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.

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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

All Shook Up – The Modern Dance

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The spots have not dropped from the leopard.  From Babylon, 300 years before Christ, until this good year 1919, we find these same obscene, vulgar, sensual dances paralyzing society and sending to hell virtuous women and promising men. – the Alabama Baptist, May 19, 1921

During World War II, Howard College became one of a hundred or more schools to house the U.S. Navy’s V-12 program.  This wartime initiative was exactly what Howard needed as it struggled to emerge from the Great Depression.  The college limped through the 1930s with significant pre-existing debt and limited denomination support.  Without the increased enrollment and federal funds provided by the program, Howard could not have recovered financially.  Beginning in July 1943 the Navy took the campus by storm, displacing students from their dorms and altering Howard’s culture.  In previous years, the Alabama Baptist boasted of Howard’s strict rules, “No drinking, gambling, girls smoking, or dancing is allowed.”

While it is true that the Howard boys attended soirees at the Judson complete with piano, harp, and vocal performances during the early years on the Marion campus, Howard administration effectively banned dancing on the East Lake campus in the 1920s.  Throughout the state church leaders often warned against the sins of modern dance, leaving most Baptist college coeds bereft of dance instruction.   One graduate, Frances Williamson ’47, recalled how the V-12 boys taught the girls how to dance and play bridge.  According to one Crimson writer, the Navy knew how to throw a party:

FRIDAY NIGHT HOP

Last Friday night, January 19, 1945, to be exact, a dance was held in the gymnasium, following Howard’s decisive victory over a strong Acipco team.  Such an occasion as this may not ordinarily have called for any comment on my part but from what I observed at the shindig, I believe commendations are due to everyone who had any part in sponsoring it.  And the orchestra, with Maestro Hank Beebe at the baton was one of the biggest surprises of the evening . . . not that we didn’t expect great things from this talented group of swingsters, but they more than lived up to anything we had hoped for.  In the form of refreshments, we had the firm of Messrs. Gregg and Nuremberger, Inc., cooking up a concoction known as “Punchy Punch,” which they gladly served to anyone thirsty or foolish enough to try it.  All joking aside, thought, I really hope that this dance may be the beginning of great things to come; that it may establish a precedent here at Howard.  Although it was sponsored by the Navy, everyone was welcome – girls, civilians, girls, sailors, and more girls. Such a dance as this provides fine wholesome entertainment for everyone; good music, pleasant companionship, plenty of exercise (especially for the jitterbug) and an all around atmosphere of friendliness.  My suggestion would be to make such a dance a bi-weekly affair here.  Coming at the end of the week, it would not only provide a good place to relax and have some fun after five days of work and study, but would also greatly enhance Howard’s standing in the social register of colleges.  When we first arrived here, we were told of the friendliness of the institution which we were entering – we have found this to be very true.  I believe, however, that by instituting a bi-weekly dance Howard might be able to change its well deserved name from “The Friendly College” to the even better title of “the Friendlier College.”

So, fellow bulldogs, all that remains is to lace up your dancing shoes and keep this Samford tradition alive.  Save a dance for us!

Adapted from Howard Crimson, January 26, 1945, Howard College Magazine, Volume 1:4 Jan, 1859, conversation with Frances Williamson, Birmingham, AL, October 2012, and The Major, Harwell G. Davis: Alabama Statesman and Baptist Leader by Susan Ingram Hunt Ray

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“just how drunk can a badger get?”

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Throughout the 1830s, Marion, Alabama was a frontier town.  Located in Perry County in west central Alabama, the crude settlement was on the northern edge of the state’s fertile agricultural crescent.  During the decade before the founding of Howard College, the town was poor, sparsely settled, disease-ridden, and isolated from the east’s civilizing influences of religion, education, and law. The only social outlet for the masses was drinking and fighting. “It looked to me,” one early settler noted, “as if the devil had a clean bill of sale to all this country.”

