Black-Ruled Town in Danger of Dying in Alabama

AP, May 25, 2009

The cafes, the school and the roller rink are long gone from Alabama’s oldest black city. Empty homes and businesses line the narrow streets.

Hobson City has no police or fire department, and weeds have overgrown the oldest part of the cemetery and a park.

But this small town once thrived as a place where black people were in charge in the midst of the Jim Crow South.

Now, with the town on the verge of dying, preservationists have put the east Alabama landmark on the critical list. The Alabama Historical Commission this month included the town of 878 people on its annual inventory of “Places in Peril.”

The commission’s list typically includes historic structures, such as old homes and abandoned theaters. Hobson City is an exception: an entire town that in recent decades has seen its foundation collapse.

Incorporated in 1899, Hobson City was formed 12 years after Eatonville, Fla., which calls itself the nation’s oldest black city.

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Hobson City’s residents created “a thriving municipality, which people at the time said couldn’t be done because blacks couldn’t govern,” said Dorothy Walker, public outreach coordinator with the Alabama Historical Commission. “If it is someday absorbed into another city, it will lose that historic identity.”

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A two-mile-long sliver about 60 miles east of Birmingham, Hobson City is as narrow as a few hundred yards in places. Wedged between two predominantly white cities, Oxford and Anniston, it has a few white residents.

During the 1800s, Walker said, it was an all-black section of Oxford called Mooree Quarter, a possible reference to old slave quarters in the area. Residents were allowed to vote, but whites maintained control.

The racial relationship shifted in the 1890s when the people of Mooree Quarter swayed an election, Walker said. The state had not yet disenfranchised blacks–that wouldn’t happen until 1901. So, Walker said, whites petitioned state leaders to de-annex Mooree Quarter.

Kicked out of Oxford, blacks incorporated a new city and named it for Richmond P. Hobson, a white Spanish-American War hero from Alabama who was later elected to Congress. The 1900 Census put the new town’s population at 292.

Hobson City grew to about 1,500 people by the mid-1900s, with restaurants, laundries, stores, a skating rink and other businesses. The town was poor, but had a vibrant culture centered on the all-black vocational school.

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Federal anti-poverty money flowed to Hobson City in the 1960s, and federal aid helped build a modern municipal complex in the 1970s. But in an ironic twist, McCrory said, the end of racial segregation sent the city into a tailspin around the same time.

“Sometimes I think I wouldn’t have gone out and done all that marching if I realized how much we were going to lose,” said McCrory, 61, who participated in civil rights protests as a young woman.

The all-black Calhoun County Training School became an integrated elementary school in 1972, and fair housing laws meant blacks could live elsewhere. Many who could afford to move away did so, costing Hobson City hundreds of residents.

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The city still has a police car and a fire truck, but it can’t afford officers or firefighters. County deputies handle police calls, and neighboring cities help with fires.

Being tabbed a “Place in Peril” doesn’t include any special funding, but McCrory hopes it will increase public awareness of the town’s plight.

She dreams of a campaign to raise $1 million in donations, which could lead to federal and state matching grants.

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