Local Black history makers

By: Tori Bailey

Owner of WZZA

For The Tuscumbian

I put together a list of local Black history makers which we use on WZZA during February that you may find interesting or useful.

Related fact:  The first group of Blacks in the state of Alabama who voted did so in the Shoals area city of Tuscumbia, Alabama.

 Two of the first two African Americans to be elected to the congress of the United States were both born in the Shoals in Florence, Lauderdale County, Alabama, one in each century.

James Thomas Rapier, born a free Black man on November 13, 1837, was elected to the 43rd Congress, the 10th Black man to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.  Prior to that election, Rapier was educated by private tutors in Alabama and studied in Canada; studied law and was admitted to the bar; taught school; returned to the South and traveled as a correspondent for a northern newspaper; became a cotton planter in Alabama in 1865; appointed a notary public by the Governor of Alabama in 1866; member of the first Republican convention held in Alabama and was a member of the committee that framed the platform; member of the State constitutional convention at Montgomery in 1867; appointed assessor of internal revenue in 1871; appointed State commissioner to the Vienna Exposition by the Governor of Alabama in 1873; commissioner on the part of the United States to the World’s Fair in Paris; elected as a Republican to the Forty-third Congress (March 4, 1873-March 3, 1875).  He returned to Florence after the Civil War.  He was also appointed Collector of Internal Revenue for the Second District of Alabama on August 8, 1878 and held that position until his death of heart disease May 31, 1883 in Montgomery, Alabama.  He is interred in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Mo.   During his tenure in congress, he expressed concern about qualified teachers, civil rights for workers on public carriers, and was known as a labor organizer who attempted to unionize Black farmers.

(sources:  http://www.findagrave.com;   http://bioguide.congress.gov

Bibliography:  Feldman, Eugene Pieter Romayn. Black Power in Old Alabama: The Life and Stirring Times of James Rapier, Afro-American Congressman from Alabama, 1839-1883. Chicago: Museum of African-American History, 1968; Schweninger, Loren. James T. Rapier and Reconstruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.; Schweninger, Loren. “Rapier, James Thomas.” In Dictionary of American Negro Biography, edited by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, pp 514-15. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1982.

Oscar Stanton DePriest, born in Florence, Lauderdale County, Ala., on March 9, 1871, was an American lawmaker and civil rights advocate.   He was the first Black Congressman of the 20th century.

De Priest moved with his parents to Kansas in 1878, and was raised in Saline where he attended the public schools and Salina (Kans.) Normal School.  After working as a painter and decorator, De Priest moved to Chicago in 1889, where he became a successful businessman as a real estate broker. From 1904-1908 he was a member of the board of commissioners of Cook County, Illinois, and then served on the Chicago City Council from 1915-1917.

In 1928, he became the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century, representing the 1st Congressional District of Illinois (the South Side of Chicago) as a Republican to the Seventy-first and to the two succeeding Congresses (March 4, 1929-January 3, 1935). During his three consecutive terms (1928-1935) as the only black representative in Congress.  De Priest introduced several anti-discrimination bills. His 1933 amendment barring discrimination in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Roosevelt. A second anti-lynching bill failed, even though it would not have made lynching a federal crime. A third proposal, a bill to permit a transfer of jurisdiction if a defendant believed he or she could not get a fair trial because of race or religion, would be passed by another Congress in another era.  He resumed the real estate business, was vice chairman of the Cook County Republican central committee 1932-1934; and a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1936.

Civil rights activists criticized De Priest for opposing federal aid to the needy, but they applauded him for speaking in the South despite death threats. They also praised De Priest for telling an Alabama senator he was not big enough to prevent him from dining in the Senate restaurant and for defending the right of Howard University students to eat in the House restaurant. De Priest took the House restaurant issue to a special bipartisan House committee. In a three month-long heated debate, the Republican minority argued that the restaurant’s discriminatory practice violated 14th Amendment rights to equal access. The Democratic majority skirted the issue by claiming that the restaurant was not open to the public, and the House restaurant remained segregated. De Priest was defeated in 1934 by Democrat Arthur W. Mitchell, who was also an African American. He was again elected to the Chicago city council in 1943 and served until 1947.  De Priest died in Chicago, Illinois on May 12, 1951 interment in Graceland Cemetery.

Source:  Bibliography:  Day, S. Davis. “Herbert Hoover and Racial Politics: The De Priest Incident.” Journal of Negro History65 (Winter 1980): 6-17; Rudwick, Elliott M. “Oscar De Priest and the Jim Crow Restaurant in the U.S. House of Representatives.” Journal of Negro Education 35 (Winter 1966): 77-82.

