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.
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.
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.
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.
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