Located on a high bluff that overlooks the Alabama River, 50 miles west of Montgomery, historic Selma is the county seat of Dallas County, with a population of 20,512 according to the 2000 Census. From the Civil War to the modern civil rights era, Selma has played an important role in American history. During the civil rights era, Selma was the site of the infamous "Bloody Sunday" attack on civil rights marchers at Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, and the subsequent Selma-to-Montgomery March. In 2000, the city elected its first African American mayor, marking a positive change from those turbulent days. Selma is led by a mayor-council form of government. The Selma City Council consists of eight members elected from wards and a president who is elected by a citywide vote.
Selma was first recorded on a map in 1732 as Ecor Bienville, in honor of the then-French provincial governor Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Seiuer de Bienville. Not until the early 1800s did European settlers begin to frequent the site, however, which by then they referred to as "High Soap Stone Bluff." The site became known as "Moore's Bluff" when Thomas Moore, a settler from Tennessee, built a cabin there in 1815. Two years later, a group of influential settlers in the area, including future vice president of the United States William Rufus King, formed the Selma Town Land Company to buy up land to establish a town above the river. On December 4, 1820, Selma was incorporated by the state legislature.
Selma's initial growth and development were hampered by its proximity to Alabama's first capital at Cahawba (Cahaba), 10 miles away at the junction of the Alabama and Cahaba rivers. When the state capital moved to Tuscaloosa in 1826, Selma began to rival it for county supremacy, even though Cahaba retained its status as county seat until 1866. Selma's economy was stimulated by the emergence of the cotton trade throughout Alabama's Black Belt. Further boosts to its early economy included steadily increasing steamboat traffic on the river throughout the 1820s and 1830s and the chartering of the Selma and Tennessee Rivers Railroad in 1836. The railroad's operation was temporarily suspended and Selma's modest economic boom ended as a result of the depression following the Panic of 1837. However, in the 1840s and 1850s Selma rebounded, with its cotton trade and its population doubling by 1860.
By the beginning of the Civil War, Selma had become a transportation center and went on to become one of the main military manufacturing centers supporting the South's war effort. Its foundries produced much-needed supplies, particularly iron and munitions, and its Navy yard constructed Confederate warships, including the ironclad CSS Tennessee, and outfitted the CSS Nashville. Selma's importance to the South made it one of the main targets of Gen. James H. Wilson's raid into Alabama late into the war. On April 2, 1865, Wilson attacked forces under Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest who were defending Selma and captured the city along with 2,700 Confederate prisoners. Wilson's forces then proceeded to burn many of the town's residences and private businesses, as well as the Confederate arsenal and naval foundry. Ironically, the war ended just a few days later, but it would take Selma many years to recover from the devastation.
Selma would again become the scene of a dramatic struggle when it served as the focal point of the civil rights movement in 1965. On Sunday, March 7, 1965, approximately 600 marchers set out from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church east on U.S. Highway 80, headed for Montgomery to petition the legislature for reforms in the voter-registration process. They were met just six blocks outside of town at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by state and local law enforcement and were turned back with billy clubs and tear gas; the national press soon began calling the day "Bloody Sunday." Ten days later, U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. granted an order authorizing the march to Montgomery. On March 25, 1965, some 25,000 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge on their way to Montgomery.
Like most areas of the state, Selma emerged from the depression years after the Civil War when cotton prices began to rise in the early twentieth century. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Selma's population grew by 56 percent, increasing from 8,713 in 1900 to 13,649 in 1910. Two new banks were established to support the increasing population. Economic problems, however, resurfaced with the arrival of the boll weevil in the 1910s, which significantly diminished the area's cotton crop. To survive, area farmers began growing soybeans, timber, and other crops that flourished in the area's rich prairie soil. Whereas most large landowners survived the boll weevil's assault, many small farmers did not. Then, in 1915, Selma's branch of the Alabama Penny Savings Bank, centered in Birmingham and the first black-owned financial institution in the state, failed, which proved disastrous for hundreds of middle-class blacks. To make matters worse, the Alabama River flooded in September 1916. These unfortunate events combined with the spread of violence directed toward blacks that accompanied the economic hard times to drive the so-called Great Migration of thousands of black citizens out of Selma and other southern cities and into the industrial centers of many large Midwestern cities.
