Stitching our stories together

My Alabama Story | By Peggy Allen Towns

#MyAlabamaStory #AHAat50 | June 18, 2024

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Our stories are like a quilt, each piece is different, but when stitched together gives us a better picture of our past and present.

My mother had a saying, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you’ll never know where you’re going.” Little did I know that these words would spark a flame to tell and preserve the stories of people, whose hard work and commitment helped to shape my hometown of Decatur, particularly the Old Town community.

Peggy Allen Towns.

My family’s roots run deep in Alabama soil. Prior to President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, they were enslaved here. An ancestor fought during the civil war to preserve the Union and for freedom. I have fond memories of my great aunt — Effice Polk Pearson, daughter of Alen Polk, a former slave — who had a unique ability to paint vivid pictures of the past that captured one’s attention and curiosity. These “Effice Stories” were the first that I penned in a tribute at her funeral.

My early childhood was during an era of segregation. Daddy worked hard, he and his brother purchased a duplex. We lived on one side and they the other. The brothers were the first in their immediate family to become homeowners. Our community was close-knit. Neighbors helped, encouraged, and looked out for one another. They visited, sat on porches talking and, on occasion, borrowed a cup of sugar, meal, flour, or a couple eggs to finish a dish; or when the peddler came, fifty cents or a dollar. No one locked doors. Early in life, I was taught to be responsible and caring. While attending Mrs. Orr’s kindergarten, my task was to return home and teach my younger siblings what I learned that day. Several elderly couples lived in our block. One might yell across the street to my mother and summon me to sweep, dust, wash dishes, or retrieve clothes from the clothesline and fold them; or they’d have me run to the store, money secured, knotted in a handkerchief, and tied to my clothing. My brother and I had a paper route, my first job. I suppose that was to teach responsibility, too.

Before the Civil Rights Act passed, I was introduced to politics. Our neighbor ran for city council in 1963, sprinting from door to door in the community; we passed out campaign flyers. Religion was important. At a time when women preachers were unheard of, my grandmother was the first Black female pastor in Morgan and surrounding counties, during the early 1950s. I was always amazed at the respect people gave her as she stood in her God-given purpose in a male-dominated field.

During segregation, Decatur’s Vine Street business district thrived with Black businesses. Unless they were within the African American community, Blacks were served at back doors or small walkup windows. Bus stations, train stations, and theatres had separate seating.

Old State Bank Building, Decatur.

Black schools provided learning, social outlets, cultural programs, and other opportunities. We had caring educators. School books didn’t include Black accomplishments; only one Decatur story stands out, that of enslaved people whose craftmanship built the Old State Bank Building — now thought to be the oldest surviving bank building in the state.

As an author, I tell little-known or forgotten stories of amazing Alabamians. My passion was sparked by my own childhood experiences and by learning of the remarkable achievements of people in the face of enormous odds. Their courage, sheer determination, and perseverance — amid oppression — has been an extraordinary influence on my journey. From slavery to freedom, to Jim Crow, to the Scottsboro Boys, civil and equal rights, to now, we’ve experienced so much in this region. And knowing where we’ve been is insightful to all generations, if we are to know where we are going.

We are history and each story when stitched together gives us a powerful legacy of survival and endurance. My hope is that by telling our stories, we are not only informed about where we’ve been; but united, inspired, enriched, and empowered to spark flames of hope, to value the contributions of all, to engage in constructive dialogue and work together to improve the lives of all Alabamians.

Decatur’s Old Town community. All photos courtesy of the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area, Hidden Spaces project.


Peggy Allen Towns is a historian who has conducted extensive research on her hometown of Decatur, Alabama. She shares her knowledge as a Road Scholar for the Alabama Humanities Alliance. And she is the author of three books: Duty Driven: The Plight of North Alabama’s African Americans During the Civil War (2012); Scottsboro Unmasked: Decatur’s Story (2018); and Scapegoat: The Tommy Lee Hines Story (2021). In 2022, she received the Alabama Historical Association’s Virginia Van Der Veer Hamilton Award for her contributions toward a better understanding of Alabama’s history.