A Dream Becomes a Reality
A history of the West Alabama Heritage Learning Center and its relationship with the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society
March 1, 2017
The truth found in the poem “Strangers in the box in my sock drawer” sets the stage for this narrative.
Strangers in the box in my sock drawer
Come, look with me inside this drawer,
in this box I often see,
At the pictures, black and white,
faces proud, still, serene
I wish I knew the people,
these strangers in the box,
their names and all their memories
are lost among my socks.
I wonder what their lives were like,
How did they spend their days?
I’ll never know their ways.
If only someone had taken time
to tell who, what, where, or when,
These faces of my heritage
would come to life again.
Could this become the fate
of the pictures we take today?
The faces and the memories
someday to be passed away?
Make time to save your stories,
Seize the opportunity when it knocks,
Or someday you and yours could be…
The strangers in the box.
What is the West Alabama Heritage Learning Center (WAHLC)?
The WAHLC, located at 911 Main Avenue in downtown Northport, Alabama, is a facility that houses a large collection of historical and genealogical records. They are available to the public free of charge. The documents contain information about West Alabama, its people, places and events from the years the first pioneers settled in Tuscaloosa County, beginning circa 1815 and continuing until the twenty-first century.
What is the source of the research material?
The assemblage of personal records, photographs, maps, scrapbooks, reference books, newspapers, federal censuses, marriage records, genealogy records, letters, oral recordings, journals and other historical documents comes from several private collections. A great many of the documents come from the late Marvin Harper’s (1919-2009) collection. Harper, the “Dean and Patron” of heritage preservation in West Alabama, spent decades collecting, organizing and filing into labeled folders the referenced material.
In addition to Harper’s collection, the records of the late Lackey Stephens (1938-2016), a local historian, artist, genealogy researcher and restorer of old cemeteries are housed in the WAHLC. Stephens’ collection of genealogy records numbers in the tens of thousands and is the product of endless hours of research done over a lifetime. Of major importance are Stephens’ records of cemeteries, most notably the history the Old Northport Cemetery or the Robertson-Stone Cemetery, a burial site in Northport that saw its first burial, Catherine Murchison Findley, on November 20, 1821. The cemetery is estimated to contain over 1,000 graves, most of which are without headstones. Stephens was the key person responsible for the restoration of the long neglected burial ground in the early 2000s.
Carl Adams, the great, great grandson of William L. Adams, a man who arrived in Northport circa 1816, has spent countless hours gathering information about the area from archives, local and state, and other sources. Arguably, his collection is one of the best authenticated histories of Northport and its surrounding area prior to the Civil War. He has granted permission to the Learning Center to copy and/or scan his documents into its electronic record data base.
WAHLC will soon have much of the researched genealogy data prepared by the late Marie Rushing, another Northporter who dedicated much of her life to genealogy study. WAHLC welcomes additional collections of local history, both written and oral, from any member of the community.
What was the vision that led to the founding of WAHLC?
In 1950, Marvin Harper began a thirty-one year career as purchasing agent for the Southeast with the Reichold Chemical Corporation of Holt, Alabama. His travels took him throughout the South. As he drove by grand old antebellum homes of Greek revival, Classical revival, or Federal style architecture that were in deep decay and rapidly crumbling apart, his soul was deeply troubled. Not everything that touched his heart was of aristocracy status. There were abandoned shotgun three-room tenant houses covered with muscadine and blackberry vines and flanked by rusty old cars with yawning hoods and smashed windows lying abandoned around the houses. Yet in the midst of the bleakness that surrounded these structures, daffodil blooms in the spring and crape myrtle berries in summer irrevocably proclaimed, “Human life, though rickety, once existed here.”
Dotting the countryside, Harper saw little white-pine never-painted board churches. He was moved in spirit by one that had a decaying wood sign out front that read, “Mount Zion AME Holiness Church.” The sign was riddled with bullet holes, evidence of the sad truth local teenagers will even use sacred objects for target practice. Many graveyards were surrounded by rusty metal chains winding around graves marked only by a rock. Faded-by-age, scattered-by-wind, and soiled-by-mud, cheap plastic flowers decorated a few graves.
