Yesterday: Memories of Selma and her People
© 1940 C.C. Grayson
In the 1940s, one of Selma’s oldest living residents, Claude Grayson, was asked to record his memories of the town. He had made a habit of contributing little recollections to the local paper and apparently created demand for more of the same. What was produced, in 1940, is an exceedingly rare and personal look at a town from the 1860s to the early 1900s. It was written in longhand and not organized in the least, but what interesting times to record! Grayson arrived in Selma as a young lad in 1867, and found it a town whose two great avenues, Water and Broad, lay much in ruins from the invading Yankee army of two years before. He witnessed its revival, as Selma capitalized on its river commerce by investing heavily in railroads. This was an age when Selma was one of the leading cities of Alabama, and where Dallas County’s massive population gave it a powerful position in state politics. (It wasn’t an accident that Selma managed the rare feat of claiming both of Alabama’s senators to Washington at one time.)
Much of this is of interest only to locals, of course. I stumbled upon this book while pursuing any and all leads relevant to the Hotel Albert, a historical sketch of which I’m working on on behalf of the city. (In the photograph above, it’s that ornate four-story building.) I quickly learned that Grayson used to walk the third and fourth-floor rafters long before the building was complete shooting pigeons, but I was thereafter fascinated by the myriad of stories Grayson reveals. Some are random, some tender, some weird. I’ve only recently learned of a phenomenal man – Goldsby King — who plowed his fortune into creating and maintaining a private hospital in the city, who worked himself to death and was hailed as a saint when he perished in his fifties. King makes an appearance here, but as mentioned the collection is somewhat random — Grayson gives a full account of the Battle of Selma, and closes with a history of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, making no attempt at all to be chronological. It’s whatever comes to mind, really, so it will probably frustrate an outside reader trying to make sense of it. As a native Selmian and someone whose career involves its history, I was perfectly at home, and found it satisfying to connect the names of buildings and streets to prominent personalities who made Selma such a beautiful and satisfying place to live. Although since the closing of the Air Force base in the 1970s the town has struggled economically, so much of the granduer of yesterday still stands, and it’s nice to be reminded of it.