One of the oldest black cities in U.S. fights to stay alive (video)

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

HOBSON CITY, Ala. (AP) – The cafes, the school and the roller rink are long gone from Alabama’s oldest black city. Empty homes and businesses line the narrow streets.

Hobson City no longer has a police or fire department, and weeds have overgrown the oldest part of the cemetery and a park in this small town that once thrived as a rarity: a place where black people were in charge in the midst of the Jim Crow South.

Now, with the town on the verge of dying, preservationists have put the east Alabama landmark on the critical list. The Alabama Historical Commission this month included the community of 878 people on its annual inventory of “Places in Peril.”

The commission’s list typically includes historic structures, such as old homes and abandoned theaters. This year it takes in an entire town that in recent decades has seen its foundation collapse.

Incorporated in 1899, Hobson City was formed 12 years after Eatonville, Fla., which calls itself the nation’s oldest black city.

In the decades after the Civil War, blacks formed scores of colonies and communities as they migrated to Kansas and Oklahoma and sought independence in locales around the South. Some, like Eatonville and Hobson City, formally incorporated.

“There was a lot of dissatisfaction and alienation among blacks by the 1890s because of the refusal of whites in the South to allow them any real role in civic life,” said University of Tennessee history professor Robert J. Norrell, who has written extensively on race relations.

Blacks also were subject to discrimination and abuse by law enforcement. “Together, these created a desire for separate municipalities,” Norrell said.

Hobson City’s residents created “a thriving municipality, which people at the time said couldn’t be done because blacks couldn’t govern,” said Dorothy Walker, public outreach coordinator with the Alabama Historical Commission. “If it is someday absorbed into another city, it will lose that historic identity.”

Roderick Boyd, a handyman and Hobson City resident, worries about his hometown’s survival.

“I fear it’s gone too far,” said Boyd, 49.

A two-mile-long sliver about 60 miles east of Birmingham, Hobson City is as narrow as a few hundred yards in places. Wedged between two predominantly white cities, Oxford and Anniston, it has a few white residents.

During the 1800s, Walker said, it was an all-black section of Oxford called Mooree Quarter, a possible reference to old slave quarters in the area. Residents were allowed to vote, but whites maintained control.

The racial relationship shifted in the 1890s when the people of Mooree Quarter swayed an election, Walker said. The state had not yet disenfranchised blacks — that wouldn’t happen until 1901. So, Walker said, whites petitioned state leaders to de-annex Mooree Quarter.

Kicked out of Oxford, blacks incorporated a new city and named it for Richmond P. Hobson, a white Spanish-American War hero from Alabama who was later elected to Congress. The 1900 Census put the new town’s population at 292.

Hobson City grew to about 1,500 people by the mid-1900s, with restaurants, laundries, stores, a skating rink and other businesses. The town was poor, but had a vibrant culture centered on the all-black vocational school.

“It was never a rich town, but it was a good place to raise children,” said Mayor Alberta McCrory.

Federal anti-poverty money flowed to Hobson City in the 1960s, and federal aid helped build a modern municipal complex in the 1970s. But in an ironic twist, McCrory said, the end of racial segregation sent the city into a tailspin around the same time.

“Sometimes I think I wouldn’t have gone out and done all that marching if I realized how much we were going to lose,” said McCrory, 61, who participated in civil rights protests as a young woman.

The all-black Calhoun County Training School became an integrated elementary school in 1972, and fair housing laws meant blacks could live elsewhere. Many who could afford to move away did so, costing Hobson City hundreds of residents.

With nearly one-third of its residents living below the poverty level, the town has only three businesses other than in-home operations: A small print shop, a barber shop and a convenience store.

Industries in nearby towns shut down in the 1980s, costing more jobs. The elementary school was moved from the center of town to the outskirts a few years ago, leaving a shell of a building where kids used to run and play.

City offices are now housed in the old school. The 1970s-era municipal complex stands abandoned. Unable to pay for maintenance, the city left it to the weeds and weather in 2006.

The city still has a police car and a fire truck, but it can’t afford officers or firefighters. County deputies handle police calls, and neighboring cities help with fires.

Being tabbed a “Place in Peril” doesn’t include any special funding, but McCrory hopes it will increase public awareness of the town’s plight.

She dreams of a campaign to raise $1 million in donations, which could lead to federal and state matching grants.

Two civic groups, the Concerned Citizens of Hobson City and the Hobson City Community and Economic Development Corp., will participate in a two-day forum starting May 29 to discuss the town’s future. The meeting was spurred in part by the state designation, but leaders have been talking for years about revitalizing the town with little success.

Boyd, a lifelong resident, has a hard time seeing past Hobson City’s problems — the poverty, the crime, abandoned buildings, dead businesses. He’s just trying to keep his grass cut and stay positive.

“Maybe all the turmoil we’re going through now will lead to something,” he said.