Squire, Birney, and the Judge

On May 5, “the first Monday after the fourth Monday in April,” 1823, an unlikely thing happened at the Madison county court house.

It all started on the night of February 15, 1822, when around 11pm someone at “the dwelling house of Obadiah Jones there situate feloniously and Burglariously did break and enter.” Obadiah Jones was well known in Madison county, having served as its only judge during the territorial period. So when a thief “did steal take and carry away one bank note for the payment of ten dollars,” they stole not just from a rich man but from one of the most important men in Alabama.

The only suspect was Squire.

Squire’s brief description in the court records reads thus “a negro slave (belonging to one Alfred Shelly).” There is no indication as to why Squire became the chief suspect. The county had not yet banned the enslaved from working in their free time, so Squire might have earned enough money to become suspicious. Or it simply could have been that Obadiah Jones claimed he saw a black man and Squire lived nearby.

Either way, this is the first recorded case of a slave appearing in court in Madison county. It is difficult to imagine the terror that Squire must have felt or the striking imbalance of power that everyone must have recognized. Here was a member of the lowest caste facing off against a member of the highest.

Of course, that was before it was ordered by the court “that James G Birney Esq be assigned council for the said negro slave.”

James Gillespie Birney had a long and interesting career. He was born in Kentucky and during his childhood was tutored by antislavery advocates. Although he was gifted his first slave at the age of six and briefly had a plantation in Triana – the brutal realities of slavery never sat well with him. In the early 1830’s he quit practicing law and traveled throughout the Deep South trying to convince free blacks to leave America for their supposed new homeland in Liberia. Birney eventually abandoned the idea of colonization altogether, left the South, freed all his slaves, and became a staunch abolitionist – even running for president on the Liberty Party ticket in 1840 – the first time a national party called for the complete and total end of slavery in the United States.*

But all of that was later. For now Birney was known in Huntsville as a man who represented counterfeiters, the victims of mob violence, and spoke out against Andrew Jackson’s 1819 invasion of Florida – a liberal lawyer with a soft spot for the dispossessed.

A liberal lawyer but a good one.

Unfortunately the courts of this era did not keep strict transcripts, so the oratory is lost. They simply recorded judgments. So all that is left to us is this: “we the Jury find the said negro man Squire not Guilty in manners and form as he is charged in said bill of Indictment.”

As rare as it is to find enslaved people as defendants or plaintiffs in court documents, it is rarer still when they win. So although Squire’s victory was certainly bittered by his continued bondage, he probably understood how unlikely his acquittal seemed from the outset and how strange it was that, for once in his life, he was treated equally under the law.

* Michael, the gifted slave, was four year old at the time. They were playmates, and later, after Birney’s revelation about the horrors of slavery and his subsequent manumissions, good friends.

The State of Alabama v. Squire, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 147-148 (1823).


All the Petty Horses

Nathaniel Lenox did little in 1816 to earn the goodwill of his neighbors. For throughout that year he engaged in equine related larceny.

On January 15, Nathaniel Lenox found the home of Jacob Fuqua and with “force and arms” stole from him a “silver plated curbed bridle bit” worth eight dollars.

Not content with his new bridle bit, Nathaniel Lenox appeared in the Cherokee Nation on the first day of May. There he came upon Frederick Ice and stole a “certain bay horse of the value of one hundred dollars.” Now this case is interesting because the prosecutor, the person that the Mississippi Territory is suing on behalf of, is Thomas Ice – so it appears that a male relative of Frederick’s is taking up his cause.

The jury very quickly found Lenox not guilty of stealing a horse from Frederick Ice. However it took the court longer to deliberate on the theft of a bridle bit from Jacob Fuqua as Louis Winston, the attorney general, delayed his sentencing to the November term.

However, once the second Monday in November arrived Judge Obadiah Jones deemed it prudent to dismiss the charges against him because it appeared “to the satisfaction of the court that the said Nathaniel Lenox is dead.”

No word on if Jacob Fuqua ever got his bridle bit back.

The Territory vs. Nathaniel Lenox, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 179/144-180/145 (1816).

The Territory vs. Nathaniel Lenox, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819.p. 209/169-211/170 (1816).

