“Tuscaloosa: 200 Years in the Making”
Author: G. Ward Hubbs
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Price: $24.95 (Paper)
This year marks the bicentennial for the state and, as it happens, for the city of Tuscaloosa. There has been a stream of fine books summarizing, explaining, examining Alabama’s past 200 years. Guy Ward Hubbs was the perfect choice to write of his home place.
Hubbs has chosen to organize his material into sections that represent particular eras in the city’s history, and moments of transition, rather than a continuous flow of events, or a sequence of “Great Men,” although the continuity is clearly there.
He begins at the historical, not geological, beginning. We got off to a great start when Tuscaloosa was chosen as the state capital in 1826, but that momentum was lost when Montgomery replaced Tuscaloosa in 1846. The thriving Druid City, teeming with taverns and lawyers, new churches, a new university and the state insane asylum, soon lost 1,500 of her 4,500 residents. Real estate depreciated by 50 to 75%.
The second phase, secession, Civil War and reconstruction, were difficult in the extreme. The town was invaded, the university burned, all only four days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
There are many bits one did not know. Tuscaloosa was the site of a POW camp for Yankee soldiers. The man in charge, Sergeant Henry Wirz, famously harsh and later commandant at Andersonville, was hanged for war crimes.
Hubbs explains that Tuscaloosa was a good place for a POW prison because it was isolated, and that isolation affected our destiny for the next 75 years. The river was not navigable northward and southward only in high water. There was no railroad and the roads were terrible. It took a week to get to Huntsville. The city languished. The university shrank. There were lots of older homes because few new homes were built. Segregation prevailed, white supremacy, the White League and the KKK went unchecked. Assassinations and lynching abounded. These were backward times and Hubbs does not shirk from describing them.
It was hoped in the early years of the twentieth century that this city could rival Birmingham as an industrial center. After all, there were rich coal deposits. Hubbs describes the repeated efforts in Tuscaloosa and Holt, and why they failed. Manufacturers could not get their goods to market.
Scattered throughout the volume, Hubbs provides some brief but remarkable biographical sketches of Tuscaloosans, some of whose names are familiar, some not.
Robert Jemison, Jr. was a leading slaveholder but also a “cooperationist”: that is, he argued that all the slave states should secede “in concert,” or not at all. This was a tactic for delay and, it was hoped, would deny the federal government the legal right to invade militarily and eliminate slavery altogether. He was unsuccessful in this debate.
Jemison hosted, in his “enormous mansion” on Greensboro, the Joseph Davis family (Jefferson’s brother) when they fled from Vicksburg.
After the war, Jemison operated a number of businesses in Tuscaloosa and brought to town Horace King, a slave Jemison helped to free and with whom he “shared business ventures.” Horace King was a master bridge builder and in 1872 designed and directed the rebuilding of the bridge over the Black Warrior River, the bridge which Croxton’s Raiders had burned.
We also learn of Shandy Jones. Jones was born a slave, freed as a child and then “gained considerable wealth by barbering and investing in real estate.” Jones was influential enough so that when an ordinance was passed in 1859 forbidding free blacks from being out after 10 at night, he was immediately exempted in a letter signed by R. Blair, mayor.
At the end of the nineteenth century, locks and dams were built, with great fanfare and at great expense, but to no great effect.
Finally, the railroad and decent highways connected West Alabama with the world, but more importantly, Hubbs argues, Tuscaloosa modernized itself, put in street lights, some paved roads, electricity, a good water supply and sewers, the telephone, streetcars. We built new office buildings, the skyscrapers of their day. These amenities changed people’s lives.
Surprisingly, so did the bicycle, which gave young people, especially women, great freedom and mobility, and of course the Model T Ford, which changed the world, both liberating and equalizing the lives of many.
WWII brought, he suggests, some 30,000 outsiders to town for different reasons, and that brought change.
Hubbs is unflinching when describing the racial inequities and struggles here in the 1950s and ’60s, the segregation and duplicity leading to June 9, 1964, Bloody Tuesday.
But, without saying so explicitly, he shows that Tuscaloosa citizens in a sense redeemed themselves after the devastating tornado of 2011, with an extraordinary outpouring of brotherly love, courage, and compassion.
The book is richly illustrated with photos, maps and portraits. Hubbs’s prose is clear and fluid; it is rich with detail but never bogs down. Any reader will be delighted and enlightened. Tuscaloosans SHOULD read this book for pleasure and to learn how we got here, now, this red-hot minute.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.