Harper began to dream of a way in which the story of that period could be preserved and passed on to seceding generations. The preservationist lay awake at nights and pondered by what means the stories of those grand antebellum homes, the shotgun tenant houses, and the abandoned churches and neglected graveyards could be preserved. He was convinced that the present is robbed of its potential and the future is sabotaged if a written record of the past is not bequeathed to subsequent generations. Heritage preservation not only fosters appreciation for one’s ancestors, it also safeguards documents that tell the story of the past epic events such as wars, disasters, industrialization and the rise and fall of civilizations. Such record-keeping also illustrates the mundane activities of common folk who existed in relative obscurity. They, too, have a powerful story to tell.
During the 1950s, Harper was merely a troubled observer as he saw the South increase its demolition of beautiful historic structures. There was little he could do. But, in the early 1960s that changed; the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society (TCPS) was birthed.
Marvin Harper’s association with the TCPS and his dream of establishing a learning center, now known as the West Alabama Heritage Learning Center, are so intertwined it is necessary to present a few details regarding the TCPS before continuing our story of the WAHLC.
The Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society
In the early 1950s, two events occurred that led ultimately to the building of WAHLC. They were: (1) The TCPS was birthed, and Marvin Harper served as its president for many years; (2) a historic stagecoach inn, The Old Tavern, slatted for destruction in downtown Tuscaloosa was saved. The 1827 stagecoach inn, in serious disrepair, was located on its original building site on Broad Street, now University Boulevard, in downtown Tuscaloosa just a couple of blocks from the old Alabama capitol ruins. The reason for the impending destruction of the decaying historic structure was that it rested on the exact piece of land upon which a new highway, Lurleen Wallace Boulevard West, was to be built. Harper was determined to save that building by relocating and restoring it, but he had to have help—the creation of a local historical preservation society.
No preservation society existed in Tuscaloosa/Northport at the time. However, it must be noted that a loosely-knit nucleus of Tuscaloosa scholars—Dr. James Fletcher Doster and Dr. Charles Summersell, both nationally respected historians and professors in the Department of History at the University of Alabama, Mr. Matt Clinton, Tuscaloosa historian and Superintendent of Tuscaloosa City Schools, and Harper met informally from time to time to discuss local history and preservation, but the group did not want to incorporate. As a result, Harper went about the task from a new approach.
In the mid-1960s, Harper and about six others met in the home of Mrs. Margaret McCain to discuss the formation of a local historical society. This meeting was the spark that later resulted in the formation of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society. Harper was elected the Society’s first president, a position he held for many years. His became the leading voice in the preservation of many beautiful Tuscaloosa antebellum homes including: the Battle-Friedman House; the Jemison House; the McGuire-Strickland House; the Moody-Warner House; the Collier-Boone-Grimes House; the Murphy-Collins House.
The organization formed by Harper’s group in the mid 1960s had no official bond to a local governing body. Its fund-raising efforts were confined to private donations, garage sales, and such events as bake sales. These were grossly inadequate for the task at hand. Grant-money from foundations—private, state, and federal—was the key to financial success, and in order to apply for grant-money, a municipal authority was necessary. When approached, local governmental officials were receptive to the idea.
The West Alabama Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors, upon its Capitol Park Development Committee’s recommendation, urged the Tuscaloosa City Commission to create a Historical Preservation Authority. On May 7, 1970, Mayor Snow Hinton announced such a body had been formed. The following individuals served on the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Authority’s first board of directors: J. Clemson Duckworth. (Mr. Duckworth had served as Chairman of the Chamber’s Capitol Park Development Committee in 1969); Marvin Harper, President of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society; Jack Warner, Chamber President 1963-1964; John M. Puryear, Probate Judge; Lewis McCray, Director of Areas Council of Local Government for the Chamber; Mrs. James (Gray) Boone, Jr.
With Harper as chairman and Mrs. Boone as secretary, the Authority went to work immediately, but it was recognized that the Authority needed official sanction by the state legislature. Alabama State Senator Bill McCain, husband of Margaret McCain, was asked to develop a state enabling-act that would create such an organization in Tuscaloosa County. He did; House Act 685 was approved August 30, 1973. It subsequently was approved by the Alabama Senate and signed by the governor.