The Kidnappings of Claiborne Griffin

The kidnappings began in the spring of 1811.
Jesse Daniel and Claiborne Griffin both appeared before the court during the July 1812 term. They each accused the other of vicious assault and abductions. The first case, Claiborne Griffin vs Jesse Daniel, alleges that March 1811, Jesse Daniel came upon Claiborne Griffin with “clubs, swords, and staves,” and did “beat wound, imprison and evil beat him.”
Daniel then dragged Griffin back to his home where he imprisoned him “without an reasonable cause and contrary to law,” for about a day.
This assault takes on significant context when considering the very next suit. For, Jesse Daniel responded to Claiborne Griffin with a case of his own. In early 1811, Griffin apparently came up from a place called “Bever about four miles below Twickenham” with “swords, staves & al.” Now, other cases from this time period describe a simple geography around modern day Huntsville, with areas known primarily by simple descriptors like Hickory Flat or “the beaver dam fork.” So it might be that Griffin lived by a creek just south of Huntsville/Twickenham.
Either way he arrived in town with his swords and set to kidnapping the “goods and chattels” of Jesse Daniel – four slaves named Nancy, Rachel, Abaline, and a fourth whose name was probably Arlotin. They all went to “Bever” for about a day before Daniel came to collect.
In light of the original raid, and the violence typical of the time and place, it was almost expected that Jesse Daniel would fall upon Claiborne Griffin until “his life was greatly despaired of.”
The first jury found Daniel not guilty and the second ruled that Griffin owed him $87 for his troubles.
Claiborne Griffin vs. Jesse Daniel, Madison County Court Record Book 1811-1813. p. 72-73 (1812).
Jesse Daniel vs. Claiborne Griffin, Madison County Court Record Book 1811-1813. p. 73 (1812).
William Kavanaugh vs. Thomas Patterson, Madison County Court Record Book 1811-1813. p. 92-94 (1812).

Continue reading “The Kidnappings of Claiborne Griffin”

“Cruel, Barbarous & Inhumane”: Emily Cornelius and Planter Divorce

On August 19, 1852, Emily Cornelius fled. She hid, not for the first time, among her neighbors and begged their protection from the man who beat her, William Cornelius, her husband.

Emily and William married September 23, 1847 in Madison County. William was a rich man. He owned about 810 acres and counted among his property at least twenty slaves: Jim, Thirston, Chainey, Jules, Horace, Andy, Bake, Buck, Little, Jae, Bill, Dennis, Palena, Katy, Evilina, Solomon, Sarah, Jane, Charlotte, George, Larkin, Francis, and an infant named Lena.

With his wealth and land, all derived from his surplus of slaves, William Cornelius achieved the status of planter – the rough and tumble elite of antebellum slave society. A planter, even a minor one like William Cornelius, wielded great and ugly power over their estate. White men who were free to terrorize, rape, and sometimes murder, planters rarely resembled the coiffed and dainty aristocrats of film and popular legend.

Due to this power, influence, and their relative scarcity when weighed against the general population, we do not have many records of planter divorces in the antebellum South. Indeed, the normal circumstances for divorce rarely applied to them. Less wealthy white men who allowed a female slave to take their wife’s place in bed might face a case, while planters’ concubines would often be overlooked by wives who wanted to keep their comfortable home. Planters also found fortune in their own counties and had no reason, like so many poor men, to shrug off the burdens of family and flee to Arkansas or the Republic of Texas. In addition, a legal quirk has prevented further insight into plantation marital strife. South Carolina possessed some of the largest and wealthiest plantations in the antebellum South. However, due to their conservative nature and quixotic constitutions, divorce was not legalized there until 1950, almost a century after the end of the slaveholding planter class.

Instead, the few planter divorces on record are often the result of dramatic and brutal domestic violence.

For the first years of their marriage William drank often. Emily described him as “addicted to the immoderate use of intoxicating drink,” but all else was otherwise peaceful. Around 1850, his behavior changed and William Cornelius became “cruel, barbarous, & inhumane.”

When he drank he fell into the “frequent habit of heaping curses & imprecations of the most direful character,” upon her. It quickly progressed from curses to shouted threats of violence and death. Then he started hitting her, delivering “violent blows with his fists & feet upon your oratrix.” During the worst assaults neighbors intervened to save her life.

Emily Cornelius began running from her husband. She counted at least four times prior to August 19, 1852. Each time she hid from him, William appeared later, sober and making “the most earnest asseverations…& uttering promises of the most solemn & sacred character,” that he would quit drinking. Each time she returned, convinced by his pleas, that she might “hope for peace & happiness & safety in the discharge of her duties as a wife.”

