History & Race in Florence

Monument memorializing fallen soldiers of the Confedracy

Recent events in New Orleans and Charlottesville have brought Confederate monuments to the front of American discourse. Everybody seems to have an opinion on what should be done with these monuments that honor the soldiers and officers of the Confederate States of America. And this debate nearly always hinges on peoples’ conception of “history.”

“Erasing the past,” and “silencing history,” are two oft-cited reasons that people use to justify not removing Confederate monuments. Some people feel as if removing the monuments would erase the legacy of the Confederacy, the legacy of their ancestors, or a part of southern history. However, as they stand, most Confederate monuments themselves are distorted and even heavily censored versions of history.

Confederate monuments are reminders of a very dark time in American history. The rise of Jim Crow laws, lynchings of African Americans, and the public terrorism of the KKK are the backdrop for the creation of most Confederate monuments throughout the south. The monuments were put up during a time of African American political disenfranchisement and legalized segregation. Plessy v. Ferguson legalized public segregation in 1896; lynchings of African Americans peaked in the late 1890s; and many southern states rewrote their constitutions to exclude African Americans from the political process. In this context, Confederate monuments also represent not just the history of the Confederacy or the heritage of Confederate soldiers, but the history of the white supremacy that the Confederacy fought to uphold. Confederate monuments in front of courthouses stand as a lasting reminder of white supremacy.

Tearing down these Confederate monuments will erase neither the legacy of white supremacy or current racial inequalities. In Alabama, local governments who remove Confederate monuments are subject to a $25,000 fine, making Alabama the first state to attempt to render illegal the removal of its monuments. The law also prevents the relocation of Confederate monuments to cemeteries or museums. Because many Confederate monuments were built in front of courthouses, the white supremacy that they represent casts a long shadow over the symbols of justice in many southern towns.

In Florence, Alabama, a Confederate monument stands in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse, guarding the entrance to the county’s justice system. The monument was built in 1903, just two years after the Alabama Constitution established poll taxes and literacy tests for African American voters, outlawed interracial marriage, and established a segregated school requirement. For nearly sixty years, African Americans walked past the statue of white supremacy on their way to the courthouse that upheld laws that denied their civil rights.

White supremacy was reinforced at the dedication of the monument on April 25, 1903. The main orator for the event was Dr. H. A. Moody, who spoke of the “impassable barrier” between the north and the south. “They (northerners) look upon the Negro as a white man with a colored skin and believe education to be the thing needful. We of the south know better. No other people know him so well or love him so well, but nowhere here is he accorded social equality.”

Today, African Americans can walk past that same monument and into a courthouse where judges are sworn to uphold their civil rights. However, the legacy of white supremacy looms large. African Americans represent 26% of Alabama’s population, but 54% of the state’s prison population. In Lauderdale County, there are no African American judges; the district attorney and all three assistant district attorneys are white. All five county commissioners are white; five of six Florence city councilmen are white. The Florence police chief and the two deputy chiefs are white, as is most of the police department and most city government department heads. White supremacy is still intact in Lauderdale County, with or without a Confederate monument in front of the courthouse.

Project Say Something is a non-profit that is attempting to remap the racial imagery of the city of Florence. Their mission is to unify, educate, heal, and empower communities in the mid-south to realize social justice through non-violent communication and direct action against racism, poverty and related forms of oppression. The organization has received a grant to work towards placing a monument in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse that tells a broader narrative; an inclusive narrative, aimed at commemorating the African American heritage of the county.

Working with a grant from the Fringe Foundation, Project Say Something is launching a campaign to balance the Confederate monument with a symbol of justice for all residents of Lauderdale County with a campaign to educate, organize, and commemorate.
The educational component of the grant will be aimed at capturing the context of the existing Confederate monument. Local research will delve into the dedication and reasons for erecting the monument. Community members will be interviewed for their thoughts and input, and the current monument debate will be discussed and analyzed on public forums, including the campaign’s Facebook page, website, and town hall forums.

The organizing component will be a collaboration with other civic institutions, such as the public library and the local art gallery to launch a contest for the design of the new monument. This contest will be open to local artists, and community members will be invited to view and discuss the design ideas at public forums. A winner will be chosen by community members, allowing citizens of Lauderdale County to have a voice in choosing the best way to balance the existing narrative.

The commemoration component will involve the construction and dedication of the monument in front of the courthouse, next to the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse. Project Say Something hopes that this project can be a blueprint for other communities to follow in order to find peaceful solutions to questions concerning their history.

In contextualizing the Confederate monument debate, it is important to talk about the role of race. A community that can have an open and honest dialogue about its past is well-equipped to leave the community a better place for future generations. Project Say Something’s monument campaign aims to do just that. Their ultimate goal is to bring the community together to talk about its past and decide how to capture a better vision for its’ future.

Urban Renewal and Public Housing in Florence

June 1, 2017

Segregation Map of Florence, 1968

Florence’s first public housing units, like its neighborhoods, were segregated. In 1950, the city of Florence needed both new, modern housing and clearance of slum areas, but public housing took priority. That same year the Public Housing Administration approved a preliminary loan of $85,000 to the Florence Housing Authority for the construction of 250 public housing units. The Florence Housing Authority entered a loan and annual contribution contract with the Public Housing Authority and building sites were chosen for the segregated housing units. The white housing unit would be on 38 acres in East Florence, close to a large working-class white population, while the African American unit would be located on property “adjoining city limits” on Nance Street in West Florence. The 175 brick veneer units for white residents of Florence were built for $1,338,700, while the 75 units for African Americans were built at a cost of $573,000. The FHA even held a contest to name each unit and the winners were chosen in September of 1951. The white housing unit was named “Cherry Hill Homes,” while “Carver Homes” was chosen as the name for the African-American project. When construction was completed, there were 53 structures with 175 living units for whites, and 20 structures for 75 living units for African Americans at a total cost of more than $2,000,000. At the time Florence residents seemed to embrace the concept of modern housing at an affordable price, and the perpetuation of racial segregation through public housing and urban renewal projects had begun.

