Horace King: The Enslaved Bridge Builder and Alabama’s First Black Legislator


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Horace King was a remarkable man who overcame the challenges of slavery and racial discrimination to become a renowned bridge builder, architect, and lawmaker during the 1800s.

Despite his humble beginnings as a slave in South Carolina, King’s exceptional skills in bridge construction earned him the nickname “The Bridge Builder.”

Through his unique and elegant designs, King left a lasting legacy that still stands today in several states across the United States. He built covered bridges, suspension bridges, and aqueducts that are admired for their beauty and functionality.

Despite facing numerous obstacles, including being denied access to education and being barred from certain professions due to his race, King persevered and achieved great success. He became a respected figure in his community and was eventually elected as Alabama’s first black legislator.

Horace King’s legacy continues to inspire generations of Americans, particularly African Americans, who see his story as a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of their ancestors.

King’s story also highlights the important role that black Americans played in the development of the United States during a time when they were denied basic human rights.

Today, King’s bridges and structures continue to stand as a testament to his skill and artistry. His work can be found in several states across the country, including Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

In recognition of his contributions to American architecture and engineering, Horace King was posthumously inducted into the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 1995.

Horace King’s story is one of perseverance, creativity, and determination. He overcame tremendous obstacles to become one of the most renowned bridge builders in American history and made significant contributions to the development of the country.

King’s legacy is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the potential for greatness that exists within all of us. His work continues to inspire future generations to reach for their dreams and to recognize the value of hard work and dedication.

In this article, we will delve into the inspiring life and legacy of Horace King, exploring his incredible accomplishments and highlighting the challenges he faced as a black man in the 19th century.

Early Life and Enslavement of Horace King

Horace King was born in 1807 in Chesterfield County, South Carolina. He was the son of a slave woman, Susan King, and was brought up as a slave on a plantation owned by John Godwin.

As a child, King demonstrated exceptional artistic talent, drawing and sketching in his spare time. He also showed an interest in mathematics and engineering, which would later prove to be invaluable in his career as a bridge builder.

Around 1830, Horace King was bought by a prominent architect and contractor named John Godwin.

John recognized Horace King had a gift for building, so they started building bridges together across the South, including one over the Chattahoochee River. Under John’s tutelage, King mastered the art of bridge design and construction.

In the mid-1830s, King went to Oberlin College in Ohio, which was the first college to admit African Americans.

After completing his education, he returned to work with Godwin and they built courthouses and bridges in Georgia and Alabama. In 1841, they rebuilt the Columbus City Bridge which had been destroyed in a flood.

In the late 1830s, Godwin faced financial difficulties and transferred ownership of King to his wife and her uncle to protect him from being taken by creditors.

King was allowed to marry a free woman, Frances Gould Thomas. By the 1840s, King and Godwin were considered “co-builders.”

King’s skill and reputation grew, and he began working independently, supervising major bridge construction. King became friends with Robert Jemison, Jr., an attorney and entrepreneur in Alabama, who used King to build several of his projects.

King was allowed to keep some of his earnings, which he used to buy his freedom in 1846. Under Alabama law, he could only stay in the state for one year after purchasing his freedom.

Jemison used his seat in the Alabama State Senate to pass legislation allowing King to remain in Alabama as a free man.

King bought land near Godwin in 1852 and when Godwin died in 1859, King had a monument built over his grave.

King partnered with other men to construct Moore’s Bridge over the Chattahoochee (near Whitesburg, GA) and gained interest in the bridge.

He moved his family near the bridge in 1858 and they collected bridge tolls and farmed their land while King continued building bridges throughout the Southeast.

Bridge Building Career of Horace King

After completing his apprenticeship, King worked as a bridge builder for Bailey and other builders in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.

In 1840, he moved to Alabama and began working for Benjamin Fitzpatrick, who was then serving as the state’s governor.

Horace King reputation as a skilled bridge builder soon grew, and he became known for his ability to design and construct bridges that were both aesthetically pleasing and structurally sound.

King’s most famous work is the Town Lattice Truss Covered Bridge, which he designed and built in 1841.

The bridge spans the Chattahoochee River between Georgia and Alabama and was an engineering marvel of its time.

King’s design incorporated a lattice truss system, which allowed for greater strength and stability, as well as a covered roof to protect the wooden planks from the elements. The bridge still stands today and is a testament to King’s skill and ingenuity.

In addition to covered bridges, King also designed and built suspension bridges, aqueducts, and other structures throughout the South. His designs were not only beautiful but also innovative, incorporating new materials and construction techniques that were ahead of their time.

During the Civil War, King was forced to work for the Confederate army. After the war, he had to rebuild many of the bridges he had built before, including the Columbus City Bridge.

He also built factories, buildings, and more bridges. In 1867, King became a registrar for voters in Russell County, Alabama, and later served as a member of the Alabama House of Representatives.

Eventually, King moved his family to LaGrange, Georgia, where he trained his children in construction. They formed the King Brothers Bridge Company, and Horace King passed his building projects onto them.

Political Career of Horace King

King’s success as a bridge builder also gave him a platform for political activism. He became a respected figure in the African American community and was known for his commitment to the abolition of slavery and the advancement of civil rights.

In 1867, King was elected to the Alabama State Legislature, becoming the state’s first black legislator. During his time in office, he fought for the rights of African Americans and worked to improve the lives of his constituents.

 Death of Horace King

In the 1880s, King’s health started to decline, and he died on May 28, 1885. It was uncommon for an African American to be written about in major Georgia newspapers, but his death was reported in all of them. The University of Alabama posthumously inducted him into the Alabama Engineers Hall of Fame.

If you want to see King’s work, you can visit LaGrange’s downtown square. He constructed almost the entire east side of the square and parts of the north side.

Some of the original buildings that King built have been lost over time, but his influence can still be seen throughout LaGrange and the South.

Also read: The Life of Gustav Badin, an Enslaved African Gifted to Sweden Royalty in 18th Century

When King passed away, his funeral procession went around the square, and people of all backgrounds stopped their work to pay their respects. King is buried at Mulberry Street Cemetery in LaGrange.

Legacy and Impact

Horace King’s legacy as a bridge builder and political pioneer is still felt today. Many of his bridges and structures still stand and are celebrated for their beauty and historical significance.

King’s story is also a testament to the resilience and strength of the human spirit. Despite being born into slavery, King was able to rise above his circumstances and make a lasting impact on the world around him.

In recognition of his achievements, Horace King was posthumously inducted into the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 2013.


Horace King’s story is a testament to the resilience and determination of the human spirit. Born into slavery, King faced significant obstacles throughout his life, but he refused to let his circumstances define him.

Instead, he pursued his passion for bridge building and became one of the most respected and accomplished builders of his time. His legacy can still be seen today in the many bridges and other structures he designed, which continue to serve their communities and inspire future generations.

King’s remarkable journey also serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for racial equality and justice in America. Despite achieving great success in his own life, King faced countless obstacles and injustices because of his race.

It is up to us to continue the work he began, to fight for a world where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed regardless of their background or circumstances.

The story of Horace King is a reminder that even in the face of adversity, we have the power to overcome and achieve great things. His legacy lives on as an inspiration to all those who refuse to be held back by their circumstances and who strive to make a difference in the world.




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