The Tuscaloosa County Preservation Authority Board met periodically at various locations, primarily in available unoccupied older homes. It accomplished a great deal, and by 1980, the preservation movement in Tuscaloosa County, and throughout Alabama, had grown extensively. However, the passage of time and experience in heritage-preservation matters had shown that the Authority’s power needed strengthening. In response, Alabama House Act 1083, an Act relating to Tuscaloosa County, was introduced in the legislature and stated: “… to promote educational, cultural, economic, and the general welfare of the public and of the county through the preservation and promotion of buildings, sites, structures, areas, and districts of historic interest; through the maintenance of such as landmarks in the history of architecture, of the state and of the nation; through the development of appropriate settings for such buildings, sites, structures, areas and districts, and through the benefits resulting to the economy of the county in developing and maintaining its vacation-travel through the promotion of these historic associations.” The act was passed by the Alabama Legislature and signed by Governor Fob James on May 28, 1980. At the time, Mobile County was the only other county in Alabama to have a state approved preservation commission.
As a result of Act 1083, the name, Tuscaloosa County Preservation Authority, was changed to Tuscaloosa County Preservation Commission in 1980. The three local governments in Tuscaloosa County—the City of Northport, the City of Tuscaloosa, and Tuscaloosa County—were asked to participate in the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Commission, each local body appointing a designate number from their local government.
The first board of directors included: Rodger Anders, Mary Helen Andres, John Boles, Joe Allen Brown, Pat Cardinal, Linda Craig, Jim Fitts, Beasley S. Hendrix, Dayton Hale, Martha Ellen Johnson, Earl Kelly, Lewis McCray, Harry Pritchett, and Joe Shirley. Gregg Free was named as executive secretary of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Authority
Turning again to the vision of a heritage learning center in Northport, Harper’s health was failing and worsened by near-blindness in the late 1990s. Since the 1970s, the never-married collector had owned and lived in Historic Shirley Place, also known as the George Christian House, an 1838 raised-cottage antebellum structure on Main Street in downtown Northport. The house was beautifully furnished with antiques he had collected over a lifetime. Being benevolent and generous of spirit, he willed his entire estate to the City of Northport, with the understanding that his house would remain open in perpetuity for tours, free of charge to the public. He had envisioned a heritage and learning center to be constructed on the rear lawn of Historic Shirley Place. A non-profit corporation, the Shirley Place Foundation, Inc., a tax-exempt 501 C3 organization, was created to oversee the building and management of a learning center. In the process of drawing up plans to build a facility at Shirley Place, numerous problems arose—inadequate space, inaccessibility, environmental issues, and prohibitive cost. However, the Shirley Place Foundation Inc. remained dedicated to Harper’s vision and pursued other alternatives. Over a several-year period, the Shirley Place Foundation Board solicited funds, and in September 2015 it purchased a charmingly beautifully restored early 1900s house at 911 Main Avenue in downtown Northport. Since that time, tireless effort on the part of the board has moved Harper’s collection of documents into the new facility and has begun the arduous and lengthy task of preparing the Center to allow the public to avail itself of its rich resources.
What can I do at the Learning Center?
First, one may research the history of the men and women who make up the ancestry of today’s Alabamians, starting with the North American Indians. Beginning circa 1815, sturdy pioneers began making their way into West Alabama. Among other documents, WAHLC has thousands of personal letters, diaries, news articles, photographs, genealogy records, Bible records, federal censuses, tax records and other documents that tell the story of this area from the time the first settlers arrived until the present day.
Second, one may research past events that occurred in West Alabama and throughout the South. The Learning Center has a large collection of newspaper articles, history related journals, letters, diaries, local club minutes and other documents that tell the stories of floods, fires, river tragedies, public elections, local businesses, crimes, weddings, funerals and other topics.
Some documents will be available to researchers for firsthand examination. Deterioration of other documents will prevent firsthand examination. In those instances and if the physical condition of the document allows, WAHLC personnel will be available to make copies for researchers for a reasonable charge per page. In-house WAHLC computers will be available to researchers at no charge.
LOCATION OF DOCUMENTS
Bookshelves in the Center’s library contain hundreds of books whose subjects include—Alabama history, antiques, architecture, Christianity and the Christian church, the Civil War, Colonial America, encyclopedias, French literature and history, genealogy, health, English and American literature, memoirs, newspapers, the City of Northport, preservation, schools, the South, Tuscaloosa County including many rural communities, the City of Tuscaloosa, and the United States. Many of the books are classics, long out of print. A complete inventory and location of each item has been entered into the Center’s computer system.
