The Dying Memory of Hugo Black

The Dying Memory of Hugo Black

By Thomas Noland

Vol. 1, No. 3, 1978, pp. 20-21

“Mr. Justice Black and myself were both natives of Clay County. Each of us dearly loved and revered our native origins and the peoples thereof. He brought to that community and that people very great honors and very great responsibilities to honor and respect his memory.

“No other community of people ever has faced such a situation and such an opportunity in the history of our nation as far as I know. If we fail to do our part he is not necessarily disgraced as much as are we.”

Southerners may disagree on how many Souths exist today, what with the media remaking Dixie, but few will deny there are at least two. One is Atlanta and Birmingham and Durham-Chapel Hill–the South of skyscrapers, of fine universities, of regional theatre and professional ballet; of Black public officials elected by a multi-racial constituency and of suburban apartments with names like Shadowood and Quail Ridge. The other, older and vaster, is the South of Clay County, Alabama.

A hundred miles west of Atlanta, Highway 9 dips and rises through fields of soybeans and corn, past paintless and decaying farmhouses with kudzu growing in the doorways. It halves the brief one-story town of Lineville and six miles further south spills into Ashland. Mayor E. L. Wynn is fond of saying Ashland (population 3,000) has the highest altitude of any county seat in the state. That constitutes Ashland’s only claim to fame in the eyes of most of its citizens. The phrase even appears on the town’s stationery. But there is nothing on the stationery, or in city hall, or around the courthouse square, to indicate Ashland was the childhood home of Hugo La Fayette Black, probably the greatest Alabamian of this century and one of the 10 most influential justices ever to sit on the United States Supreme Court.

Three blocks off the square, there is one thing that indicates Ashland is the childhood home of Black. It is one of those round signs with a star in the middle, left over from the Bicentennial; it stands rather incongruously in front of an appalling eyesore. A close look reveals the dilapidated structure to be a house. The porch has caved in and brushy vines obscure any view from the road. It is where Hugo Black grew up.

One other thing, a hundred yards down the road is, somehow, even more poignant. It is a sign in an open field which says, “Future Home of Hugo Black Memorial Library-Museum and Boyhood Home.” On February 27, 1976-the day after Black would have turned 90-more than a hundred people, some from Clay County, many from New York and Washington, celebrated Hugo Black Day there, and applauded as Ashland businessman Morland Flegel raised the sign.

Amid hand-shaking with film producer Otto Preminger (said to be researching a movie about Black), Mrs. Hugo Black and legal scholar Max Lerner, Flegel talked that day of the “overwhelming support” the project had received. He spoke of national fund-raising, local fundraising and a goal of $750,000 for the library-museum, including restoration of Black’s boyhood home and its removal to the project site.

Lerner, in a touching address, talked of reconciliation. “There was a period when Ashland and Alabama left Hugo Black,” he said, referring to the Brown decision in which Black concurred. “But the wonderful thing is, Ashland and Alabama came back to him, and there’s a lovely completed circle there.”

Only, Lerner was wrong. Alabama came back; the Alabama that partakes of the first South, the Alabama of the Birmingham University that sponsors a three-day Hugo Black symposium around his birthday each year. Ashland, the other South, did not. For despite what was said Feb-

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ruary 27, there will be no Hugo Black Memorial LibraryMuseum in Clay County. With funds at a standstill for the past two years, with local skepticism and hostility showing no signs of abatement, and with Ashland pursuing a different library in conjunction with the county, a subdued Flegel said recently, “It’s out of the question.”

The schism between Black and his own people did not begin in 1907, when Black at 21, left his native county for Birmingham to hang out his shingle. No one considered it a slight for the local boy to seek his fortune in the raw, rambunctious “Magic City.” Besides, Black had tried being an Ashland attorney and abandoned the idea only after a fire destroyed his office and his $1,500 set of law books. The homefolks, most of whom were acquainted with his astonishing record at Ashland Academy, expected great things of him, and knew he had to accomplish them in great places.

It certainly didn’t begin in 1926, when Black returned home to launch his campaign for the U. S. Senate. He gave a rousing oration against concentrated wealth, trusts, big railroads and high tariffs; he echoed the sentiments of the hill-country populists among whom he had grown up.

