This column might be irrelevant beyond the context of this issue, but that’s the breaks. Some things just need to be said.
Like most of humanity, Mobilians are fascinated more by their past than with actual history. We eagerly spin yarns of secret tunnels, apocryphal explorers, ruined utopias and rumored festivals, evidence or lack thereof be damned.
However, as a more talented Alabama columnist wrote in the last few years: “History is a discipline, like science. It’s a way by which we pull back the tarp of mythology from the past and look at what’s underneath — all of the parts and pieces, causes and effects — with a critical eye and a healthy dose of skepticism.”
In April, I read the roll call of Alabama victims on the National Lynching Memorial. I lingered on a pair of dead listed merely as “Unknown.” Robbed not only of their lives, they weren’t even afforded identity. It was especially tragic.
I discovered Mobile County had seven victims, but none was familiar. How was that possible in a historian’s playground like Mobile?
The tools for research were available. Answers would take time. It also took the invaluable assistance of others, for which I’m grateful, to produce this week’s cover story.
David Alsobrook’s doctoral dissertation on Progressive Era Mobile was marvelous. It gave a detailed roadmap for research. Scotty Kirkland suggested it and supplied his own insight.
Gideon C. Kennedy aided with research, snapped photos in Montgomery and generally helped a guy with lousy lungs handle Alabama’s summer swelter. He also supplied a fresh set of eyes to look at a first draft. Thanks to Janet Nodar for reading, notating and not rapping my knuckles too hard.
Mobile Public Library’s local history branch is invaluable, just as with Lagniappe’s previous historical cover stories. Maps, newspapers, scholarly publications — they’re all there for anyone to utilize.
Chuck Torrey and Lani Kosick at the History Museum of Mobile pointed the way to valuable information. Torrey highlighted a photo of the October 1906 Thompson and Robinson lynching currently hanging in the museum.
Kosick discovered a curious artifact listed as the Cholly Hightower manuscript in their collection. We wondered if it was a clue about unknown victims.
The narrative followed the aforementioned Hightower and a throng of curious Mobilians who headed to Plateau to witness a lynching. The protagonist tried to convince the mob to stop but he was ignored and retreated in shame back to town.
Its time period is shortly after “the recent war in Cuba” but an event at “the old Spanish Jail on Broad Street” made no sense. Architectural historian John Sledge confirmed the “Old Spanish Guard House” was at the corner of Conti and St. Emanuel, not Broad, and was torn down in 1892. When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, the Old Spanish Guard House was rubble.
Hightower is shown as publisher and editor of a small Mobile paper, the Picayune. He’s also a state senator.
In reality, Alabama State Senator Max Hamburger owned and edited the Mobile Daily Herald in the same time frame. As the cover story tells, he failed to dispel the 1906 lynch mob.
Other similarities with 1906 are folded into what is obviously a later attempt to fictionalize Hamburger’s experience. Curiously, it was typed on the blank back pages of business correspondence bearing New York City letterhead.
John Giggie, Ph.D., was helpful and forthcoming. It’s evident in the story.
Anne Reynolds brought Nelson Malden to meet us at the National Lynching Memorial. Malden was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s barber for the six years King was a preacher there and witnessed American Civil Rights history from the inside. He also claims to cook the best seafood gumbo in Montgomery, a sign of his Gulf Coast roots.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s Jonathan Kubakundimana was integral and supplied access to needed reference material. The gift of gratitude we brought — a jar of soil from Richard Robinson’s lynching location — was accepted with grace.
Alsobrook accessed oral histories from our African-American community for his 1983 dissertation. Some 35 years later, that resource seems to have evaporated. Kern Jackson, Ph.D., is a folklorist and director of the University of South Alabama’s African-American studies program. Joél Lewis Gillespie, Ph.D., is a descendant of Plateau’s legendary Clotilda survivors and produced a new documentary about the saga. Both said they were unaware of lynching stories handed down.
The absence of oral history and the entire experience clarified what historians already know. Like “love” and “hate,” “remember” is an active verb.