Jefferson County, Alabama

Jefferson County, Alabama

Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham during 2011
Map of Alabama highlighting Jefferson County
Location in the U.S. state of Alabama
Map of the United States highlighting Alabama
Alabama's location in the U.S.
Founded December 13, 1819[1]
Named for Thomas Jefferson
Seat Birmingham
Largest city Birmingham
  Total 1,124 sq mi (2,911 km2)
  Land 1,111 sq mi (2,877 km2)
  Water 13 sq mi (34 km2), 1.1%
Population (est.)
  (2015) 660,367
  Density 595/sq mi (230/km²)
Congressional districts 6th, 7th
Time zone Central: UTC-6/-5


  • County Number 01 on Alabama Licence Plates
  • One of three counties shuffled to the top 3 numbers because of population size.

Jefferson County is the most populous county in the state of Alabama, in the United States. As of the 2010 census, the population was 658,466.[2] Its county seat is Birmingham,[1] which is also the most populous city in the state.

Jefferson County is included in the Birmingham-Hoover, AL Metropolitan Statistical Area.


Tannehill Valley Covered Bridge near McCalla.

Jefferson County was established on December 13, 1819, by the Alabama Legislature.[1] It was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson.[1] The county is located in the north-central portion of the state, on the southernmost edge of the Appalachian Mountains, in the center of the (former) iron, coal, and limestone mining belt of the Southern United States.

Jefferson County has a land area of about 1,119 square miles (2,900 km2). Because of shifts in population, early county seats were established first at Carrollsville (1819 – 21), then Elyton (1821 – 73).

Birmingham was founded about 1871 and in 1873 gained designation as the county seat. It was named for the English city of the same name in Warwickshire. That city had long been a center of iron and steel production in Great Britain. Birmingham was established by the merger of three towns, including Elyton. It has continued to grow by annexing neighboring towns and villages, including North Birmingham.

As Birmingham industrialized, its growth accelerated, particularly after 1890. It attracted numerous migrants, both black and white, from rural areas for its new jobs. It also attracted European immigrants. Despite the city's rapid growth, for decades it was underrepresented in the legislature and could not get its urban needs addressed, as rural counties hung on to their power in the legislature.

Racial tensions increased in the late 19th century as whites worked to maintain white supremacy. The white Democrat-dominated legislature passed a new constitution in 1901 that disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites, excluding them totally from the political system. Economic competition also raised tensions

In a study of lynchings in the South from 1877 to 1950, Jefferson County is documented as having the highest number of lynchings of any county in Alabama. White mobs committed 29 lynchings in the county, most around the turn of the century.[3] These extra-judicial executions were forms of racial terrorism.

Even after 1950, racial violence of whites against blacks continued, especially as civil rights activities increased in Birmingham. In the 1950s KKK chapters bombed black houses to discourage residents moving into new areas. In September 1963 they bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in the city, killing four young black girls. This was months after the city had agreed to integrate public facilities following a campaign based at the church.

Sewer construction and bond swap controversy

In the 1990s, the county authorized and financed a massive overhaul of the county-owned sewer system, beginning in 1996. Sewerage and water rates had increased more than 300% in the 15 years before 2011, causing severe problems for the poor in Birmingham and the county.

Costs for the project increased due to problems in the financial area and to a series of risky bond-swap agreements made by county officials, encouraged by bribes by financial services companies. Two extremely controversial undertakings by county officials in the 2000s left the county in extreme debt, eventually leading to a 2011 bankruptcy. Both the project and its financing were scrutinized by federal prosecutors. By 2011, "six of Jefferson County's former commissioners had been found guilty of corruption for accepting the bribes, along with 15 other officials."[4][5]

A series of controversial interest rate swaps, initiated in 2002 and 2003 by former Commission President Larry Langford (removed as the mayor of Birmingham after his conviction[6]), were intended to lower interest payments. But they had the opposite effect, increasing the county's indebtedness to the point that it had to declare bankruptcy. The bond swaps were the focus of an investigation by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission.[7]

In late February 2008 Standard & Poor's lowered the rating of Jefferson County bonds to "junk" status. The likelihood of the county filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection was debated in the press.[8] In early March 2008, Moody's followed suit and indicated that it would also review the county's ability to meet other bond obligations.[9]

