PART V. VERNON JOHNS IN ALABAMA, 1947-1952

CHAPTER 20. ALABAMA: DEEP SOUTH

Johns's true spirit would come out most clearly in Montgomery, Alabama. Virginia and Alabama were not the same, as Vernon Johns was to find out. Alabama was of the "deep South" with its more restrictive and cruel agricultural economy based on cotton, compared to the less severe economy of tobacco growing. The next three chapters will give the reader overviews of the nation in general and Alabama and Montgomery in particular.

Alabama Physical History

Alabama's physical layout created one of the basic political divisions in the state (WPA 1959:77). The fall line, which marks the limit of seaward erosion of the land surface when sea level was much higher than now, runs from the halfway point on the eastern border of Alabama up to the northwest corner of the state. At the fall line the rivers flowing from the southern Appalachians run over the edge of the piedmont terrain of rolling hills. Here there are rock-strewn rapids and waterfalls that mark the limits of navigation for the rivers. Montgomery lies just south of the fall line in the central Black Belt, the wealthiest farm region in the state with its large cotton plantations and great number of slaves.

In the wiregrass region, the area of southeast Alabama, hay and grain crops and cattle were raised for export to the Black Belt. The area got its nickname from the very tough grass, known as wiregrass, eaten by the grazing cattle. Wiregrass has the reputation of being the kinkiest, thickest, and hardest grass to get rid of than any grass in the United States. On the Gulf Coast, the gulf and coastal plain, truck farming and citrus fruit cultivation was the rule. This section supplied much of the food consumed on the Black Belt plantations.

Early Alabama History

Three different countries fought over the territory that later became the state of Alabama: Spain, France, and England (WPA 1959:35&41). The first white visitors to Alabama were the conquistador Hernando De Soto and his party looking for gold. They traveled into Creek Indian areas, passing near the future site of Montgomery in the autumn of 1540. Almost half a century before the first English settlement in what later became the United States, the first white colony in Alabama was founded in 1559 by Tristan De Luna, with authority from the Viceroy of Mexico to settle near Mobile Bay. The settlement, however, did not last long.

In 1629 English King Charles I made a Carolina grant to Sir Robert Heath which overlapped Spanish claimed land in Alabama territory. This was followed in 1663 by a second Carolina grant from Charles II to Carteret and others. In 1702 Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville set up a settlement at Fort Louis de la Mobile (WPA 1959:42). The French moved up the Alabama River, hoping to check any progress by the English. North of Montgomery, they built Fort Toulouse near the site of present Wetumpka in 1714. Situated at the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers, the fort served as a trading post and frontier defense against the English. A great trade war began.

Even before the arrival of English settlers in Alabama, slaves arrived in Mobile. In 1719 the ship Marechal de Villars landed the first shipload of slaves on Dauphin Island.

In 1756 the decaying government of France was drawn into still another war with England, the French and Indian War. The English, by winning this war, also won the fur trade war. In 1763 the French ceded Mobile to Great Britain by the Treaty of Paris. In 1783 the Floridas were returned to Spain by Great Britain.

The War of 1812 with England gave the Americans the long-awaited pretext for taking West Florida from Spain. Ostensibly to stop the use of the Spanish Gulf ports by the British fleet, General James Wilkinson and 600 Americans surprised a garrison of sixty Spaniards and thus captured Mobile from Spain (WPA 1959:46). When the War of 1812 erupted, the warlike Creeks, with the support of the British, initiated clashes with the Americans which resulted in full-scale combat (Tebbel 1966:118-121). A massacre of 200 troops by Creeks at Fort Mims, north of Mobile and north of Florida on the Alabama River was so horrible that it roused the United States government to action. The news rolled on to the Nashville sickbed of General Andrew Jackson, still ailing from wounds sustained in a duel with Colonel Thomas Hart Benton. "Jackson was the right man for the job of putting the Creeks in their place. He had no sympathy for the Indians, no understanding of their problems, and could not have cared less about the justice of their claims."

