Brick by Brick: Constructing the history of Henderson and Daniel Brandon

single-meta-cal February 20, 2023

Editor’s note: This blog was written by Historic Huntsville Foundation Executive Director Donna Castellano. Learn more about Brick by Brick: The Legacy of Henderson and Daniel Brandon here.

The decades following the Civil War were a boom period for the American economy, unleashing an Industrial Revolution where smokestacks, manufacturing plants, railroads and cities found their place in the American landscape. These developments accompanied another equally revolutionary change. Four million people who had once been enslaved and legally defined as property were now free Americans with all the rights and privileges endowed by the United States Constitution. The paths taken by these new American citizens from slavery to freedom are largely unknown. Our understanding of their journey is hampered by the scarcity of materials that track the important historical dots of their lives. 

The Historic Huntsville Foundation’s (HHF) Rooted in History exhibition, “Brick by Brick: The Legacy of Henderson and Daniel Brandon,” shares the story of one family’s path from enslavement to freedom, highlighting their journey as they established Huntsville’s most successful Black-owned business in the Post-Reconstruction era. 

Our research did not begin with Henderson Brandon but with his daughter-in-law, Ellen Brandon, one of six Black suffragists HHF recognized with a historic marker in 2021. Our quest to learn more about Ellen led us to her husband, Daniel, which led us to Daniel’s father, Henderson. By piecing together newspaper articles, public documents and scant primary source materials, our exhibition shows how this family weathered the transition from Reconstruction to Jim Crow by building a business that provided economic independence for themselves and other Black families.  

From enslavement to freedom

What we know of Henderson Brandon’s early life speaks to the tenuous existence of a person who was enslaved by another. William Brandon, his enslaver, was a prominent Huntsvillian

A page from the property inventory of the Last and Testament of William Brandon, Henderson Brandon’s enslaver.

who is credited with building many of our city’s earliest structures. At his death in 1848, William Brandon owned 120 enslaved people, valued at $74,650, who were divided among six heirs. A “Henderson” valued at $550 is listed in Brandon’s property inventory and bequeathed to Robert S. Brandon, William Brandon’s son. Henderson Brandon’s 1901 obituary states he had been enslaved by a prominent brick manufacturer from whom he purchased his freedom. Enslaved people often took the last names of their enslavers. It is likely the “Henderson” listed in Brandon’s 1848 will is Henderson Brandon, whose brick masonry skills were critical to his family’s future.   

The 1870 Federal Census provides a wealth of information about the formerly enslaved, as it the first census where their names, surnames, occupations, marital status, family members and education are recorded. Here, we learn that Henderson was a brick mason, married, and had six children with his wife, Katie. The children were Mary, Robert, Ellen, Laura, Henderson, Daniel and William. Neither Katie nor Henderson could read or write, as enslaved people were not allowed to learn those skills. Census records show that all the Brandon children attended school – most likely, the public school at Lakeside Methodist Church. 

Entrepreneurship at work

An 1886 ad from Huntsville Gazette.

Henderson Brandon’s masonry skills and strong entrepreneurial spirit established his economic success.  Sometime after 1865, he formed a brick-making business with James W. Hutchens, a prominent white businessman, Huntsville city alderman, and a staunch member of the Republican party – an affiliation he shared with Brandon. Although Brandon and Hutchens dissolved the partnership in 1873, the families remained connected. William Hutchens, the son of James Hutchens, witnessed Henderson Brandon’s Last Will and Testament. 

After ending his partnership with Hutchens, Brandon acquired a steam mill and began advertising that he could grind corn and wheat. An 1880 ad in the Huntsville Gazette states that Brandon had a supply of the “best quality bricks” at his brickyard on Pulaski Road near Pinhook Creek. Brandon’s property was near the current intersection of Holmes Avenue and Pulaski Pike. He acquired multiple parcels of land on Pulaski Road, where he built a house, store and mill.  

Daniel joined the business in the 1880s to help his father, whose health was failing. Henderson Brandon & Son quickly established a reputation for enterprise, efficiency and skill. It is likely Daniel’s youth, education and ambition opened new opportunities for the family business, whose projects transformed the City’s skyline and laid the foundation for a modernizing Huntsville.  

The building blocks of history: newspapers, wills and photographs

While Huntsville and Madison County have invested public and private funds to identify and document our historic buildings and structures, we have scant information about the craftsmen who

The extant buildings of Henderson and Daniel Brandon. Photo Credit: Jim Teed

constructed our historic buildings. There is anecdotal information about structures built by the Brandons, but their name never appears in any nominations for the National Register  of Historic Places that formally document Huntsville-Madison County’s historic resources. HHF’s exhibition “Brick by Brick” offers the first comprehensive list of the family’s work. Additional research may reveal the existence of more Brandon buildings.  

