Phenix City (1953): A Growing, Building City
Hello everyone! Today's History Spotlight explores the growth our neighbor, Phenix City, was also seeing in the early 1950s. Much like Columbus, Phenix City was experiencing a population boom, new subdivisions, expansions of utilities, and improvements in their public housing. Its people were also being held at the mercy of a system of corruption that would lead to the horrible tragedy of the assassination of Albert Patterson in 1954. Thank you all so much for your continued interest in these spotlights. Remember, if you have any ideas - I'm always grateful for them. Historic preservation only flourishes because of your passion for the history of this town, its stories, and its people. If you have any questions or concerns, never hesitate to contact the HCF Office – 706-322-0756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Sources: The 1953 Industrial Index, Phenix City and The Tragedy and The Triumph of Phenix City by Margaret Anne Barnes. We are highlighting several of local historian W.C. Woodall's Industrial Indexes over the course of this summer. If you aren't familiar with them, they are a wonderful collection of articles on local happenings, business advertisements, and images of new homes put together each year from 1912 until 1960. There are also issues dedicated to Phenix City and Fort Benning. You can find them in the Genealogy Room of the Columbus Public Library and the CSU Archives.
The town was first named Girard in 1833. Other names were Browneville and Brandon. In 1923, the towns of Girard and Phenix City were consolidated into one city. Phenix City was named for the mythical Pheonix bird. “This is Phenix City, this is my birthplace, this is my home. I feel about my town as a million other people feel about theirs, that it’s the best place in the USA. And well I can feel this way too, because there is much that Phenix City can be proud of. There is a rich heritage and a glorious history, which is the cornerstone of my little city.” From an article written by Joan La Merele Howington.
Phenix City, Alabama is located in the extreme east central portion of the state on the Chattahoochee River which forms the boundary between Alabama and Georgia. It is the ninth largest city in Alabama. The 639 square miles of land in the county are classified as predominantly suited for timber or pastures, with a sizable portion suited for row crops. Phenix City is the county seat of Russell County. The population of the town in 1950 was 23,305 – up from 15,351 in 1940. It has been a period of substantial commercial and industrial growth and progress in Phenix City; all housing records were shattered, church and school building projects, definite planning for expansion of local utilities, and also the substantial enlargement of Homer D. Cobb Memorial Hospital. The large improvement program set for Cobb Memorial Hospital. included an addition providing new rooms, two new emergency room and two new delivery rooms. The hospital, which was only six years old in 1953, increased its capacity to a total of 130 beds. The improvements planned cost a total of $750,000 – doubling the value of the hospital property.
Plans for a $600,000 improvement and expansion of the municipal waterworks also began in 1953. It included providing an additional intake at the Chattahoochee Rover, doubling filter capacity and providing for additional filter plant enlargement, building two new water tanks, and substantially expanding the water distribution system. The city school system, with a property valuation of $2,500,000, began building a new combined High and Elementary School for African Americans at the cost of $204,375 that would accommodate 488 pupils. During 1952, the school system also made improvements to various buildings at a cost of $61,000. The city schools had a total enrollment in 1953 of 6,046 – a new high record. A progressive program of improvement was also carried out in the Russell County school system, which includes all schools in the county outside of Phenix City. The seven white school buildings in the county were modernized that same year and nine new schools were built for African Americans for a total cost of $175,000. A new high school was also built in Seale to serve Seale and Pittsview. County enrollment was nearly 5,000.
On the housing front - there were improvements to public housing developments and new single-family subdivisions being built. The two new public housing projects, operated by the Housing Authority of Phenix City, are home to 3,000 people. Approximately 1,560 residents are located in the Riverview Court Apartments (white) and 1,410 residents live in the Frederick Douglas Apartments (African American). In 1952, additions to both apartments were completed to the cost of $2,565,000 with the majority of work happening at the Riverview Court Apartments. Lorin D. Raines, from Columbus, was the architect for both projects and Williams Construction Co. had the general contract for the two. The two projects had a combined overall property valuation of almost $4,000,000 over 33 acres. The addition to the Riverview Court Apartments consisted of 31 two-story buildings containing 174 units. The project has a total of 390 units. Improvements were also made to the recreation and administrative buildings, the playground was improved, and the softball and football fields were lit for night games. The Frederick Douglas Apartments had a total of 282 units. The addition completed consisted of 14 new buildings, adding 76 additional units. A community building was also constructed – it included a clinic, nursery, kitchen, lounge areas, social hall, and an auditorium. At both apartments, there were Boy Scout troops, Girl Scout troops, and teen-age clubs.
