Bill honoring Alabama's 1st black lawmakers signed
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- It took 15 months of working six days a week, eight hours each day, before doctoral student Richard Bailey gathered enough information for his dissertation on Alabama's first black officeholders. These were men who cleared a path for politicians of color that would eventually lead to the White House.
Information on the forgotten trailblazers, many of them former slaves, was hard to come by as their groundbreaking work during Reconstruction had largely faded from memories and history books.
Alabama took a step toward reversing that Tuesday when Gov. Bob Riley signed a resolution to honor the men by having plaques bearing their names displayed around the grounds of the State Capitol, its rotunda and inside the entrance to the Alabama Statehouse.
"I'm just humbled today. I feel like I could cry," said Bailey, whose 1984 dissertation became the state's first study of the former lawmakers. "I worked so hard trying to get those guy's names in print and get their achievements understood and we're finally on the brink of that hour."
The resolution passed the Alabama House and Senate on unanimous votes this session. Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery, introduced the bill after being contacted by Martha O'Rourke-Arrow whose great-great-grandfather, Shandy Wesley Jones, was the first black person elected from Tuscaloosa and served in the state Legislature from 1868-1870.
O'Rourke-Arrow now lives in Mississippi but traveled to Montgomery to attend the signing ceremony with her aunt and uncle. "I'm very happy. The dream is culminating," she said from the Old House Chambers where her great-great-grandfather once worked and a Confederate flag stands in the front. "I can't wait to meet some of the other decedents and share in the dedication of the memorial plaques. I'm hoping now we'll get the national coverage and get even more people to respond."
O'Rourke-Arrow's goal is to have all states recognize their earliest black officials and to have their descendants learn about their work and get in touch with each other. She's put out her firstname.lastname@example.org e-mail address in hopes of connecting with more.
Bailey said 100 black men served in Alabama's Legislature from 1867 to 1878 and three others served in the U.S. Congress.
The men's accomplishments were even more stunning considering the tumultuous time period and the fact that many had been regarded as property before they became politicians, Riley said. "Sometimes it's hard for us to imagine what that period must have been like," he said.
"Free men and newly freed slaves alike bravely decided to take an active role in building a new Alabama and a new South," he said. "The road that led us ... to have a black president serving the United States started here."
Members of the Alabama Black Caucus attended the ceremony along with Mike Hubbard, leader of the state's Republican party, who recognized the men for their courage and said the party was proud "to call these men true pioneer members of our party."
But not everyone was pleased.
Robert Reames, Alabama Division Commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans sent Riley a letter expressing "outrage" that the black legislators were honored but the month of April has not been recognized as Confederate History and Heritage Month.
"It is inconceivable to us that these men who were put in office by a carpetbagger government bent on the subjugation, looting, and pillage of Alabama, could be considered to be worthy of positive recognition," he wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Archives and History Director Ed Bridges said the state still has long struggles ahead in reconciling its past with its future. "No one or two or even 100 events like this will solve the problems but each one is a positive step forward," he said.