FAMOUS BLACK PEOPLE OF THE SHOALS

1.      Robert “Bob Carl” Bailey (Leighton):  the first licensed Black Radio Station owner in northwest Alabama and later in Selma, Alabama; one of the first African-American radio announcers in Shoals; one of the first Black music retailers (owner of three record stores); the first Black television talk show host in northwest Alabama (“Sunday In The Shoals” on WOWL-TV); one of the first Black automobile dealers in the Shoals; the first Black policeman hired in Huntsville, Alabama, and later the first Black Chief of Police for the City of Triana, Alabama; the first President of the Shoals Area Business Association; and one of the first Black men to be appointed by an Alabama Governor to head the Small Business Administration;

 2.      Arthur Alexander (Sheffield):  affectionately known by his friends as “June” who topped the musical charts with songs such as “You Better Move On” and “Sharing The Night Together”. 

3.      Milton Beltcher: (Elba, Alabama) brother of Minister Joyce Johnson (of Tuscumbia) was one of the first black Judges in Alabama.

4.      Mr. Otis Boddie, UNA Basketball great who went on to play professional ball.  His daughter, Whitney, also played professional basketball.

5.      Ouida Brown, Esquire (Tuscumbia):  first Black female from Tuscumbia attorney to practice in the Shoals.

6.      Mr. Herman Bulls, Graduate Of Westpoint Military Academy.   Served as a Trustee

7.      Homer & Edward Coke (brothers), were the first black attorneys in the Shoals area, set up office in Florence. (Note: They were not originally from the area.)

8.      Dr. Millard Coker: one of the first black dentists in the Shoals Area.

9.      James Cole (Florence):  attorney from Florence who served as President of the Black Trial Lawyers Association. Currently an Executive representing the Miami Dolphins Football Team.

10.  Michael Coleman (Florence):  Black Attorney who went on to become Chief Attorney for the City of Atlanta, Georgia. 

11.  Ronald Collier (Florence):  Was the first from the Shoals area to run the four minute mile and a record holding all-state track and field.  Returned to the Shoals to work as an advocate for Black men in the court system.  He founded the Fatherhood Initiative program. 

12.  Oscar Stanton DePriest, born in Florence on March 9, 1871, was an American lawmaker and civil rights advocate who was the first Black Congressman of the 20th century. He moved to Chicago, where he became a successful businessman as a real estate broker, was a member of the board of commissioners of Cook County, Illinois, and served on the Chicago City Council from 1915-1917.  In 1928, he became the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century, representing the 1st Congressional District of Illinois as a Republican. During his three consecutive terms (1928-1935) as the only Black representative in Congress, De Priest introduced several anti-discrimination bills. His 1933 amendment barring discrimination in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Roosevelt.  A third proposal, a bill to permit a transfer of jurisdiction if a defendant believed he or she could not get a fair trial because of race or religion, would be passed by another Congress in another era.  Civil rights activists criticized De Priest for opposing federal aid to the needy, but they applauded him for speaking in the South despite death threats. They also praised him for telling an Alabama senator he was not big enough to prevent him from dining in the Senate restaurant and for defending the right of Howard University students to eat in the House restaurant. He was again elected to the Chicago city council in 1943 and served until 1947.  De Priest died in Chicago, Illinois on May 12 1951.

13.  John Douglas:  A graduate of Colbert County High School in 1974 who attended the University of Kansas State and was drafted into the NBA by the San Diego Clippers. 

14.  Leon Douglas:  graduate of Colbert County High School who later attended the University of Alabama where he excelled in basketball, which led to him to be drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 1976. 

15.  Joe Duster (Florence) became the first Black fire fighter and first Black driver engineer, first Black Lieutenant, and the first Black fire inspector. Then later the first Black engineer for the Alabama Department of Transportation.

16.  Byron Franklin (Sheffield):  a star player who played for both the Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills football teams. 

17.  Lt. Col. Arthur Graves (Tuscumbia):  graduate of Trenholm High School and Tuskegee Institute (University) who now owns and operates Thompson & Son Funeral Home.  

18.  Rev. James T. Hampton:  Shoals area Civil rights activist who worked and traveled with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He, along with his family, owned several businesses. 

19.  John Hampton:  business owner and entrepreneur who with his family owned hotels, restaurants, and various other businesses.  He became a peanut roaster extraordinaire, after being shown the art of roasting peanuts by Dr. George Washington Carver, and as a result became known throughout the Shoals as the “Peanut Man”. 

