In the 1800s, a Black man from Alabama named John Benson escaped the thumb of slavery, traveled across state lines to save his sister, 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 U.S. and you’ve probably never heard of either of them.
The majority of this story is steeped in the truth. But because any remanence of the once flushing town was drowned under one of the largest lakes ever made, folklore prevails.
Lake Martin, which is located In Tallapoosa, Elmore, and Coosa counties in Alabama, was created in 1926 after the construction of the 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.
Because of 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 September 1850 on the shores of Kowaliga Creek in Alabama. His slave owner James Benson owned a plantation in Alabama near Kowaliga Creek.
There is barely any mention of John’s mother or father, but they are a few things we know. If John was born a slave, then his mother was a slave. John also had a sister he was very fond of who was sold to a plantation in Florida. In the 1850s it was not uncommon for slave owners to birth children with the Black women they kept in bondage, then sell them to other plantations. We don’t know if James was John’s father, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched.
Once James Benson died and his estate divided among his family, John was sent to Talladega, Alabama to work as a slave for an heir.
In 1861 the U.S. would begin its Civil War, which would loom over the country for the next five years.
By 1865, things would change for John and all he needed was little opportunity. He was freed after the Civil War and given a mule. After Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1861, Union Generals would often confiscate property from rebels after a battle and give 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 headed 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 end of the Civil War was a death wish, but he went anyway.
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