Also in 1951 the city of Florence contracted with Recreational Engineer Charles M. Graves from Atlanta Ga., to consult about the building of recreation centers in the city. Graves recommended that the city of Florence construct four recreation centers: 3 for whites, and 1 for African Americans. The latter, recommended Graves, should be “on a site as near as possible to the center of the Negro population, possibly near Handy Hill.” Graves added: “based on the population distribution with 25 percent Negro, there is need now for one Negro pool, approximately 50 by 100 feet.” The combination of segregated public housing projects (paid for with federal funds) located near segregated resources such as schools, playgrounds, and recreation centers (paid for with city funds) was an effective strategy used by the City of Florence over the next two decades.

Across the Tennessee River in Tuscumbia, the Tuscumbia Housing Authority oversaw the construction of two low-rent housing units in 1951. These consisted of 48 units for whites on McClain Avenue and 27 units for African Americans in Legion Woods in East Tuscumbia. The city of Sheffield slum clearance program more closely resembled Florence’s. Its objectives were to clear blighted buildings and build public housing for “non-whites” in South Sheffield. Soon Florence would undertake its own slum clearance and public housing project to contain its “non-white” residents.

The FHA’s Handy Hill project helped to cement racial segregation in the city of Florence for the next fifty years. In 1955 the Florence Housing Authority offered Florence lawyer Karl Tyree a job as its’ executive director. The first project that he undertook was a residential re-use of the West Florence community at the time one of the first residential re-use projects in the nation. When it was completed in 1958 the Handy Hill project brought paved streets, utilities, public and private housing, a school, and a recreation center to West Florence. Prior to 1958 the Handy Hill project area in West Florence consisted of 26 acres with 85 substandard dwellings. Only 2 houses had plumbing and there were no paved streets, sewers, or utilities. Two-thirds of families who lived in the area received public assistance; all were low-income. Property values ranged from between $1,500 and $2,50, with some as low as $800. The West Florence community clearly suffered from the detrimental effects of living in Jim Crow Alabama, where opportunities for economic achievement were rare for African Americans. Confined to small, dilapidated houses in two sections of the city, African Americans did not share the same opportunities that were open to whites in Florence.

As the city expanded its public housing program, three units were built in West Florence before 1970. One unit was built outside of West Florence. During this time period, two African American schools and a recreation center were built in the neighborhood, as well as 78 brand new houses in the Handy Heights subdivision. After integration, both schools in West Florence closed and students were bused to white neighborhoods to attend school, Florence’s solution to its own desegregation quagmire. After the schools shut down, the city opened a landfill in West Florence, which operated from 1972 to 1988. Residents are left to deal with the effects of 1.5 million tons of garbage in their backyards, and methane gas that migrates into their basements. When the city removed resources from West Florence (in the forms of schools and street connectivity to downtown), it replaced them with more public housing and a landfill.

The city originally attempted to contain its African American population in West Florence. African Americans could live in only a few neighborhoods during the 50s and 60s, and with desegregation of the schools looming, Florence officials attempted to contain African Americans to one section of town. Furthermore, the subdivisions in Florence that were built in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s were largely closed to African Americans. Subdivisions like McFarland Heights, Forest Hills, Edgemont, and Hickory Hills had no black residents as of 1968. In this way, urban renewal and public housing were used as tools to perpetuate residential racial segregation. The segregation continues in 2017.

Segregation Map of Florence, 2017

~Brian Murphy

Works Cited

“Public Housing Administration Approves $85,000 for 250 Low Income Housing Units,” The Florence Times (Florence, AL), January 6, 1950.

“Government Okehs 250 Family Dwelling Units for Florence,” The Florence Times (Florence, AL), P 1, January 19, 1951.

“Florence, Athens Housing Projects to Begin at Once,” The Florence Times (Florence, AL), P 1, June 29, 1951.

The overwhelming response to name the African American housing unit included the name Handy, as West Florence was often referred to as “Handy’s Hill,” birthplace of W.C. Handy. The name could not but used, however, because Mr. Handy was still alive.

Suitable Names Contest on For Housing Projects,” The Florence Times (Florence, AL), P 1, August 15, 1951.

“Recreational Engineer Describes Grave Lack of Facilities in City of Florence,” The Florence Times (Florence, AL), P 1, September 20, 1951.

“Housing Board Lets Contract Tuscumbia Unit,” The Florence Times (Florence, AL), P1, June 12, 1951.

“Sheffield Slum Clearance Plans Re-Certified,” The Florence Times (Florence, AL), December 9th, 1958.

Tyree, Fredericka Maxwell, Tyree Collection: Biography, 5. This is an unpublished biography found in the University of North Alabama’s Special Collections Room. It was written by Florence Housing Authority director Karl Tyree’s wife.

Master Plan of Florence, 1968.

