Alabama town weighs changing name of road in memory of lynching victims

Published 5:54 am Thursday, March 3, 2022

By Siri Hedreen 

An Alabama town will consider renaming a road in memory of two local residents lynched in 1931 and 1947.

Te town of Camp Hill will consider renaming Old Highway 280 the “Gray-Norris Memorial Highway” next week, in memory of former residents Ralph Gray, lynched in 1931, and Mae Lizzie Norris lynched in 1947.

In a letter posted to the town’s Facebook page, Camp Hill mayor Messiah Williams-Cole said he had tabled the name change to the March 7 council meeting to give the citizens time to weigh in.

Gray, a member of the Alabama Sharecroppers Union, was murdered on July 15, 1931 by a lynch mob incited by Tallapoosa County Sheriff Kyle Young and Camp Hill police Chief J.M. Wilson. In “Hammer and Hoe,” the history of a short-lived communist movement among Alabama sharecroppers, historian Robin D.G. Kelley writes: “The simple fact of Black organizing, not to mention the involvement of the Communist Party, terrified the region’s white power structure and made a violent confrontation almost inevitable.”

Gray’s body was dumped on the Tallapoosa County Courthouse steps, “a clear warning to other Tallapoosa Blacks of the consequences of joining the cropper’s union of the communists.”

Norris, a 22-year-old mother of three, was murdered on May 4, 1947 by Albert Huey in a town-wide rampage. In the Facebook post, Williams-Cole shared a contemporary account of the day Norris (referred to in the account as “Mary Noyes”) was “wantonly killed by a hate-crazed murderer.”

It started when Huey, angry from an unrelated argument he had provoked with a Black man, took it out on the entire race. According to the account “Tallapoosa Terror,” Huey fetched a gun and entered the Black section of a segregated cafe, and “beat up a number of people who were sitting at tables, attacking them with the butt of his gun and his fists.”

As patrons tried to flee, Norris, then five months pregnant, was shot twice and stumbled to Slaughter Avenue before collapsing. According to the account, Camp Hill police officer Otis Smith was said to be trailing Huey the whole time but “failed to restrain him because he (Smith) had a sore arm.”

Last year, former mayor Frank Holley approached Williams-Cole and the Camp Hill Town Council to suggest renaming Wilson Street, which Holley alleges was named for the police chief who incited Gray’s murder. He also suggested renaming Slaughter Avenue after the woman who died there.

Camp Hill attorney Charles Gillenwaters, however, cautioned against it for fear of violating the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, passed in 2017 to deter the removal of Confederate statues. Municipalities may be fined $25,000 for removing or renaming public landmarks more than 40 years old, provided there is documentation that the landmark was named after a person.

If not for the 2017 act, “I would be in favor of renaming Wilson Street in honor of Ralph Gray and Slaughter Avenue in honor of Mae Lizzie Norris,” Williams-Cole said last week. “[But] I think we can all agree that a total of $50,000 would serve better use to the citizens of Camp Hill than renaming streets.”

Old 280, which runs somewhat parallel to U.S. Highway 280, the bypass that replaced it, is the main turn-off for Camp Hill when traveling from Dadeville or Opelika. Williams-Cole acknowledged the change of address may be cumbersome for Old 280 residents, “however, I feel that we owe it to those who died for equality and injustice to recognize and honor them.”

“Please try to think of the effects it has on our youth to know the journey of what we have evolved from,” he said.

The Camp Hill Town Council is scheduled to meet Monday, March 7 at 6 p.m.

Lynching in America, an Equal Justice Initiative report, lists four reported lynchings for Tallapoosa County.