A new subdivision was also highlighted in the Industrial Index – Sandfort Heights. It was built as a restricted subdivision for house type and cost of building. The name was derived from Sandfort Road. It comprised an area of 60 acres with lot sizes of 100 x 150 feet. “The restrictions regarding type of building and minimum cost are the standard restrictions that usually apply to high-class residential subdivisions. They are the same that are in vogue in subdivisions of the highest type in the local metropolitan area which embraces both Phenix City and Columbus."
One topic the Industrial Index didn’t touch on was where things were standing in 1953 on the gambling side of Phenix City. This was also the year when Albert Patterson decided to run for Attorney General of Alabama. While there was a tremendous amount of growth and incredible expansion for Phenix City, the citizens were also continuing to deal with a corrupt system of government and criminals. In order to provide a broader scope picture of the early 1950s, we've included a snapshot of what led up to the assassination of Albert Patterson. In the early morning hours of January 9, 1952, Hugh Bentley’s home was bombed with his wife, son, and nephew inside asleep. Fortunately, everyone survived. This bombing (photograph below) bred a new kind of terror in Phenix City. Vengeance was now being reaped on the innocent and unsuspecting. The underworld would strike again in February with setting fire to Albert Patterson’s office. As was always the case, investigations were started, but no evidence could be found, and no arrests were made.
Also, later that same year in May, Hugh Bentley and members of the Russell Betterment Association (RBA) took up their positions at the ballot boxes as poll watchers. They witnessed marked ballots, bought votes, and unqualified voters. When they asked Judge Harry Randall, who was seeking re-election, to issue warrants, he refused. When Hugh Bentley returned to the polls with his son and friend, Hugh Britton, they were badly beaten with the police watching. Apparently, using fists and feet weren’t considered an arrestable moment at the time. Hugh Bentley and the RBA were not the only ones saying that law enforcement in Phenix City had gone to hell. Everybody said so, including the courthouse crowd – Hoyt Shepherd, Godwin Davis, Elmer Reese – but theirs was for a different reason. Their grave concern was the cavalier conduct of Chief Deputy Sherriff Albert Fuller. Fuller had carved out an empire of his own: protection and prostitution with levies so high that there were constant complaints from the gamblers about the exorbitant fees. (Pictured below are Hoyt Shepherd and Jimmie Matthews.)
For Albert Fuller (pictured below), it was all so easy. The gamblers were willing to pay plenty for protection so that they could continue operating in back rooms with hidden equipment, and the girls were even easier than that. All he had to do was make an arrest, charge them with a fine they couldn’t pay, and then arrange for them to work it out at whichever whore house needed a new girl. Hugh Bentley and the RBA had no idea what was really going on in Phenix City. They would never be able to beat the Machine, at least not the way it was set up at that point. Every corner was covered, law enforcement, legislative, and judicial. Hoyt Shepherd had seen to that.
Two things then happen that set up Albert Patterson’s run for Attorney General. First, the gambling machine gets Russell County’s two State Representatives – Jabe Brassell and Ben Cole – to introduce legislation declaring the five-man commission created in 1947 as unconstitutional and request a return to the three-man commission (who would be gambler-friendly). The second was the unsuccessful attempt to impeach Sherriff Ralph Matthews.
Since taking the job as legal counsel for the RBA and investigating the conditions to bring impeachment proceedings against Sheriff Matthews, Patterson had learned that the syndicate’s tentacles of power and influence reached far beyond Phenix City out into the State and beyond with its sights ultimately on Washington, but only Patterson knew the full extent of that. It was dangerous knowledge that he did not share with anyone for it made him a target. After grave consideration for his family and his finances, and his own physical limitations, Albert Patterson decided to become a candidate for the office of attorney general. Albert Patterson was assassinated on June 18, 1954. A horrible tragedy that would eventually lead to the triumph of Phenix City.
Next Week: Next Thursday is the last Spotlight before we head into July and celebrate Fort Benning's growth in the 1950s. One new neighborhood in Columbus was dedicated to serving our African American veterans - Carver Heights. Join us as we look more into the history of the neighborhood and its close ties to Fort Benning. Thank you all again for your continued interest in these emails and for your support of preservation! See you next week!