On March 7, 2008, Jefferson County failed to post $184 million collateral as required under its sewer bond agreements, thereby moving into technical default.[10]

In February 2011, Lesley Curwen of the BBC World Service interviewed David Carrington, the newly appointed president of the County Commission, about the risk of defaulting on bonds issued to finance “what could be the most expensive sewage system in history.” Carrington said there was “no doubt that people from Wall Street offered bribes” and “have to take a huge responsibility for what happened.” Wall Street investment banks, including JP Morgan and others, arranged complex financial deals using swaps. The fees and penalty charges increased the cost so the county in 2011 had $3.2 billion outstanding. Carrington said one of the problems was that elected officials had welcomed scheduling with very low early payments so long as peak payments occurred after they left office.

The SEC awarded the county $75 million in compensation relation to “unlawful payments” against JP Morgan; in addition the company was penalized by having to forfeit $647 million of future fees.[11]

2011 Bankruptcy filing

Jefferson County filed for bankruptcy on November 9, 2011.[12] This action was valued at $4.2 billion, with debts of $3.14 billion relating to sewer work; it was then the most expensive municipal bankruptcy ever in the U.S. In 2013 it was surpassed by the Detroit bankruptcy.[5] The County requested Chapter 9 relief under federal statute 11 U.S.C. §921. The case was filed in the Northern District of Alabama Bankruptcy Court as case number 11-05736.

As of May 2012, Jefferson County had slashed expenses and reduced employment of county government workers by more than 700.[13]


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 1,124 square miles (2,910 km2), of which 1,111 square miles (2,880 km2) is land and 13 square miles (34 km2) (1.1%) is water.[14] It is the fifth-largest county in Alabama by land area. The county is home to the Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge.

Adjacent counties


Historical population
Census Pop.
Est. 2015660,367[15]0.3%
U.S. Decennial Census[16]
1790–1960[17] 1900–1990[18]
1990–2000[19] 2010–2015[2]


According to the 2010 United States Census, residents of Birmingham identified as the following:


As of the census[20] of 2000, there were 662,047 people, 263,265 households, and 175,861 families residing in the county. The population density was 595 people per square mile (230/km2). There were 288,162 housing units at an average density of 259 per square mile (100/km2). The racial makeup of the county was 58.10% White, 39.36% Black or African American, 0.21% Native American, 0.90% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 0.59% from other races, and 0.80% from two or more races. About 1.55% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.

The largest self-reported European ancestries in Jefferson County, Alabama are English 9.7%(64,016), "American" 9.6%(63,015), Irish 8.6%(56,695), German 7.2%(47,690). Those citing "American" ancestry in Alabama are of overwhelmingly English extraction; however, most English Americans identify simply as having American ancestry because their families have been in North America for so long, in many cases since the 17th century. Demographers estimate that roughly 20–23% of people in Alabama are of predominantly English and related British Isles ancestry.[21][22][23][24] There are also many more people in Alabama of Scots-Irish origins than are self-reported.

There were 263,265 households, out of which 30.80% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 46.10% were married couples living together, 17.20% had a female householder with no husband present, and 33.20% were non-families. Nearly 28.70% of all households were made up of individuals, and 9.90% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.45, and the average family size was 3.04.

In the county, the population was spread out with 24.80% under the age of 18, 9.60% from 18 to 24, 29.70% from 25 to 44, 22.30% from 45 to 64, and 13.60% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36 years. For every 100 females, there were 89.20 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 84.50 males.

In 2007 Jefferson County had the highest rate of syphilis cases per 100,000 in the US, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.[25]

The median income for a household in the county was $36,868, and the median income for a family was $45,951. Males had a median income of $35,954 versus $26,631 for females. The per capita income for the county was $20,892. About 11.60% of families and 14.80% of the population were below the poverty line, including 20.20% of those under age 18 and 12.70% of those age 65 or over.

Government and infrastructure

Jefferson County is one of the eight counties in Alabama with a limited-form of home rule government. A 1973 Commission had recommended that all counties be granted home rule under the state constitution, but the state legislature refused to give up its control over local affairs.