By November 3 the American troops reached the town of Tallassahatchee. Attacking it, the General employed a favorite formation, deploying his troops in a crescent which was intended to fold in upon the Indians (Tebbel 1966:119-121). As Davy Crockett, one of Jackson's soldiers, put it: "We shot them like dogs." They killed 186 Creeks. Only five Americans had been lost, with forty-one wounded. Jackson followed up this victory with another at a heavily fortified fort located at Horseshoe Bend, a peninsula on the Tallapoosa River about fifty miles from the future site of Montgomery.

The Battle of Horseshoe Bend opened central Alabama to peaceful settlement. With three-fourths of the state open for settlement, whites flocked in to take up the rich farm land. In 1816 Montgomery County formed from Monroe County. In 1817 the United States government created the Alabama Territory with its capital at St. Stephens. The end result of these victories was that it opened Alabama to white settlement.

Layout of Montgomery

The capitol district of Montgomery lies just southeast of a bend in the Alabama River. Its main street is Dexter Avenue, which runs from east to west. At the eastern end of the Dexter Avenue is the state capitol on Goat Hill. It was designed by George Nichols, Philadelphia architect with Stephen Button supervising the construction. The building, constructed of brick covered with stucco and patterned after the National Capitol in Washington D.C., ranks among the most beautiful of the Greek Revival capitols built during ante bellum days.

On the north lawn is the Confederate Monument, the cornerstone of which was laid by Jefferson Davis, April 26, 1886. The completed monument, unveiled December 7, 1898, was designed by Gordan C. Doud, a Montgomery artist, and executed by Alexander Doyle. There is also a statute of Jeff Davis presented November 19, 1940.

Just south of the capitol building is the First White House of the Confederacy. This was the Montgomery home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family during their brief stay in the city. This two-story, white frame house with green shutters was built about 1852. It was formerly located on the southwest corner of Bibb and Lee Streets but, through an appropriation of the legislature, was moved to the present location in 1921.

One block west from the capitol, at the northeast corner of Dexter Avenue and Decatur Street is the black Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It is across the street from the Judicial Department. The church is now a National Historic Landmark. It is a brick church with a tin roof and wooden steeple at the corner of Dexter and South Decatur. Just a couple blocks west of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church is the church of Edgar Gardner Murphy, the conservative white minister who worked with white and black liberals in mostly futile attempts to improve race relations in Alabama.

Dexter Avenue descends west to Court Square in the heart of the downtown business district, the former site of the County Courthouse. Built in 1822, this structure was on the road between the communities of Philadelphia and East Alabama. Before the Civil War, slaves were auctioned from a platform in the square. This was the main slave block; others were erected on either side of Dexter Avenue. In Court Square the McMonnies Fountain, with twenty-five jets and a life-size female figure, was erected in 1886 after it was exhibited at the Atlanta Exposition.

The parsonage of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where both Vernon Johns and Martin Luther King, Jr. once lived, is located on Jackson Street in the Centennial Hill neighborhood, southeast of the capitol. Developed in the late 1870s, Centennial Hill was the first substantial black residential neighborhood in Montgomery. Teachers, ministers, doctors and businessmen made their homes along Jackson, Union, and High Streets. Descendants of many of the original owners still own and occupy these homes. Alabama State University is at the southern end of Jackson Street.

The Settlement of Montgomery

The geography of the region was certainly the principal reason for its settlement and growth. To the south and southeast, fertile lands continued for twenty-six miles. The soil of the plains was "perfectly black, soapy, and rich," wrote naturalist and traveler William Bartram in 1776. The landscape had attracted and impressed travelers even before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Alibamu Indians had established two towns along the banks of the Alabama River just north of present-day Montgomery. Walling the waters throughout the area were high bluffs, upon which downtown Montgomery now rests.

When the Alabama lands were offered for sale in 1817, two groups of speculators made their initial payments. A company of Georgians led by General John Scott first built the town of Alabama. A company of almost penniless New Englanders and Eastern adventurers, under the leadership of Massachusetts lawyer Andrew Dexter, then founded the town of New Philadelphia. The Georgians abandoned the town of Alabama and built the town of East Alabama in competition with the nearby town of New Philadelphia.

Because the cotton gin solved a major problem connected with the growing of cotton, it helped spur settlement. A contagion known as "Alabama Fever" spread through the seaboard states and more settlers came to Alabama.