After a brief respite from its economic woes during World War I, Selma suffered through the Great Depression, losing two of its major employers in the textile industry. Selma's economy improved as the United States prepared to enter World War II, and the U.S. Army Air Force established a training base there in 1941. This installation was named Craig Field in honor of Selma native Bruce Kilpatrick Craig, a test engineer who had recently lost his life in the crash of a B-24 bomber near San Diego, California. Before the end of World War II, more than 9,000 pilots had earned their wings at Selma's airbase. Craig Field continued to be a major source of jobs and income for Selma residents until its closure in 1977. Today, the site is home to the Craig Industrial Complex, comprising more than 700 acres zoned for industrial development. Occupants include businesses, a governmental training center, an elementary school, and a golf course. After its closure, Selma officials decided to take advantage of Selma's more than 1,200 historic structures to establish a tourism industry, emphasizing its role in both the Civil War and the civil rights movement.
Selma’s population at the time of the 2010 Census was 20,756. Of that number, 80.3 percent identified themselves as African American, 18.0 percent as white, 0.8 percent as two or more races, 0.6 percent as Hispanic, 0.2 percent as Asian, and 0.2 percent as Native American. The city's median household income was $19,577, and per capita income was $16,118.
The workforce in present-day Selma is divided among the following occupational categories:
· Educational services, and health care and social assistance (24.5 percent)
· Manufacturing (15.3 percent)
· Other services, except public administration (11.1 percent)
· Retail trade (10.2 percent)
· Public administration (8.1 percent)
· Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services (6.8 percent)
· Construction (5.6 percent)
· Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (5.4 percent)
· Transportation and warehousing and utilities (4.8 percent)
· Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (4.2 percent)
· Wholesale trade (3.4 percent)
· Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (0.3 percent)
· Information (0.2 percent)
The Selma City School system operates 13 schools, employs 256 teachers, and serves more than 4,000 students. Selma and the surrounding area are is served by Wallace Community College, established in 1963, as well as two historically black institutions: Selma University, founded in 1878 and affiliated with the Alabama State Missionary Baptist Convention, and Concordia College, founded in 1922 and operated by the Lutheran Church.
Selma is connected by U.S. Highway 80 to Montgomery, 50 miles to the east, where travelers can access Interstate 65 and Interstate 85. Approximately 80 miles to the west, Highway 80 connects to Interstate 20/59. Selma's only public general aviation airport located at the Craig Industrial Complex can accommodate private jets. Situated on the Alabama River, Selma is one of 10 cities in Alabama's Inland State Docks system, giving it access to the Port of Mobile and the Gulf of Mexico. The Alabama River also connects with the Tombigbee River and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, providing Selma businesses access to thousands of miles of navigable waterways throughout the American Midwest.
Events and Places of Interest
Selma and the surrounding area offer many opportunities for outdoor activities. The Alabama and Cahaba rivers provide venues for boating, fishing, and camping, as well as deer and turkey hunting near their banks. Located a few miles north of Selma, Paul M. Grist State Park and its 100-acre lake provide recreational opportunities that include swimming, fishing, boating, picnicking, hiking, and camping. Tennis courts, swimming pools, and golf courses are also available in the area.
Selma boasts the largest historic district in the state, and visitors can stay in the St. James Hotel, built in 1837 and one of the oldest functioning hotels in the state. Other antebellum attractions include the Dawson-Vaughan House, home of Elodie Todd, sister-in-law of Abraham Lincoln; and Sturdivant Hall, considered one of the finest examples of antebellum architecture in the state. Selma also offers visitors a number of exhibits relating to the civil-rights movement at the Old Depot Museum, the National Voting Rights Museum, and Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, headquarters of the voting-rights marches. Selma's Old Live Oak Cemetery is one of the few cemeteries listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among the historic figures buried there are William Rufus King, the only Alabamian to serve as vice president of the United States; U.S. Senators Edmund Winston Pettus and John Tyler Morgan; and Alabama's first African American congressman, Benjamin Sterling Turner.
Selma commemorates its civil rights legacy the first weekend of March with the Bridge Crossing Jubilee, which includes a march
to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the Miss Jubilee Pageant. In March 2013 the National Parks Service designated the bridge a
National Historic Landmark. Every other year, the town hosts a reenactment of the Battle of Selma in April. Every October, the city plays host to the annual Tale-Tellin' Festival , featuring music, food, and some of the
top storytellers in the nation. Celebrated Alabama storyteller and Selma resident Kathryn Tucker Wyndham founded this event in 1978. Also in October, city residents and visitors celebrate the annual Selma Riverfront Market Day,
which includes vendors, music, and arts and crafts.
Fitts, Alston, III. Selma: Queen City of the Black Belt. Selma, Ala.: Clairmont Press, 1989.
Hardy, John. Selma: Her Institutions and Her Men. 1879. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: The Reprint Company, 1978.
Heritage of Dallas County, Alabama. Clanton, Ala.: Heritage Publishing Consultants, Inc., 2004.
Herbert J. "Jim" Lewis
Published August 12, 2008
Last updated April 22, 2013