Racial Dot Map. Image Copyright, 2013, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (Dustin A. Cable, creator)


States’ Rights

January 28, 2017

“The Civil War was fought over states’ rights, and not slavery.” Many of us have heard this reasoning before: that the South didn’t want the Federal government telling it what to do, just as our Founding Fathers broke away from England to create a Republic made up of individual states. But Southern slaveholders in fact relied on Federal law to protect the institution of slavery, a fact often overlooked by proponents of states’ rights. In addition to ignoring Southern support for Federal laws protecting slavery, this reasoning consistently fails to ask, “A state’s right to do what?”

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a piece of legislation designed to ensure Federal protection of the institution of slavery. The Act penalized officials in any state, slaveholding or non-slaveholding, who did not arrest alleged runaway slaves. Any person found guilty of helping a runaway slave could likewise be penalized. Both penalties carried a $1,000 fine, a rough equivalent of $30,000 today. In effect, the Fugitive Slave Act held Northern law enforcement officials responsible for upholding the laws that supported slavery. Many Northern states that had been “free states” now had to help Southern slave catchers find and arrest runaway slaves. Many free blacks and escaped slaves who were living in the North escaped to Canada after the Act was passed.

The Act went further than penalizing non-compliers. It required Federal Courts to appoint commissioners for the purpose of hearing cases of alleged runaways. What happened when an alleged runaway slave was apprehended and brought before the commissioner? Slaves could not testify on their own behalf. To make matters worse, commissioners had financial incentives to rule on behalf of slaveowners: they received a $10 fee if they ruled against the alleged runaway, and $5 if they ruled in his or her favor.

The Act further authorized these commissioners and federal marshals to form posses of citizens to catch runaway slaves. This meant that anyone could be a slave catcher: the burden of returning slaves to slaveholders fell on all citizens of the United States. What happened if a person was caught helping a runaway slave? They could be charged for treason by a Federal prosecutor. This was an issue in some northern cities where abolitionist sentiment was high. The Federal government also protected the individual rights of slaveholders in non-slaveholding states by providing Federal troops to escort runaway slaves back to the South, if necessary. In Boston, where abolitionist sentiment was high in the 1850s, the Federal government provided 300 armed troops to escort a runaway slave back to the South. The troops were protecting the slave from a crowd that sought to help the slave escape to freedom.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a Federal law that restricted the rights of African Americans everywhere and citizens living in non-slaveholding states. Northern states passed laws to prevent state officials from participating in the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. In this instance, Northern states were asserting their states’ rights not to uphold the institution by disobeying Federal law. It was Southern slaveholders and Southern states that wanted Federal oversight; Northern states wanted to assert their right not to participate in the capturing of runaway slaves.

In February of 1860, a full nine months before the presidential election that sent Abraham Lincoln to the White House, the Alabama state legislature passed a resolution stating that if a Republican (Lincoln) was elected, they would meet again before he took office to decide what course of action to take. The resolution was adopted because of “anti-slavery agitation persistently continued in the non-slaveholding States of this Union, for more than a third of a century, marked at every stage of its progress by contempt for the obligations of law and the sanctity of compacts, evincing a deadly hostility to the rights and institutions of the Southern people.” Northern agitators, specifically Lincoln and the Republican party, were going to end Southern states’ rights to own people. When the Alabama secession delegation did meet the following January, they chose to secede because Lincoln was “avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama.” The “domestic institution” undoubtedly meant slavery.

The Federal government protected the interests of slaveholders and the states these men represented before the Civil War. After the war, the Federal government affirmed for the first time its commitment to Civil Rights when it passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. I think we can all agree that the abolition of slavery, the right to citizenship, and the right to vote, as upheld by these amendments, are rights that every American should have. As historian Eric Foner states: “neither federal power nor states’ rights exist in a vacuum. Both can be threats to the liberties of citizens and both can be modes of protecting them. It all depends on the uses to which federal and state power are put.”

~Brian Murphy

Works Cited:







The Ambiguities of Race and the Permanence of Slavery: A Look at George W. Farris, Escaped Slave

December 16, 2016

Homer Plessy

Newspaper accounts from across the nation in the 1850s tell the tale of an escaped slave calling himself George Washington Farris. The story detailed by these accounts highlights racial ambiguity in a way that serves to underscore the true foundations of slavery: power, caste, and hierarchy. The story– pieced together from newspaper accounts and genealogical data– is as follows.

A slave calling himself George Washington Farris escaped from Tuscumbia, Alabama in 1852. Farris was said to have been born in Alabama, the son of a mulatto house servant and plantation owner George Orville Ragland. He fled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and he found work as a brick mason, in which line of work he had considerable experience. He married a woman named Mary Ann Wickham and they had a daughter named Harriet.

George Farris’s father, George Orville Ragland, was born in Virginia and was a planter in Madison County, Alabama at the time of Farris’ escape. He also worked in the brick industry in Chattanooga, Memphis, and Tuscumbia. Shortly after Farris ran away, Ragland posted this advertisement in the Chattanooga Gazette: “Runaway from the subscriber, a very bright boy, twenty-two years old, named Wash. He might pass himself for a white man, as he is very bright, has sandy hair, blue eyes, and a fine set of teeth.”

