According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 4.3 square miles (11.2 km²), all of it land.
As of the census of 2006, there were 23,194 people, 5,596 households, and 4,538 families residing in the city. The population density was 4,475.7 people per square mile (1,729.8/km²). There were 5,815 housing units at an average density of 1,338.5/sq mi (517.3/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 43.90% White, 0.75% Black or African American, 1.56% Native American, 3.18% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 46.09% from other races, and 4.48% from two or more races. 71.75% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.
There were 5,596 households out of which 45.9% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 57.3% were married couples living together, 17.0% had a female householder with no husband present, and 18.9% were non-families. 15.7% of all households were made up of individuals and 8.7% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 3.45 and the average family size was 3.76.
In the city the population was spread out with 33.1% under the age of 18, 11.8% from 18 to 24, 28.6% from 25 to 44, 16.2% from 45 to 64, and 10.3% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 28 years. For every 100 females there were 100.5 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 99.1 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $34,713, and the median income for a family was $36,510. Males had a median income of $26,966 versus $22,672 for females. The per capita income for the city was $12,834. About 17.4% of families and 22.7% of the population were below the poverty line, including 31.0% of those under age 18 and 10.9% of those age 65 or over.
Selma owes its beginnings to farming and to the Southern Pacific Railroad, which began in the 1870s as a branch line of the Central Pacific Railroad. The route of the Southern Pacific through California's Central Valley gave rise to a string of small towns between Sacramento and Bakersfield. Selma was among them.
In 1880, residents of the rural community that would become Selma established the Valley View School District. The first post office opened in 1880. A decade later, four farmers—J.D. Whitson, E.H. Tucker, George Otis and Monroe Snyder—formed a partnership and developed a townsite along the railroad. They began auctioning lots and just three years later the city of Selma was formally incorporated. "Selma" was named for Selma Gruenberg, daughter of an early settler.
Along with Fowler to its immediate north and Kingsburg to its south, Selma was a railroad stop where agricultural goods could be loaded for shipping. As in the rest of the United States, the railroad played a lesser role as the 20th century progressed. What was once a handsome passenger terminal in the city's downtown became Selma's police station.
In the late 19th century, the town also boasted a water-driven mill for grinding wheat to flour. The mill was powered by the C&K Canal, a seasonal irrigation channel that was known in Selma as the Mill Ditch.
Wheat growing was Selma's first economic engine. Wheat fields were quickly displaced by orchards and vineyards, however, as ranchers realized how well fruit--peaches, plums, grapes and more—grew in the sandy soil, irrigated with snow-melt water imported through canals from the nearby Sierra Nevada mountain range. The fruit ripened to marvelous sweetness through the hot San Joaquin Valley summers.
Although raisins (sweet grapes preserved by sun-drying) soon became the major crop, Selma called itself the “Home of the Peach” and was also known as "A Peach of a City." Through the 1960s, a major seasonal employer was the local peach cannery, where Libby's brand fruit was packed. Peaches and other tree fruit are still grown in abundance.
With 90 percent of U.S. raisins produced within eight miles of Selma, the city adopted the slogan "Raisin Capital of the World” in 1963. Area vineyards also produce table grapes. A decline in family farming, the national trend in U.S. agriculture after World War II, and depressed prices for raisins and table grapes, especially in the last decades of the twentieth century, were negative drains on the Selma-area agribusiness economy.
Like many other American cities, Selma suffered a decline in its old downtown in the late decades of the 20th century and into the 21st. Post-World War II development spread the growing city to the north and east, away from its business center. U.S. Highway 99 (demoted to State Route 99 in the 1960s), once a main road north and south through town, running parallel to the railroad, was rebuilt as a freeway in the 1960s. Several blocks to the west of the old road (now Whitson Street and Golden State Boulevard), the freeway bisects the oldest residential neighborhood in Selma. Freeway travel made the new shopping malls of Fresno more accessible. The freeway also made Selma more attractive as a place to live for Fresno workers, who contributed to ever-faster residential growth into the 21st century.
The downtown suffered its most severe blow when Wal-Mart corporation built one of its giant retail stores at the intersection of East Floral Avenue and the freeway—at the northwest edge of town. As the 21st century began, this area became the de facto commercial center of the city. The old downtown, despite vacant storefronts, remained a struggling but viable district of city offices and small businesses.
The Selma Unified School District boasts eight neighborhood elelmentary schools. Students from all of these schools are channeled to Abraham Lincoln Middle School and by far the majority continue to Selma High School. (There are two, much-smaller alternative high schools.) Selma High fields a range of sports teams nicknamed Bears. School colors are orange and black. The year-book is titled Magnet.
Well-known people who have lived in and around Selma include 19th-century inventors Frank Dusy, Abijah McCall and William Deidrick; the poets William Everson (Brother Antoninus, 1912-94) and Larry Levis (1946-96); William R. Shockley (1918-1945, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II; author-historian Victor Davis Hanson (1953- ); and Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox (1941- ). Clarence Berry (1867-1930), who struck it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 and became known as an innovative mining engineer and businessman, had earlier been a fruit farmer in Selma. Also known as C.J. Berry, he left Selma for Canada's Yukon Territory after he was forced to declare bankruptcy.
A good source of historical information about Selma is the book Centennial Selma by J. Randall McFarland.