Nor did it begin in 1937, when Senator Black was confirmed in Congress as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court despite the revelation of his membership in the Ku Klux Klan. It was a national controversy; but Clay County was not a party to it. What mattered at home was that hugo Black, who, as a boy, used to listen to the lawyers in the steamy Clay County Courthouse, had reached the pinnacle of his profession. Who was going to care if he had once belonged to the Klan? “They were so pleased with his appointment they didn’t get upset about it,” says Elizabeth Dempsey, who was a girl at the time. “The town acclaimed him.”

It began, rather, on May 17, 1954, the day the Court announced Brown. The school desegregation decision struck at the heart of the complex system of mores and folkways that had grown up around race. For White Clay County, it was something akin to Cain killing Abel. How could Hugo have done it? He was one of us, they said. Or was he?

Herein lies the chief irony of Clay County’s rejection of Hugo Black-for, the fact was that he, despite appearances, never rejected Clay County; it made him what he was and he knew it. A hard scrabble childhood-his father was a small storeowner-taught him the economic reality of Alabama’s north-south division.

South Alabama, the Black Belt, harks back to the antebellum “flush times” of the state. Its politicians-Gov. George Wallace, Lt. Coy. Jere Beasley, and Wallace’s heir-apparent, Fob Jamesare inheritors of the hidebound conservatism engendered by the plantation system. Hilly north Alabama never partook of the manorhouse tradition and brought the myth only because of Reconstruction racial fears. Yeoman agriculture (and few Blacks) was the pattern before the Civil War and after. Clay County is securely with the north, and no one was surprised in 1892 when the rising tide of Populism gave birth to the People’s Party of Alabama-that self-conscious challenge to Bourbon oligarchy-in Hugo Black’s Ashland.

The truth concerning Black’s position on Brown was that he, like any leader, was both of them and above them; but Clay countians could only conclude he was against them.

An anonymous pundit came up with the nutshell analysis that country lawyers still rely on to explain Black’s apparent contradiction. “When he lived in Alabama,” the saying goes, he wore a white robe and scared the Blacks to death. When he got to Washington, he wore a black robe and scared the Whites to death.”

The first time Black came to Clay County after the Brown decision, he went to his old church, Ashland Baptist. He sat alone. Only one person, according to Ms. Dempsey, would speak to him publicly, and that was her father, the county attorney. “Daddy didn’t mind taking a stand on what he believed in,” Ms. Dempsey says, “and he thought the minister and the congregation should have recognized Hugo because he wasn’t a criminal.” Hugo didn’t return for years.

There is a new, younger minister now, but many parishoners remember Black’s visit. “We have a lot of good Christians in this town,” one man said when asked about Black, “but not to the point where they’re willing to forgive and forget.”

What else, besides good Christians, does Clay County have? It has 13,000 people, who farm, sell merchandise in Ashland and Lineville, work at the Ashland poultry plant or make slacks or tires in Lineville’s two industries. Their median family income in 1975 was $5,756. They send their children to integrated public schools where the White-Black ratio is rougly seven to one. At Clay County High School in Ashland, there is Bible study each morning, an exercise in submission to the letter, but not the spirit, of justice Black’s decision banning prayer in the schools.

“Read your Bibles, but don’t pray,” is how a 1977 Clay County graduate describes the teachers’ feelings. The students respond without much prodding. He remembers that for several months after Black’s decision came down, the teachers led prayer in defiance of the decree. It was nothing like the violence that eventually greeted Brown, but it smacked of the same never-say-die, I-dare-you-to-enforce-it philosophy. By and by the Bible reading evolved, a practice which the teachers more or less clandestinely encourage.

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Another constant reminder of Black’s apostasy is the nagging racial trouble at Clay County High. Until this year, cheerleaders were elected by popular vote. Last year no Black hopeful received enough votes to take a place on the squad, and Blacks demanded a Black girl be appointed. They also demanded that selections in future be made by a panel of judges, not by vote, and threatened to quit the football team en masse if their demands weren’t met. The principal relented; a Black girl was appointed, and the judging came about. Earlier this year the judges chose eight White girls and no Black ones for the fall squad, and the principal had his hands full again. Once more Blacks threatened to walk off the team if a Black girl were not appointed. This time, the principal refused, and all but one of the Blacks quit. Word got out that one White cheerleader carries pictures in her wallet of the former Black players; she is no longer asked out. The unspoken thought in many Ashland minds is: If it weren’t for Brown, we wouldn’t be having these problems. And the chief symbol of Brown for them is Black.

