DECATUR, Ala. (WHNT) — Old town in Decatur is historically known as an African American municipality but it still stands today as Decatur city oldest community.
Just north of the Old Decatur downtown district is the historic railroad depot which currently operates as a museum. A few more steps north are Decatur’s oldest community known as Old Town.
Established in 1821, Old Town is where life began for black families. After President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 to free slaves in the south, many freed black families began to settle.
“Freed blacks did indeed settle here in Old Town,” author and historian Peggy Allen Towns said.
Towns was raised in Old Town. She tells of its forgotten and historic contributions by African Americans and what the landscape means to them.
“We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors who actually built this town where who we are and we are where we are because of them, and I think that needs to be recognized,” Towns said.
After the reconstruction of Decatur many of the white families moved out of Old Town and moved to old Decatur. After the Civil War, Old Town began to emerge politically and economically. New employment opportunities attracted former slaves and their families to the area.
“Here in old town was the first Black mayor and also during reconstruction was the first black alderman named Burrell Lemons.,” Towns said.
Renowned physician and surgeon Dr. Willis E. Sterrs established himself in Old Town, as well as Wallace Rayfield the second licensed African American architect in the United States.
“Mr. Rayfield built Kings Memorial Church, Waymon chapel and he designed the famous 16th street Baptist Church in Birmingham,” Towns said.
Rayfield also built the Missionary Baptist church on Vine Street in 1921. The church served as the political presence for the Scottsboro Boys landmark trial in 1931.
Vine Street was vibrant with a multitude of shops and stores that used to occupy the area when blacks and Jewish people were restricted to living there during segregation.
“There were barbershops, tailors and a lot of restaurants as well as doctors’ offices and lawyers’ offices all here on Vine Street,” Towns said. “We just have such a rich history here and it’s my passion to share our stories.”
Old Town Decatur was the first of two cities in Alabama to organize the United States Colored Troops Regiment during the Civil War. Most of the structures in Old Town were demolished during the city’s urban renewal project during the 1970s.