Changes to county representation in the state legislature followed the state's incorporating the principle of one man, one vote from the US Supreme Court decision of Baker v. Carr (1964), which ruled that bicameral legislatures had to have both houses based on population districts, rather than geographic ones. The complexity of Birmingham and Jefferson County urban conditions required more local direction, as it was a major industrial center. The county gained some home rule functions by 1944. It allows the county to be able to set up a zoning system for land use, maintain the sanitary sewer, sewerage systems and highways, provide for garbage and trash disposal, and to enforce taxation (except for property taxes).

The county is governed by a five-member commission that combines the legislative and executive duties for the county. The Commissioners are elected from single-member districts. Each county commissioner represents one of the five districts in the county. By votes in the commission, the commissioners are given executive responsibilities for the various county departments, which fall under the categories of "Roads and Transportation", "Community Development", "Environmental Services", "Health and Human Services", "Technology and Land Development", and "Finance and General Services". The County Commission elects its own President, who is the chairman of all County Commission meetings, and who has additional executive duties.


Sales tax on many items within the county can be as high as 12%. The County Commission approved an educational sales tax by a 3–2 vote in October 2004. This was implemented In January 2005, as a 1% sales tax to support funding for construction of needed education facilities. This additional 1% has resulted in some county municipalities, such as Fairfield, to have sales tax rates as high as 10%, while other municipalities and incorporated communities had an increase in their total sales tax rate from 8% to 9%. The state of Alabama sales tax was 4% at the time and Jefferson County's was 2% in total. Municipal sales taxes go as high as 4%.

On March 16, 2011, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that Jefferson County's 2009 occupational tax law was passed unconstitutionally. This decision dealt a devastating financial blow to a county considering bankruptcy.[26][27]

The Commission hires a county manager, who oversees and directs daily operations of county departments.


Jefferson County is served by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department. The County Sheriff is chosen by the eligible voters in an at large election. The Sheriff's Department fields about 175 deputy sheriffs who patrol the unincorporated areas of the county, and also all municipalities that do not have their own police departments. The Sheriff's Department has two county jails, one in Birmingham and one in Bessemer, which are used to detain suspects awaiting trial (who cannot afford to post bail), and convicted criminals serving sentences less than one year in length.

Two judicial courthouses are located in Jefferson County, a situation dating to when the state legislature was preparing to split off a portion of Jefferson County to create a new county, centered around Bessemer. The split did not take place because the proposed new county could not have sufficient area: a minimum of 500 square miles, to meet the requirement of the Alabama State Constitution. The additional county courthouse and some parallel functions remain in service. The main courthouse is in Birmingham and the second one is located in Bessemer. Certain elected county officials maintain offices in the Bessemer annex, such as the Assistant Tax Collector, the Assistant Tax Assessor, and the Assistant District Attorney.


The Alabama Department of Corrections operates the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, a prison for men, in unincorporated Jefferson County near Bessemer. The prison includes one of the two Alabama death rows for men.[28]


Except for cities such as Birmingham that have established their own local school districts, all parts of Jefferson County are served by Jefferson County Board of Education. Parts within Birmingham are served by Birmingham City Schools. Other cities in the county that have established their own school systems are Gardendale, Bessemer, Fairfield, Midfield, Trussville, Homewood, Leeds, Hoover, Vestavia Hills, Tarrant, and Mountain Brook.


Jefferson County vote
by party in presidential elections
Year GOP DEM Others
2016 44.3% 134,498 51.5% 156,384 4.1% 12,479
2012 46.5% 141,683 52.5% 159,876 1.0% 2,964
2008 47.1% 149,921 52.2% 166,121 0.8% 2,482
2004 54.2% 158,680 45.2% 132,286 0.7% 2,001
2000 50.6% 138,491 47.4% 129,889 2.0% 5,383
1996 50.2% 130,980 46.1% 120,028 3.7% 9,718
1992 50.1% 149,832 42.1% 125,889 7.7% 23,163

Although the majority-white state of Alabama voted for John McCain by double digits in 2008, Democrat Barack Obama carried Jefferson County with 166,121 votes (52%). John McCain received 149,921 votes (47%). Obama also carried the county in 2012.[29]


Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority Station in Birmingham.

Major highways


AMTRAK passenger service is provided by the Crescent, which stops in Birmingham. Freight service is provided by BNSF Railway, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern Railway, Alabama & Tennessee River Railway, and Birmingham Terminal Railway (formerly Birmingham Southern Railroad). There is also one switching and terminal railroad, Alabama Warrior Railway.

