Living History: Rev. Wylheme Ragland keeps Decatur’s past alive

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

Tucked away in the corner of libraries and archives in north Alabama, Tuscaloosa and Atlanta, the Rev. Wylheme Ragland spends hundreds of hours each year researching the past.

“History, specifically African-American history, is my passion,” the 76-year-old Ragland said. “If I am doing research, I may stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning trying to find more information. It’s like fishing. Sometimes you may catch nothing, but the next day you may find one thing. It is so exhilarating. It’s like finding a gold mine.”

Because of Ragland’s research, the history of Decatur’s Black community, figures and churches is more complete.

He uncovered lost details about Charles Pearl Sykes, a Black city councilman from the Reconstruction Era, worked with Peggy Allen Towns to memorialize Amos McKinney, a Civil War soldier buried at Sykes Cemetery, and delved into the history of King’s Memorial United Methodist Church, which was founded by slaves in 1854.

In February, for Black History Month, Ragland curated an exhibit at the Morgan County Archives featuring photographs of people of color in Old Town and beyond.

“Wylheme’s passion for history is priceless. His efforts have benefited the community, and not just with Black history, but all of our history,” said Decatur historian Peggy Allen Towns.

Ragland has resided in Decatur for more than 45 years, but his passion for history began as a child, while listening to the stories and accounts told by his family.

“As children back then, especially in the South, if you were allowed to be around adults, you were quiet. You didn’t ask any questions. You dare not. Normally, though, if adults were speaking, you weren’t in their presence,” said Ragland, who grew up in Anniston. “I would get as nearby as I could and soak up all of the history they talked about.”

That infatuation with history, relatives and the past never left Ragland.

“My interest in history comes from several generations in my maternal and paternal families. At family gatherings, they would always discuss our ancestors and relatives,” Ragland said.

From those family gatherings, Ragland learned about Fountain Gage Ragland, a congregational preacher in Birmingham, who graduated in 1884 from Talladega College, and Mary Louise Ragland, who played on Talladega’s first women’s basketball team.

Path to ministry

When enrolling at Jacksonville State University in 1969, Ragland declared history as his major.

“In my family, it wasn’t a matter of if you were going to college, it was a matter of where you were going to college,” Ragland sand. “At that time, the integration of colleges was very new. Those of us Blacks who lived on campus were very few, but it was fun and we had great professors. Two of my favorite professors were Calvin Wingo and his wife Patricia Wingo. They opened up so many worlds to me. They were historians with integrity.”

During his senior year, Ragland, who graduated with a major in history and minors in sociology and English, decided to pursue a future in the ministry.

“Initially I didn’t want to go into the ministry. I was focused on history. My love of people and love of the church, though, grew stronger and I realized ministry was my calling,” said Ragland, an eighth generation Methodist.

For Ragland, who grew up attending Haven United Methodist Church, a career in the ministry represented an extension of his childhood.

“We were at church all the time and went to all the activities. We went to Vacation Bible School, we were in the choir, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. If the doors were open, we were there. Unless you were deathly ill, you were going to church and if you were sick, you were sick for the whole week of activities other than school,” Ragland said.

At Emory University’s divinity school, Ragland studied church history. Like at Jacksonville State, Ragland was one of the few Black students at Emory.

“In the divinity school, there may have been eight Black students. The whole university and grad school were becoming integrated, but people of color were still not a large population,” Ragland said. “Being in the minority never bothered me. In my family we were always taught to believe in ourselves and to not compare ourselves to others. I also had family members who had come before me and succeeded. I looked to them for inspiration.”

After graduating from Emory, Ragland was assigned to a church in Huntsville. In 1977, he was transferred to King’s Memorial in Northwest Decatur — where he stayed until his retirement in 2009.

“I knew about King’s before I came here. King’s was considered high-steepled and high-toned. Many of the educated Blacks in Decatur attended King’s Memorial. It was called the church of leaders and educators. They had ordered worship, sang from hymn books and had educated pastors who went to seminary, even in the 1880s, 1890s and 1900s,” Ragland said.

Researching the past

When Ragland arrived at King’s Memorial, his research into the fourth oldest church in Decatur, behind First Methodist, First Baptist and First Presbyterian, began. He learned about the church that first stood on the corner of Market and Oak Street and about how Wallace A. Rayfield, best known for designing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, designed the King’s Memorial sanctuary in 1908. Rayfield also designed Decatur’s Wayman Chapel and First Missionary Baptist Church.

Ragland also researched the families of King’s Memorial, including the Banks and Schaudies families and Leon Sheffield, the first and only principal of Decatur’s all-Black high school, Lakeside.

“Leon Sheffield is descended from a slave who was freed in 1836. You see, once I get started on someone, I go back. It is a joy to document the history of Blacks in our area,” Ragland said.

After retirement, Ragland, who received a doctorate in church history from Vanderbilt University, focused most of his time researching history at the Morgan County Archives, Huntsville Madison County Library, Lawrence County Archives, Miles College Archives, the University of Alabama and Clark Atlanta University.

“Wylheme is very meticulous and detailed, and not just in history, but in his sermons and Bible studies. He leaves no stone, no rock, no boulder unturned. He is committed to finding facts and to the accuracy of our history,” Towns said.

Ragland served on the United Methodist Church’s North Alabama Conference Society, the North Alabama Conference Commission on Archives and History, the Morgan County Alabama Genealogical Society and the Celebrating Early Old Town with Art board, which hopes to create a Scottsboro Boys museum in Northwest Decatur.

Ragland has provided the verbiage for many of the city’s markers, helped develop a brochure about African-Americans for Decatur Morgan County Tourism, participated in the “Lift Every Voice and Sing” video, sat on the committee that led to Old Town being placed on the Alabama Historical Registry and National Registry of Historical Places, and created the Black Heritage Funeral Worship bulletins and obituaries collection.

The collection at the Morgan County Archives has more than 5,000 funeral bulletins.

“Those bulletins are important because they provide historical information on families, church affiliations and folks’ contributions to our city,” Towns said.

For his work in the community and dedication to researching history, Ragland was awarded the Brotherhood and Sisterhood Award for Outstanding Community Service from the National Conference for Community Justice, the Wheeler Archives and History Award from the United Methodist Church’s North Alabama Conference Historical Society and the Elbert Minter Award from the Morgan County Alabama Genealogical Society.

“I hope the community realizes there is a richness of history and family and patriotism in the Black community. I’m excited we are now recognizing, writing about and discussing it so that we all will know and will all celebrate that history,” Ragland said.

Along with the Banks, Schaudies and Sheffields, some of the people Ragland researched that stand out to him are Winnie Parker, the first woman of color to own property in Decatur in the 1870s and Mack McGinnis, a survivor of the Hartselle Bank Robbery in 1926, and the Union soldiers of the 106th United States Colored Infantry Regiment, which was organized in Decatur.

“There are so many people that have a rich history, but no longer have family members. I really want to keep their name and memory alive. There’s a treasure trove of people out there just waiting to be researched,” Ragland said.