State of Alabama
Both in physical size and in population, Alabama has typically ranked near the middle of the 50 American states.
The state’s 52,423 square miles are configured in a length of 330 miles and a width of 150 miles at their
longest and widest expanse. Because multiple geological and topographical features intersect in the state
(ranging from the Appalachian mountain chain in the northeast to the East Gulf Coastal Plain in the south),
the state boasts a rich diversity of physiographic features and, consequently, among the greatest biological
and geological diversity to be found in the United States. Rich in mineral wealth and flowing water,
the state’s historic poverty cannot be attributed to lack of natural resources. Fiercely independent and
resistant to outsiders, a portion of the state’s white population enslaved a population nearly its own
size to promote plantation cotton cultivation and became fabulously wealthy in the process. The arrogance
of that wealth factored into the decision to secede from the Union in 1861, with disastrous consequences.
The death of perhaps a fifth of the prime-age white male population during the war, the loss of hundreds of
millions of dollars in capital with the emancipation of slaves, political control by a liberal outside power
structure followed by the reinstitution of conservative white rule, and finally the establishment of a system
of racial apartheid all shaped the state well into the twentieth century. So did the decline of cotton
monoculture and the rise of industrialization together with the shift of economic activity from the
Port of Mobile and river towns to inland and upland urban centers newly linked by railroads.
A new constitution written in 1901 not only crushed rural political insurgency but
also fixed the principles of the old conservative white regime into law.
Disfranchising almost all African Americans and many poor and working-class whites,
the constitution hardened class and racial divisions that remained in place until
the civil rights movement of the 1960s and intervention by the U.S. Congress,
the executive branch, and the federal courts. As both agriculture and then heavy
manufacturing declined, and as Birmingham and Montgomery were paralyzed by racial
conflict, the state lost its long challenge to lead the “New South” into modernization
and national leadership. Decades of decline and decay finally gave way to renewal in the
last quarter of the twentieth century. As African Americans were mainstreamed into politics,
education, and economic life, cities such as Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile
experienced a renaissance, the state thrived in a globalized world economy, and a new generation
of socially enlightened entrepreneurs and their allies led the way toward racial reconciliation
and educational modernization.
Founding Date: December 14, 1819
Area: 52,423 square miles
Major Highways: Interstates 10, 20, 22, 59, 65, and 85
Largest City: Birmingham
Alabama’s population according to 2020 Census estimates was 5,024,279.
Approximately 67.5 percent identified themselves white, 26.6 as African
American, 4.4 percent as Hispanic, 2.4 percent as two or more races, 1.4 percent as Asian,
and 0.5 percent as Native American. The state’s median household income was $52,035,
and per capita income was $28,934.
According to 2020 Census estimates, the workforce in Alabama was divided among the following industrial categories:
Educational services, and health care and social assistance (22.7 percent)
Manufacturing (14.2 percent)
Retail trade (11.6 percent)
Professional, scientific, administrative, and waste management services (9.6 percent)
Arts, entertainment, and recreation, accommodation, and food services (8.3 percent)
Construction (6.7 percent)
Finance and insurance, and real estate and rental and leasing (5.6 percent)
Public administration (5.5 percent)
Transportation and warehousing, and utilities (5.5 percent)
Other services, except public administration (4.9 percent)
Wholesale trade (2.5 percent)
Information (1.5 percent)
Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (1.4 percent)
Environment and Exploitation
Long before humankind disturbed Alabama’s forests and streams, enormously powerful natural forces bent,
broke, shaped, and reshaped its landscape. Seismic convulsions and shifting tectonic plates shoved
mountains above the waters of ancient seas that reached north of Montgomery. As a result, the state
contains the fossil remains of more ancient sea creatures and plants than any other state, dating
back hundreds of millions of years. When the Alabama coastline reached well to the north of its
current location, giant Cretaceous mosasaurs and the Paleogene Basilosaurus, a prehistoric whale
and the state fossil, swam in the ancient seas.
As the continents shifted and ocean waters moved south toward the present-day Gulf of Mexico,
deep valleys became the natural conduit for swiftly moving waters that cascaded over rocky bottoms,
falling toward the sea. An estimated 10 percent of the fresh water that flows through the 48 continental
United States courses through Alabama. In the hill country and mountain regions of eastern and northern Alabama,
waters fall over rough limestone terrain, gouging caves and creating impressive falls. In south Alabama,
the streams become languid. The Alabama River, the state’s largest, is the fourth largest river system in
the United States based on discharge, emptying 62,500 cubic feet per second into Mobile Bay.
Beneath the waters life thrives, supporting the most diverse array of mussels, snails, turtles,
fish, and other aquatic life to be found anywhere in the nation. At one time, Alabama was home to
180 different species of mussels, accounting for two-thirds of all species found in North America,
as well as 83 species of crayfish, the most of any state.
Gulf Sturgeon Research
The Gulf sturgeon, one of the largest and most primitive fishes in the United States,
was once abundant in Alabama’s rivers before dams prevented these fish from reaching
their spawning areas upriver. When the Tombigbee and Alabama river systems join in south Alabama,
they create one of the largest and most ecologically complex deltas in the nation.
Second in size only to the Mississippi River Delta in Louisiana, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta (45 miles
long and between 6 and 16 miles wide) is home to 500 identified plant species, 300 types of birds,
126 species of fish, 46 varieties of mammals, 69 species of reptiles, and 30 kinds of amphibians.
Unfortunately, the state’s rapacious development, damming of rivers, chemical runoff from agricultural
fields, and lack of concern for the environment have destroyed or threatened much of this priceless habitat.
Alabama has not only the most diverse freshwater aquatic life of any state but also the highest extinction rate.
The soils, rocks, trees and plants of Alabama are no less complex and amazing than its waters.
Within its borders, Alabama has more than 190 mineral types, many of which played key roles
in the state’s industrialization (coal, iron ore, limestone, clays, chalk, marble, quartz, copper,
gold, and graphite). Forests covered the entire state when humans first arrived. They ranged from
huge stands of mountain longleaf pine that grew amidst an open grassy understory to extensive and
dense hardwood forests. The longleaf pine—unique for its dense core used for naval stores,
lumber, railroad ties, and “heart-pine” floors—once constituted the most extensive ecosystem
in North America (90 million acres); that acreage has now shrunk to less than 3 million.
That forest nurtured a now-imperiled ecosystem of 35 species of amphibians, 56 types of reptiles, 88 varieties of birds, and 40 species of mammals. Alabama conservationists fought an uphill
battle to create the Forever Wild Program to purchase and restore endangered habitat and
by 2008 had accumulated 667,000 acres of publicly owned land, mainly in the Bankhead, Conecuh,
Talladega, and Tuskegee national forests. The most pristine areas, such as the Walls of Jericho
at the upper end of Paint Rock Valley and Bee Branch in Bankhead Forest’s Sipsey Wilderness
(which contains one 500-year-old tulip poplar that rises 150 feet off the forest floor) can take
away the breath of an intrepid hiker not only from the exertion necessary to reach the sights,
but for the sheer beauty and grandeur of the landscape.
Soils contain similar diversity, ranging northward from the sandy Coastal Plain, up through
the thin layer of fertile soils in the Wiregrass, into the counties of the Black Belt
(with their mixture of sandy, grey and bluish, loamy prairie soil that turns a dull,
grey charcoal or ashy black when wet), to the rocky soils of the Piedmont, and finally
to the rich alluvial lands of the Tennessee Valley.