In October 1836 the land speculator and merchant Nelson Tift founded Albany on the banks of the Flint River to serve as a market for recently arrived cotton farmers. Planters and their enslaved African American laborers settled southwest Georgia, which the state had recently acquired from the Creek Indians. By 1840 the Albany region had attracted so many slaveholding farmers that black slaves outnumbered whites.
In 1860 Albany's 1,618 residents made up barely one-fifth of Dougherty County's population, but the city had become the marketing center for the region's cotton growers. Its growth and vitality were directly related to the cotton market. In its first two decades the city's merchants sent barges of cotton down the Flint River to Apalachicola Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. From there the bales of white fiber were shipped to mills in the North and Europe. In 1857 the completion of a rail line to Albany allowed commission merchants to ship cotton to Savannah, a more direct connection to northern and European markets. Eventually Albany would become the rail center of southwest Georgia, with seven railroads serving the community and as many as thirty-five trains arriving and departing daily.
In addition to promoting railroads, Nelson Tift secured a state monopoly for ferry and bridge rights across the Flint River at Albany. Tift hired the African American bridge builder Horace King to erect the covered toll bridge and a bridge house, the entrance to the span. The brick bridge house,
Although a small cadre of middle-class merchants and professional men dominated antebellum Albany's society, politics, and economy, the town was a frontier community with a disproportionate number of single men, prostitutes, and bars. A third of its population was African American, but almost all were slaves. Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Catholic congregations had each built churches on city lots donated by Tift, but the majority of antebellum residents remained unchurched. Both the Baptist and the Episcopal church had more slave members than whites. A small Jewish community held religious services before the war, but its congregation was not organized until the postbellum era.
After U.S. president Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860, most Albany whites championed secession, and several Confederate military units were organized. Although some of Albany's soldiers experienced the horrors of Civil War (1861-65) battles in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, southwest Georgia itself escaped the ravages of armed conflict. The end of slavery, however, brought revolutionary changes to the region. In 1867-68 more than 2,400 black men in Albany and Dougherty County registered to vote, and over the next fifteen years they elected three African American legislators to the state legislature. Whites in Albany resisted black enfranchisement through intimidation and voting fraud, and by 1915 they had succeeded in reducing the number of registered black voters in Albany to twenty-eight.
Until the 1940s Albany's population was predominantly African American. The vast majority of blacks did not own property; the men worked as day laborers and draymen, the women as washwomen and cooks. W. E. B. Du Bois described turn-of-the-century Albany in The Souls of Black Folk (1903): "Six days in the week the town looks decidedly too small for itself, and takes frequent and prolonged naps. But on Saturday suddenly the whole county disgorges itself upon the place, and a perfect flood of black peasantry pours through the streets, fills the stores, blocks the sidewalks, chokes the thoroughfares, and takes full possession of the town."
World War II (1941-45) had an important impact on Albany. Two airfields were established to train British and American pilots. Many servicemen assigned to Turner Field decided to stay or return to Albany after the war. The large influx of whites into Albany after 1940 altered the city's population so significantly that for the first time since the 1870s, blacks were a minority. Albany experienced its greatest population growth in the 1940s and 1950s, when its total population almost tripled, to 55,890 in 1960. Although blacks doubled their numbers in Albany during the boom, they could not keep up with the white population, which quadrupled. Between 1960 and 1980, however, the white growth rate plummeted to less than 8 percent, while blacks increased their numbers by 74 percent.
Geographically, the city expanded steadily in modern times. Occupying a little more than one and a half square miles when it was incorporated in 1838, Albany today consists of fifty-seven square miles. In the 1990s the city saw its first overall population decline, from slightly more than 78,000 in 1990 to just under 77,000 in 2000.
If the central historical event of nineteenth-century Albany was emancipation, the key development of the twentieth century was the civil rights movement. The groundwork for organized protest against segregation in Albany was laid with the establishment of a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in the wake of World War I (1917-18) and its revitalization in the 1940s.
In the decade and a half after World War II, local activists sporadically challenged the system of Jim Crow.
Yet whites continued to control local politics through citywide elections for the city commission. In 1975, however, as a result of a federal court order, district elections for the city commission were held, and two African Americans—Mary Young and Robert Montgomery—won. In 1974 John White became the first black to represent Albany in the state legislature in nearly a century. At about the same time blacks were appointed to the Dougherty County school board for the first time.
Albany's mid-twentieth-century population growth extended the city's boundaries and affected affluent neighborhoods near downtown. Business and commercial establishments expanded toward
Following World War II, several major national firms, including Merck, Firestone, Procter & Gamble, M & M Mars, and Miller Brewing, established manufacturing plants. Together with locally owned Bobs Candies, the
In 1903 African American educator Joseph Winthrop Holley founded the Albany Bible and Manual Training Institute, a private precollegiate school. Eventually the state took over the school and made it a two-year, and eventually a four-year, college. In 1996 it became Albany State University, one of the few historically black institutions in the University System of Georgia.
In 1961 the Monroe Area Vocational-Technical School was established, which eventually became Albany Technical College.
In 1963 the Board of Regents established Albany Junior College to meet the needs of white residents for higher education close to home. Albany Junior College eventually became Darton College, a two-year institution that was successful in attracting a substantial number of students of color. In 2012 the college became a four-year institution named Darton State College.
Force of the Flint River
The Flint River
Out of the tragedy, however, came much good. The state supported the complete $150-million renovation of Albany State University's flooded campus, turning it into one of the state's most impressive campuses. Inadequate housing on much of Albany's south side was torn down and replaced with better structures, improving the quality of life for many living in the river's flood plain.
Although the river has not been tamed, the city has shown greater respect and appreciation for it. The 1990s saw the beginning of a major downtown renovation with the creation of a Flint River Walk, designed to bring Albanians back to downtown and to the river responsible for the city's founding. In September 2004 the Flint RiverQuarium, a $30 million freshwater aquarium, opened.
In December 2007 the Ray Charles Plaza, which commemorates the birth of the musician in Albany, opened along the river.
Carolyn Clive, Frances Davis, and Tom Liner, eds., Glancing Backward: Albany, Georgia, 1836-1986 (Albany, Ga.: Dougherty County School System and Sesquicentennial Publication Committee, 1986).
Lee W. Formwalt, "A Garden of Irony and Diversity," in The New Georgia Guide (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996).
Joseph Winthrop Holley, You Can't Build a Chimney from the Top: The South through the Life of a Negro Educator (New York: William-Frederick Press, 1948).
Thronateeska Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, History and Reminiscences of Dougherty County, Georgia (1924; reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Co., 1978).
Works Progress Administration, Historical Backgrou nd of Dougherty County, 1836-1940 (Atlanta: Cherokee, 1981).
Lee W. Formwalt, Organization of American Historians
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.