Alabama’s oldest black-run city is still trying to convince the state and federal governments that it is indeed a city, its mayor said Tuesday.
A bill now in the state Legislature would resolve any question about whether Hobson City, founded in 1899 by black voters rejected by neighboring Oxford, is in fact a municipality.
“That question has been out there, lingering,” said Mayor Alberta McCrory.
McCrory is chief executive in a town of about 800 people, squeezed in between Oxford and Anniston, Calhoun County’s two largest cities.
In the 1800s, it was known as Mooree Quarter, a black neighborhood in majority-white Oxford. In the 1890s, Oxford de-annexed the area. Some accounts say that happened because the city elected a black justice of the peace. Other accounts say it was because of the black influence on a liquor-sales referendum. Either way Oxford’s white majority wanted the black vote — still a political force in the wake of Reconstruction — out of their town.
Mooree Quarter residents in 1899 incorporated as Hobson City, named after a white Alabama-born hero of the Spanish-American War, and quickly moved to ban alcohol inside city limits.
They faced resistance from the beginning, if accounts from the Anniston newspaper, then known as the Hot Blast, are any indication. State lawmakers, all white, voted in 1903 to give the city back to Oxford, but the state Supreme Court overturned the law.
In 1909, they tried again. And therein lies Hobson City’s problem. Even though city officials never stopped running the town as a municipality, city and state officials say they haven’t found clear records that the 1909 law was overturned.
“It’s not listed with the state as incorporated, the way it should have been,” said Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, whose district includes Hobson City.
McCrory said the city first encountered the problem years ago when applying for state and federal grants. She said officials wanted the city’s municipal ID number, assigned by the state, and Hobson City didn’t have one. The search for proof of the city’s incorporation led to the discovery that the 1909 effort to revoke the city’s charter may have actually succeeded, McCrory said.
Even if that’s the case, there seems to be no one calling for the city to be dissolved. Oxford Mayor Alton Craft said that in 33 years in Oxford, he’s never heard of an effort to re-absorb Hobson City.
“The mayor of that town is a fine lady, and I’m sure she’d come to us if she wanted the city to be annexed,” he said.
The lack of proof of the city’s status has held the city back in real ways, McCrory said. State and federal grant agencies need to know whether Hobson City is a town or an unincorporated community. Potential developers from Texas backed out when they couldn’t be guaranteed tax credits because of confusion about the city’s status, McCrory said.
“This has been something in the background that has been impairing the city, something that we were not aware of, for a long time,” McCrory said.
Boyd has been quietly working for a fix for the problem in state law. Last week, the state House voted 83-0 for a bill by Boyd that would guarantee city status to any municipality formed under the Code of Alabama of 1896 “without regard to any possible irregularity in its incorporation and without regard to any attempt to abolish the municipality.”
Boyd’s bill would apply only to cities that have “continuously functioned” as cities. The vote moved the bill to the Senate for approval.
Legislative officials told The Star Tuesday that legislative records from the early 20th century aren’t clear on the eventual fate of Hobson City. Newspaper accounts from the time hint at several legislative and court battles which the all-black city seems to have won.
According to a Tuscaloosa News account from 1910, the city challenged the 1909 charter in Anniston city court and won.
It’s unclear whether that case went to a higher court, but the city was still running, with at least three black police officers, in June 1919, when two white men were arrested for selling whiskey in the city. According to accounts in The Tuscaloosa News, “armed posses from the neighboring mountains” descended on the city in the wake of the arrests.
Hobson City officials headed off violence by allowing the men to be sent to the Calhoun County jail instead of the city jail. But the arrests revived efforts to challenge to the city’s status. Anniston rejected an annexation appeal by Hobson City officials in September 1919 and the the city seems to have gone on operating as a town.
The city continues to struggle with a problem it faced on its first day: generating enough revenue to operate, with a tax base that consists mostly of residential neighborhoods. In 2006, the city shut down its police force, in part because it needed the money to pay water bills.
Boyd and McCrory said they’d rather not draw attention to the city’s murky legal status, saying they want to get the issue fixed before it becomes a problem for the city. McCrory said the motivation behind the century-old efforts to shut the city down is clear.
“It’s ingrained in racism,” she said.