Farris had escaped Alabama but he did not remain a free man for long. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it much more difficult for slaves to escape to the North. The act punished civilians who helped escaped slaves and also law enforcement officials who did not arrest them. The law further provided monetary incentives for law enforcement officers who captured escaped slaves. In 1858 a man named George Shaw, who had worked in Alabama and was familiar with Farris, lured the unsuspecting man to St. Louis, Missouri with a promising job offer. Some accounts say Shaw happened upon Farris in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; others recount how he pursued him for five years, collecting a large amount of money from George Ragland for his efforts. Regardless, once Farris was in Missouri, Shaw contacted Ragland who sent his son (Farris’ half-brother) and a Mr. William R. Julian up to capture him and bring him back to Tuscumbia. Farris learned of their plot and escaped to Brunswick, Missouri. It was in Brunswick, MO that the kidnappers finally caught up with Farris and apprehended him. They took him back to Tuscumbia and forced him back into slavery.

George Shaw then conspired with Ragland and another man named J.A. Torrance to capture Farris’ daughter, Harriet, and to bring her to Tuscumbia as well. Fortunately for the girl, the men were apprehended and arrested for attempted kidnapping. Shaw was thrown in jail for kidnapping Farris. The law in Pittsburg apparently thought Farris to be a white man, and not a slave.

While Shaw was in jail in Pittsburgh, a group of notable men from the Shoals region met and drafted a public letter in which they declared the arrest of Shaw “fanaticism” and that the facts of the case should be presented to the people of the South. Among these local dignitaries were judge William Basil Wood, U.S. Representative George S. Houston, and judge and later governor of Alabama E. A. O’Neal. Farris’ former owner, Miles Owen, who had sold him some twenty years prior, came forward to attempt to prove that Farris was indeed a slave. These acts were not done to re-enslave Farris, for that had already been accomplished. Thus, the most prominent men in Northwest Alabama intervened on behalf of George Shaw, who was sitting in jail in Pittsburgh for the kidnapping of Farris and the attempted kidnapping of the man’s daughter. These men were advocating for the rights of slave owners to retrieve their property, protected by federal law.

George Farris “passed” as white. He had little trouble escaping slavery because he looked white. He had little trouble getting a job because he looked white. He married a white woman. His daughter was free because her mother was a free white woman. Yet, like many slaves, George Farris inherited his slave status from his mother, despite the fact that his father was a wealthy plantation owner.

Incidents like these emphasize the rigidity of the system of slavery and racism. Following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), race was determined by a “one-drop” heritage rule rather than physical appearance; plantiff Homer Plessy, like George Farris, appeared white. This practice served to emphasize the foundation of slavery: a strict caste system based on racial inequality. Slave owners such as Ragland and Miles Owen were beneficiaries of a system based more on caste, in Farris’ case, than physical attributes. Understanding the lengths to which Florence’s forefathers went to secure this system is crucial to dismantling the legacy it has left behind.

~Brian Murphy

Works Cited

“A Kidnapping Case,” The New York Times, New York, NY. Aug. 5, 1858.

Daily Nashville Patriot, Nashville, TN., Oct. 19, 1858. P. 2

DuBose, Joel Campbell. Notable Men Of Alabama: Personal and Genealogical, Volume 2. Atlanta, GA: Southern Historical Association, 1904. P 235.

“George O. Ragland,” The Chattanooga Gazette, Tenn. Oct. 5, 1852.

Goodspeed, Weston Arthur. Standard History of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Chicago, IL: H.R. Cornell & Co., 1898. P 825.

Lowell Daily Citizen and News, Lowell, Mass., Nov. 19, 1858

McDonald, William L. A Walk Through the Past: People and Places of Florence and Lauderdale County. Florence, AL: Bluewater Publications, 1997. P. 90.

Pittsburg Weekly Gazette, Pittsburg, PA. Feb. 23, 1869. P. 8.


Remembering Peter Still

August 23, 2016

Peter Still

There is a historical marker on Pine Street in Florence commemorating a building where Dred Scott lived and worked as a slave in the 1820s. Scott of course gained much notoriety when he attempted to purchase his own freedom in 1846, an event that culminated in the landmark case Dred Scott v. Sandford in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that people of African descent could not be American citizens. When Scott lived in Florence, he was owned by Peter Blow. It was Blow’s children who paid some of Scott’s legal dues in his attempt to sue for his freedom.

The story of Scott’s struggle to gain his freedom is significant because of the legal precedent it established. But there was another slave living in the Shoals area who was able to buy his freedom who isn’t mentioned in the pantheon of the region’s important historical figures. The story of Peter Still provides a bleak glimpse into the hardships endured by our nation’s enslaved people. His story is both inspiring and heartbreaking and deserves to be added to our region’s historical narrative.

Peter Still was born in Maryland in 1801. His father purchased his own freedom a few years after Peter’s birth and moved to New Jersey after devising an escape plan for his wife and four children. Their first attempt was unsuccessful, and Peter’s mother and three siblings were apprehended and returned to Maryland. The second attempt proved successful for Peter’s mother and both of his sisters, who reunited with Peter’s father in New Jersey. Peter remained in Maryland with his older brother Levin for a few more years before they were both sold to an owner in Kentucky. Peter and Levin lived in Kentucky for 13 years, working in a brickyard, a tobacco factory, and as a house servant before being sold to an owner in Alabama. Separated at an early age from his parents and siblings, Peter Still found himself entrapped by the cruelty of the slavery system that wrenched families apart and made it next to impossible to keep family intact.

