By Billy Ray Warren
The Magnolia Church’s property sits in a community known, variously, as Pine Ridge or East Hill. It’s bordered on the east by Weeden Heights and on the west by Sweetwater. Longtime residents of these three communities know almost exactly where each begins and ends, though there have never been any signs erected to delineate the borders.
Weeden Heights begins on its eastern boundary on Fulton Street; as it moves west, it includes Crown Street, Eclipse Street and so on ‘til it culminates on Broadway Street. Huntsville Road is the dividing line that determines whether a family lives on North Weakly Street or South Weakley or on any other street between Fulton and Broadway.
East Hill/Pine Ridge begins at Hudson Street on the eastern edge and ends at Ironside Street on the west. From that point, Sweetwater begins and continues roughly to Royal Avenue Recreation Center.
Now why, exactly, were these boundaries important? Well, each had its own churches, its own traditions, and, to an extent, its own elementary school.
Take Weeden Heights, for example. Until it was annexed into the City of Florence in 1950, it was just another community in rural Lauderdale County. Citizens in this tight-unit enclave were beholden to Mr. John D. Weeden, for whom the community was named since it had been part of the vast landholdings connected to Mr. Weeden’s ancestral mansion, Sweetwater. From the huge spring near the mansion, Mr. Weeden developed an elaborate system by which water was pumped to each home. Residents paid him $1.00 per month for what was termed “water rent.” Children attended Weeden Elementary School which was located between Franklin and Broadway Streets, exactly where Broadway Recreation Center is today.
In the East Hill/Pine Ridge community, white children in the elementary grades attended Brandon Elementary School on the site where the new hospital is currently under construction. African-American children (there were none in Weeden Heights and few in East Hill/Pine Ridge) attended Pine Ridge School, a two-room building that sat near what today is the southeast corner of Kirkman Street and Veterans Drive – just a few blocks from Magnolia’s building. There were two African-American teachers in this small building which had been owned by TVA and was moved from the Reservation to its site.
Sweetwater, too, boasted churches and traditions of its own. Residents were/are very proud of their heritage; in fact, the annual Sweetwater Reunion was held for many years (though it has ceased), with current residents serving as hosts for those who had moved away. People came from practically every state in the United States to reminisce about their early schooling at Brandon or Patton Elementary School; the excitement of the railroad that bisected their community; their employment at one of the many industries located very near their homes; and their own shopping district on Royal Avenue.
Someone has said, correctly, that the only constant in life is change. Today, there are dramatic changes in progress in the communities surrounding Magnolia’s property. It is fascinating to witness and just as fascinating to consider what the future holds for the fast-developing corridor in which the property is located.
From L, Trinity Episcopal Church, ca. 1897; Rev. Fr. Benedict Menges, OSB (1840-1904), founder of St. Joseph Catholic Church and School in 1878; St. Paul AME Church looking north, Jan. 21, 1933; Poplar Street Christian Church, 1903
by Lee Freeman
Florence has always been a city of faith. Upon founding the town in 1818 one of the first things done by the settlers was to found schools and churches.
On July 22, 1818 the first sale of lots was held and in that sale lot no. 84 on Tuscaloosa Street was purchased by “Hugh Campbell of the Presbyterians” for $1600 on which a, probably log structure, was soon constructed. This original log structure was replaced by a permanent brick building which was completed in 1824.
The Methodist and Episcopalian traditions followed the Presbyterians: In 1822 circuit riders John Cox and John Kerr founded a Methodist congregation in the front room of Cox’s newly-built log house in what is now the 200 block of west Tuscaloosa Street. This congregation, now known as First Methodist, has continuously existed, although at several different locations and in several buildings. The Methodists were soon followed in 1824 by Episcopalian Rev. William Spencer Wall, who also taught an early school in Florence. A congregation was finally organized in 1836 by the Rev. Thomas Armstrong Cook and the first building was built on the northwest corner of College and Cedar streets. This original building burned in 1893 and the current church was constructed in the corner of Pine and Tuscaloosa in 1894 incorporating the original bell tower.
