Old leaders

Hobson City’s first mayor and its City Council, photographed in 1902. Standing from left are Young Pyles, Jesse Cunningham and Edward Pearce. Seated from left are Peter Doyle, Mayor S.L. Davis and C.C. Snow.

HOBSON CITY — Even before people started telling her that her city wasn’t really a city, Mayor Alberta McCrory had problems.

The 771 people who live in Hobson City, and the town’s handful of businesses, generate about $600,000 in taxes per year, according to the mayor, which is not enough to fix leaks in the city’s aging water system. Former businesses — an old print shop near the town hall, a bingo parlor down the street — stand empty with no new owners on the horizon.

But giving up isn’t an option either. Not for the first black-run city in Alabama, where African-Americans were electing their own leaders 60 years before the Voting Rights Act.

“We want to remain the city that those original 49 incorporators established by faith for their families to live and to work,” McCrory said. “We want to continue to be that city, but we can’t continue to do it with things hanging over our heads as they are.”

What was hanging over the city’s head is a century-old challenge to the city’s status as a municipality. Even though the city has been run as a town government since 1899, it's possible that its charter actually lapsed early in the 20th century, due to a campaign of death threats and voter intimidation that whittled down the voting rolls. A bill now on Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk would fix the problem, declaring that Hobson City, and any other town with a similar charter challenge, can continue to function.

The city charter issue first came to McCrory’s attention a few years ago, when she was unable to obtain an ID number the city needed to apply for a federal grant.

Now she sees the problem everywhere — in the city’s lack of its own ZIP code, in the fact that mail to some Hobson City addresses comes back as undeliverable, in the way federal agencies seem to classify the city as part of Anniston or Oxford.

“I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist,” McCrory said. “Whether it’s an organized effort or not, it’s keeping the city from thriving.”

A fight for representation

In the late 1890s, this place was known as Moree Quarter, a neighborhood of former slaves and their children and grandchildren within the mostly-white city of Oxford.

Some of them, about 125 according to news accounts from the time, were voters. Oxford’s city leaders saw that as a problem.
It’s unclear what moved them to action. Some accounts say the city elected a black justice of the peace. Other accounts say white leaders were frustrated by black voters’ sway in a wet-dry vote. Whatever the catalyst, by 1898 Oxford had redrawn its boundaries to exclude Moree Quarter.

So the residents incorporated their own city, naming it after a white naval officer from Alabama who’d become a hero in the Spanish-American War. The city elected S. L. Davis as mayor later that year.

“My mother was never afraid of the wild turkey taking up with the tame turkey,” Davis said at a 1901 convention of the National Negro Business League. “But she was afraid of the tame ones taking up with the wild ones.”

Davis offered other tips for other would-be black mayors. Water and other services should be free. Taxes should be low and business licenses inexpensive. If a city’s ordinances are agreeable to a majority, “the chief of police can save the cost of ten men.”

His philosophy seemed to work. In its first year, Hobson City’s small police force made one arrest, on a charge of cursing in public. We know about the case because of a report in The Anniston Hot Blast, forerunner to The Star, which like other white-run papers reported on the black town as a kind of quaint curiosity.

“The case was tried Monday by Mayor Davis who maintained the dignity of the judicial ermine in a way that must have been very gratifying to the people of Hobson City,” the unidentified reporter wrote.

Over the years, white political leaders ceased to be amused by the idea of a black town, with black police arresting people and a black judge imposing sentences. In 1903, according to news accounts from the time, local lawmakers passed a law to abolish the city. That was overturned a year later. There was another try in 1909. In 1919, when the city's police arrested two white men on bootlegging charges, armed groups of white men threatened to march on the city, according to accounts in the Tuscaloosa News. Hobson City officials headed off a fight by transferring the men to the county jail, for county officials to handle.

But their troubles weren't over. After receiving anonymous death threats — described in The Star as “black hand letters” — the mayor fled town. Restrictions on black voting, likely made possible by the Alabama Constitution of 1901, had whittled the number of registered voters in town to around five, and under state law a town with fewer than five voters was automatically dissolved. Soon Hobson City leaders came to Anniston's City Council asking to be annexed. Anniston leaders said no.

What happened next is unclear. Newspaper accounts at the time suggest that the city's charter expired. But Hobson City leaders, as they had after past dissolution efforts, kept on doing business as a city.