Each time he lied. The tension built in their marriage and he progressively used greater means of violence. In early June 1852, Emily Cornelius gave birth to a son – William Roland Cornelius – like his father. During her recovery period, when the infant was but three weeks old and she still feeble, William Cornelius attacked her. She cradled the infant in her arms while her husband “threatened to take the life of your oratrix if she opened her mouth.” During the assault William grabbed a chain and raised it to threaten her. He said he would kill her with it.

His mother, Ellen Cornelius, intervened. Ellen Cornelius moved between them and bodily shielded both Emily and the infant from her son’s rage. For this she “received a severe blow.” Afterwards, when William Cornelius began to drink they both hid.

Just a few weeks later, on August 19, he confronted her in a drunken rage. This time he brandished “an open Kine in his hand,” and told her it was time for their “final separation.” William told her to run and never come back, stating that if she returned he would finally kill her. She fled. Emily Cornelius took refuge with the neighbors and this time refused to return to her husband despite all his pleadings. [1]

In her suit Emily Cornelius lists her total property as a slave named Harriet “about 14 years of age,” who acted as a nurse for her infant son. She requested that the court grant her a divorce, custody of William Roland Cornelius, and a portion of her husband’s ample estate as maintenance.

William Cornelius responded the same day. He affirmed that, yes, they had married in 1847, and readily recognized that he was “addicted to the occasional immoderate use of intoxicating drinks,” but protested at being called “an habitual drunkard.” He said that he wanted to quit drinking and wished longingly that “his morbid apetite for stimulants had permitted him to keep his oft renewed resolution of Amendment.” He alleged that Emily Cornelius knew about his problems with alcohol long before they got married and “they have become no worse since.”

The response also implied that the marriage was a sham to get at William’s money. He claimed that prior to the wedding he had been “in one of the worst paroxysms of intoxication of about a week’s standing,” and that during the actual ceremony he “was so much under the influence of liquor that he could scarcely stand.”

William Cornelius framed the divorce proceedings as an elaborate ruse by Emily’s father to get some money to pay off his debts in Texas. His evidence for this was that her parents had been visiting during his most recent, and last, alleged assault and that she had spent much time with them. Despite all these claimed machinations by herself and her family, William Cornelius contended that he held her in “tender regard,” and simply wished for her to quit the divorce bill.

Abram Walker, the chancery court judge, saw all of this and issued his ruling on June 29, 1855. There would be no divorce, but William Cornelius would pay at least a thousand dollars in alimony and the infant should remain in Emily Cornelius’s care. Although it did not grant her absolute autonomy, one can imagine Emily Cornelius finding temporary relief in this outcome.

It would be far too temporary. William had successfully appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court. In 1858, almost six years after Emily Cornelius petitioned for divorce, some men in Montgomery made a final declaration.

The remarks of Alabama Supreme Court Justice George Stone summed up the difficulties that the wives of planters sometimes faced when seeking equality before the law. Although Justice Stone readily admitted that when William Cornelius drank he became “a boisterous madman; [and] that these fits last for days,” and that his violence required the intervention of neighbors to protect his wife and mother, the Justice still thought William Cornelius capable of reform. Poorer men who drank too much and assaulted their wives often had their marriages dissolved, but due to his wealth and stature, William retained some possible future rights to his son when he no longer required, “those tender offices that only a mother can bestow.”

Although everyone knew of William Cornelius’s temper and fondness for liquor and witnesses readily told of his cruelty towards Emily Cornelius, he managed to parlay his wealth and power into good lawyers and Supreme Court appeals. Emily Cornelius appealed to the better nature of antebellum slave society and found none.


Censer, Jane Turner. “”Smiling Through Her Tears”: Ante-Bellum Southern Women and Divorce.” The American Journal of Legal History 25, no. 1 (1981): 24-47.

Emily Cornelius by her next friend Robert True vs. William Cornelius, Book V, 605-618 (1852).

[1] Kine is both an archaic term for cattle and general farm implements. The documents do not specify but it is most likely a tool that could have done serious damage.


The Petition of 1828

On August 13, 1828, something extraordinary happened in Huntsville, Alabama. Eleven enslaved people petitioned the circuit court for their freedom.

We only know the names of the first ten: seven adults named Isabel, Daniel, Nancy, Peter, George, Lebadie, and Noah; and three children named Minerva, Sally, and Cornelius. A final unnamed child is mentioned several times throughout the petition and is represented with a large blank space.

