By Mark Clark
Near the top of Ingersoll Hill on what is now called Ingersoll Court is a small family cemetery – the final place of interment of John Godwin. His life surely is a great part of the growth and development of early Russell County, but in his death he became more widely known thanks to a friend and an early cartoon drawn by Robert Ripley.
Godwin was a native of South Carolina and was a contractor throughout his 60 plus years on this earth. He is widely known for his construction of bridges all over the Deep South – the most of which were constructed in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama.
In 1832, Godwin received a contract in the amount of $14,000 to construct a 560-foot bridge across the Chattahoochee River between Columbus, Ga. and Girard, Ala. (the mostly the area south of Holland Creek in Phenix City today). The bridge was to be constructed “about thirty-five feet above the water” and “according to Ithiel Town’s patent, with stone piers and abutments.” Godwin had one of his slaves plan the construction of the bridge along with managing the slave labor which performed the actual construction of the span across the river.
Godwin initially lived in Columbus, but in 1833 moved to Girard where he constructed his own home and the home of his slave bridge builder. Following the construction of those homes, Godwin built many speculative houses. Godwin and his slave helper constructed nearly every early home in Girard.
Godwin and his slave also ran a blacksmith’s and carpentry shops in Girard. As a prominent citizen of Girard, his home was the location of the first circuit court of the city was convened in his home on October 14, 1835 while the courthouse was being constructed.
Between 1833 and 1840, Godwin and his slave partnered in the construction of no fewer than eight major projects around the South. They built about 40 cotton warehouses in Apalachicola, Fla. In 1834, it is believed by scholars that Godwin sent his slave partner to Oberlin College in Ohio in the mid-1830s to study engineering. Oberlin College was the first college in the United States to admit African American students. The two men designed and built the courthouses in Muscogee County, Ga. and in Russell County from 1839 to 1841 and bridges at West Point, Ga. (1838), Eufaula (1838-1839) and Florence, Ga. (1840). They built a replacement bridge for the span between Columbus and Girard in 1841 after the original structure was destroyed by a flood in 1838.
Godwin transferred ownership of his slave partner to his wife Ann Wright and her uncle William Carney Wright in 1837 during a time of financial difficulty. It is believed this was done to prevent Godwin’s slave from being sold by the contractor’s creditors. Godwin’s slave was allowed to marry a free woman of color, Frances Gould Thomas, in April of 1839. It was extremely uncommon for a slave owner to allow such a marriage since Frances’ free status meant their children would be born free. By 1940, Godwin’s slave partner was publicly acknowledged as “co-builder” along with Godwin, an uncommon honor for a slave. By the mid-1840s, the slave eclipsed the master as an architect and contractor. He began to work independently of Godwin – though still considered the master’s partner in business.
The slave constructed bridges at Columbus, Miss., Wetumpka, Ala., Lowndes County, Miss., Steens, Miss. and Tallassee, Ala. The bridges in Lowndes County and Steens were for Robert Jenison, Jr., who began using the slave for various projects after meeting him while the slave worked on the Eufaula Bridge. The two men became lifelong friends.
Because the slave was allowed to keep a portion of the income from his work, he was able to purchase his freedom from the Godwin and Wright families in 1846. However, during these early days of the state of Alabama, slaves who purchased their freedom could remain in the state for only one year after doing so. But, to the slave’s good fortune and his association with Jemison who served as a member of the Alabama State Senate, a special law was passed giving the slave his freedom and exempting him from the law requiring him to leave the state within a year. Six years later, in 1852, the slave purchased land near his former master.
When his former master died in 1859, the slave – Horace King – erected a monument over Godwin’s grave to honor his partner and friend. Godwin was far ahead of his days when it came to at least this one slave and King knew he had been blessed to have Godwin as his former owner.
The monument stands silently over Godwin’s final resting place today as it has since 1859, but when Ripley used the story of the former slave honoring his former master in his Ripley’s Believe It or Not series which began in newspapers across the United States in 1919, the monument gained a great deal of notoriety.
The following words are on that monument:
“This Stone was placed
In lasting remembrance
of the love and gratitude
he felt for his lost friend
and former master”
There is much more to the history of the relationship between these two men. We will explore this relationship more next week.
Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. One place in Russell County in particular is by far one of the most historic sites in the state, if not the most historically important site in Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County. It is your county and your history. The story of Russell County we will present to you will come from books written about the county and its people, historical committees and commissions and information obtained from people who have taken a interest in the county’s history such as former Russell County Sheriff Tommy Boswell who instilled a love of local history in the writer of the series.