In addition to books, the library room has many journals related to local, regional, and national history, preservation, and antiques. Several collections of family genealogy research by area families are present, as is a collection of Blue Whites (the Tuscaloosa County High School student-produced school newspaper) issues dating to the 1940s.
Over a forty-year span, Marvin Harper collected and saved thousands of news articles about West Alabama that were published in local newspapers. These articles are filed in folders arranged alphabetically starting with A and ending with Z. As an example, the folders filed under A include: agriculture; Alabama cadets at the University of Alabama during the Civil War; Alabama National Register Properties; Alabama Preservation Alliance; Alabama in the 1830s, As Recorded by British Travelers; Alabama legislators from Tuscaloosa County; Alabama “State of Elections”; The Almanac (dating to 1851); American Preservation; Alabama Main Street News; American Legion military graves; antiques; archeology; architecture; antiques and interior furnishings; armory; Northport “art nite”; Alabama artists; Avenue of Flags; Alabama governors from Tuscaloosa County prior to 1930.
In addition to documents relating to places and events, other files contain articles regarding local people. Over three hundred families are listed alphabetically. A typical example is that of Reverend Benjamin Franklin (B. F.) Atkins. Documents filed in his folder include: “Retired as pastor of Northport Baptist Church in 1958 after thirty (30) years of service”; Friends of Historic Northport Newsletter (FHN) November 2003 issue; a book, Today Ain’t Yesterday, written by Atkins; news articles; his robe was donated to FHN museum; photographs; biography of Atkins; The Northport Baptist Beacon for September 3, 1974; obituary for Atkins.
The room of miscellaneous items.
Items stored in the middle room upstairs consist of a hodgepodge of items including:
- Old newspapers
- Friends of Historic Northport documents: FHN By-laws; publications; annual luncheon programs and speakers; dedication of Northport Heritage Museum; photographs; Dickens programs; all issues of FHN Newsletters 1997-2005.
- Photographs, paintings, drawings and etchings
- Scrapbooks and yearbooks
- Marriages (112) from 1948-1960
- Sons of the American Revolution—(thirty folders) membership lists dating to 1903, minutes from SAR annual conferences
- Toastmasters—(seventeen folders) membership lists, guest speakers, programs and etchings
- Annual Pilgrimages of Homes 1967-1975
- Sketches of the Battle Friedman House-100 plus copies
- Portfolio of Col. John McKee, first land office registrar for Tuscaloosa 1821–seventy five copies.
- The Old Tavern—100 plus copies
- Individual photos of: unnamed individuals; football in the 1980s played adjacent to Denny Chimes; Mary Griffin Johns; Jim Nabors; Dr. Palmer Nivens; Lula October 28, 1902; Stella and Thomas.
- An album of pictures and related articles of Marvin Harper’s induction into and service in the U. S. Army, including the letter he received ordering him to report to Dr. J. L. Booth, Sr. for his pre-draft physical. Many of the pictures are unlabeled and are in great shape; the album itself is literally falling apart. A new album needs to be made.
- Two albums of Harper’s personal pictures.
- A folder of miscellaneous pictures: the Black Warrior River Bridge; Bryce Hospital; Mrs. Ellen’s residence; Central Female College; Alabama Capitol in Montgomery prior to the Civil War; Christ Episcopal Church 1899; Confederate veterans early 1900; Forkland School in Coker 1892; Golden Cross Band; Greensboro Avenue in Tuscaloosa 1850; Dr. George Little 1838-1924; Livingston Alabama (several pictures); Maxwell-Richardson house; McLester Hotel; picture of downtown Tuscaloosa 1960s; president’s mansion at UA; Smallwood Boots and Shoes; Tuscaloosa City Hall; Tuscaloosa County scenes 1930s (three); Tuscaloosa County Board of Education building; Tuskaloosa Female College and Park; 1996 reenactment of an April 1865 wedding interrupted by Union troops.
- A box of loose photos—some local, some from Marvin Harper’s travels (almost none are labeled). Many color slides.
- A folder with: Northport’s Barnes and Norris Gin built between 1861 and 1880; Northport downtown back street; Northport Bell Drug Store; Northport bridge 1887 etching; Northport Christian home; Northport Clements house built 1820; Northport flood 1916.