Shared experiences

Hobson City wasn't the only historic black city to face a challenge from white political leaders. In 1957, in response to an Eisenhower-era civil rights bill, the Legislature redrew the boundaries of Tuskegee. The result was a 28-sided polygon with much of the minority white population inside, and many of the faculty and staff of historically black Tuskegee Institute outside. Activists challenged the map and eventually got it overturned.

Dyann Robinson, 75, remembers what life was like in the city back then. Plenty of books have been written about Booker T. Washington's much-debated idea that African-Americans of his day should learn useful trades before delving into more scholarly topics. For Robinson and other Tuskegee residents, that added up to self-sufficiency.

“If you needed a plumber or an electrician, you didn’t have to go outside the city," said Robinson, now a playwright and director of the Tuskegee Repertory Theater. “It was like a cocoon, a little safety net. I didn’t think about white people. I didn’t think about prejudice.”

McCrory cites a similar pride as one reason why Hobson City needs to remain a town, even under conditions that might cause other small cities to throw in the towel.

Consisting of a few neighborhoods along Martin Luther King Drive, the city has a convenience store at one end and a quarry at the other, but there are few other sources of business revenue. Leaky city water lines have proven difficult and expensive to maintain, and residents sometimes complain of fluctuating water  bills that seem to be due to leaks. With only two employees, the city has sometimes struggled just to assemble a budget.

McCrory believes the uncertainty about the city’s charter is at the heart of some of its problems. It’s been difficult to resolve questions about where the city’s boundaries lie, she said. It’s been hard for the city, which sends mail from an Oxford post office box, to convince the Small Business Administration it’s not part of Anniston or Oxford, she said, or to explain to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that it is indeed a small, separate town.

“If there’s a grant for distressed neighborhoods, we ought to be able to get it,” McCrory said. “Anybody who is familiar with Hobson City knows that this is a distressed neighborhood.”

Lately McCrory has found hope in the idea that Hobson City could become a stop for tourists interested in civil rights history. With a Freedom Riders National Monument set to open in coming years in Anniston, McCrory believes the number of civil rights tourists will grow.

“Our strategy is to create a corridor or trail connecting all the historically black towns, to attract tourists,” said former Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford, leader of the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, a group of eight historically black towns across the South.

Ford notes that Eatonville, Fla., draws thousands of people every year for the Zora Neale Hurston Festival, dedicated to the novelist who made the city famous.
Tuskegee, home of the Tuskegee Airmen and Booker T. Washington, has more than one claim to fame. And it has a college at its heart, like other historically black towns such as Grambling, La.

McCrory acknowledges that it’s harder to build tourism without a famous native.

“It’s just us and our story,” McCrory said.

The city does feature prominently in a play by Robinson, the Tuskegee playwright, which is set to debut in April. Titled “Booker T. Towns,” the play is set at a fictional 1915 convention at which black mayors recount the founding of various towns. Robinson wants to take the play on tour to other historically black towns.

Ford believes the idea is ripe for storytelling elsewhere.

“Who knows?” the former mayor said. “Maybe it will lead to a movie.”

Searching for a base

When tourists come to Mound Bayou, Miss., they typically get a personal tour led by the mayor.
“I get on the bus and go with them,” said Eulah Peterson, mayor of the 1,500-person town.

Founded by ex-slaves who’d worked on a plantation owned by the brother of Jefferson Davis, Mound Bayou faces many of the same struggles as Hobson City.

There’s no college, and the city doesn’t have widespread fame. Residents shop in nearby Cleveland, the mayor said, taking their sales tax dollars with them. The population is aging, and a growing number of residents now get property tax exemptions that kick in at age 65.

The town hosts a Founders Day in July and a Septemberfest in the fall, but Peterson acknowledges they’re nothing like the crowds that go to Eatonville’s Zora Festival. Peterson said she advertises them mostly by word of mouth, newspaper ads and Facebook.

Lately Peterson has been focused on getting healthy food options into the town, and on installing new lift pumps for the city’s sewer system. Federal grants help with both projects.

“We don’t have a big economic base, so we’re always searching for new funds,” she said.

That’s exactly the process McCrory hopes will become easier for Hobson City, once it’s clear it is a city.

“We are just getting started,” she said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.