Growing Up in Clay County

Clay County is located in the middle of Alabama, almost 60 miles east and slight south of Birmingham, the state’s largest city. The County was created in 1868, in the aftermath of the Civil War, and named after the 19th century U.S. Senator Henry Clay. The County seat was named Ashland after Senator Clay’s Kentucky plantation.

Historic map of Clay County, Alabama
1870 map showing Clay County in Alabama.

 Harlan, Alabama

On February 27, 1886, Hugo Black was born at the Black home in the isolated southernmost section of Clay County in the Harlan community.  He was the last of eight children born to Ardellah Black (Della) and William L. Black (W.L.). Five days before Hugo’s birth, his two-year old sister, “Little Della” died and was buried amid stormy weather miles away at the Mt. Ararat Cemetery. Della’s other children ranging in age at the time of Hugo’s birth from fifteen to five were: Robert Lee, Lenora, Orlando, Daisy, Pelham, and Merit.

The Harlan community in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction was sparsely populated by plain white folk living on small farms. Many were immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, or England. Most families worked from sunup until sundown in the fields or around their modest homes of rough wood with no window screens. W.L. and Della moved to Harlan shortly after their marriage in December, 1868.

1939 farm building with person standing on porch.
Birthplace of Hugo Black in Clay County, 1939.

By the time of Hugo’s birth, Clay County’s communities were fracturing into economic groups — often with small farmers on one side and local merchants and lawyers on the other. Merchants provided credit to most farmers since there were no local banks. Because of bad weather and often low prices for selling crops, farmers could–and some did–lose their land and house through foreclosure, instituted in the local courts by local lawyers, to repay the merchants’ loans and hefty interest. Many disgruntled farmers joined what would become the Populist Party. They saw a “courthouse ring” of Democratic merchants and professional men charging high interest rates and manipulating the courts and politics to benefit themselves at the expenses of struggling farmers.

Historic newspaper clipping
1895 clipping of the People’s Party Advocate

Hugo’s father became one of the local merchants. He started his mercantile career in the 1870’s after he was appointed Harlan’s local postmaster. The slight income of the postmaster’s job was helpful, but more useful to W. L. was a chance to set up a modest store at his home. Farmers who came there to get their distant newspapers and infrequent letters would also buy or barter for goods.

When Hugo was almost six years old, his family moved to Ashland. Years later, Hugo remembered that they moved so that he and his sister could get an improved education at the new Ashland Academy. That was surely why Hugo’s mother agreed to move. W. L. Black’s reasons had more to do with economics and politics, He moved his family in order to set up a general store in the county seat where professional men and conservative Democrats like him controlled local politics.

Ashland, Alabama

Ashland Courthouse in 1906Clay County Courthouse
Historic (Courthouse History) and current (Hilabee, CC BY 3.0) Clay County Court House

Ashland (pop. 635) was the seat of Clay County government, but in the early 1890s it had no telegraph wires or railroad lines connecting it to the rest of the world. The town was built on three sides with a planked courthouse and a new, brick jail beyond the town square. A few hundred feet away from the square stood a gully serving as community privy.

The stores were like closed barns where merchandise from local farms and distant manufacturers were stacked, kept in large kegs, or displayed on rough shelves. Oil lamps blackened the ceilings to provide inside light. Fireplaces and pot-bellied stoves were the only sources for heat in the winter.

Residents from across the county came to Ashland periodically to buy supplies from the local stores, pay taxes, visit relatives in town or in jail, serve on a jury, or deal with courthouse officials. The courthouse’s criminal trials also provided a rare source of public entertainment in the county.

The Black family settled into a house on Church Street, as W.L. set up his business on the town square. At home, Della set high expectations for each of her children. All were able to read when they entered school. Della also enforced strict rules against rowdiness and foul language. When Hugo came home from school with signs of a scuffle, she whipped him–a double punishment for a small boy who seldom won a schoolyard fight. During the week, Della required her children at home to read the Bible and other respectable literature.

Within months of their arrival in town, the Black family moved to a house across from Ashland Academy (today the site of the Hugo L. Black Monument and Memorial Park). It remained Hugo’s place of residence until he left Ashland for Birmingham at the age of 20.

Group photograph on porch of William La Fayette's family.
Family of William La Fayette Black in 1892 via Birmingham News

The Schoolhouse

The strict code Della instilled in her children at home was reinforced at the schoolhouse. Hugo’s first teacher, Lizzie Patterson, was one of only a few women holding teaching jobs in the county. “Miss Lizzie” had a simple commandment: “Do Right.”

The school day usually began with a Christian prayer and Scripture reading. Lessons were taken from a Webster speller and McGuffie Reader. For example, the Reader admonished: “You are placed in this world to improve your time.