A bitter rivalry between the two towns developed and was not terminated until the two towns were merged under the name of Montgomery, named in honor of Revolutionary War hero Major General Richard Montgomery, who lost his life in the Arnold expedition against Quebec. Montgomery County had been named three years earlier in honor of Major Lemuel P. Montgomery, killed at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend while serving with Andrew Jackson in the Creek War.

Montgomery became the foremost town in the demographic and geographic center of the state of Alabama. Having had ambitions from the beginning of becoming the capital city of Alabama, Montgomery now actively sought to wrest this prize from Tuscaloosa which had become the capital in the 1820s.

Montgomery became Alabama's capital in 1846. Several things influenced the legislature in its decision. Andrew Dexter had deeded the hill at the head of Market Street (Dexter Avenue) to the city with instructions that it be reserved for the capitol building. In addition, local businessmen, inspired by editor and lawyer John Jacob Seibels, proposed a bond issue for the construction of a fine building. How could the legislature refuse such generosity?

The Growth of the Cotton Industry

During the second decade of the nineteenth century, as market prices continued to rise, cotton was planted as rapidly as new land could be cleared (WPA 1959:75-76). The slave trade flourished because the cultivation and harvesting of the huge fields required a large and constant supply of labor. So much land was planted in cotton that corn, other staple farm products, and work animals had to be imported.

Compared to tobacco growing, the growing of cotton was very labor-intensive. In Virginia, with its infinite waterways, every planter could sell his goods at his own dockside, or one not very far away, and so there was little need for the rise of towns or marketplaces (Kluger 1975:456). But the greater need for slaves in the cotton growing areas meant larger plantations and a greater need for strict social control of the greater number of slaves.

Of the 565,000 white people in Alabama at the beginning of the War between the States, 33,730 were slave owners (WPA 1959:77). The large slaveholder, considered typical of the South before the war, was in reality a rarity. Most of the 435,000 slaves were held in small groups of 5 or 6 to an owner and only 34 planters in the state owned more than 200 slaves each.

Cotton planting season extended from the first of April until the middle of May, and picking was usually completed soon after the first killing frost in October or November (WPA 1959:79). During the spring and summer growing season, the fields were dark green with the foliage of the plants and studded with a profusion of blossoms that changed from a newly bloomed white through several shades of pink to a light red.

September and October were the months of greatest activity in cotton picking (WPA 1959:79). The cotton, gathered by hand, was placed in a bag dragged along by the worker, then emptied into large wagons which hauled it to the gin. Here huge suction pipes snatched the cotton from the high-walled wagon beds to the ginning machinery, in which lint and seed were separated by cylindrical "saws" revolving at tremendous speed. The lint was placed in great presses that squeezed it into oblong bales with an average weight of 500 pounds. From 1,300 to 1,500 pound of cotton was required for these 500-pound bales. The seed was usually sold to the ginnery for ultimate pressing and separation into cotton-seed oil, meal and hulls.

The financial base upon which the deep-Southern society rested was a vast credit structure universally known as the factorage system (Nuermberger 1958:16). The factor performed many services. On the cotton itself these included weighing, sampling, draying, mending, storage, and finally sale to a larger factor or broker. The charge for all this, plus the factor's 2.5 percent commission for selling, made a total levy on the planter's crop of 8 to 12 percent. Whether the planter sold his crop to a local factor or shipped it directly to a well-known firm, his cotton ultimately had to reach large markets such as Memphis, Mobile, or New Orleans in the west, and Savannah or Charleston in the east.

Montgomery: Capital of the Confederacy

In 1860 the people of the United States elected Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. Alabama left the union on January 11, 1861. Also in January, South Carolina suggested that representatives of the six secessionist states meet in Montgomery to form a new government. Duly elected congressmen and senators boarded trains for Montgomery. They convened on February 4 and adopted a Constitution four days later based on state's rights and slavery. The next day they elected two reluctant moderates to the highest offices: former Secretary of War Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as president and Alexander Stephens of Georgia as vice president.