Peter lived on a plantation near Bainbridge, Alabama, several miles east of the city of Tuscumbia on the south side of the Tennessee River. In 1825, he married a slave named Lavinia from another plantation. The marriage produced eleven children, seven of whom died in infancy and another who drowned in his teenage years. It was during this part of his life that Still, like John Henry Rapier and many other slaves, was hired out for a number of different tasks. Still had a great ability to complete a variety of different jobs and is said to have impressed the local white businessmen in Tuscumbia. He was hired out to a bookseller in Tuscumbia, a sympathetic man named Allen Pollock who also allowed Still to “hire his time”: that is, once Peter satisfied his hours with the bookseller, he was allowed to hire himself out to others and to keep the money he subsequently earned. This practice was common in Kentucky and Tennessee, and even Maryland and parts of Virginia, but it was against the law in Alabama. Pollock and Still let on that Pollock was keeping all the profits from the arrangement.

Peter Still was able to make some money this way. When his work contract with Pollock had ended, he entered into a similar contract with an immigrant named Joseph Friedman. Still believed Friedman to be sympathetic towards slaves, and thus requested that his master transfer him to work for Friedman.

Still entered into a risky agreement with Friedman. Originally unsure whether he could trust this man, he eventually revealed his plans to buy his own freedom and Friedman promised to help. The plan was for Friedman to offer Still’s master $500 to buy Still from him. Still would then work for Friedman to pay off the money, whereupon Friedman would grant Peter Still his freedom.

The plan didn’t work as well as expected at first. Still’s master didn’t want to sell Peter. Several years went by before Still’s master agreed to sell him, which he finally did in 1849. By this time, Peter Still had saved $200, which he transferred to Friedman. He then worked for Friedman for another fifteen months until the remaining balance was paid off, and Friedman—true to his word—gave him a receipt and a certificate of freedom.

Peter Still left Alabama and headed to Philadelphia, where he believed he might be able to locate his parents. He was directed to go to the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee to look for records of his parents. While at the office, Peter talked with one of the clerks at the office and told him his story. The clerk revealed that his name was William Still, younger brother to Peter. William informed Peter that their father had passed away, but that their mother was still alive in New Jersey.

Reuniting with his family in the North was bittersweet, however, because his wife and three children still lived in Alabama. Peter initially planned to earn enough money to buy their freedom. Realizing that this may never happen, he began to plan for their escape. He enlisted the help of a white abolitionist named Seth Concklin who had helped other slaves to escape and who agreed to go to Alabama and return with Peter’s wife and children, charging Still only the cost of his expenses.

Concklin succeeded in leaving Alabama with Still’s wife and children, and they made their way down the Tennessee River in a small rowboat. Travel was extremely difficult and dangerous, but they proceeded down the Tennessee, up the Ohio and into the Wabash River that separated Indiana from Illinois. Concklin and Peter’s family then abandoned the boat and started out over land. They stopped at homes of sympathetic whites and free blacks, making their way along the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, near Vincennes, Indiana they were captured. Fugitive slave catchers apprehended Concklin and Peter Still’s wife and children. Needing no warrant, the group was bound and loaded into a wagon headed for the city jail.

This incident illustrates the omnipotence of the slave system. Traveling in a free state, Concklin and his escapees were apprehended merely on suspicion of being escaped slaves. No warrant existed in the state of Indiana for their arrest, yet they were arrested anyway. After their arrest, the federal marshal located in Evansville, Indiana sent out telegraphs with descriptions of the apprehended to cities in the south. A reply came from Florence, and the owner of Still’s family, who was offering $400 for the return of the slaves and $600 for the capture of Concklin, made his way to Indiana. The federal marshal only then got a court order for the detention of the slaves and Concklin. Even in free states, the civil rights of African-Americans were routinely denied. The profits made by returning escaped slaves to their owners, or by selling freedmen to slave buyers, made the concept of freedom seem impossible to many slaves and free blacks.

The slave owner, a man named McKiernan, made his way back to Alabama with Lavinia and her children, while Conklin’s body was found in the Ohio river, hands and feet bound, and skull fractured. He allegedly had tried to escape.

Still was dismayed but determined to be reunited with his wife and children. In 1851, Peter wrote to an attorney friend of his living in Tuscumbia, who asked McKiernan what his price for Lavinia and the children was. McKiernan’s asking price was $5,000, probably $2,000 more than he could have received if he’d decided to sell them to another slave buyer. Still went on a tour to solicit aid. For two years, Still traveled throughout the north soliciting aid from sympathetic abolitionists, meeting some of the foremost proponents of abolition. He met with Harriet Beecher Stowe in Andover, Massachusetts and William Lloyd Garrison in Boston. He met with Horace Greeley in New York.

In October of 1854, Still had reached his goal of $5,000. Still enlisted the aid of his friend John Simpson, a Florence businessman to help arrange the sale. There was not enough money to secure the sale of a recently born grandson, however. McKiernan requested an additional $200 for the child, a sum that the family could not afford. The remaining family members, Lavinia and her two sons and daughter, proceeded north without him.

Kate Pickard wrote a biography of Peter Still that was published in 1856. She was a teacher at the Female Academy in Tuscumbia, Alabama. In it, she recounts Peter’s life through a version that he curated to her and most people he encountered. His mother, he told people, was a free woman who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Still purchased a ten acre farm in New Jersey and lived there until his death in 1868.

