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

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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.