Edmund Pettus Bridge underside

The underside of Edmund Pettus Bridge shows the workmanship based on the design of Selma native Henson Knowles Stephenson. 

The word “bridge” has so many meanings from its physical form to its more abstract and symbolic. One of many reasons I love history is that it is so full of bridges that travel across time, places, events. History is good, bad, ugly and truly has a unique capacity to unite us all.

Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge is one such example. In 1965, a group of incredibly brave, courageous foot soldiers physically and symbolically made history by marching over a bridge named for a former Confederate General.

The full story behind this architectural gem designed by Selma native Henson Knowles Stephenson is a story of triumph in itself – literally as well as metaphorically.

Here’s THE REAL DEAL:

Stephenson was born in Selma on Nov. 22, 1897. After graduating from Selma High, he completed training with the National Guard during World War I. He attempted to join the Army as a professional engineer when World War II was looming but was turned away due to a visual impairment.

Stephenson completed a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1923 from Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) and worked for Alabama Highway Department for many years.

In the mid 1930s, he began drafting plans for a new bridge through downtown Selma to replace the span bridge that had been in place since 1884. As Chief Bridge Designer, he said that it took a year and a half to complete the full plans with his team, and construction began in 1938.

Upon physical completion in 1940, Stephenson would describe the bridge as “something like a juggernaut which tore long hours from his fingers and induced aching muscles….also something like his child” (in reference to the time he put into perfecting and molding the blueprints.)

The 1248-foot, 6-inch-long bridge officially opened to traffic on May 24, 1940. Stephenson went on to get a master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Michigan and taught at the University of Alabama and at Texas A&M. He died in 1978 at the age of 81.

Knowing the full story behind the iconic bridge adds to the overall significance to me – it’s symbolic of overcoming obstacles of various sorts.

Henson Stephenson overcame obstacles resulting from his visual impairment and designed what was a major architectural feat at the time. He later went on to a long, and from what I’ve researched, celebrated career in academia and because of it more advancements in the architecture of bridges have emerged in the years since.

The foot soldiers overcame obstacles and led us into the Civil Rights Era.

The Civil Rights Era led to the eventual passage of Title IX (women’s equality in sports). It also led us to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. These in turn have paved the way for continued battles in the name of minorities and other disenfranchised groups.

It helps when we can view history through a wide scope of lenses. It’s important to get a broad view. In my perspective, the most objective way to do this is to delve into the “untold.” It’s how we come to find “THE REAL DEAL.”

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