20.  William Christopher Handy (Florence): known internationally as the Father of the Blues. Was the first to set Black (or Race) music to sheet music. Founded Handy Brothers Music (which still operates in New York). 

21.  Arlan Poole Hayes, Burell Slater Graduate who became a Tuskegee “RedTail” Airman. 

22.  Dr. Leonard J. Hicks (Florence):  the first black doctor in the Shoals area to practice medicine in the white hospitals. Dr. Hicks Blvd in Florence is named after him.

23.  Jimmy Hughes:  one of the catalysts for the Shoals area becoming known as the “Hit Recording Capital of the World” with his hit song “Steal Away”.  At the time that the song charted, and then was promoted by ViJay Records, Hughes outsold the Beatles. 

24.  Paul Johnson (Tuscumbia) member of the early developed Tuscumbia Utilities Board, retired from TVA.  Has a street name after him in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

25.  W. H. Lewis (Florence): attended University of Alabama, graduated from Morehouse University and served as Principal of Burrell Slater School in Florence. 

26.  William Liner owned the first Black Shoals area Newspaper, which was called “Shoals News Leader”.

27.  Wiley Mullins:  creator of Uncle Wiley’s seasoning, which can today be found nationally on local grocery store shelves, and author of two books about delicious, healthy eating.

28.  Ozzie Newsome:  graduated from Colbert County High School 1974, then attended the University of Alabama before being drafted the Cleveland Browns in 1978 where he played his entire NFL career.  Today serves as general manager of the Baltimore Ravens. 

29.  Robert Penchion:  won the super bowl along with his NFL team The San Francisco 49ers. 

30.  Dr. Ann Roy-Moore (Florence) former Superintendent of Huntsville City School System. 

31.  James Thomas Rapier, born a free Black man on November 13, 1837 in Florence, was the 10th Black man ever to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.  Educated by private tutors in Alabama and studied in Canada; he studied law and was admitted to the bar; taught school; traveled as a correspondent for a northern newspaper; became a cotton planter in Alabama in 1865; appointed a notary public by the Governor of Alabama in 1866; member of the first Republican convention held in Alabama; appointed assessor for internal revenue in 1871; appointed State commissioner to the Vienna Exposition by the Governor of Alabama in 1873; represented the United States at the World’s Fair in Paris; elected as a Republican to the Forty-third Congress.  He returned to Florence after the Civil War, was appointed Collector of Internal Revenue for the Second District of Alabama on August 8, 1878 and held that position until his death May 31, 1883 in Montgomery, Alabama. 

32.  Willie Ruff (Florence):  Jazz Musician and Professor at Yale University, who conceived and then co-founded the annual W.C. Handy Music Festival in honor of another Florence native, William Christopher Handy.

33.  Dr. W.H. Ruffin (Sheffield):  he was one of the first black doctors in Sheffield, Alabama.

34.  Percy Sledge (Leighton):  recording artist and performer who was employed at Colbert County Hospital before he gained international acclaim with his recording of the hit song “When A Man Loves A Woman”.  His recording career resulted in international stardom.

 35.  Bennett Walker Smith (Florence): nationally known Pastor and evangelist who recorded several sermons including one titled “Watch them Dogs”.  He was also a political activist who worked with Jesse Jackson, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. 

36.  PB Swoops:  one of the first black businessmen in the Shoals area with crossover success when he opened Swoops Dry Cleaners and Tailor shop.   (His daughter, Deloris Swoops Nash became a teacher and successful a local playwright who wrote “Determined, The Life of W.C. Handy”, which is a staple of the annual Handy Festival.)

 37.  Ruthie Jackson Taylor (Leighton):  a graduate of Alabama A&M then Cornell University. One of the first Black attorneys of the Shoals area.  Also, according to her former teacher, Mr. S. N. Nance, she was a very talented basketball player at Leighton Training School.

38.  Hattie Thompson (Florence):  owned and operated Mucko Beauty College for over forty years, one of the first Black owned beauty and cosmetology schools in the Shoals. 

39.  Nicholas Vinson (Town Creek):  champion at Hazelwood and R.A. Hubbard who played for thirty-three years, coaching football and girls basketball, winning three championships.  He started under Clyde Goode.

40.  Edward West:  Leighton football star who graduated from Colbert County High School in 1979, played at the University of Auburn for four years and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1983, where he played his entire NFL career until his retirement.

41.  Willie Woods (Rogersville):  played for the New Orleans Saints.

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One Response to Local Black history makers

  1. Martha Staley says:

    These are interesting persons mentioned above. Some I had heard of, others I had not.
    So glad Mr. Willie Ruff had the idea to pay a tribute to Mr. W.C. Handy.

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