Faces of Marion

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Perceptions of Perry County and the Black Belt have transformed from pinnacles of the Old South to abandoned towns with empty buildings. Today the essence of these communities is lost on travelers who do not go beyond the surface of what they see while passing through. Yet, there is a beauty to these towns that can be discovered through the voices of the people who lived there. Their experiences and stories serve as a window to the past for present generations who wish to see Black Belt towns as they once were. This is accomplished by looking into the storyteller’s eyes and hearing their voice. The Faces of Marion exhibit, funded by the Alabama Humanities Foundation, uses the senses of sight and sound to move beyond generalizations. Divided into categories of place, process and people, this exhibit contains individual stories and photographs collected by Samford University’s Oral History Program, Jonathan Bass, and Caroline Summers.  The photos and audio will be on display in Samford University’s Davis Library beginning Saturday, November 1st.  Lowell Melton and Martha LeCroy are just two examples of the faces, voices, and stories that can be seen and heard during the exhibit.

Lowell Melton 15

Lowell Melton, the son of a Marion farmer, explains…

First we had mules to plow the land with, break up the land . . . chopped cotton, hoed corn and then we sprayed cotton, and then after a while we got somebody [to spray cotton], but first we did it by hand with all those sacks and stuff.  After a while my father decided to get a tractor to spray it first with a tractor. So we did that until the cotton started growing out or blooming out, or whatever you want to call it. And by the time September comes we had to go out and pick the cotton.  After we did that for about a month then we went to school. There wasn’t no school for us until we finished picking cotton . . .  In the fall after we got our crop together and [we] would go to school from that time until May, and then school would turn out for spring break or whatever you want to call it . . .  Most of the time it’d be October before we got to go to school . . .

And then my dad got sick, so he bought a tractor one day and I used to drive the tractor every day plowing the fields until I joined the army and then from the army I didn’t stay [in] Alabama and went to Detroit in 1963 . . . Well I heard they were hiring people up there in Detroit and so I went up to see for myself.  I got a job working with my cousin in a barbershop for a while.  Then I got a job working at a steel plant for about one year.  Then I got a job working for Chrysler for about three years.  Then I went to California and stayed out there until 1983 when my papa passed away. Then I came home to look after my mother; then she passed away too. 

Martha LeCroy Marion

Martha LeCroy, born in 1923, has lived in Marion, Alabama her whole life. She looks back on her memories of the town:

When you’ve lived in a place for so long . . . it’s home . . . I still cherish the country that I lived in and back then there were so many people who lived in the country it was almost like a town. Saturday – that was the main shopping day for everybody in the vicinity. We would come to town and buy groceries, or if the children needed shoes. We came every Saturday. It was 7 miles to Marion. We had a model T Ford . . .  My daddy was a mechanic and he liked cars.  He loved automobiles.  I guess we were some of the first people that really had a way to travel to Marion because so many had to travel by . . . horses and buggy but not many, just a few people–but they’d have mules and wagons that’d come to town…and buy what they needed for the whole week.

We had a garden. You know the family worked the garden–mostly my mother and father–and when we got old enough we kind of just picked whatever grew like tomatoes and English peas. Oh they were so good . You could eat English peas green then. They were green then and oh they were so green and sweet! We always had meat on weekends, but we had vegetables. My mother cooked a good meal. We always had potatoes on hand, she loved to cook peas and okra, and oh, that’s good stuff, squash. We ate all that kind of food, but in the summer was the only time we had a garden because it was so cold in the winter, you know it would freeze. We used dried peas in the winter, dried beans, and things like that, canned food. My mother canned and corked jars. Everybody did back then.

The stories of Lowell and Martha are proof that every individual, even though he or she may have grown in the same small town, can provide a unique perspective on the town’s history and what it meant to him or her. To see the rest of these individuals and hear their stories, visit the Faces of Marion exhibit in Samford’s Davis Library between November 1st and 14th.

Adapted from:

Oral History Interviews of Lowell Melton and Martha LeCroy

Photography by Jonathan Bass and Caroline Summers

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The Howard, The Judson and The Black Belt

Tuesday Jonathan Bass’s Oral History class traveled to the birthplace of Samford University, Marion, Alabama.  The students interviewed senior citizens at the nutrition center while campus photographer, Caroline Summers, took their portraits as part of an ongoing project called Faces of Perry County (exhibition to begin fall 2014).  Following the interviews, students enjoyed lunch at our sister institution, Judson College, followed by a tour of Judson, a walk through Marion’s cemetery and a visit to the chapel at Marion Military Institute – all led by former Samford Vice President Bill Mathews.

oral history interview

At Judson, students toured the institution that nurtured Samford, then Howard College, during its infancy.  Judson and Howard share many of the same founders and early presidents.  Howard inherited buildings previously inhabited by Judson, then built a new campus after the 1844 fire.  Though nothing remains of our first campus, a commemorative sign marks the approximate location a few blocks behind Siloam Baptist Church.

original site HC 1842 sign

Walking through the cemetery, students visited the graves of many great figures in Howard’s history:  Julia Tarrant Barron, Edwin D. King, Porter King, Jesse. B. Lovelace, and William W. Wilkerson.  Perhaps the most recognized gravesite visited was that of Harry, a slave owned by Howard College President, Henry Talbird.  The students gathered around the obelisk that marked the grave.  When fire broke out in the boy’s dormitory late at night on October 15, 1854, Harry ran through the halls, rousing the boys and refusing to escape until every student was safe.  Harry died that night from his injuries, and the grateful citizens of Marion buried him in the white cemetery and erected an obelisk in memory of his selfless actions.

harry's grave

Driving up to Marion Military Institute, the site of Howard College’s second campus, students saw the original chapel and dormitory that still stand on the picturesque campus.  Walking into the chapel they stopped to read a plaque on the brick wall enscribed with names such as Henry Talbird and Noah K. Davis, names of those that made this second campus a reality.  Those buildings saw early Samford graduates pass through her halls, housed Confederate soldiers, freed slaves, and bore witness to secret fraternities and literary society meetings.  Many Howard cadets spent their days there, unaware that over a century later, men and women from their contemporary alma mater would return to see their roots.

chapel pic MMI

Julia Barron, E. D. King, Porter King, Wilkerson and Lovelace, nor Samuel Sherman could have envisioned the Samford University of today that grew from Howard College in the Black Belt.  Renwick Kennedy wrote in his 1934 article Black Belt Aristocrats: The Old South Lives on in Alabama’s Black Belt, “The mere fact that one is from the Black Belt gives him some degree of respectability.” This may be true of institutions as well.  This group of students was able to visit and experience the humble but respectable beginnings of Samford.  They were able to interview current residents of Marion to learn more about the evolving culture of the town and what it means to be a part of the Black Belt.  Kennedy concluded, “..the Black Belt knows how to make an art of life and is splendidly indifferent to the opinion of outsiders.  When it passes, in the opinion of the writer, one of the most civilized sections of the country will have passed.”

–Lauren Ziemer, Graduate Research Assistant