John Jackson Benson: the Black American who Built a City from Land He Worked on as Slave

Stephen Nartey September 15, 2022
The city buried under the Lake Martin

Before Lake Martin in Alabama became a renowned tourist attraction, there was a small black community near Kowaliga Creek. 

The community may have been buried when Lake Martin was dammed to create hydroelectric power to Alabama, but, the history of the black community built by John Benson, lives on. 

His son built on the legacy his father left by strengthening the foundations of development of the black community. The small community is the first black neighborhood which owned a railroad built by a black American. Schools and churches were built to foster the relationship and growth of the community.

Historians describe John Benson and his creation of his black community as one of a poetic justices of his time. He was enslaved in the same community he now owns after he bought the lands from his former slave master. 

On September 1850 on the banks of Kowaliga Creek in Alabama, John Jackson Benson, was born. 

The whereabouts of his parentage is unknown, but, oral history indicates he was born on a slave plantation. 

In the 1850s, it was a norm on plantations for slave masters to impregnate women of Africa origin and later resell their offspring to other slave owners on neighboring plantations. 

John Benson’s slave owner was called James Benson. He owned a plantation in Alabama near Kowaliga Creek.

John Benson in 1800s was the only few enslaved Africans who gained their freedom and had no restrictions to where they could go to. But, despite the risk of being captured, John Benson decided to travel several states to rescue his sister who was still a slave on one of the plantation in Florida. His undying love for  his sister made him took that risk. 

Fate began to work in the favour of John Benson by 1865 fours after American civil war. He was given his freedom after the civil and given a mule. This was the defining period of John Benson decided to rescue his sister. 

He journeyed from Alabama to Florida with his new mule, which he cherished. This act was akin to signing one’s own death warrant when a slave could be recaptured after the civil war. 

John Benson eventually found his sister after combing several plantation in Florida. After braving the odds, John Benson and his sister returned to Alabama to begin life with the hope of improving their living conditions. 

John Benson took up a job at the Shelby Country Coal mines which was a big business in the 1900. John Benson worked tirelessly at a fee of sixty tons a cent until he made his first $100. 

He used these funds to buy part of the land where he grew up as a slave from his master. The plantation meant a lot to him and he considered the creek as his only home. 

In the next ten years, John Benson acquired a sizable tract of the lands of his former slave master, measuring up to 160 acres of land by 1890. 

As John Benson’s wealth grew, he bought more lands and employed both white and black labour.  By 1898, he owned 3000 acres of land at the creek. He built a huge farmhouse, a brick market, sawmill and a cotton mill to power his industrialization drive.

John’s new fortune allowed him to become the local bank. He gave out loans to white and black residents in the Alabama creek.

He had the opportunity of sending his three children to college, a reality which was near impossible in the late 1800s.

Last Edited by:Sedem Ofori Updated: September 15, 2022


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