The story of Still’s life is fascinating, and it provides us an occasion to reflect on not just the hardships endured by slaves under the system of slavery, but the hardships endured after gaining their freedom. For the fortunate few slaves able to purchase their freedom, an entire legislative system operated to undermine their efforts. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required that officials in northern states that prohibited slavery had to cooperate with the return of escaped slaves to their owners in southern states. Officials who did not cooperate with the law were subject to a large fine, as was any person suspected of helping an escaped slaved. Because slaves had no legal rights, no trial could be held on their behalf to determine whether they were an escaped slave or a freedman. Many free blacks living in northern states were thus kidnapped into slavery (see Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave). Even though slavery was instituted only in southern states in 1850, its reach was nationwide.

Still’s story also highlights another important and tragic facet of slavery: the breaking up of the family. Born in Maryland on the east coast, Peter’s family escaped north to New Jersey, while he and his brother were sold west to an owner in Kentucky. From there, Still was sold to an owner further south in Alabama before buying his freedom and returning north to Philadelphia. In so doing, he left his own family behind in Alabama. In order to be reunited with his wife and children, Peter Still was forced to purchase them out of slavery at the over-inflated price of $5,000. To compare, that’s $150,000 today. Peter’s son was forced to leave his own baby son behind when he went north, because at the time of his emancipation, he didn’t have the money to buy him from his former master.

The story of Peter Still can teach us much about how the system of slavery oppressed even black Americans who had purchased or received their freedom. Peter Still himself managed to accumulate enough wealth to purchase his own freedom and his family’s as well. That’s no small feat for a man born as property, sold several times, and denied rights we all enjoy today. Peter Still should be regarded amongst the famous historical figures of our region for his incredible life story. It is important that stories such as these, of remarkable perseverance in the face of unfathomable odds, do not get overlooked. It is also important that we remember slavery as a system that compromised the freedom of black Americans whether they were free or enslaved, and whether they were residing in the South or in the North, as Peter Still demonstrates in his amazing struggle to gain his freedom—and to regain his family.

~Brian Murphy


Johnson, Kenneth R. “Peter Still, the Colbert County, Alabama, Slave Wo Bought His Freedom: A Slave Family’s Struggle For Freedom.” The Journal of Muscle Shoals History. Vol 6, 1978.

Pickard, Kate E.R. “The Kidnapped and the Ransomed.” Syracuse: William T. Hamilton, 1856.

Toplin, Robert Brent. “Peter Still Versus the Peculiar Institution.” Civil War History Vol 13 no. 4: 340-349.

Photo Credit: http://www.pbs.org/black-culture/shows/list/underground-railroad/stories-freedom/peter-stills-story/


Remembering the Thomas-Rapier Family

July 6, 2016


The story of the Thomas-Rapier family of Florence is an extraordinary one that deserves a more prominent place in our community. It is uniquely American and inspirational, a rare story of African American achievement and optimism in the antebellum South. Intending to research only James T. Rapier, a Reconstruction-era African American congressman from Florence, I discovered that the story of his family is truly unique and worthy of further research. There is a great need for antebellum African American heroic figures not only in Florence but throughout the nation. We need to recognize their unique achievements and celebrate these as part of our shared heritage.

The family’s patriarch, John Henry Thomas, was born in Albemarle County, Virginia. He was the son of slave master John Thomas and his slave Sally. Sally was taken to Nashville with John Thomas around 1818, along with her sons John (born 1808) and Henry (born 1809). In Nashville, Sally worked as a cleaning lady and was able to keep a portion of her earnings. Some slave owners would “hire out” their slaves on a short-term basis, but the profits from their labor typically went back to the slave owner. In some situations, a slave was allowed to keep a portion of the money they earned. With some of her saved money, Sally rented a house and established her own cleaning business, though most of her income went to her owner. In 1827, she had a third son named James whose father was Tennessee’s Chief Justice John C. Catron. Around this time, she arranged for eldest son John to be hired out to Richard Rapier, a merchant who travelled between Nashville and Florence. Sally is said to have known and trusted Rapier, and John became a waiter for Rapier on his barge and prairie schooners and followed him to his residence in Florence sometime in the 1820s.

We can only guess as to the nature of the relationship between John and Richard Rapier. Rapier was a wealthy and powerful merchant who built many large warehouses on the Tennessee River and was among the first successful businessmen in Florence. Rapier did much to establish Florence, which was situated on the unnavigable shoals, as an important port by transporting goods overland to Florence and then on to New Orleans via the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers. Apparently, John made an impression on Richard Rapier because in 1824 Rapier added a provision for John in his will: “I bequeath one thousand dollars to my executors for the purpose of purchasing the freedom of the mulatto boy, John, who now waits on me and who belongs to the Estate of Thomas.”

Richard Rapier died in 1826, and three years later the Alabama General Assembly passed a law emancipating John, who adopted Rapier’s surname. It required a law from the state legislative for a slave to manumitted in Alabama. After Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, these manumissions became far less frequent. Thus, John Henry Rapier became part of a small community of free blacks in Florence in the 1820s. He set up a barber shop on Court Street and was likely the only barber in town (for whites as well as blacks). In 1831, John Henry married a free black woman named Susan and the couple had four children together: Richard G (1831-1887), John H. Jr. (1835-1866), Henry (1836-1859), and James Thomas (1837-1883). Susan is said to have died in childbirth in 1841 along with two infant sons, Jackson and Alexander.