School children posing before schoolhouse.
Clay Lystra School during the 1900’s

Almost all boys at Ashland Academy, including Hugo, participated in a debate team and speaking contests ­once they were teenagers. There were no football games or other sporting events drawing the community’s attention. In the late 1800’s the big events at the Ashland Academy and other schools were speaking contests such as those held in Professor Hiram Evans’ classroom each Friday and during student assemblies. Young Hugo lost an oratorical contest to a classmate who repeated a crowning passage about the “New South,” words that Hugo memorized and repeat throughout his adult life:

There was a South of slavery and succession–that South is dead. There is a South of union and freedom–that South, thank God, is living, breathing, growing every hour.

The Church

Hugo’s father was expelled from the Baptist Church near Harlan by vote of the congregation due to W.L.’s public taste for alcohol, but Della was an active, devout congregant who believed in the primary role of Sunday schools and the Baptist tradition that each person was responsible for understanding and interpreting the Bible on her own.

In those days, ministers were circuit riders who preached at different town on different Sundays. It was women of the church who kept in up and taught Bible lessons every Sunday.

Church building with cemetery in foreground.
Old Baptist Church with Mr. Finley, via Hugh E. Rozelle

 Hugo read the Bible often. His mother quizzed him on what he thought the different words and verses meant. Pleasing his mother, young Hugo often attended the church services of every circuit-riding preacher who came to town–Baptist, Methodist, or otherwise. And he sometimes attended both Baptist Sunday school and Methodist Sunday school classes.

As a result, young Hugo was exposed to more than one interpretation of Biblical scripture as his mother taught him to consider for himself the Bible’s own words. And, he was exposed to the skepticism of a father who lost his faith after he was expelled for drunkenness.

The Courthouse

Another place that attracted young Hugo and others in Clay was the courthouse. At that time, the courthouse was both the site for criminal and civil trails and a primary venue for the competing speeches between conservative Democrats and emerging Populists.

Courthouse building with people posing in foreground
First Clay County Courthouse, via Guin Robinson

Alabama populism was as a protest of farmers demanding that governments address their economic problems and treat everyone fairly. “Equal rights to all, special privilege to none” was the frequent political slogan of the Clay County populists of the 1890s.

“Equal rights to all” for populists essentially meant that each person should have equal standing and equal protection in a democracy. The other part–“special privilege to none”–challenged what populists saw as a system controlled by special interests, especially corporations and the wealthy who populists claimed rigged the democratic process to unfairly benefit themselves.

Hugo’s family was split. His father ­and other members of his extended families were Democrats but many of his mother’s relatives were populists. Hugo attended the political speeches of both parties’ candidates amid a lively competition of political ideas and ideals.

The Clay County Courthouse also was where Hugo he learned he wanted to be a lawyer. This little boy watched lawyers try cases. Late in life, Black remembered he sat in the front row of the courtroom listening to testimony and judging for himself which competing lawyer did the best job.

Family Tragedies and Medical School

Portrait of young man in late 19th century morning suit

In 1902, Pelham, Hugo’s brother and a lawyer, died when his buggy turned over after he fell asleep drunk. By that time, at the age of 16, Hugo had lost two brothers and his father. Afterwards, Hugo left Ashland Academy without a diploma. He had a dispute with a teacher over the treatment of his sister Daisy. He entered Birmingham Medical School in hopes of joining his older brother, Orlando, who had become a doctor in a nearby county

Soon, however, Hugo realized that he had no passion for medicine and disliked the sight of blood. What he enjoyed was listening to lawyers talk about their cases when they gathered at a Birmingham hotel near the medical school.

Law School in Tuscaloosa and Practice in Ashland

Photograph of a young Hugo Black in cap and gown.

Hugo entered law school at the University of Alabama in 1904. It had less than 50 students and only two professors. During his two years, Hugo joined the school’s debating team and excelled in class work, although his mother died shortly before final exams during his first year.

Clay County Courthouse

In 1906, Black returned to Ashland and set up a law office upstairs above a general store on the town square. He spent most of his inheritance on a complete set of the Alabama Code. In August, the County celebrated the opening of its new yellow-brick courthouse that stood with the Lady of Justice atop a four-sided cupola clock.

Black struggled in his law practice because he was the youngest, least experienced lawyer in a small town with too many lawyers. In May, 1907, a fire destroyed the entire eastern side of the town square, including Black’s law office. He had no insurance, no office, and no law library. In early September, 1907, Black moved to Birmingham to find his fortune as a lawyer.

Late in life, Justice Black shared with an old friend his belief that much of his own character came from his early days spent, in his words, with the “sturdy people” of Clay County.

Learn more about Hugo Black’s life: