“Until a few years ago, I had never heard of Nancy Lewis,” Paul Gaston writes in his book, Women of Fair Hope, on the eve of Fairhope’s centennial. “I might never have learned about her had I not decided
to write a book about the town’s history.”
And if Nancy Lewis hadn’t remained in what, at the time, was “Baldwin City” after the Fairhope Industrial Association leveraged her off her land, her story might have been lost to history altogether. That she stayed and participated in many aspects of Fairhope’s early years is not only fortunate for historians, but also for anyone who knows and loves Fairhope.
It is especially fortunate for me, because if she hadn’t stuck around, I might never have met Thelma Todd, a bright-eyed, sunny optimist… and Nancy Lewis’s great-great-granddaughter.
Gaston calls it one of the “ironies” he encountered in his research, the fact that it had been necessary to “buy out” Nancy Lewis in the first place. Yes, she was essentially “squatting” on 40 acres of the much-larger Bowen tract needed by the colony – which means she didn’t have the actual deed to the land, but the family had developed it, and paid taxes on it, for quite some years. So why not swap association membership for her claim, thereby adhering to the tenets of a cooperative colony? A colony that had brought these folks to the area from Iowa, where all the land belonged to all members of the association – regardless of race, creed, or color – upon which they were free to develop as they might, for whatever enterprise, be it business, creative, or family.
Nancy Lewis, aside from being seen as an “obstacle” to progress, might have been considered a prime, example resident; the site was something of an oasis in the wilderness, at least according the one census taker, who noted how he “loved visiting the Lewis place,” for the hospitality, the facilities, the food. “How, then, had it happened that the Fairhopers,” Gaston writes, “in almost their first major communal decision, had wrenched Nancy Lewis’s homestead from her?”
The answer, of course, is that Nancy and John Lewis were freed slaves who had moved to the area from Mississippi in the 1860s. It had been agreed that to preserve the Fairhope experiment, if it truly had a “Fair Hope” of working, it had to be for whites only, despite the contradiction with all they professed to believe in, the “universal equality” and “cooperative individualism” they had actually set out to achieve.
It was a fatal flaw, although there was hope that the experiment would help create a more just economic order overall, enough to make racism disappear. There were even talks of starting up a separate, single-tax colony in the already-thriving black community adjacent to Fairhope. Neither plan got any further toward mitigating racial prejudice than talk, and “all that was left to concerned Fairhopers was to speak out against racist excesses and, within the limits of their power and vision, hold to standards of decency and fair play.”
The situation remains, in certain crucial aspects, largely unchanged to this day: The “whites only” signs might be gone, but there is still a color line. Which is not at all daunting for Thelma Todd, and a whole cast of others who have taken it upon themselves to address that fatal flaw one way or another.
“We decided we were going to do something about it,” says Sonya Bennett – one of Thelma’s closest co-conspirators – meaning the black/white issue in town. They sit side-by-side in the middle of the couch in Sonya’s front room of her house down on Magnolia, just a stone’s throw from the obelisk honoring Henry George. Traffic noise, which hardly ever abates, washes up over the front porch; when the traffic takes its occasional break, bird whistles from the park across the street take its place. A table spread with all manner of tempting finger food – “from quiche to nuts,” as they say – waits idly in the next room, while the two ladies swap stories, most of them not nearly so serious, for they both so do love to laugh.
Thelma’s stories of Fairhope are those of a vested, yet objective insider, a veritable “fly on the wall,” as it were. Her direct family lore goes back to the very beginning, of course, and she lived through its post-war growing pains and the city’s tumultuous struggles for civil rights and integration. She attended the segregated schools and was served through rear doors of restaurants. She was told by white neighbors she wasn’t “allowed” to play with their children, and she rode the bus for hours each day just to get her education.
But Thelma also had a very strong family, as was the case in many of those largely self-contained shadow communities that go back as far as pre-Civil War days. Enough of Thelma’s family had ventured out of Fairhope that there were always trips to other, often more cosmopolitan parts of the country: Chicago, Ohio, New York, and New England. After high school at the Baldwin County Training Center in Daphne, she went to stay with an uncle in Connecticut, where she attended college. She came back to Fairhope for good after retirement to be with her ailing mother in her final years, over a decade ago.