After Susan’s death, John purchased and married a slave woman name Lucretia with whom he fathered five more children, all born as slaves. Children inherited the status of their mother; had their mother been free and their father a slave, the children would have been born free. The details of the relationship aren’t known, but during this period John Henry was able to accumulate a significant amount of wealth. He owned a building on Court Street in Florence, a house on Cedar Street, as well as property in other parts of Alabama, and parcels of land in Canada and the Minnesota Territory. This was no small feat. Despite the considerable wealth accumulated by this man who was born as property, the odds of a freedman in Alabama living unmolested by the law were slim. There were frequent attempts to kidnap freedmen and sell them into slavery; often they were jailed, and as John Rapier describes, subject to higher taxes than whites. In this context, the wealth accumulated by Rapier is remarkable.

John’s brother Henry also found success as a barber. Having escaped slavery in Nashville, Henry made his way to Buffalo, New York where he established a successful barbershop in the basement of the Hotel Niagara. After the passage in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that citizens and officials in free states cooperate in returning escaped slaves to their original masters, Henry decided it was time to leave the “free” state of New York. In 1852, Henry moved his wife and eleven children to the black community of Buxton, Ontario. Buxton was established in 1849 by the Reverend William King and the Governor General of Canada, Lord Elgin as a land development project designed to provide affordable farmland for escaped American slaves.

John and Henry had a third brother named James, another successful barber and a slave in Nashville. John sent his four free children to school in Nashville between 1838 and 1846, where they stayed with their grandmother Sally and Uncle James. Slaves and free blacks were forbidden from attending school in Alabama, so John sent them to Tennessee.

James eventually won emancipation through a court petition in 1851. Before the Civil War had begun, all three of Sally Thomas’ sons were freedmen. But the family story continues. John Henry’s sons would benefit tremendously from the education they received while staying with their enslaved kinfolk in Tennessee.

John H. Rapier Jr. became a journalist in St. Paul Minnesota for several years before earning his M.D. at Iowa State University in Keokuk, IA and was appointed an army surgeon during the Civil War, one of only eight African Americans to occupy that position in the Union army.

James T. Rapier went to live with his uncle Henry in Canada where he attended the Buxton Mission School, which opened in 1850 and was taught by Rev. King. He then attended Montreal College in Montreal where he studied law. He also studied at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Upon returning to Canada he taught at the Buxton Mission School briefly before settling in Nashville in 1864. He purchased land in nearby Maury County, Tennessee and became a cotton planter.

In 1867 James served as vice chairman of the Alabama Republican Convention and was a delegate to the state constitutional convention that same year. The Republican party found sympathizers amongst former slaves, freedmen, loyal Unionists, northerners who moved south following the war, and some poor whites. Many freedmen joined the party of Lincoln hoping to gain civil rights (specifically voting rights) in the years immediately following the war. In 1868, James relocated to Montgomery after being chased from his home in Florence by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1870, he was chosen as the first president of the National Negro Labor Union, an organization set up to help freedmen farmers. He also ran for Alabama Secretary of State that same year but lost the election. In 1872, however, James was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving Alabama’s 2nd district. James was one of three African American congressmen elected during Reconstruction and spent his days in congress advocating for civil rights for African Americans. He proposed the creation of a land bureau to help former slaves settle land in Western states and territories and proposed legislation that would increase funds for public education in the South. He is known for proposing and securing legislation that enabled the port of Montgomery to become a federal customs collection site.

James lost his reelection campaign in 1874, likely to a rigged election (common among Southern Democrats in the Reconstruction era until the adoption of the 1901 state constitution). In 1878, he was appointed collector for the IRS for the 2nd district of Alabama, a position he would hold until his death in 1883 of pulmonary tuberculosis. His tenure in Congress may have been brief, but like Reconstruction itself, offered a brief glimpse of a brighter future for African Americans in Alabama. Unfortunately, it would take Alabama another hundred-some years before it elected another African American representative to Congress.

The lives of John Henry Rapier and his sons emphasize a world of luck and also determination. John Henry was lucky to be emancipated at the age of 21; his brother Henry was fortunate enough to escape to Canada; and fortune played a role in James’ eventual emancipation in 1851. But it was their exploitation of this luck that led them to successful lives for themselves and their children.  John Henry prospered in Florence, and was able to send four of his sons to college. A darker side of this saga is his recognition that he needed to send them away from Alabama in order for them to achieve success.

Consider the odds set against this family. Born into slavery and then eventually freed before the Civil War, the freedom of John Henry, John and James was still no guarantor of safety. Fearing jail, economic ruin due to higher taxes, and legal recapture or illegal kidnapping, these brothers not only survived, they thrived and prospered. John Henry also provided his children with an education, a difficult feat considering that education for all African Americans was illegal in their home state. His children took advantage of the opportunities afforded them through their education, and became successful in their fields. A truly inspirational group of individuals, the Thomas-Rapier family of Florence is worthy of further recognition.

~Brian Murphy


Derbes, Brett J. “James T. Rapier.” 7-2-2016. Encyclopedia of Alabama.
McDonald, William Lindsay. “Captain Rapier Made Florence Area Boom,” Times Daily (Florence, AL) 7-4-1976. p. 16.

“Negro Congressman was Florence Native.” Times Daily (Florence, AL) 12-3-1972. p. 10.Schweninger, Loren. “A Slave in the Ante Bellum South,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol 60 No. 1. (1975). Accessed 7-1-2016.  http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.una.edu/stable/pdf/2716792.pdf.

Schweninger, Loren. “The Dilemma of a Free Negro in the Ante Bellum South,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol 62 No. 3. (1977). Accessed 6-30-2016.

