Located in the heart of central Alabama, the city of Montgomery holds a strategic place in state, national, and international history. A frontier settlement, it
became a center of the cotton kingdom, Alabama's seat of government, and the original Confederate capital. Later, the 1886-87 Lightning Route electric
trolley system and in 1910 the Wright Brothers' civilian flying school brought it recognition as a center of technology. During the turbulent civil rights era, Montgomery citizens played a central role in some of its most important events, including the bus boycott and the Selma to Montgomery March. Today, it is the center of policy and economic development leading the state's rise as a manufacturing and technology center.
Before the state of Alabama was even established, the site of present-day Montgomery was an important crossroads that straddled major Native American trade routes, with paths, streams, and the Alabama River connecting the Creek Indians to a wider world. Beginning in the sixteenth century, European intrusions began changing the destiny of the original inhabitants. By 1814, with the signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson, the Creeks had ceded millions of acres, including what is now Montgomery County, to the United States.
Settlers flooded the area, establishing numerous cotton plantations. With mechanization of textile production, the demand for cotton increased rapidly. The site again served as a crossroads for this emerging industry. In 1817 and 1818, three small settlements sprang up on the banks of the Alabama River, with two of these communities merging in 1819 to form the town of Montgomery, named for Gen. Richard Montgomery, a hero of the Revolutionary War. In 1822, the town became the seat of Montgomery County, itself named in 1816 for Major Lemeul Montgomery, an officer killed in the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
As Alabama settlement expanded, the state legislature looked to relocate the capital from Tuscaloosa, in the west-central part of the state. Montgomery entrepreneur Andrew Dexter, for whom the city's famed Dexter Avenue is named, was among its earliest promoters as the site of the new state capital. He had even reserved a portion of his property known as "Goat Hill," at the eastern end of Market Street, for the location of the state house. In 1846, Montgomery won the long-sought prize when the legislature chose it as the capital city. One of the major points in the town's favor was the Creek land cession that pushed the boundary of Alabama eastward to the Chattahoochee River, thus placing Montgomery quite close to the state's geographic center. Other significant factors included the developing railroads, the free land (Goat Hill), and the funds that the city would raise through a bond issue to finance the construction of the state house. Completed in 1847, the Greek Revival edifice burned to the ground in December 1849. Undaunted, the state funded another building, completed in 1851, that still serves as the capitol today. That same year, the Montgomery & West Point Railroad connected Montgomery with terminals in Georgia, opening central Alabama to the Northeast and Midwest.
The population of the city grew rapidly in the decades after its founding. By 1850, more than 12,000 people lived in the town, which had expanded to include several hotels, taverns, storehouses, and a cotton warehouse to accommodate the developing cotton trade along the riverfront. The 1850s in Montgomery were marked by prosperity and progress, and the town grew in sophistication. However, signs of the trouble to come appeared, as the secession crisis began to heat up. Conflict grew among the secessionists, led by firebrand legislator William Lowndes Yancey, those who vehemently opposed secession, and a substantial moderate element. In the presidential campaign of 1860, Yancey failed to achieve his demands for southern rights at the Democratic Convention and led the southern delegates out, fracturing the national Democratic Party and assuring the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln. The southern states seceded soon thereafter, and Montgomery hosted the constitutional convention for the new Confederate State of America and was selected as the provisional capital. Montgomery served in that capacity for three months but in May 1861 lost that honor to Richmond, Virginia.
During the war, Montgomery remained largely on the sidelines of the actual fighting, instead supplying men and materials to the war effort. The city housed six hospitals and several homes that provided medical services to the sick and wounded. Montgomery was largely untouched by war until April 1865, when federal forces under Gen. James H. Wilson began moving toward the city. The scant Confederate units moved out, but before departing, military and municipal leaders decided to burn some 100,000 bales of cotton stored in local warehouses. The acrid smell of burning cotton greeted Union troops as they entered town in the early morning of April 12, 1865. During their two-day occupation, they destroyed the arsenal, train depot, foundries, rolling mills, niter works, several riverboats, and railway cars.
Montgomery, having suffered little physical damage, saw drastic changes in its social, political, and economic life as freed
blacks took positions on the city council and Republican mayors played roles in bringing the city through the turbulent times
of Reconstruction. The free black population built churches and organized educational, civic, and social institutions. These advances began
to reverse in 1875, when the Democrats, who backed white supremacy, regained control of the state and of the city government,
although some black political influence continued for a time.
By the 1880s, Montgomery had wholeheartedly embraced new technology and ushered in an era of modernization. In 1886, the city gained fame as the home of the very first electric streetcar system in the Western Hemisphere. A major railroad hub for Central Alabama and its river traffic, Montgomery became the wholesale district for the region. By now a city of more than 17,000, the city boasted cotton brokerages, warehouses, large commercial banks, metal manufacturing, dry goods industries, lumbering, textile mills, and breweries.
In 1896, the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson established rules for "separate but equal" facilities in rail travel and set in motion drastic societal changes for people in the South. In Alabama, white elites quickly moved to take advantage of the new opportunities for curbing black and poor white political involvement and entrenched existing Jim Crow laws. In 1901, the legislature in Montgomery rewrote the state constitution, which disfranchised blacks and many whites, as the Plessy verdict resonated across the South. Montgomery municipal leaders hastened to pass ordinances designed to separate blacks and whites on trolleys, leading blacks to boycott the trolleys in 1901 and a trolley strike in 1906. The outcome was segregated seating on trolleys and, later, on city buses. By then, however, transportation was moving in another direction: upward.
