The Montgomery area has a rich human history that began with prehistoric peoples. Our history includes Native American settlements encompassing many different Alabama tribes. Alabama’s modern human history continued with European explorers in the 16th century and later colonial settlements, the plantation era, and slavery.
The end of the Civil War and emancipation led to a significant number of Alabamians working as tenant farmers or sharecroppers, especially in Central Alabama. Our most recent history includes some of the most historic figures and events in the struggle for civil rights—a struggle that continues to this day.
Montgomery sits in what is called the “Black Belt” region of the south. Geologically, the term refers to the rich, heavy clay soils and a landscape dominated by a mixture of hardwood (including endemic trees) and prairie, with an incredible diversity of wildflowers. The Black Belt prairie habitat has persisted in Alabama since the Pleistocene. The region escaped the most recent ice age, leading to a huge diversity of plants, trees, salamanders, crayfish, turtles, mussels, and snakes. Native American groups, including the Alabama tribe, utilized these resources for thousands of years before Europeans gained control of the land in the early 18th century. The landscape then drastically changed as settlers transformed the land into plantations in the mid-19th century, depleting a significant amount of the topsoil.
Historically, “Black Belt” also refers to the rich history of African Americans in the area. During Reconstruction, after the Civil War, sharecropping became a common way to compel labor on plantations. Many former slaves or their descendants, farmed land they did not own in return for a share of the crops. After a long struggle, workers began to earn wages for their labor (tenant farming), while some owned small pieces of land they could farm. In 2002 there were still 2,000 tenant farmers in the state, and many families still live on the land that their ancestors farmed as slaves. Intensive farming left the land degraded and lacking biodiversity.
Prior to its purchase by the state of Alabama and Auburn University in the late 1960s, the approximately 500 acres that would eventually become Auburn University at Montgomery were agricultural fields. In the 19th century, the Oliver, Brown, and McLemore families owned these lands. By the turn of the 20th century, their lands had combined through marriages, creating the approximately 7,000-acre McLemore Plantation, which operated through the 1960s. Although the McLemores owned the land, sharecroppers and tenant farmers (including ancestors of several current AUM employees) worked it well into the mid-20th century. The legacy of the former plantation land exemplifies the legacy of both the people of the Black Belt as well the land that they subsisted on. The RHERI will teach people this legacy and show them how restoration benefits the community.
An unknown number of tenant farmers lived and worked on the future AUM lands. The 1958 USGS topo map indicates seven structures, likely tenant houses, within the current AUM boundaries. Five of these structures were located in the forested area of campus that today includes a system of nature trails. One of the houses survives, although it is in a state of disrepair. Based on the construction materials used, namely machine-made bricks and wire nails, the house dates to the 20th century. Faux brick asphalt siding, very common in the 1930s, still covers many exterior walls, while newspapers dating from the late-1920s through the 1930s line the interior walls.
Archaeological testing conducted by AUM students and faculty, provides evidence that people lived in the cabin from the 1930s through the 1960s, likely up until the time of AUM’s founding. AUM students and faculty have also identified a second tenant house site. The only above ground evidence of this house is a brick chimney hearth. However, archaeological excavations around the chimney resulted in the recovery of hundreds of artifacts related to domestic activities.
How can we use the land to teach students about ecology and land use and land restoration? The history of the land became important (there are old tenant houses back there) to how it would be restored. Who owned the land before AUM, how was it treated? Who lived on the land and what are their stories? For instance, experts can determine what part of Africa the owners came from by the style of house and how it was built.
Tenant farming shaped the land that AUM sits on and is missing as a history piece in Montgomery. This kind of knowledge and discovery is called out in the state learning objectives for third and fourth grades. We can help schools fill that niche by providing opportunities for hands-on history learning and ecology learning at no cost to the schools. A rare field trip opportunity. Grant money will provide funding to support these kinds of learning initiatives.
For more information, contact:
Dr. Andrew McMichael
Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
Professor of History
Auburn University at Montgomery
Dr. Chelsea Ward
Department of Biology and Environmental Sciences
Auburn University at Montgomery
Taylor Center 101
7400 East Drive Montgomery, AL 36117
8 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday - Friday
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