No matter the hour, drunks staggered along the dusty streets, causing disorder and provoking violent encounters.  Feeding the violence was the availability of cheap corn liquor and other intoxicating spirits bought at one of the eleven establishments licensed to sell such rotgut.  Billy Price owned Marion’s most popular saloon, “Dum Vivimus, Vivimus,” which translated from Latin as “while we live, let us live it up.”  Here gathered the “originators of all mischief perpetuated in Marion,” a resident later wrote, especially a thrill-seeking gang of idle young men that locals referred to as “the boys.”  These high school- and college-age boys, with no education and little hope of escaping the drudgery of frontier life, embraced a literal interpretation of Price’s motto and endeavored to “live it up” and raise hell at every possible occasion.

Often, they loitered in the streets of Marion during the day and made mischief on unsuspecting locals.   By night, they drank and fought.   When a traveling circus stopped in Marion in 1835, the boys went to see the caravan of wild animals and then retired for an evening of reverie at Price’s saloon.   When one of the boys announced that he was “drunk as a badger,” the others asked, “just how drunk can a badger get?”  To settle the matter scientifically, Samuel A. Townes noted a few years later, the boys sought out the circus owner (“the varmint man”) and a thirsty badger to invite “down to the droggery to be made drunk.”   When the proprietor refused to cooperate, the “boys” stormed the circus, overturning wagons and opening cages in search of a badger.   Once they located the animal, and let loose bears, lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys and “various other rarities,” the victorious army returned to Price’s place and proceeded to make the badger drunk.  “The poor animal was completely intoxicated,” Townes wrote, “and, to the amazement of his drunken companions, only behaved like themselves or any other drunken beast.”

When flush times came to Marion in the 1830s, the town was a peculiar mingling of frontier intemperance and emerging cotton idealism.   As planters learned how to successfully grow cotton on a mass scale in the black sticky soil in southern Perry County, land sales skyrocketed and Marion grew wealthy and more civilized.  Tensions, however, remained high, as those poor folks with a frontier outlook, resented the boosterism and moralism of the entrepreneur classes who looked to tame the wilderness and fashion an enlightened society similar to the settled areas to the east—a place where citizens followed the rule of law and embraced the civilizing influences of education and religion.  Many church leaders and laymen alike hoped to instill an enlightened form of southern puritanism upon the revelers of frontier hedonism.

Throughout the previous decade, Marion’s most visible religious community was Siloam Baptist Church, which struggled for relevancy against the tide of debauchery.  By the 1830s, however, revival fires swept the Alabama wilderness and brought vast cultural changes.   Characterized by emotional preaching, modified Calvinistic notions of free-will and salvation, and a call to pious living, the revivalist spirit led to an unprecedented growth in church memberships, more money in the offering plates, and increased status for preacher and churchgoers.  In 1832, the Marion Presbyterian Church organized and built a small frame house of worship.  The next year, the Siloam congregation moved from its rustic meeting house to a new $600 frame building.  As wealth and status increased, the church built a larger $7,000 building in 1837 that Samuel Townes described as one of the “most elegant and tastefully houses of worship in the state.”  In contrast, the Methodists struggled to maintain even a small presence in Marion, reporting just thirty-two members in 1841.  Perhaps this was an indication that most of the town’s Protestant Christians favored some form of Calvinistic thought of the Baptists and Presbyterians over the anti-Calvinistic Armenian beliefs of the Methodists.

In particular, the revivalist spirit compelled many missions- and education-minded Baptists in small towns like Marion to focus their attention towards evangelism in the Alabama wilderness and along the frontiers abroad.  Several years later, the Baptists in Marion recognized that education was a way to “go ye therefore, and teach all nations. . . .”  This group of evangelical reformers also acknowledged that they had a bountiful mission field in Marion, where salvation, virtue, and education would be the essential trilogy to bring a measure of social control over the host of drunkards and unruly boys.   It was into this environment, that Marion’s Baptists founded Howard College as a way to bring moral education and temperance instruction to the wild young men of the Alabama frontier.

Adapted from:  the Marion Standard, 1909; W. Stuart Harris, “Rowdyism, Public Drunkenness, and Bloody Encounters in Early Perry County,” Alabama Review (January 1980):  15-24; Samuel A. Townes, History of Marion, Sketches of Life, etc, in Perry County, Alabama.