SYLACAUGA -- Noted historical archivist and award-winning writer David Alsobrook will bring the little-known story of Donald Comer’s military stint in the U.S. war against Spain on Wednesday at B.B. Comer Memorial Library, according to a press release.
Born as James McDonald Comer, “Donald” was the third child of Braxton Bragg Comer and Eva Jane Harris. During his childhood, he lived in Barbour County; Volusia County, Florida; Anniston; and Birmingham. He attended the Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, and Bingham, a military school in Asheville, North Carolina.
“Mr. Donald,” as he came to be called by many, was the longtime president and chairman of the board of Avondale Mills, operated by his father, who was Alabama’s 33rd governor. His success with expanding the corporation as well as his father’s progressive practices toward his employees while in charge of the mills has been written about extensively by Dr. Wayne Flynt and other historians.
However, little has been written about Comer’s military career, and relatively few Alabamians are aware that “Mr. Donald,” at age 21, enlisted in the U.S. Army in the spring of 1898, after the declaration of war against Spain.
Unlike many of his friends in Birmingham, who flocked to the colors but never left the U.S. mainland, young Comer served overseas for three years in the Philippines.
In America’s baptism of fire in a prolonged “guerrilla war,” Comer, a second lieutenant, was assigned to the 25th Infantry Regiment, one of four African-American units in the regular U.S. Army that fought in Cuba and in the Philippines.
Based primarily on Comer’s official U.S. Army records and his personal photograph collection, “Gone for a Soldier” is the first public account of his military service during the Philippine Insurrection. Like so many other combat soldiers, Comer was reluctant to talk about his own experience under enemy fire.
During the last 20 years of his life, he frequently mentioned his Army service in his Avondale Sun columns. He obviously was proud of his service, but he didn’t provide any details for his readers.
Alsobrook said Comer’s time in uniform clearly had a profound impact upon his future life and career, as evidenced by his remarkably genial, paternalistic relationship with his mill workers and families (both whites and African-Americans), and his outspoken opposition to nuclear armaments during the Cold War.
In Mark Twain’s famous words about war’s effect on soldiers, Comer “had seen the elephant” for himself in the steamy jungles of the Philippines.
This experience as an officer commanding black soldiers also apparently ameliorated his racial views during the brutal Jim Crow era in the South. He would never be the same after he returned to Alabama in 1903, the historian said.
Alsobrook and his wife, Ellen, live in Mobile. He supervised the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and then directed the George H.W. Bush and William J. Clinton presidential libraries. He is presently working on a book about his experience with four recent presidents and their first ladies.
Alsobrook has an Master of Arts degree from West Virginia University and a doctorate from Auburn University. His recent book, “Southside: Eufaula’s Cotton Mill Village and its People, 1890-1945,” received the prestigious 2018 Clinton Jackson Coley Award from the Alabama Historical Association, recognizing excellence in local Alabama history.
The “Celebrating Alabama’s Storied Past” brown bag adult lecture series is sponsored by SouthFirst Bank and Coosa Valley Medical Center’s Hickory Street Café. The Hightower Refreshment Room opens at 11 a.m. Participants are invited to bring a sandwich and enjoy drinks and desserts provided by the library.
Working adults are invited to come by on their lunch break to enjoy the programs, which will begin promptly at noon in the Harry I. Brown Auditorium.
Groups wishing to attend should contact library Director Tracey Thomas at 256-249-0961 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about availability of seating.