The Baptists came to the city in 1859 (St. Mark) and then in 1888, with First Missionary Baptist Church, now just First Baptist Church. First Baptist was founded and originally met in the Court House (in his autobiography WC Handy recalls as a boy being hired by the “white Baptists” at the courthouse to work as their janitor). The East Florence Baptist Church was established by First Baptist Church in January of 1890; Florence Wagon Works (on part of whose property Magnolia’s building is located) founder Dr. Alfred David Bellamy (1847-1913) was a trustee and Sunday school teacher. In September of 1894 Mrs. Hamaker, wife of Wagon Works Superintendent WA Hamaker, organized the Clubhouse Sunday School for the benefit of the employees.
The Christian faith has always been integral to the black community. Florence’s oldest black congregation is Greater St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. WC Handy’s (1873-1958) family were members (his father and grandfather were AME pastors) of this venerable church, which was originally founded ca. 1839 on lot no. 111 on the corner of Court and Bluff streets by 13 slaves and freedmen, with assistance from white trustees of the Methodist Church, as Church Springs Methodist Episcopal (ME) Church.
In 1865 a local freedman named George Poole (ca. 1830-aft. 1900) who had picked up enough of a basic education as a bootblack at Florence Wesleyan University started a school to teach the children of freed slaves. The Freedmen’s Public School, founded to educate children of the newly-freed slaves by the Pittsburgh Freedmen’s Aid Commission, succeeded Poole’s school and opened on October 29, 1866 and was taught by noted black educator Prof. Oscar M. Waring (1837-1911); the school was conducted under the auspices of Church Springs. With its own normal (teacher training) dept., the Freedmen’s Public School sent teachers out to various locations in Lauderdale County to start schools.
Florence’s second-oldest black congregation is St. Mark Missionary Baptist (MB) Church, founded ca. 1859 in a brush arbor on the corner of Alabama and Market Streets. In 1897 Bethel Cumberland Presbyterian Church was founded on Alabama Street, just up the street from St. Mark.
The First Congregational Church, known to locals as “the Colored Congregational Church,” was established on Pine Street sometime in the mid-late 1870s; its first building was completed in 1879. The Congregational Church conducted the Carpenter High School, founded in 1876 by the American Missionary Association (and the congregation’s pastors were the principals). First Congregational dissolved sometime around 1939 and today the Tennessee Valley Community Church is located on the spot where it was located for sixty years.
Magnolia’s own heritage, the Stone-Campbell Movement came to Lauderdale County ca. 1824 with “Stoneite” evangelist Elder Ephraim D. Moore and the founding of the Republican Christian Church, now Stony Point Church of Christ however there was no congregation of the Christian Church in Florence until a group of Christians began meeting in the home of Mrs. Susan Y. Thrasher. This congregation met at various downtown locations (such as Ludike’s and Morrison’s Halls) with Elder TB Larimore (1843-1929) of Mars Hill preaching on Sundays, before constructing its first building on the corner of Poplar and Tuscaloosa in 1890 (the original building still exists and is now home to the Calvary Fellowship Church). This congregation named itself the Poplar Street Christian Church and today exists as the Wood Avenue Church of Christ. First Christian Church was organized in 1917, eleven years after the Christian Church split into mostly Southern Churches of Christ and mostly Northern Christian Churches (aka Disciples of Christ). And in 1928 the African-American East Alabama Street Church of Christ was established by several charter members, converts who in the wake of a 1928 gospel meeting conducted by the late Bro. Marshal Keeble (1878-1968) were worshipping in a segregated room at the Poplar Street Church of Christ. That congregation exists today as the East Side Church of Christ.
In 1908 the first Holiness evangelists began hosting revivals in East Florence. Today the Holiness/Pentecostal/Assembly of God tradition is heavily represented in Florence.
There were Catholic settlers in Florence as early as 1825 though no Catholic mission or parish to serve them. That changed in 1878 when the Rev. Fr. Benedict Menges, OSB (Order of St. Benedict) founded St. Joseph Catholic Church and school above the City Cemetery on Lawton Heights (named after local real estate developer BA Lawton), which soon after came to be known as “Catholic Hill.” Fr. Menges, who in 1891 became the first abbot of St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman had served briefly as parish priest at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in St. Florian. Sometime in the mid-late 1940s the Catholic Church founded Blessed Martin De Porres Catholic Mission on West College Street; according to local tradition, this African-American Catholic mission was founded with the assistance of noted Florence businesswoman Bessie Rapier Foster (1882-1963), a niece of noted Alabama Republican Congressman James T. Rapier (1838-1883), who converted to Catholicism from the Methodist Church in the 1940s. Its priest was Rev. Isidore Fussnecker, OSB, the parish priest of St. Joseph.
