Decatur’s oldest community, and oldest property continuously occupied by African Americans, Old Town comprises the original boundaries of the Northwest Alabama city. The first lot was sold in 1821, five years before Decatur was incorporated, and it developed into a predominately white, working-class neighborhood over the next several decades. During the Civil War, it was almost completely destroyed by occupying Union forces, with only two buildings spared: the Rhea-McIntire House and the Dancy-Polk House, which sat next to the rail line and served as headquarters for both Union and Confederate forces.
After the war, Decatur’s rail lines were rebuilt and incorporated into the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad, which stimulated economic growth. The city’s population also grew exponentially, as new industrial employment opportunities attracted former slaves and their families to the area. During Reconstruction, as white residents migrated east of the railroad tracks and settled in New Decatur to the south, Old Town re-emerged as a working-class African-American neighborhood. The urban environment that attracted former slaves also provided educational opportunities, and by the early 1900s, Old Town was home to a number of black professionals, including Dr. Willis E. Sterrs, Decatur’s first African-American doctor and the founder of its first hospital.
“During the segregated South, Old Town… was a town where blacks lived primarily and it was contained. They had their own grocery stores, their own restaurants, their own pool halls [and] beauty shops… This is where blacks primarily lived and shopped. They did everything there.”
The eastern portion of Old Town, in particular, evolved over the next several decades into what the Decatur Daily described as “a centerpiece of the Black community and… one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods,” its streets lined with grocery stores, diners, dance halls and more. Many minority-owned businesses were located on Bank Street, in Decatur’s oldest business district, particularly in the area surrounding the Old State Bank building. There was also a “thriving and diverse business district” west of the rail line on Vine Street, where black professionals and entrepreneurs worked alongside white and immigrant business owners like the Namie and Shaia families.
“Old Town was integrated 150 years ago… We had Lebanese, Jews, blacks, whites… Everything you needed except upscale clothing stores was in Old Town… And it was there until probably the late seventies. Most of it was still there until the eighties when urban removal came through.”
During the civil rights era, Old Town was at the center of two landmark legal battles. After the Supreme Court overturned the 1931 convictions of nine African-American youths in the infamous Scottsboro Boys rape case, new trials were held in Decatur, where defense attorneys and Old Town residents worked together “to challenge Alabama’s ‘unwritten law,’ by which blacks were undeniably excluded from the jury rolls.” Decades later, the arrest of intellectually disabled Old Town resident Tommy Lee Hines sparked a protest movement, with black Decatur residents demonstrating alongside activists from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and facing off against local Klansmen.
As a result of urban renewal efforts undertaken by the city of Decatur, few physical traces of Old Town’s vibrant legacy remain today. During the 1950s, a large portion of the neighborhood south of Vine Street was cleared to make way for the federally-subsidized Cashin Homes. Over the next several decades, as residents and business owners relocated, older buildings deteriorated. In the 1970s, the city began the Urban Renewal Redevelopment program and most of the remaining structures were razed, leaving behind vacant lots. Reminders of Old Town’s past persist, however, including the W.A. Rayfield-designed First Missionary Baptist Church, with its distinctive towers and stained-glass windows. Meanwhile, Old Town natives like historian Peggy Towns and artist Frances Tate keep the neighborhood’s memory alive, and in 2012 the neighborhood was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
For an illustration of Old Town's transformation since 1942, tap the aerial image above, grab the arrow on the left-hand side and drag rightward. To explore the history of Old Town by visiting eleven of its most significant places, use the map and navigation menu below.