Their combined petition existed in a strange legal limbo. They turned to the courts in a time before courts could certify manumission and in turn cast themselves upon the justice of a system that designed itself to offer none to them. During the Antebellum states framed their own laws regarding slavery. There existed little national standard beyond Tidewater colonial precedence and, because slavery in the United States rarely resembled the conditions of servitude found in Medieval and Early Modern England, occasionally an individual judge’s interpretation of Roman law. This lack of definition fostered a patchwork of vagaries and horror that stymied the efforts of many enslaved people who tried to navigate it.

The petitioners previously belonged to a man named Thomas Jones. He decreed in a will dated August 9, 1821, that all seven adults, “with their increase,” pass to his widow Rachel Jones. Thomas’s wishes were that after their “expected industry & obedience in the further service of his widow,” they would all become free upon her death. Thomas Jones fathered no children and left no debts, he could not conceive of anyone else laying claim to them.

For six more years they toiled. Finally, in 1827, Rachel Jones died. Tragically she also married a man named William M. Stamps sometime before her death. Prior to a wave of married women’s property laws that swept the United States during the 1840’s, all the property that a woman brought into a marriage passed to her husband. According to Alabama law William Stamps now owned them.

He wasted little time in trying to make money from their misfortune and hired out six of them to a man named David Monroe for a term of one year. On January 1, 1829, William Stamps would have been an abhorrent yet well-compensated man. However, he died in the early part of 1828. All eleven petitioners had managed to outlive three masters in the span of seven years with their community and families mostly intact.

William Stamps, like Thomas Jones, fathered no children and left behind no debts to satisfy with the sale of human skin. Yet he did have brothers. Elijah Stamps and Joshua Stamps became the administrators of his estate. The brothers claimed the profits from their labor for David Monroe and began to act as they owned them. The alarm fully sounded in the early summer of 1828, when Joshua Stamps unsuccessfully attempted to “run off & sell Daniel” but apparently found resistance or a lack of buyers.

Terrified that their collective hopes of a free future for themselves and their children might be “greatly embarrassed or wholly defeated” by the avarice of Joshua and Elijah, the petitioners reached out to a man named Robert Malone to serve as their next friend.

The next friend was a white man, or rarely an unmarried woman, who represented those who could not legally represent themselves; this included women seeking a divorce, children, and in the rare case of the petitioners, slaves. Fathers, friends, and unwed daughters all served as next friends in Antebellum Alabama divorce proceedings. Following this precedent, it makes sense to assume that Robert Malone was either an extremely close friend of Thomas Jones, in a relationship with one of the petitioners, or related to them.

Thus, they submitted their petition to the circuit court. They asked to be compensated for their additional time in bondage and to be taken into the protective custody of the sheriff or placed under the safekeeping of Robert Malone. Then they waited for the decision of an entity that could not legally free them.

The courts possessed little leeway in manumission cases until 1834. Although they petitioned a circuit court and not a county court, as specified in the 1834 legislation, the 1819 Constitution still required that the state legislature pass an individual act recognizing the manumission. Their attorneys made mention of this in the petition and it would have been fresh in the minds of any enslaved people near Huntsville, on January 9, 1828, the legislature had freed a man named John Robinson after people from across Madison county petitioned Senator Miller on his behalf. They would have known about Robinson’s manumission but the petitioners lacked the powerful voice that Robinson gained in a state senator. They ran the gambit that a court ruling might prompt legislative action.*

Judge Taylor issued an injunction on August 14, 1828, that prevented their removal from the county or their return from David Monroe to either Elijah or Joshua, until the Stamps brothers issued a $3,000 bond for their upkeep and good behavior. The sheriff delivered the injunctions and everyone waited for Taylor’s final decree in November.

On November 28, 1828, John M. Taylor, Fifth Circuit Court Judge, dismissed their case. They planned to appeal to Alabama Supreme Court but from the lack of a ruling it appears that court also sidestepped the issue.

They lost.

The petitioners navigated the complexities of Alabama’s manumission laws and attempted to use the circuit courts to amplify their own voices in a time where access to that kind of power was beyond rare for the enslaved. In the coming years, manumission requests continued to pour into Tuscaloosa, and later Montgomery, from across the state. Six years after the petitioners attempted to secure their promised freedom the power of manumission was delegated to the lowest level of the courts. In 1837, in true regressive style, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in Trotter v. Blocker that manumissions made in a will or on a death bed were no longer valid.

