We are highlighting Selma, Alabama this month in the Good Towns series. Spotlighting special towns across the country, Good Towns is about the character, the history, the people and the unique things that make a town a special place.
Sturdivant Hall stands against time. Located on a tree-lined neighborhood street, with sidewalks straight out of 20th Century Americana, this Greek Revival mansion and museum reminds you of a bygone era. Yet it’s very much part of Selma’s here and now. Although built in 1856, it’s still the fashionable place to host a 2018 wedding reception or anniversary party.
And, like much of Selma, it has a legendary attachment to ghosts.
Renowned folklorist Kathryn Tucker Windham wrote 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey in 1969, and it remains a staple among Alabama schoolchildren today. Her tales included “The Return of the Ruined Banker,” about a man who haunted the majestic home after his death. The book lovingly covers apparitions across the state, but begins in Selma and the Windham family home where the blithe spirit Jeffrey made playful contact with everyone through footsteps in empty rooms and appearances in shadowy photographs.
Ghosts aside, Selma is very much alive and well, making for the perfect day trip. Its history is varied, and some of it difficult, yet the community’s ability to confront and embrace its past provides vivid lessons for all.
Marble and Moss Memories
Moss hangs and gently sways from the old trees that gave Old Live Oak Cemetery its name when founded in 1829, just 10 years after the state of Alabama was admitted to the Union. Sandwiched off West Dallas Avenue, a short jog from downtown, this gorgeous tribute to prior generations is otherworldly, yet serene. It’s a good place to get away from the hustle of 21st Century life (for the inhabitants only speak through the stone monuments left behind).
Visitors will tell you that you have travel to New Orleans to find a resting spot that’s equally majestic. There are markers and statues, many made of Sylacauga marble, that provide elaborate glimpses into Selma’s past.
This is the final resting spot of William Rufus King, the only Alabamian to hold the nation’s second-highest executive office. A former diplomat and U.S. Senator, King’s tenure as vice president lasted just 45 days. Stricken by tuberculosis, he was inaugurated in Havana, Cuba, due to his poor health, and served the shortest term in American history. He remains the only vice president to take the oath on foreign soil.
Unable to recover, he returned to his Chestnut Hill estate, where he took his final breath. A historical marker notes King’s resting place in the family mausoleum.
Buried nearby are other dignitaries, including former judges, soldiers, civic leaders and politicians, including Rep. Benjamin S. Turner, an African-American elected to Congress during Reconstruction.
Another notable burial site honors Elodie Todd Dawson, the sister-in-law of President Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-sister. Her husband honored her memory with an expensive sculpture from Italy.
Bridging the Past
Edmund Pettus, who is buried at Live Oak, fought in the Civil War and served the state as a U.S. Senator, but he was also the Grand Wizard of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. He remains a controversial figure and is the namesake for Selma’s most iconic structure.
The Edmund Pettus bridges spans the Alabama River, providing a 250-foot link into downtown Selma. The steel arch structure includes a steep climb from the business district to match the higher bluff on the other side.
In March 1965, it was the site of Bloody Sunday. As protesters began a long march to Montgomery in support of civil rights, innocent men, women and children were attacked by Alabama state troopers armed with billy clubs and tear gas. Included among the marchers was a future Congressman, John Lewis, one of 17 people who sustained serious injuries.
The moment was captured on live television and shocked a nation.
Two weeks later, Lewis and hundreds of others returned, this time with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and, protected by the National Guard, successfully marched 54 miles to the Alabama state capitol.
From the second floor of the Selma Interpretive Center, visitors can see the 78-year-old bridge, yet the view from within this interactive museum is even more startling. Just a few feet away from the large windows stands a mural showing state troopers blocking the bridge as life-size figures representing an African-American husband, wife and two children approach the gauntlet. The father carries an American flag.
The Selma Interpretive Center is part of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Located at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, it provides a timeline to events that created history, beginning with the tragic shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Vietnam War veteran and church deacon slain by a law enforcement officer while merely protecting his mother and grandfather at a local restaurant.
Jackson’s death served as the catalyst for the original Selma to Montgomery march: “I’m going to Montgomery to see (Gov. George) Wallace,” said the Rev. James Bevel at the time.
Yet the march would represent much more. It galvanized national support, shined light on racial inequality in the Deep South and led to passage of the Voting Rights Act.
The 50th anniversary of the march led to the return of Lewis, who was joined by scores of other dignitaries, including President Barrack Obama and President George W. Bush, in a ceremonial crossing of the bridge.
On an overcast winter’s day, the bridge is busy again. Traffic has been reduced to one lane as a group of tourists on a historic outing from Pennsylvania make the crossing together. They are diverse in age, race and gender.
And so is downtown Selma, which bustles with activity and people, many of whom know the bridge’s infamy and appreciate the Selma of today, which is a much different place.
The stately St. James Hotel still anchors the downtown district. Built in 1837 overlooking the Alabama River, one-time owner Benjamin Sterling Turner welcomed influential guests from all over, including outlaw brothers Frank and Jesse James.
