Date of Award
Master of Arts
Cynthia Griggs Fleming, James Cobb
When dealing with southern blacks after emancipation, historians have traditionally focused on the plight of those freedmen who were unable to realize their aspirations of becoming landowners. The majority of blacks were forced into tenant farming which seriously limited their economic, political and social position in the South for years to come. In spite of the problems of white resistance to black landownership, a lack of credit sources, and white violence and racism, 25 percent of southern black farmers did acquire land by 1910. This study deals with one family of landowners in Limestone County, Alabama between 1865 and 1940.
The acquisitions of the Bridgeforth family began with George Bridgeforth, an ex-slave, in the 1870s, and have continued through the present with his grandson, Darden Bridgeforth, one of the largest black farmers in Alabama. Using deed, mortgage, and tax records, this study shows how the family increased their holdings over the years.
One of the major factors in their success was the role of George Ruffin Bridgeforth, who worked under the guidance of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in the early 1900s. Influenced by Washington's ideas, Bridgeforth established an all black community of landholders in Limestone County in 1910. The Beulahland community thrived until the early 1930s, when the Tennessee Valley Authority's plan for the Wheeler Dam Reservoir threatened its survival. George Ruffin Bridgeforth began writing to the agency, and the resulting correspondence provides insight into Bridgeforth's ideology concerning black landowning. It also illustrates the tension that existed within the authority in particular and the New Deal in general regarding the position of blacks in a white-dominated society.
In spite of the Authority's lack of assistance, Beulahland and the Bridgeforth family continued to prosper. At the same time, their interaction with the federal government provided them with the means to confront local governmental policies which discriminated against blacks. As a result, in the late 1930s, the increasingly turned their attention to issues such as black voter registration and equal educational opportunities for blacks.
Carden, Nancy Anne, "A Study of Southern Black Landownership, 1865-1940: The Bridgeforth Family of Limestone County, Alabama. " Master's Thesis, University of Tennessee, 1990.