Over the years, I have visited Selma, Alabama on several occasions. The county seat of Dallas County, Selma was incorporated in 1820. Originally inhabited by the Creek Indians, the city got its name from the poem, The Songs of Selma. Selma means “high seat” or “throne.”(i) During a trip to Alabama, in July of this year, I once again had the opportunity to visit this historic city. During my short stay, I was able to visit historic Old Live Oak Cemetery and several significant Civil War era homes. I was fortunate to meet John Coon while I was in town and he served as my unofficial guide. Many thanks to John, and Old Live Oak Cemetery custodian James Safford, for their hospitality.
Originally named West Selma Graveyard, Old Live Oak Cemetery is a study in contrasts – beautiful trees and historic graves with a major city road, King Street, bisecting the old and new portions of the cemetery. Opened in 1829 it was declared a public nuisance in 1856. With the area being prone to flooding, the land was purchased by the City of Selma in 1877. It officially became Live Oak Cemetery in 1879 when local resident Colonel N.H.R. Dawson arranged to have eighty live oaks and eighty magnolia trees planted on its grounds. Today the majestic trees are over 140 years old and create a beautiful canopy over the cemetery grounds.(ii)
Thanks to the wonderful tour Mr. Coon provided me, I was able to visit several significant graves while visiting the cemetery: Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, CSA Naval Commander Catesby ap Roger Jones and brigadier generals Edmund W. Pettus and John T. Morgan. Buried near Hardee is one of the more interesting Alabamians: Benjamin S. Turner. Turner was born in Halifax County, North Carolina in 1825. His parents were slaves. He moved to Alabama when he was a toddler and managed to receive a clandestine education. Turner remained in bondage until the Emancipation Proclamation freed him after the Civil War. He would be elected tax collector in Dallas County in 1867 and Selma city councilman in 1869. Turner would become the first black representative from Alabama to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, being elected in 1870 and serving two terms.
A visit to Selma is not complete without visiting some of the historic residences and buildings in the city. Once again, Mr. Coon was my tour guide. Our first stop was at the home of General William J. Hardee. Built in 1865, the home has since undergone significant remodeling to restore its postbellum look. Next, we visited Fairoaks. This Greek revival mansion was originally the home of William B. King, nephew of U.S. vice president William R. King. During Wilson’s Raid, in April 1865, it was used as a Union field hospital and was occupied by US Major General James H. Wilson’s raiders. Next, my tour guide took me to Sturdivant Hall. Completed in 1853, this structure is considered one of the finest examples of neo-classic architecture in the South. A short distance away from Sturdivant Hall is the home of General John Tyler Morgan. Purchased by Morgan after the war, it served as his primary residence for many years after the Civil War. Our last stop was at the Mabry-Jones home. Built in 1850 by Dr. Albert Gallatin Mabry, it would later be the residence of Mabry’s stepdaughter, Gertrude Tartt Jones and her husband, Captain Catesby ap Roger Jones. The home’s history is widely varied. Built in 1847, it would serve as a Confederate hospital, Dallas County Court House and Vaughn Memorial Hospital. It was purchased by the city of Selma in 1969 and was restored to its original splendor. It is now called the Joseph T. Smitheran Historic Building in honor of mayor Smitherman who was instrumental in the city’s purchasing of the building.
If you ever find yourself in central Alabama, I highly recommend that you take time to visit Selma. Selma is two hours from Birmingham and one hour from Montgomery. It is a beautiful city and its residents, including Mr. Coon, will show you what true southern hospitality is all about.