Combing through newspaper articles, principally the Huntsville Gazette and The Journal, two newspapers owned by Black publishers, HHF identified 11 structures built by Henderson Brandon & Son or by Daniel Brandon after his father’s 1901 death. Three of these buildings still stand. They include the Baker-Helms building at 101 Washington St., the Humphrey Bros. Building at 112 Main St. in Madison and the Harrison Brothers building at 124 Southside Square. Until notified by Ms. Ollye Conley in 2022, HHF was unaware of our building’s connection to Daniel Brandon. Henderson Brandon & Son also built the Halsey Block, a commercial building on Jefferson Street opposite the current 106 Jefferson Hotel. The Halsey building no longer stands. 

Buildings for a modernizing Huntsville

Aside from these commercial buildings, the Brandons built structures required by a modernizing Huntsville.

They built the stately c. 1899 U. S. Courthouse and Post Office, which once stood at

A brick contract from the July 1897 edition of the Huntsville Journal.

the intersection of Greene Street and Eustis Avenue. Demolished in 1954, the property is now a parking lot. The Brandons constructed the c. 1891 Dallas Textile Mill, which burned in 1991. Daniel Brandon constructed the 1909 Church St. Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which was demolished in 2017. He also constructed a 1908 addition to the William Hooper Councill School.  

The Brandons provided the masonry for Huntsville’s early public works projects. Their success at winning public contracts through a competitive bid system challenged the precepts of white supremacy. They won contracts to provide over 500,000 bricks for the City’s first sewer system, to build a smokestack for its water system and to construct the Huntsville Coal and Ice Factory.  

From entrepreneurship to activism

The Brandons’ connections to the white business community neither blinded nor exempted them from the injustices of the Jim Crow South. Daniel Brandon won the votes of Black and white Huntsvillians in his bid for Huntsville City Alderman in 1897 and 1901. The ratification of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution, however, altered Alabama’s political landscape for generations. Literacy, wealth holding and residency requirements stripped most Black and poor white Alabama men of their voting rights. Huntsville would not have another Black City Council leader until Richard Showers’ election in 1988. Disfranchised and unable to participate in the democratic process, Black Alabamians lost their ability to stop a rising tide of white supremacy.

Daniel Brandon joined with community leaders to promote education, entrepreneurship and economic independence as a way for Black citizens to resist and eventually challenge Jim Crow. Black leaders encouraged their colleagues to invest in schools, organize charitable organizations, mentor Black leaders and promote Black-owned businesses. Creating spaces where Black citizens were free from the social conventions of segregation helped foster racial solidarity and pride. Brandon joined with Dr. Burgess Scruggs and Leroy Lowery in 1908 to form the North Alabama Colored Fair. Because national labor organizations refused to admit Black members, Brandon also helped establish the Madison County Negro Workingmen’s Grand Union. 

Our research revealed that these initiatives also garnered the support from some white community leaders, who supported Black charitable organizations and advocated for improved educational funding for Black children. Prominent suffragists Ellelee Chapman Humes and Alice Boarman Baldridge joined with Black community leaders in 1917 to raise funds for the Alabama Orphan Home School, Alabama’s first orphanage for Black children.  

We found no evidence that those who supported these initiatives also disapproved of racial segregation or Jim Crow laws. Most likely, they supported improved conditions for Black children but never considered how racial oppression created the conditions they decried. Regardless of their intent, white leaders who supported greater funding for Black schools unwittingly facilitated the goals of Black activists focused on creating a Black citizenry capable of reclaiming political power. 

S. Brandon: contractor and builder 

The date stone on the Humphrey Bros. Building

Aside from the Harrison Brothers commission, it becomes harder to identify projects undertaken by Daniel Brandon after 1901, also the year of his father’s death. Daniel Brandon built an addition to William Hooper Councill School in 1908, followed by the commission to build Cumberland Street Presbyterian Church in 1909. 

Given the scarcity of available resources, it is impossible to identify a single cause for why his work may have slowed. It could be that changes in brick making techniques made it harder for Daniel to compete with larger, more efficient brick manufacturers. Given the racial attitudes of the time, it is also possible white business owners began to favor white contractors. It may be that Brandon’s success continued unabated, but we lost our source of information. The Journal, a Black-owned newspaper, ceased publication in 1912. Sadly, with this loss, we lost an important connection to Huntsville’s Black community and their history.  

The last known building constructed by Daniel Brandon is the Humphrey Bros. building at 112 Main St. in Madison. When forming their new business, brothers William Binford Humphrey and James Hermon Humphrey commissioned Brandon to construct the building for their venture, W. B. Humphrey & Brothers. Before the building’s completion in 1919, Brandon placed a date stone on the building’s exterior, which forever identifies the building as “Humphrey Bros.” Immediately below is the inscription, “Build by D. S. Brandon.” The master signed his work.   

On Friday, Feb. 24, at 10 a.m. at Harrison Brothers Hardware, 124 Southside Square, the Historic Huntsville Foundation will debut “Brick by Brick: The Legacy of Henderson and Daniel Brandon.” Our exhibition is free and open to all who are interested. We believe our exhibition is a homecoming of sorts. Daniel Brandon is back in the building he constructed, his portrait presiding over the exhibition. His beaming smile is a beacon for our community.