- A folder containing photos of: Cliff Atkinson; Cochrane home; Mrs. Etta Davis and a singing group; an envelope containing pictures of —Dr. James T. Searcy’s home 2604 8th Street; several Searcy family and Johnston family members; downtown Tuscaloosa with trolley car; First Presbyterian Church; an envelop containing 4 pictures of a group of black men dressed in coats and hats listening to a speaker; Governor Albert Brewer and Tuscaloosa Mayor George van Tassel; Gail Majors; Federated Club president, one of which is Betty Barnett .
- Miscellaneous—Greensboro Ave. 1850; Tuscaloosa Female College and Park; Sarah White collection.
- The Lackey Stephens genealogy collection—a marvelous assemblage.
When did the Learning Center open to the public?
An open house occurred Sunday afternoon, October 9, 2016. The event allowed the public to tour the facility and get a firsthand explanation of the Center’s mission—“. . . to provide a research facility that contains thousands of books, journals, magazines, newspapers, personal diaries and letters, photographs, scrapbooks, recordings of oral history, and genealogy collections about the people, places, and events that compose the history of West Alabama.”
The Learning Center opened to the public for research on Thursday, January 5, 2017. However, there remains much work to do in organizing documents and scanning. All work is done by volunteers.
Why was the opening date several weeks later than the open house celebration?
As noted earlier, the dream for a learning center dates back many years. However, it was only in September 2015 that sufficient funds were raised to purchase a suitable and affordable building. Noteworthy is the fact that the dream for developing WAHLC has at no time lay dormant since the death of Marvin Harper in 2009. Throughout the period 2009-2015 a volunteer worked tirelessly to inventory and record documents, books, journals, letters, scrapbooks and photographs. As with any newly organized facility such as the West Alabama Heritage Learning Center, the Center has experienced “birthing pains,” not the least of which was the untimely death of Lackey Stephens, Chairman of the Board of Directors, on February 17, 2016. The construction of a website, training volunteers to staff the facility, scanning documents, and attending to other details led to the delay.
How will the public become aware of the resources available at the Learning Center? The process began with open house on October 9, 2016. The Center seeks to inform school teachers, principals, and parents of school children of its presence and resources. School children have toured and are welcomed to tour the facility and hear a brief age-appropriate lecture about local history. Public tours of the facility and regularly scheduled lectures about local history, preservation efforts, genealogy and other topics will be given for all members of the community. Articles in local newspapers and interviews by local television and radio personalities continue inform the public of the Center’s presence. As always, word-of-mouth is very effective in getting information disseminated. The partnership between WAHLC and TCPS hopefully will allow the Learning Center access to the multiple communication channels already in place through the Preservation’s website and personnel.
What does the Learning Center offer to accommodate social functions?
The first floor rooms, beautifully restored and furnished with lovely antiques, can accommodate social events—small weddings, after rehearsal dinners, club meetings, seminars, receptions, and other social events—whose number of attendees number less than fifty people. The facility has a fully furnished kitchen—refrigerator, stove, microwave and dishwasher, all immediately adjacent to the back door and at ground level. This is an ideal arrangement for caterers. A wood handicap ramp is located off the rear parking lot to accommodate wheelchairs. Two handicapped restrooms—ladies and gentlemen—are present. The large front porch is an ideal location for a bar setup or for tables. NOTE: alcoholic beverages are not permitted on the premises. The parking lot can accommodate a free-standing tent. Rental fees will be competitive with other facilities in the area. The site is convenient to downtown Northport and downtown Tuscaloosa. Nearby parking is available, and the property is well-lighted at night.
What is the relationship between the Learning Center and other local preservation, genealogical, and historic organizations?
The close association of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society and WAHLC is noted earlier. The partnership continues. Ian Crawford, current president of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society (TCPS) is a member of the WAHLC board of directors. His strategic position in both organizations will assist in allowing TCPS and WAHLC to complement each other and to share data bases, be linked by websites and utilize resources and personnel.
The Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society has set tours of the homes it manages—the Jemison Van de Graaff House, the Old Tavern, the Murphy Collins House, the Drish House and others. WAHLC’s partnership with the TCPS will allow the Learning Center to be added to the list of houses that are open for touring.
Under capable administration and with adequate funding, the future of WAHLC is filled with promise. Few areas have comparable resources freely and readily available to its citizens. As Marvin Harper so wisely said, “The present is robbed of its potential and the future is sabotaged if a written record of the past is not bequeathed to subsequent generations.”