It was nearly ten o'clock at night, February 16, when Jefferson Davis reached Montgomery (Strode 1955:406). En route he had given twenty-five speeches to well-wishers. When the president-elect's train pulled into Montgomery, artillery salutes announced his approach. A mass of local citizens and important figures from all the seceded states were at the station to greet him. When he appeared, he was hailed with tremendous cheering. In returning thanks, he said the time for compromise had passed.

The fatigued and hoarse president-elect was taken to the Exchange Hotel where he was introduced by firebrand secessionist William Lowndes Yancy of Alabama with the assertion that "the man and the hour have met." Davis addressed a cheering throng from a balcony of the hotel. Davis initially used one of the parlors of the Exchange Hotel as his office and held cabinet meetings in his home only a couple of blocks behind the hotel.

On February 18, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Alexander H. Stephens, of Georgia, were inaugurated as president and vice-president of the confederate states (Strode 1955:408-9). As the President's carriage swung into position, Herman Arnold led his musicians up Dexter Avenue in a tune that had never been played anywhere before by a band, for he had orchestrated it himself only a week before. It was a minstrel piece called "I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land" just published the preceding June as sheet music arranged for pianoforte and came to be known as "Dixie". It proved to be stirring, as well as catchy and helped to excite the crowd to rousing cheers.

On May 21, 1861 the Confederate government moved from Montgomery to Richmond. Montgomery did not fall to federal forces until April 1865 when Major General James Wilson's raiders reached Montgomery ten days after their conquest of Selma. Apart from destroying five steamboats and the railroad machine shops, little damage was caused by the Yankees. One newspaper editor attributed their good behavior to the fact that the local supply of liquor had been carefully hidden. Federal troops withdrew from Montgomery in 1874 and from Alabama in 1876.

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

In 1867 in Montgomery the first independent black Baptist church was started with an exodus. Nearly seven hundred blacks followed the white preacher out of the First Baptist Church north through town to Columbus Street, then east up the muddy hill to Ripley Street. A former slave named Nathan Ashby became the first minister of the First Baptist Church (Colored).

In 1877 a dissident faction of the First Baptist Church (Colored) marched away in a second exodus forming the Second Baptist Church (Colored). It was really a class division. The "higher elements" wanted to remodel the church to face the drier Ripley Street instead of the sloping Columbus, where they were obliged to muddy their shoes on Sundays after a rain. The "lower elements" thought this was unseemly and even un-Christian in its preoccupation with personal finery.

In January 1879, the new church paid $250 dollars for a lot and a building that stood proudly in the center of town on Dexter Avenue diagonally across from the grand entrance of the Alabama state capitol. It was located on the city square. The new church became known as the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Its first minister was a former slave named Charles Octavius Boothe.

From the beginning, Dexter Avenue operated as a "deacons' church," that is the lay officers were free to hire any preacher they wanted without regard to bishops or other church hierarchy. Nearly a dozen preachers came and went in its first decade.

Alabama State College

Alabama State University is now a publicly assisted, coeducational institution. It began in 1866 as Lincoln Normal School in Marion, Alabama. It was reorganized as a state-supported institution in 1874. On October 3, 1887, the university opened in Montgomery with a faculty of nine. Classes were held in Beulah Baptist Church.

The campus of the university was dominated by Bibb Graves Hall, which stood at the top of the hill, its steeple lifted high above the landscape. The segregationist governor Bibb Graves had been committed to black education and had done a great deal for Alabama State University.

William Burns Paterson was named president in 1878 and is recognized for his thirty-seven years of leadership during which time he kept the university alive despite nearly insurmountable odds. The first class of six students was graduated from the normal department during his administration.

George Washington Trenholm (Yeakey 1979:65), after one year as acting president, served as president from 1921 until his death in 1925. During his term, the school was organized on the 6-3-3 plan, a junior college department was created, operations began on the annual four-semester system and the departments of commerce and home economics were created. President Trenholm was succeeded in 1925 by his son, Harper Councill Trenholm. The school was raised to the status of a four-year college in 1928 and the first baccalaureate degrees were conferred in 1931. Trenholm did not leave office until 1961. Among the important teachers and scholars at the school were John Hope Franklin and Horace Mann Bond. Alabama State was the meeting place for the only interracial organization in the city, the Alabama Council of Human Relations, which discussed mutual problems of the races.

 

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