Ask Rufus: African-American builders of early Columbus

December 8, 2012 6:13:10 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Last week, I had an interesting conversation with Sam and Carolyn Kaye about Horace King. King, the subject of a previous column, was a black bridge builder who, in 1842, built the first bridge across the Tombigbee River at Columbus. The conversation brought to mind research we had done that showed several black carpenters or contractors in Columbus' earliest days.  


The first free black contractor we found a record of in this region was William Cooper. By 1791, Cooper was working and trading over the entire region from Baton Rouge to Mobile and up the Tombigbee. His activities ranged from horse trading (in 1791 he was getting $15 a horse) to working on a "fort" on the Tombigbee. In 1794, Cooper charged John Turnbull, an American operating a trading business under Spanish license out of Mobile, Natchez and Baton Rouge, for "the labour of one Negro fellow" for two months work at $16 per month and $200 for "working on fort on Tombigby." The fort was probably at St. Stephens which is now in Alabama. Cooper and John Pitchlynn, who at that time probably lived on the Noxubee River near present day Macon, were friends.  


Another interesting figure from the time of Columbus' founding was James Scott. Other than that he lived in Columbus and sold lumber during the mid-1820s, little is known about him. However, the 1822 through 1825 tax records indicate that no whites were living in his household. As tax records otherwise indicated residents as being white or slave, Scott would have been non-white. Early Choctaw and Chickasaw census records only show one Scott, a John Scott who was residing in south central Mississippi on the Leaf River. That evidence would indicate that James Scott was a free black man conducting a lumber business in mid-1820s Columbus. 


Dr. B. C. Barry began construction of a house in Columbus on the southwest corner of Fifth Street and Second Avenue South, probably in 1824. He purchased his lumber from James Scott. Sam Kaye took a inventory, which is located in an 1825 Monroe County probate file, of Barry's building materials and reconstructed the configuration of the house. It was a frame structure 16 feet wide and 40 feet long, with 10-foot ceilings and eight windows.  


In 1842, Horace King, though a slave, was an engineer and bridge builder. He built several bridges in Lowndes County including the first bridge over the Tombigbee. That bridge came off of the top of the bluff at Fourth Avenue South. The footing for the bridge is still visible as a flat earthen platform on the side of the bluff. It was a wooden covered bridge 420-feet long and 65-feet high. A bridge he constructed over the Luxapalila circa 1842 was still in use in 1936 and described in a newspaper article as the oldest existing bridge in the state. King was eventually given his freedom by his owner and then, as a free man, formed a partnership with his former owner. During the Civil War, King was a private contractor helping construct gunboats for the Confederate Navy at Columbus, Georgia. He and his sons became some of the most prominent bridge builders in the South. 


Isaac and Thomas Williams appeared in Columbus not long after 1840. They were "free men of color" who were from South Carolina. Isaac was a carpenter/laborer and Thomas was a blacksmith. Their business prospered and, in about 1843, they built for their family the Williams-Glass House which is located across the corner from the present day Trotter Convention Center. The raised cottage house is a style typical of houses in the South Carolina lowcountry. It is an interesting statement about the Williams' status that their house was located in what would have been a prime location in 1840s Columbus. They moved from Columbus in 1851 and eventually sold the house to Adam Glass who added an east wing. 


From the city's earliest days, black carpenters and contractors played a significant role in the building of Columbus. Their history and contributions show an important, if little recognized, part of local history. 


On an unrelated note, thanks to the Dispatch for hosting my book-signing Friday night, and to the many folks who stopped by for a book or just to speak. My book, "Columbus Chronicles, Tales of East Mississippi," is available in Columbus at the S. D. Lee Home, the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center, and Books A Million, or online at or Barnes and Noble.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]