In 1910, the Commercial Men's Association ignited an interest in flying when it invited the Wright brothers to Montgomery
where the flyers operated the first civilian flying school for three months on the Kohn Plantation west of town. This event
was the first of many associations with flight for the city. During World War I, the same land served as Ardmont, a repair depot for Army aircraft, including those from Taylor Field, east of Montgomery.
At the same time, infantry troops received training at Camp Sheridan; writer F. Scott Fitzgerald met his future wife, Zelda Sayre, while stationed there. Following the war, Ardmont remained active and, renamed as Maxwell Field, trained hundreds of flyers during World War II. Now Maxwell Air Force Base, today it is the home of the Air University, the advanced educational center for Air Force officers,
as well as several other facilities. Between 1940 and 1950 the population increased from 78,000 to 106,000. Many residents
lived in the growing neighborhoods of Cottage Hill, Cloverdale, and the Garden District.
When black servicemen returned from fighting fascism and imperialism in World War II, they found that their freedoms were still restricted by segregation, just as they had been for decades. Most public places were segregated, and blacks were relegated to the back of the bus on the city's public transportation. Efforts to make the system more equitable failed, but Rosa Parks's arrest for refusing to give her seat to a white man on December 1, 1955, brought startling change. The event sparked a year-long boycott that in turn sparked larger demonstrations, spearheaded by Montgomery religious and civic leaders Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr., and E. D. Nixon, throughout the state for equal justice for blacks. The state capitol served as the culminating point for the Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights in the spring of 1965, and King made one of his greatest speeches there to an estimated 25,000 people. The 1965 Voting Rights Act made a significant impact that paved the way for black registration and participation in the world of politics and government.
Montgomery’s population at the time of the 2010 Census was 205,764. Of that number, 56.6 percent identified themselves as African American, 37.3 percent as white, 3.9 percent as Hispanic, 2.2 percent as Asian, 1.3 percent as two or more races, and 0.2 percent as Native American. The city's median household income was $41,380, and per capita income was $23,139.
Montgomery owes much to its role as the seat of Alabama government, with the ever-expanding state bureaucracy and other government jobs providing employment to 24.5 percent of the work force in 2006. Maxwell Air Force Base's Air University employs some 4,000 people, with 1,400 of them being civilians and in all sectors pours more than one billion dollars a year into the local economy. Hyundai Motors built a factory in Montgomery in 2002 and began full-scale automobile production three years later. In 2007, the Korean company announced plans for a second plant for the production of engines, and suppliers who manufacture and furnish parts to Hyundai have added to the numbers of employed as well. In total, however, manufacturing made up only 8 percent of the workforce, according to 2006 Census. Tourism and entertainment provide direct employment for more than 8,000, with another 4,000 in related jobs.
The workforce in present-day Montgomery is divided among the following occupational categories:
· Educational services, and health care and social assistance (20.5 percent)
· Public administration (13.5 percent)
· Retail trade (12.0 percent)
· Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services (11.3 percent)
· Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (9.6 percent)
· Manufacturing (9.2 percent)
· Other services, except public administration (7.0 percent)
· Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (5.7 percent)
· Transportation and warehousing and utilities (3.9 percent)
· Construction (3.5 percent)
· Wholesale trade (2.5 percent)
· Information (0.9 percent)
· Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (0.4 percent)
Montgomery is a center of education in the state of Alabama. It is home to campuses of both Auburn University and Troy University in addition to the Christian-oriented Faulkner University, Huntingdon College, a Methodist liberal-arts institution, and Alabama State University, the state's oldest historically black college. Maxwell Air Force Base is home to Air University, the highest academic branch of the U.S. Air Force. Trenholm State Technical College and a branch of South University offer technical and business related degrees. Numerous public, private, and church related elementary and secondary schools also exist.
Events and Places of Interest
The city of Montgomery is home to a large number of historic structures and important organizations. The capitol grounds and building are open to visitors, as are the nearby First White House of the Confederacy, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Also located near the capitol are the offices of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is home to the Peace Memorial commemorating people who lost their lives during the civil rights movement. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival and Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts are both located within the Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park. Other attractions include the living history museum known as Old Alabama Town; museums dedicated to Rosa Parks, Hank Williams, and Zelda Fitzgerald; and the Montgomery Zoo.
The city of Montgomery, which began as a crossroads for traders, has served as a crossroads for many of the most important
events in U.S. history. From the birthplace of the Confederacy to the heart of the civil rights movement, Montgomery has served
as a focal point for events that brought Alabama to the attention of the nation and indeed the world. As Alabama enters the
twenty-first century, Montgomery continues to serve as a political and cultural center in the state.
Blue, M. P. A Brief History of Montgomery. Montgomery, Ala.: T. C. Bingham & Co., 1878.
Williams, Clanton W. The Early History of Montgomery and Incidentally of the State of Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1976.
Mary Ann Oglesby Neeley
Published November 6, 2008
Last updated March 5, 2013