Come with me. I want to show you what a hole in Alabama history looks like.
Downtown Eufaula is postcard pretty. It fits the Hollywood idea of what a small Southern town is supposed to look like, so much so that the producers of that “Sweet Home Alabama” movie took some footage here years ago, although they shot the scenes with Reese Witherspoon across the river, in Georgia.
According to the Alabama Department of Transportation, this road is the busiest state highway in Alabama, and if you close your eyes, you might mistake its sounds and smells for a big city rather than a quaint river town. This is how impatient beachgoers get from Atlanta to Panama City, and where semis and log trucks belch diesel fumes as they rumble in both directions. But turn your head, look out the passenger side window, and you can see the same 15-second clip Hollywood came here for 20 years ago.
On either side of Eufaula Avenue are rows of antebellum mansions that have their own names, imparted by owners who are long since dead. The director of the state tourism department once said the houses looked like wedding cakes. Most, but not all, are in excellent shape, restored by new owners who are as much curators as they are residents.
Lines of old oak trees form a natural canopy over the road. The residents are protective of these trees, many of which memorialize deceased townspeople with small granite markers laid like gravestones among their roots. One tree owns itself, or so a little plaque there says, and there’s even a tiny fence to keep us off its lawn.
Eufaula sells its history to tourists, or at least, a version of it. Each spring, the city hosts the Eufaula Pilgrimage, an antebellum festival when many of these private homes open for tours. Young women dress in hoop skirts and old men button up waistcoats. Typically, about 1,500 people visit from across the southeast. And it’s an event the state subsidizes. Last year, Alabama distributed $247,500 to preservation groups here.
An ambush in 1874
Henry Frazer was a Black Republican when that wasn’t an unusual thing in Alabama. That day he told the men not to bring weapons, he would later tell investigators in one of two Congressional inquiries into what happened that day in Eufaula.
The year was 1874, and Alabama was nearing the abrupt end of Reconstruction. Frazer, who was also a Methodist minister, had spent two weeks canvassing support among the sharecroppers around Eufaula, back when cotton farmers still loaded their crops onto boats. The Monday before Election Day, he led about 400 Black men toward town to vote. They camped by the roadside outside of town, and set off on foot at eight o’clock the next morning, marching to drums and fifes.
“I told them that although they might carry sticks, they should not carry any other weapons,” Frazer told investigators “I instructed them to stand in a body until they got a chance to vote.”
When they arrived in Eufaula, they met another group of Black men coming into town from the other direction. A policeman searched them and as the men began to vote, a man named Harrison Hart rode up on a horse. He asked what time it was.
“Somebody made answer to him that it was nearly twelve o’clock, and he said, ‘In about an hour’s time, we will have a frolic,’” Frazer testified.