It provided no comfort to Isabel, Daniel, Nancy, Peter, George, Lebadie, Noah, Minerva, Sally, Cornelius, or ___, but by turning to the courts and relying on last wills, they forecasted the next decade of changes in Alabama manumission laws.

*In 1831, Robinson would be granted a special privilege by the Huntsville City Council as the only free black excluded from a new city law prohibiting the hiring out of slaves by freedmen.


Isabel, Daniel, Nancy, Peter, George, Lebadie, Noah, Minerva, Sally, & Cornelius (People of Colour) vs. Elijah Stamps & Joshua Stamps, Book D, 266-268 (1828).

“1827 Acts, 145-157.” Alabama State Legislature. http://www.legislature.state.al.us/aliswww/history/acts_and_journals/1827/acts/Acts_145-157.html

“1827 Senate Journal, Dec 21.” Alabama State Legislature. http://www.legislature.state.al.us/aliswww/history/acts_and_journals/1827/senate-journal/Dec_21.html

Cox, Dwayne. “The Alabama Supreme Court on Slaves.” Auburn University Archives and Manuscripts Department.                       http://www.lib.auburn.edu/archive/aghy/slaves.htm

“Manumission By Last Will in Antebellum Alabama.” Auburn University Archives and Manuscripts Department.    http://www.lib.auburn.edu/archive/aghy/manumission/manu-txt.htm

“Trotter v. Blocker”. Auburn University Archives and Manuscripts Department.  http://www.lib.auburn.edu/archive/aghy/manumission/trotter.htm



This New City, Part 3: Since Houses So Built

Alabama’s first dalliance with federal housing programs came in the form of relief – from the dying light of Birmingham’s steel industry, from the cities and urban poverty. It was 1933 and the National Industrial Recovery Act found a test bed in Alabama.

Of the 25 million appropriated for solving “the overbalance of population in industrial centers,” a little over six million, or about a quarter of the total, wound up in central Alabama. Five communities in poverty stricken Jefferson and Walker counties – Palmerdale, Gardendale, Trussville, Bessemer, and Jasper – split the money between them. Each blossomed from Birmingham’s lagging steel production: Palmerdale was actually founded by the Resettlement Administration, Gardendale only incorporated as a real city in 1955, and neighborhoods in Jasper and Trussville both date from the period.*

North Alabama, deemed sufficiently rural by the federal government, avoided the constraints of various resettlement schemes until the outset of World War II. At that time the Lanham War Housing Act allowed Huntsville to begin receiving funds. Defense housing initiatives differed greatly from previous rural resettlement plans. Whereas the communities in Jefferson and Walker counties were allowed farming plots and often assigned a local industry; usually textile mills. The housing situation in Huntsville reacted to preexisting needs.

It soon mutated into something else entirely.

Defense housing came to Huntsville in September 1941. Five local businessmen, the first board of director for the Housing Authority of the City of Huntsville, met with Colonel R.C. Ditto of Redstone Arsenal. They asked Colonel Ditto to declare Huntsville and the surrounding communities a “defense area” so that they might start requesting federal funding for housing projects. It only made sense, Huntsville had the one big arsenal and the Army planned to construct a new chemical warfare plant next to it.**

Discussions lasted for several months. The Local Authority reached out to Representative John Sparkman. He offered to help in the fight. Finally on November 3, 1941, the United States Housing Authority stepped forward and politely declined Huntsville’s offer to become a defense area.

Then the Japanese attacked.

The United States no longer needed to prepare for war, it was there.

In February 1942, the USHA decided to approve a 300-unit housing complex for the Redstone Arsenal and the Huntsville Chemical Warfare Plant. They’d be made of brick, “since houses so built would bring a better price at the end of the emergency.” Even as the bloodiest war began to rage the men of the HHA thought of ways to turn this new defense housing to the city’s advantage.

*Cursory googling shows that the names for the planned communities; Cahaba Village (Trussville) and Farmstead (Jasper), survived and thrived to the present day. So although the original industrial settlements were eventually swallowed by their more organic counterparts, they managed to splatter their legacy all over everything.