It made sense, therefore, for an outsider-Flegel is from North Dakota-to take the lead when Barney Whatley and others proposed some sort of memorial to the justice in 1972, the year after his death. Another early leader, Bill Wilson, was a rural resource development expert from Auburn University and not a native Clay countian.

In the early days Flegel and Wilson were confident the money would come, once a few broadminded community pillars led the way with substantial gifts. And it seemed at first they were right. The Ashland Town Council and Clay County Commission contributed a total of $43,000. The 14-member Board of Directors of the Hugo Black Memorial Library, Inc.-all Clay countians-managed to get the Black homestead on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

That same year, Flegel, Wilson and others went to Washington, where Chief Justice Warren Burger received them warmly-“He was just great,” Flegel said-and pledged enthusiastic support. Mrs. Black donated 175 cartons of Black memorabilia for future use in the re-

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stored home. Oliver White of Ashland, who owned the house, donated it to the group. They purchased four acres up the road (where the “Future Home” sign stands) and hired an architect to draw up plans for the library-museum.

Then things began going wrong. President Nixon cut off federal funds that would have been available for IIbrary construction under the Service Construction Act shortly before he resigned. That dashed hopes for federal support; hopes for state support died in 1975, when the Alabama legislature, one of the more reactionary in the country, defeated a proposal by Representative Gerald Dial of Lineville to provide $100,000 for the project if there were a surplus in the state’s general fund. Dial never found out whether the money would have, come through-his proposal was killed in committee. Whatley, a wealthy Denver attorney, had pledged to match whatever the state would ante up. The legislature’s decision hurt doubly, since everyone had depended on Whatley to donate generously.

By 1976 it was clear the project was floundering, and was starting to be a liability for those involved. Probate Judge J. B. “Bunyan” Toland, a relative of Black’s who was instrumental in persuading the county commission to help out, was beaten for reelection that year. A one-term probate judge is a rarity in Clay; most people agree that the Black project did him in. Robert Dockerty, a professional fundraiser hired to coordinate the national effort, clearly was not on the job. He organized a five-person committee in 1976, including such luminaries as former Associate Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, former University of Alabama President Frank Rose and Ed Elson, owner of Elson’s gift stores in Atlanta. At the time, Dockerty said, “It is my dear hope to have this whole thing finished in three months.” It’s been more than two years since then, and the committee’s efforts have yielded a grand total of $4,000. Flegel still wants to try to gather enough money to renovate and move the home, but even that will take several thousand dollars more than is now on hand. Dockerty is rarely at the office these days. His wife says, “He really hasn’t been very active on it recently.”

The death-blow for the library-museum came late last year. The Town of Ashland, in conjunction with Clay County, came up with a joint city-county library board and applied to the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Community Development funds to build the Ashland-Clay County Library. Last spring, a $100,000 grant came through-enough to pay for most of the construction.

Was the city-county library a deliberate effort to foil the Black memorial? No one in Clay County will go that far. On the other hand, no one will deny that the more people saw how bogged down the Black project was, the more they doubted anything would ever come of it. “I think everybody’s in agreement that we need a library real bad,” one county politico said. “They went along with the Hugo Black thing because it meant a library, but if there was any other way, they’d do it.” Agnes Catchings, who serves on both library boards, put it bluntly. “The people wanted a library,” she said. “They didn’t want to wait.”

One can make a case for saying the Black library-museum failed because it was too ambitious for a county like Clay. Perhaps. But that begs the overreaching question of why Clay County still turns its back on its most famous son, whose work is admired throughout the nation.

A few years ago, when the project still seemed healthy, the Women’s Study Club sold its little library on the courthouse square to an Ashland businessman. The club decided not to donate the profits to the Hugo Black Memorial Library-Museum, Inc. That should have told Flegel, Wilson and Toland something about forgive-and-forget in Clay County, Alabama. The other South, patient and unredeemed, endures.

Thomas Noland is a staff writer for the Anniston Star.