had been working to secure voting rights for many years. These efforts laid a foundation and an infrastructure that national organizers were able to engage with build on. The Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) worked to add African American voters to the rolls in the late 50’s and early 60’s through voter registration classes offered to the community. Then, in 1963, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or “snick”) took note of the grassroots efforts of the DCVL and came to Selma to join their cause. In 1964, Mrs. Amelia Boynton, Mrs. Marie Foster, Mr. Ernest Doyle, Rev. John D. Hunter, Mr. James Gildersleeve, Rev. Henry Shannon, Mr. Ulysses Blackmon, and Dr. Frederick D. Reese, the steering committee of DCVL referred to as the “Courageous Eight,” continued to meet and strategize on the Selma movement. They put out a call for help to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which at the time was headed by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Early in 1965, Rev. King defied an injunction against large gatherings so that he could address a mass rally at Brown Chapel AME Church. Just a few days later, 400 joined the first voter registration march to the Dallas County Courthouse. The infamous Sheriff, Jim Clark, directed the marchers to an alley and allowed none to register. The next day protesters refused to stand in the alley and Sheriff Clark ordered them to disperse. When DCVL organizer Amelia Boynton responded too slowly to his order, Clark grabbed her collar and shoved her towards a patrol car, proceeding to arrest Boynton and 67 other marchers.
Later that month, DCVL President, Rev. Fredrick Reese, led over a hundred teachers in a march on the courthouse. Clark and his men pushed the teachers from the steps, jabbing them with nightsticks. These courageous teachers, risking their jobs and their safety, inspired untold numbers of students and others who had previously been afraid of joining the movement. More marches and more arrests ensued. As the marchers became more active, Sheriff Clark became increasingly more emboldened. The Mayor and Public Safety Director for the City of Selma became increasingly more concerned as Clark grew more extreme.
The Ultimate Cost
Then, in February, the protests turned deadly. Just a few miles from Selma, in neighboring Perry County, equal rights advocates met in a Marion, Alabama church due to concern of a local organizer being jailed. The demonstrators decided to march for justice that night, in defiance of town ordinance. Governor George Wallace dispatched State Troopers from Montgomery to disperse the marchers. Complete disarray ensued when the town’s streetlights were extinguished. In the moments that followed, an Alabama State Trooper shot Jimmie Lee Jackson in a café near the town’s center. A few days later, Jackson succumbed to his injuries. His death became a rallying cry and further emboldened demonstrators to seek justice. A call to carry Jackson’s body to Montgomery and lay it on the capitol steps quickly evolved into a memorial march from Selma to Montgomery – a march Governor Wallace promised to thwart.
On March 7, 1965, Rev. Hosea Williams and John Lewis, leader of SNCC, walked from the pulpit of Brown Chapel with a crowd of 600 headed for Montgomery. After just 6 blocks, the marchers began their ascent up the Edmund Pettus Bridge, across the Alabama River, and into unincorporated Dallas County, Sherriff Jim Clark’s domain. Upon reaching the apex, the marchers got their first glimpse of what Lewis would later describe as a “sea of blue.” On orders from Governor Wallace, Alabama State Troopers blocked U.S. Highway 80. Lewis and Williams stopped the marchers just short of the trooper’s formation and requested a meeting with their leader. The troopers gave the marchers two minutes to disperse and return. When the marchers stood resolute, the troopers attacked. News cameras caught every gruesome detail of the attack and broadcast the footage around the globe.
After the Bloody Sunday attack, Dr. King put out a call to clergy from all over the country to come and join the people of Selma for another march. Federal District Judge Frank Johnson hampered these plans when he issued an injunction against any march until a hearing could take place. Hesitant to defy the court, Dr. King agreed to march, but only to the far side of the bridge. On March 9, around 2,000 people approached the troopers across the same ground that had seen the atrocities of Bloody Sunday. The leaders kneeled in prayer, stood up, and turned around to walk back into the City of Selma. It was a decision that highlighted the movement’s nonviolent principles. Sadly, that night, a Unitarian clergyman who had marched with King, Rev. James Reeb, was attacked and later died. Dr. King spoke at the funeral saying “Why must good men die for doing good?”
Passage of the Voting Rights Act and the March to Montgomery
Just a week after Turnaround Tuesday, the final goal was in sight. President Lyndon B. Johnson implored Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, and on the next day, Judge Johnson lifted the injunction. As the marchers prepared to embark for Montgomery, Governor Wallace refused to provide state protection. In response, President Johnson federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and sent an array of federal troops and agents to protect the marchers. On March 21, around 4,000 men, women, and children set out on a jubilant march across the Edmund Pettus. A core group, restricted to 300 for safety, marched the full 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery where they were joined by a crowd of 25,000. After President Johnson signed the VRA into law on August 6, over 7,000 African Americans registered to vote in Dallas County, and in the next election, segregationist Sheriff Jim Clark was handily defeated.
21st Century Selma
With a bustling retail sector and a thriving artisan community, 21st Century Selma incorporates the lessons of our past with abundant hope for our future. We are building bridges throughout the community with a vibrant network of leaders and organizations who have dedicated their time and talents to this city.
Our four distinctive historic districts (Water Avenue, Icehouse, Riverview, and Old Town) comprise the largest contiguous historic district in the State of Alabama, and one of the largest in America. Guests and locals, alike, enjoy the many museums and attractions in these areas, including our new Riverfront Park.
A steadily growing number of annual community events are bringing yet more vibrancy and quality of life to Selmians. From chili cook-offs to community concerts, there is rarely a dull weekend in Selma and Dallas County. Don’t believe us? Check out our community calendar to stay up-to-date on all that we have happening.
Come make history with us in Selma today!