Not long after that, Thelma first met Sonya. Gwen, an adopted daughter of the Connecticut couple, knew Sonya from her Bahá’í work in Atlanta. Sonya had ended up in Fairhope a dozen years ago, after Bahá’í friends she’d worked with in Israel asked her to housesit their home on Magnolia. Gwen thought they’d get along.
They met at Tamara’s Downtown for “lunch.” Their visit lasted eight hours. Sonya, Thelma remembers, had the chicken salad. Thelma took her on a grand tour of all the old neighborhoods and communities, including the Anna T. Jean School site, the Twin Beech AME Zion Church, Houstonville, Battles Warf, and Tatumville. It was a glorious afternoon, though Sonya couldn’t help but be troubled by something that had bothered her for a while, particularly since she attended Frye Gaillard’s talk at Page & Palette about one of his civil rights books. “It really bothers me,” she stood and told the roomful of attendees (and mostly strangers), “that there are no African-Americans here.”
The reminder brings a slight chuckle from Thelma, as it probably always does, of Sonya’s directness, something much of the town knows about by now, and many have come to rely on. (Witness the advice booth she’s running in the bookstore.) But they both recognize the problem of Fairhope’s “color line,” just as E.B. Gaston and his son and grandson did, as apparently Henry George himself did. Legend tells that George refused to set foot in Fairhope because of it (despite being as nearby as Daphne at some point), as do a whole lot of other folks around Fairhope, just not enough, somehow.
Thelma and Sonya and those other folks know that broaching this subject within their personal circles is pretty much like preaching to the choir – just like Sonya knew that day in Page & Palette. There are variations of agreement as to why it remains an enduring problem; even if there’s a fair argument suggesting that, like the country as a whole, once you institutionalize a fatal flaw at the moment of conception, it’s real hard to undo.
Thelma and Sonya share the reason they think the color line persists, kind of. Thelma, who lived through the “whites only” beaches, water fountains, libraries, movie theaters, and the curfew – who as an adult has been eyed with suspicion while browsing a retail shop – offers, “Most folks just aren’t comfortable coming to town, or there’s nothing really going on that interests them.”
Sonya is less charitable. “It’s hard to be comfortable some place where you know you’re not wanted, where no one smiles at you or greets you!” Hence, the “something” they decided to do something about. “We’re just going to let them see us.”
“We talked about it,” Sonya says. They discussed a conscious tactic to be conspicuous out-and-about in Fairhope. “We were going to be seen together,” basically their passive-aggressive ploy to bring the choir out of the loft and onto the streets to illustrate the lack of diversity in the town, but also as an invitation for others to join them.
“Even if it’s just for dessert,” Thelma says, who is more than your average foodie. (Ask her sometime about the budget negotiations she would put potential suitors through before agreeing to a dinner date.)
“We think we started it,” Sonya chimes in, “along with Maggie Mosteller,” the public displays of togetherness.
“But the Hope Community,” organized by Sally Smith and chaired by Shawn Graham, “thinks they did.”
They’re not really interested in this argument, though, as they start talking over each other, finishing
each other’s sentences, the way longtime friends do, laughing all the while. Because who started the movement isn’t the point. The point is to be seen, be present, maybe even expand that choir.
So if you see these friends together, walking around town, be sure to say hello, as John Prine advised in another, equally admirable context. Go find the paver Dr. Gaston bequeathed to Nancy Lewis about midway down the sidewalk on the central block of Fairhope Avenue – or visit the soon-to-be erected marker, thanks to Donnie Barrett and the Fairhope Museum of History, commemorating the original Lewis homestead on the corner of Morphy and Bancroft – and ask Thelma what it means to say that her great-great-grandmother “loved the lane.”
Joe Formichella is a multiple literary award winner, including a Hackney Literary Award
(short fiction) and a 2008 Foreword magazine nonfiction book of the year (Murder Creek).
He was also a finalist for a national IPPY award for true crime (Murder Creek), a finalist for a New Letters Literary Prize, and a Pushcart Prize nominee. A new novel, Caduceus, is due out within the year. He lives near Fairhope, at Waterhole Branch Productions, with his wife, author Suzanne Hudson.