As legend goes, it’s haunted. One of the apparitions is of Jesse James’ girlfriend, Lucinda, whose presence is noted by a hint of lavender left in her wake. There have also been reports of a man dressed in 19th Century attire. He has been seen in various room he once stayed in and has been sighted at the bar.
Others have reported the howl of ghost dogs. Other guests have reported hearing a dog running down the hallway.
The hotel is currently shuttered, awaiting a new owner’s renovations.
Right next door to the St. James is the Bridge Tender’s House. Long before the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a wooden span provided access across the wide river from one bluff to another, and the bridge tender collected tolls for those who needed to travel faster than a boat or ferry would allow. When not working, he lived there with his family.
While the bridge is long gone, the cornerstone remains. The cottage stands as a symbol of Selma’s historic past. It has been updated and used as a bed and breakfast, with quaint balconies providing the perfect breakfast viewing of life on the water.
More recently, it has been the personal home of artist Anne Strand and her husband, Dr. Allan Strand. They moved to Selma from Oxford, Mississippi, to be closer to their daughter.
“We came to Selma because of the past and the potential,” Strand said. “There’s such rich history here. We see people stand on the bridge and meditate over the water. And the river is different every day, as are sunrise and sunset.”
Strand has seen history enacted by Hollywood and heard eloquent oratory on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
“We watched the movie Selma filmed here. We saw the bridge turn purple (in remembrance). From my doorstep, I could hear President Obama’s speech.”
A State’s Birthplace
When Alabama became a state, competition for the state capital was fiercely debated before Gov. William Wyatt Bibb settled on uninhabited land in Dallas County, where the Cahaba River flowed into the Alabama.
The state developed a modern grid system, with streets running north-south named for trees and those running east-west named after famous people. By 1820, a year after Alabama’s statehood became official, a two-story brick structure in the town originally named Cahawba because the first permanent capitol building.
The town buzzed to life, becoming an Antebellum era mercantile center just as Dallas County started to become one of the nation’s richest counties, thanks to slave labor and the cotton trade.
Yet Cahawba’s days were numbered. By 1826, Tuscaloosa was awarded the state capital by the state legislature, and the original location began a slow fade from memory. History books recorded the reason for the relocation as floods from the converging rivers overwhelming the town. That may have been pure spin.
“That’s what we call faux news,” said Bruce H. Lipscombe, the curator at Old Cahawba Archaeological Park. “Guess who wanted the capital? Tuscaloosa. So newspapers across the state wrote about constant flooding and the legislature made the move. In truth, the biggest floods came well after the capital had been relocated.”
It turns out that Bibb’s decision was always unpopular. And Cahawba was far off the beaten trail for everyone, especially in days when legislators needed trails to get there because the nearest railroad stop was a day’s ride away. Cahawba would get the last laugh, however, as the city of Montgomery eventually became the permanent state capital.
Still, in many ways, Cahawba was ahead of its time. The grid system was decades advanced from other developing cities in the region. Housing featured the world’s first geothermal cooling system, with piped water through the E.M. Perine home keeping the house at 74 degrees even on a scorching summer day.
An old farm house provides a glimpse of what was left behind, along with a 19th Century church and the Kelly House, which now serves as the visitor’s center. The dirt roads remain, in their grids, leading to districts never developed. They are accessible by bike, easily managed hiking trails and guided tours by request. An original era cabin on a rise overlooking where the two rivers join forces is being updated for those who want to spend a day at the park.
While Cahawba is best known as Alabama’s short-lived capital city, it’s early history was far bloodier. It’s believed to be the site of the Battle of Mabilia, where Hernando de Soto ‘s forces squared off against warriors under Chief Tuskaloosa, resulting in up to 3,000 casualties. The incident was recorded as the largest battle on North American soil between European and Native Americans combatants. While De Soto reportedly only lost a handful of troops, it marked the first stage of failure of his exploration. He soon fell ill to fever and died two years later.
During the Civil War, a cotton warehouse was converted into the Cahaba Military Prison (by then, the letter “w” had been dropped from the original spelling). This prison was a far cry from Andersonville. Built to house 660 Union prisoners of war, it swelled beyond capacity to close to 3,000 men. Yet the death rate of 2 percent was among the lowest anywhere. Many of the POWs who survived there still met untimely deaths when the steamboat Sultana, carrying prisoners from Cahaba and Andersonville to freedom, exploded and burned on the Mississippi River at war’s end.
Like much of Selma, Cahawba has its own fascination with the supernatural.
Colonel C.C. Pegues is the most famous ghost of Old Cahawba. He was killed at the Battle of Seven Pines, Virginia. Shortly after his death, a couple walking near his Old Cawhaba home reported seeing a ball of white light floating in the air, moving side to side before disappearing when they tried to make contact.
Once the couple lost interest, the light returned, joining them for the remainder of the stroll.