“James Thomas Rapier.” Buxton Museum.

Picture courtesy of: “James T. Rapier.” 7-5-2016. Encyclopedia of Alabama.


Florence’s Lost Cause

June 19, 2016


In the city of Florence at the Lauderdale County Courthouse, there is a monument memorializing the fallen soldiers of the Confederate States of America. It was built through the efforts of the Ladies Memorial Association in Florence and unveiled in April of 1903. It features a Confederate soldier in a private’s uniform, standing upon a base above the words “C.S.A 1861-1865, Deo Vindice.” Deo Vindice was the motto of the CSA, Latin for “God will vindicate.” Below this are the words “In Memory of the Confederate dead from Lauderdale County, Florence, Alabama.” Further below are the following inscriptions: “The manner of their death was the crowning glory of their lives,” and “Glory stands beside our grief.” The soldier is clearly done fighting; his knapsack is on the ground, and he is reattaching his bayonet, looking to go home, a somber look on his face.

As a northerner, I first dismissed this statue as Lost-Cause triumphalism, built by people who wanted to feel proud of their heritage. The Lost Cause of the Confederacy is the belief that many white southerners held around the turn of the 20th century that the Confederacy fought bravely against impossible odds. The “cause” of the war was righteous, but it was “lost” with the end of the Civil War. This ideology romanticizes the antebellum South, celebrating its virtues of chivalry, agriculture, and wealth while downplaying slavery, the very exploitation of black labor that made these virtues possible. Up north, there are many ethnic festivals celebrating the heritage of America’s diverse ethnic and racial groups. There are social clubs, statues to prominent members of a certain group, and some parts of my hometown have even erected street signs in the native language of that pocket’s inhabitants. Celebrating one’s heritage, however, is very different from these Lost Cause memorials, and we should be careful to distinguish between the two.

Heritage may be defined as the traditions or beliefs that are part of the history of a group or a nation. An Italian festival features cuisine and customs commonly associated with Italian-Americans in a celebration highlighting the uniqueness of Italian culture. Lost Cause memorials are both more complicated and more troubling than such a simple celebration of heritage. In order to celebrate the Confederacy, as this statue does, one must also celebrate its values, without which the Confederacy would have never existed: the righteousness of slavery and white supremacy. Some may argue that states’ rights to operate with autonomy from the federal government was another value, though this argument was also mobilized to legalize slavery and, later, Jim Crow in Southern states. Celebrating the Confederacy means celebrating these values; the two cannot be separated.

The statue’s location also sends a strong message about Florence’s investment in Lost Cause ideology. If the statue were simply a memorial to Confederate dead sitting in a cemetery, it would be far less problematic, but it sits outside of the city courthouse at the center of downtown Florence. Attaching the years of the CSA and its motto evokes a more sinister meaning. “God will vindicate” is a particularly noxious addition. The form of the statue itself connotes peace, but the words evoke darker imagery. The inscriptions on the shaft include a quotation found on many CSA monuments throughout the South and is attributed to Jefferson Davis, president of the CSA: “The manner of their death was the crowning glory of their lives.” Both inscriptions, including “Glory stands beside their grief,” indirectly glorify a cause that we now universally accept as unjust: the defense of slavery.

The monument raises an important question about history, ancestry, and heritage: can white southerners honor their dead without honoring the cause for which they died? The answer isn’t clear, but there are some alternatives. One can embrace a sense of heritage without distorting history to match one’s pride. We can find meaning in moving forward together as a region and as a nation, grappling to overcome past inequities. The Ladies Memorial Association chose to justify their pride in their heritage through a distortion of their own history, one in which the Confederate States of America was vanquished by the Union but vindicated by God. No monument to the horrors of slavery was erected. No acknowledgement of the cause of the war provided. No attempt to reconcile the past with the future. Just a monument to a de-contextualized lost cause, rooted deep in human bondage.

The monument is difficult to overlook: it stands next to arguably the most important civic building in Florence. Why not have the most important part of our heritage next to the most important building? Why not celebrate the city’s impact on early settlement in northern Alabama, it’s prehistoric settlement, or its complicated role during the Civil War? (The city actually changed hands between Union and Confederate troops more than 40 times during the war.) We could have celebrated its one-time industrial prowess or its ongoing impact on the American music scene. We could have celebrated the combined and complicated history of people of all races living in Florence.

It would be great to see a monument to the slaves of Lauderdale County, a visible reminder of the infrastructure that enabled the Confederacy to exist. This is unlikely to happen, and its equally unlikely that the current statue will come down. But perhaps the statue’s removal is not the best solution, either. The Confederacy existed; slavery existed; the Lost Cause interpretation of history existed (and still exists). We need to embrace it as a symbol of struggle and the triumph of American ideals over forced servitude and racial inequality. The legacy of slavery continues in this country and in our communities. The memorial is a visible reminder of that legacy; removing it will not remove the legacy.

Educating our community about the Confederacy, about our complicated history, and about how we might reappropriate the statue with a different understanding will help us all to reach a better understanding about history and move forward together. The Confederate States of America was a failed attempt at instituting and continuing anti-American principles in America. Its death was necessary, not just for slaves, but for our American principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to be realized. The CSA monument in front of the Lauderdale County courthouse is a reminder that our history is one that is not wholly on the side of freedom and liberty. It should serve as a reminder both of where we have been as a nation, and where we need to go.

~Brian Murphy

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