Air travel

Birmingham is the location of the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, which provides service, either direct or connecting, to most of the rest of the United States.




Census-designated places

Unincorporated communities

Former Towns

  • Elyton (former Jefferson County Seat, now a neighborhood in Birmingham)
  • Ensley (former town, now a neighborhood in Birmingham)

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 "Jefferson County Extension Office". Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES).
  2. 1 2 "State & County QuickFacts". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved May 16, 2014.
  3. "Supplement: Lynchings by County/ Louisiana: Ouachita", 2nd edition, from Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, 2015, Equal Justice Institute, Montgomery, Alabama
  4. Former Jefferson County Commissioner Gary White sentenced to 10 years in prison, Retrieved on August 12, 2011.
  5. 1 2 Brian Wheeler (December 14, 2011). "The scandal of the Alabama poor cut off from water". BBC News. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  6. Larry Langford Impact – Page 3 – - Larry Langford trial | Latest Larry Langford News. Retrieved on March 2, 2011.
  7. Wright, Barnett (December 18, 2007). "SEC wants to force Larry Langford, Bill Blount to testify in Jefferson County bond swap deals". Birmingham News.
  8. Hubbard, Russell (March 2, 2008) "Jefferson County finance options likely to be expensive," Birmingham News
  9. Hubbard, Russell (March 4, 2008). "Update: Jefferson County finances take another hit". Birmingham News.
  10. Wright, Barnett (March 8, 2008) "Jefferson County, Alabama sewer debt swap agreement deadline passes", Birmingham News
  11. "Business Daily Alabama's sewerdebt". BBC World Service. February 28, 2011. Retrieved March 2, 2011.
  12. "Jefferson County, Alabama Chapter 9 Voluntary Petition" (PDF). PacerMonitor. PacerMonitor. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  13. "Bankrupt Jefferson County, Alabama Lays Off 75 More Government Workers". Reuters. May 2, 2012. Retrieved May 14, 2012.
  14. "2010 Census Gazetteer Files". United States Census Bureau. August 22, 2012. Retrieved August 22, 2015.
  15. "County Totals Dataset: Population, Population Change and Estimated Components of Population Change: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2015". Retrieved July 2, 2016.
  16. "U.S. Decennial Census". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved August 22, 2015.
  17. "Historical Census Browser". University of Virginia Library. Retrieved August 22, 2015.
  18. Forstall, Richard L., ed. (March 24, 1995). "Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved August 22, 2015.
  19. "Census 2000 PHC-T-4. Ranking Tables for Counties: 1990 and 2000" (PDF). United States Census Bureau. April 2, 2001. Retrieved August 22, 2015.
  20. "American FactFinder". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved May 14, 2011.
  21. Pulera, Dominic J. Sharing the Dream: White Males in a Multicultural America.
  22. Farley, Reynolds (1991). "The New Census Question about Ancestry: What Did It Tell Us?". Demography. 28 (3): 411–429 [pp. 414, 421]. doi:10.2307/2061465. PMID 1936376.
  23. Lieberson, Stanley; Santi, Lawrence (1985). "The Use of Nativity Data to Estimate Ethnic Characteristics and Patterns". Social Science Research. 14 (1): 31–56 [pp. 44–46]. doi:10.1016/0049-089X(85)90011-0.
  24. Lieberson, Stanley; Waters, Mary C. (1986). "Ethnic Groups in Flux: The Changing Ethnic Responses of American Whites". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 487 (79): 82–86. doi:10.1177/0002716286487001004. JSTOR 1046054. (subscription required (help)).
  25. "Jefferson County tops country for number of syphilis cases", Birmingham Business Journal, 15 November 2007.
  26. "Alabama Supreme Court rules Jefferson County's 2009 occupational tax illegal |". Retrieved July 10, 2013.
  27. Mountain Law's Birmingham Business Law Blog: Is Jefferson County’s Continued Collection of Its Occupational Tax Valid? from
  28. "Donaldson Correctional Facility." Alabama Department of Corrections. Retrieved on October 8, 2010.
  29. Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Retrieved on March 2, 2011.

Coordinates: 33°35′N 86°52′W / 33.583°N 86.867°W / 33.583; -86.867

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