The Lutheran faith sent ministerial candidate Richard Hasz to Florence in 1936 to explore the possibility of founding a Lutheran congregation which was officially established in Florence in 1939 with Our Redeemer Lutheran Church’s sanctuary being erected on Poplar Street in that year. Now nearly every major Christian denomination is represented in Florence.
In July of 1895 a Ministers’ Association was organized in Florence, whose stated goal was to “bring the clergy of the city into more active cooperation in all good work, to strengthen social relations in religious work, to advance the benevolent work of the city, and generally to act in concert to advance the religious and moral interests of the city.”
By 1896, First Presbyterian, First Methodist and First Baptist were holding “union services” at various times, including on Thanksgiving. In addition, pastors of the various churches would take turns speaking at the Florence and East Florence YMCAs in the late 1880s and 1890s.
By the 1950s several of Florence’s African-American churches were part of a Tri-Cities Interdenominational Alliance. One of the most noteworthy achievements of this group was in getting the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. (1899-1984), father of slain Civil Rights activist Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), to speak in February of 1970, at First Baptist Church in Sheffield.
In more recent years, many of Florence’s ministers, pastors and priests, including our own Jimmy Hayes and Joe Van Dyke, have been members of the Shoals Ministerial Alliance. Among other achievements the Ministerial Alliance sponsored several of the Marches for Jesus in the 1990s.
Friday night, October 25, 1957 Dr. JS Gallinger was formally installed as Rabbi of Temple B’Nai Israel (which moved to Florence from Sheffield and constructed its temple in 1953), with Rev. JVC Summerall of First Presbyterian Church offering the invocation as a representative of the Florence Christian ministers, and Rev. John C Calhoun of Sheffield’s First Methodist Church representing Colbert County Christian ministers.
As Florence gears up for its bicentennial celebration in 2018 the city can be proud of its long and venerable faith tradition.
by Billy Ray Warren
It’s fairly easy to direct someone to the location of the Magnolia Church building and its adjacent property. Simply say, “On the eastern edge of Veterans Drive, turn south (toward the Tennessee River) on Kirkman Street. The building sits at the end of that street.” However, not many years ago, the directions would not have been so easy because, first of all, Veterans Drive as we know it today did not exist. There was a section of it, then known as Union Avenue, from Blair Street on the east and almost to O’Neal Street on the west. Eastward from Blair Street to Wilson Dam Road (there was no Cox Creek Parkway, either), there were valleys and hills covered in trees, underbrush and footpaths. Westward from O’Neal Street was a really deep, precipitous ravine. Beyond that, Union Avenue started again until it reached a certain point, at which it became East Spring Street all the way to South Pine Street in downtown Florence.
As time progressed, city leaders made the wise decision to create a new corridor from downtown Florence to the southern end of the new Cox Creek Parkway. Since the city-owned Veterans Park was almost immediately adjacent to the Cox Creek Parkway intersection, the logical choice for the name of the new road was Veterans Drive.
With the opening of this corridor, new, exciting developments began quickly on the eastern end. The creation of an intersecting road known as Hightower Place, named for a longtime medical doctor in Florence and his family, opened the way for the construction of a new restaurant atop a tall tower and, with it, a municipal conference center whose entrance arches simulate the spillways of nearby Wilson Dam. (This national award-winning building was designed by Lambert Ezell Durham Architects, of which Magnolia’s Lindon Ezell was a partner.) Adjacent to the tower and the conference center came the handsome Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa.
Not many blocks west of these developments came the Patton Island Bridge – later named the Singing River Bridge – which added a third river crossing between Lauderdale and Colbert counties. Magnolia’s Ronnie Flippo, who served 14 years in Congress, was successful in securing the initial funding of this new bridge which, today, accommodates thousands and thousands of motorists daily.
In recent months, work has begun on the nearly $300,000,000 Regional Health Care Center which is very near the Singing River Bridge.
So, what began with the hauling of tons and tons of dirt to fill ravines and valleys has resulted in a corridor which has quickly developed into a major artery – and the Magnolia property is in the heart of it.