**A surprisingly short lived endeavor, the plant merged with Redstone Arsenal on April 1, 1950.

This New City, Part 2: Let These Laws Be the Foundation

Housing policy in the United States first rose to national prominence during the Great Depression and funding for it only accelerated during the lead up to World War Two. Although it resulted in the loss of four percent of the entire human population, the immediate aftermath of that wartime mobilization meant that many Americans now possessed a certain level of infrastructure that they, and their congressmen, thought right to maintain. As such, the transition from ‘war housing’ to ‘public housing’ proved surprisingly smooth in Huntsville.*

Throughout the rest of the series I’ll be referencing a variety of housing laws that stretch from the earliest investments in Alabama infrastructure to the most important housing law of the 1950’s. We’ll briefly review them below.

A Chronology of Early Housing Laws:

1933 – NIRA, Title II

The National Industrial Recovery Act proved to be the first widescale federal investment in southern housing. Previous to this there had been tepid attempts to provide more adequate public housing in New York, but Title II of the NIRA “provide[d] for aiding the redistribution of the overbalance of population in industrial centers.” Think of it as a government mandated exodus from the cities.

Now, the Supreme Court eventually declared the NIRA unconstitutional. Not because of its housing components but because other parts of the law interfered with interstate commerce. The actual case that ended everything was A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corporation vs. United States, because sometimes government just does too much to regulate chickens.

1937 – Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act

A surprisingly large number of early housing regulations focused in on rural and farm poverty instead of the growing urban blights. The Bankhead- Jones Act not only provided low interest loans to farming families but also made provisions for the “retirement of submarginal land,” in effect creating new wilderness areas to help protect the “health, safety, and welfare” of the American public.

This focus on health and welfare belied a much deeper trend towards revitalization during the Great Depression. People understood that the world around them was changing, especially in the quickly industrializing south. Southerners no longer accepted the miasmas, fevers, and social conditions of old. They wanted a cleaner, more just, world. One that substituted tenants, sharecroppers, and hard scrabble land for small farmers and modern-day yeomen working decent soil.

By 1936, both Democrats and the GOP integrated farm tenancy issues into their platforms, vowing to find a solution to the poverty and exploitation that stalked all who worked another man’s fields. Which is why John Bankhead, a senator from Alabama, and Marvin Jones, a representative from Texas, introduced legislation that directly attacked the social and economic systems of their home states.

1937 – Wagner-Steagall Housing Act

At the same time that John Bankhead attempted to alleviate rural poverty through the ownership of land; a Democrat from south Alabama, Henry B. Steagall, partnered with New York Democrat and German immigrant turned senator, Robert Wagner, to tackle the issue of slums and urban renewal.

Suddenly an actual federal agency, the United States Housing Authority, possessed the ability to disperse funds to a variety of localities around the nation. Prior to this, subsections of the Public Works Administration undertook the construction of fifty-two various public housing units around the nation; including Atlanta’s Techwood Homes and New York City’s First Houses, which hilariously came second.** Although a previous effort existed, the PWA only possessed the resources to attack the most horrendous cases of urban neglect.

This short-term alliance between the rural south and the heavily urbanized north marked America’s opening salvo in the war on inadequate housing. Within two years, some fifty thousand new homes cropped up across the United States.

1940 – Lanham War Housing Act

It was clear that we would go to war. By June 1940, Continental Europe lay in the waste, Britain stood alone, and the Japanese cut away swathes of Asia daily. The reality dawned by Dunkirk. Americans knew that somehow, some way, they’d be dragged into this global war.

Factories must be constructed, arsenals incorporated, and emergency housing built. Into this gap emerged the 1940 Lanham War Housing Act. Fritz G. Lanham, a House member from Texas, worried about the accessibility of affordable housing for defense workers along the Gulf Coast and in his own Dallas-Fort Worth area. Although Lanham might be remembered for his strong stance on trademark laws, he introduced “the most significant piece of public housing legislation for the 1940s.”

Although some previous war housing existed under the authority of the USHA and the American military the Lanham Act centralized all the activities under the Federal Works Agency, a suddenly revitalized New Deal program, and kept in place the previous defense housing coordinator – an Atlanta real estate man named Charles Palmer.

Charles Palmer spent most of his adult life advocating for public housing and slum clearance programs throughout the southeast and the nation. He toured pre-war Europe, Mexico, and South Africa to investigate their housing programs. Much of his expertise came to bear when he led the fight for Techwood Homes in his native Atlanta, famously joking in his autobiography Adventures of a Slum Fighter that by 1940, “after 76 years Uncle Sam helped rebuild more than Sherman burned.” 

