Walk Through Time: Easy, self-guided walking tours provide glimpses into Decatur’s history

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

Stories of a church founded by slaves, a bank that served as a hospital during the Civil War and a riverboat captain and his girlfriend, a brothel madam, await participants in Decatur’s self-guided walking tours.

With flat streets and at a pace set by each participant, the self-guided walking tours offer seniors an opportunity to exercise and explore the city’s architecture, notable figures and religious, military and cultural history.

Three of the most historic areas in the city are Old Decatur in Northeast Decatur, Albany in Southeast Decatur and Old Town, Decatur’s oldest neighborhood dating back to the 1820s, in Northwest Decatur.

Information and pamphlets on the walking tours are available at visitdecatural.org/historic-walking-tours.

Old Town

Nestled between the railroad tracks on the east and Alabama 20 on the north, Old Town, a primarily Black neighborhood, includes three of the four buildings in the city that survived the Civil War, including the Old State Bank, the Burleson-Hines-McEntire House and the Dancy Polk House.

A digital walking tour of Old Town features Lakeside High, the city’s high school for Blacks during segregation, the Cottage Home Infirmary and Nursing Training School opened in 1900 and First Missionary Baptist Church, founded by slaves and designed by Wallace A. Rayfield, the second licensed Black architect in America.

Once one of Decatur’s most vibrant areas, Old Town’s Vine Street also included clothing stores, meat markets, barber shops and a movie theater, many Black-owned, until urban renewal in the 1950s-1960s resulted in the razing of the buildings.

“Prior to integration and urban renewal, Old Town was a vibrant and bustling predominantly Black working-class community. Everyone knew everyone,” said historian and author Peggy Allen Towns, who grew up in Old Town. “The neighborhood had a kinship. We were engaged with religious, social, political, education, cultural and civic matters.

“The Vine Street business district was like a city within itself. African Americans from local towns like Trinity, Priceville, Hillsboro and Cedar Lake would come to town on Saturdays to do their shopping. Old Town had many professionals, doctors, dentists, beauty shops, barbers, bookstores, groceries and eateries. While Blacks couldn’t visit white restaurants, both Vine and Bank streets had Black establishments that one could frequent.”

One of the statement structures in Old Town still standing is the Old State Bank, which served as a Union army hospital during the Civil War.

Other stops on the digital listing for the tour include Newcomb Street Church of Christ, the Turner-Surles Community Center, the Decatur Union Depot, the Morgan County Archives, King’s Memorial United Methodist Church, Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Etta Freeman Park, named for longtime educator and community activist Etta Freeman who will turn 106 the last week in July.

The tour also features the future site of the Scottsboro Boys-CEOTA (Celebrating Early Old Town with Art) Civil Rights Museum. To access the information on the historic sites and Old Town, individuals can scan the QR codes that appear on the plaques.

To decide what sites to include on the digital tour, the committee, which included Towns, looked at places that would keep the legacy of Old Town alive.

“We looked at the few remaining buildings and sights and the historical significance to not just this neighborhood but Decatur. Then we set out to tell those stories, many forgotten or not even known,” Towns said. “I hope that people will leave knowing Old Town’s extraordinary history, not just that it is the oldest neighborhood in town and the first mayor and first black alderman lived there, but also that it is accepted as a part of Decatur’s rich history. As people learn about the community, they are inspired by the pride and determination of these remarkable people and their contribution to our city.”

While in Old Town, stop by the corner of Bank and Vine streets where a marker detailing Decatur’s role in the women’s suffrage movement stands at the former site of the Echols Opera House. That is where activists Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt spoke in 1895 at the invitation of Ellen Hildreth, who, in the early 1890s, formed a suffrage club in Decatur — Alabama’s first.

Also, on Bank Street sits Simp McGhee’s, a restaurant named after the riverboat captain Simp McKee, whose girlfriend, Kate Lackner, better known as Miss Kate, was the madam of the brothel on Bank Street.

Old Decatur and Albany

Known for a variety of architectural styles, the historic districts of Old Decatur and Albany offer visitors a peek into the past.

Expect to see styles ranging from American Foursquare, Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and Second Empire to English cottage, Colonial Revival, art deco, bungalow and arts and crafts.

Among the notable homes is The Todd House on Lafayette Street Northeast. Built in 1836, the two-room Georgian house is one of the city’s four buildings that survived the Civil War.

In Albany, visit Delano Park, which lies between Sixth Avenue and Somerville Road Southeast and Gordon and Prospect drives. Carolyn Corner Smith, who was raised in Courtland and was Alabama’s first licensed female architect, designed several phases of the park, including the Rose Garden and the bathhouse. Among the 700 homes and churches Smith designed is the stone house at 623 Grant St. Smith designed the home, which was built from stones quarried near Russellville, for her mother.

Other walking tours include:

• Civil War “Battle for Decatur” walking tour, which includes 11 historic sites and traces the four-day clash for Decatur in 1864 between Union and Confederate forces.

• Trail of Tears Walking Tour, which tells the story of Native Americans brought to Rhodes Ferry during their forced removal by the U.S. government in 1837-38. They walked from the banks of the Tennessee River, where they arrived on steamboat, to the railroad station, where they boarded westward bound trains.

• Freedom Pioneers walking tour, which focuses on Old Town’s historic churches, prominent figures, the Tommy Lee Hines Trial and the Scottsboro Boys Trial.