The Black City Under Lake Martin: A Father and Son’s Dream of Grandeur

Source: ione / digital iOne

Jhere are some extraordinary stories in black american history. Many of them have been buried under the tides of time. Lake Martin in Alabama is home to one of those stories.

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In the 1800s, a black man from Alabama named John Benson escaped slavery, crossed state lines to rescue his sister, and then became a wealthy man who founded a black community on the same land where he was once a slave – but that’s just half the story. His son would continue his legacy by building a school as well as the first black-owned railroad in the United States and you’ve probably never heard of either.

Much of this story is steeped in truth. But because any remnant of the city once was drowned under one of the largest lakes ever built, folklore prevails.

Lake Martin, located in Tallapoosa, Elmore, and Coosa counties in Alabama, was created in 1926 after the construction of Martin Dam. The enormous lake has nearly 700 miles of shoreline and covers 41,000 acres. The dam is used to generate hydroelectric power for the Alabama Power Company.

Due to its size, Lake Martin is a very popular tourist destination and it hosts events throughout the year. But before there was a lake, there was John Benson and his small black community near Kowaliga Creek.

John Jackson Benson was born in September 1850 on the banks of Kowaliga Creek in Alabama. His slave owner James Benson owned a plantation in Alabama near Kowaliga Creek.

There’s hardly any mention of John’s mom or dad, but those are a few things we do know. If John was born a slave, then his mother was a slave. John also had a beloved sister who was sold to a plantation in Florida. In the 1850s, it was not uncommon for slave owners to bear children to the black women they kept in slavery and then sell them to other plantations. We don’t know if James was John’s father, but that wouldn’t be a stretch.

After James Benson died and his estate was divided among his family, John was sent to Talladega, Alabama to work as a slave for an heir.

In 1861, the United States would begin its Civil War, which would hover over the country for the next five years.

In 1865 things were about to change for John and all he needed was a few opportunities. He was released after the civil war and given a mule. After Congress passed the Forfeiture Act of 1861, Union generals often confiscated rebel property after a battle and gave it to freed slaves.

Now that John was free, the young boy knew he was the only one who could save his sister. With his newly acquired mule, John traveled from Alabama to Florida to bring his sister home so they could start a new life. A young black man traveling alone right after the Civil War ended was a death wish, but he went anyway.

With his life in danger every day, John searched the Florida plantations for an entire summer until he finally found his sister. With new lives ahead of them, the two returned to Alabama to start a new one.

The Benson Plantation was John’s home and although he was a slave growing up on the Kowaliga Stream, the land still meant a lot to him and his family. If he wanted this land then he needed the money and the best place to get it at the time was the coal mines in Shelby County. In the early 1900s, coal was big business in the area. Thousands of miners worked in mines in towns scattered across Shelby and Bibb County.

John moved to Shelby and worked in the mines for sixty cents a ton. He worked tirelessly until he finally saved $100. It may not have seemed like much, but it was enough to leave the coal mines and return home near Kowaliga. He used the money to buy land from the property of his former slave owners and began to work the land. Over the next 10 years John would slowly acquire more land on his former slave owner’s estate and by 1890 he had 160 acres of land.

A black man born into slavery, only years later to buy the land he was once enslaved on; The embodiment of poetic justice.

But John didn’t stop there. Due to the lack of slave labor after the Civil War, many white farmers did not have enough labor to work their large plantations. John saw more opportunities and bought more land every year. John also paid workers, using black and white labor and by 1898 he had amassed 3,000 acres of land. There he built a massive farm, a brickyard, a sawmill, a cotton gin and a compression plant. The community produced corn, cotton, sugar, as well as different types of wood, and more than 40 families were housed on the land.

John’s new fortune enabled him to become the local bank. He began financing mortgages for white and black buyers as well as lending money to white neighbors. Once a slave, now a rich and powerful man with generational wealth. His three children would receive a college education, which was rare for a black family in the late 1800s. John Benson had accomplished so much, and his son Will would continue to build on his father’s legacy.

Black Folklore - Alabama Lake Martin, Benson

Source: Ben Russell Historical Files / Ben Russell

William E. Benson was born in 1873 to John and Julia Benson. Growing up watching his father build the community he grew up in, young John wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. Like his father, Will valued education. He first attended Fisk University in Nashville, TN, but eventually graduated from Howard University in 1885.

After college, William brought his new education home and continued to build on the community his family had built. William believed that for his community to thrive, it needed education. While in college, he hatched a plan to build a school on his family’s land. William wanted to raise the standard of living in his community by teaching them to read, training industrial skills, and developing the moral character of children.

William presented his idea to his father and John agreed to give his son 10 acres of land to build his school. William’s ambition did not go unnoticed by local white people. In 1896 someone set fire to his store, burning many of his belongings, but William didn’t hesitate.

The University and Industrial Institute of Kowaliga was incorporated in 1898. The school educated young black children in the community for nearly 40 years. He even had a board of directors that included Booker T. Washington and Oscar Garrison Villard.

By 1913, Kowaliga Academic had over 300 students, a modern library, an orchestra, and both a YMCA and a YWCA. Students learned valuable skills in agriculture and science. Some learned blacksmithing and cooking, others learned sewing and basket weaving. It was truly a blessing for a black community that had no other means of education.

Will, like his father, never stopped dreaming big. As his school flourished, Will’s goal was to bring a railroad to the doorstep of his community. In 1900, he founded the Dixie Industrial Company which produced lumber and processed cotton. The company also built the Dixie Line in 1914, which was the company’s first black-owned railroad. The company had customers all over the world. But the railroad would be short-lived as World War I would change the landscape of shipping products and goods overseas. William Benson will unfortunately die in 1915 before his father from a persistent illness. Kowaliga will continue to shape young minds for a decade after his death. John Benson died on November 3, 1925.

Benson Town and Kowaliga School was an incredible display of courage and perseverance, but it didn’t last forever. The evolution of America has swallowed up so much black history in this country. Alabama Power Company began construction of the Martin Dam in 1923. When completed in 1926, the dam created severe flooding upstream that sank the town of Benson, Sousanna, and some Native American lands.

Who knows what the school of Kowaliga could have been and the town created by John Benson and his family, he was given a real chance to survive. Either way, they deserve our praise as two of the founders of black excellence.

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