With Palmer at the forefront defense housing boomed. Although it initially differed from traditional notions of public housing – defense housing, for example, often popped up on the edges of industrial sectors and outside of major cities. These early experiences with housing industrial and defense workers prompted a variety of smaller cities, like Huntsville, to invest more heavily in their slum clearance and housing initiatives during the post war period.

1949 – Housing Act of 1949

On January 5, 1949, President Truman issued his fourth State of the Union. He spoke of rising medical costs, drilling for undersea oil, and the absurdities of “trickledown” economics. Topics that modern readers might difficult to identify with or understand. However, one of his greatest rallying cries (and the one most apropos for this update) occurred about halfway through his speech:

“Five million families are still living in slums and firetraps. Three million families share their homes with others… The housing shortage continues to be acute. As an immediate step, the Congress should enact the provisions for low-rent public housing, slum clearance, farm housing, and housing research which I have repeatedly recommended. The number of low-rent public housing units provided for in the legislation should be increased to one million units in the next seven years. Even this number of units will not begin to meet our needs for new housing.”

What emerged from Truman’s call, and a bipartisan push propelled by innate feelings of national shame over substandard housing, was “a shotgun wedding between enemy lobbying groups.” The Housing Act of 1949 took literal years to pass. It began life in 1945 as the Wagner-Ellender-Taft Bill, usually abbreviated as either WET or TEW, and gradually grew in the national consciousness. Whatever you called it, the original bill passed the Senate multiple times.

All that stood in its way was a bastard from Michigan.

Jesse Wolcott built his legislative career around a few things; hating the New Deal, fighting socialism, and obstructing basic housing reform. As the chairman of the Banking and Currency Committee he possessed the ability to consistently bury the TEW in various subcommittees. Aided by reactionary anti-housing Democrats and hardline Republicans, along with McCarthy’s early coalition partners, Wolcott effectively stalled a good housing law for almost an entire presidential term.

Until Truman made it a leading issue of his 1948 campaign. Congressional inaction made for a grand strategy, people rallied behind their president. Senate members began to show signs of weariness, John Sparkman  (D – Alabama) headed the subcommittee attached to the TEW. Over a four year period of constant bickering and filibusters the housing bills produced “9,224 pages of testimony,” or something nine times as long as the collector’s edition of the Lord of the Rings. Sparkman, who later became a major figure in housing legislation, lamented this fact when he said “few pieces of legislation had been so exhaustingly studied.”

After a long fight, a good fight, the 1949 Housing Act became law. It represented the only win for Truman’s Fair Deal during his entire time in office. Sure Democrats managed to expand Social Security and other New Deal measures but that was all Roosevelt era legislation, practically sacred by the end of the war. No, this housing act represented all of Truman’s reforms.

On July 15, 1949, it passed.

1954 – Sparkman Act

John Sparkman, a Democratic Senator from north Alabama, introduced housing legislation that broadened several provisions from the 1949 housing act. However, the 1954 Act took a proactive stance. Now local housing authorities possessed the ability to stymie the supposed advance of slums, when coupled with new stipulations regarding urban renewal (new developments only had to be at least half housing), then one effectively found a license to redesign a city however one felt. All you had to do was fill out the correct paperwork.

The stage was set. A series of laws and regulations (inordinately influenced and designed by Bankhead, Sparkman, Hill, and other congressmen from Alabama) laid the framework for a reshaping of the modern American city. Huntsville proved an active testing ground.

*Although the growth of early public housing out of WW2 infrastructure, on like the national scale, is a pretty cool topic that someone with more time and inclination might pursue.

**It’s worth noting that ATL tore down Techwood Homes, while NYC still operates First Houses.


Alexander Hoffman, “A Study in Contradictions: The Origins and Legacy of the Housing Act of 1949,” Harvard University, https://www.innovations.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/hpd_1102_hoffman.pdf

“A Chronolgy of Housing Legislation and Selected Executive Actions, 1892-2003,” U.S. Government Printing Office, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CPRT-108HPRT92629/html/CPRT-108HPRT92629.htm

“Harry S. Truman,” University of California Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=13293

“Housing Act of 1949 S 1070 – P.L. 171,” CQ Almanac, http://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/document.php?id=cqal49-1399761 

James G. Maddox, “The Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act,” Duke University, http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1875&context=lcp

Sarah Jo Peterson, Planning the Home Front: Building Bombers and Communities at Willow Run (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 83-90.