“Gentleman By Day and Klu Klux Klan By Night…” A Chilling Recollection of Marion Junction, Alabama

July 24, 2017 at 3:12 am Leave a comment

Grace Lee and James Boggs. Source: e-flux-systems.com/The James and Grace Lee Boggs Center

I found James Bogg’s recollections of growing up in Marion Junction (Dallas County), Alabama in the 1920’s/1930’s to be not only interesting but deeply moving, and often painful… 

My Fort ancestors originated in Marion Junction, what Boggs describes is surely what they have also experienced … That Blacks, descendants of African slaves, had been given their freedom yet the shackles of the plantation system persisted leaving Blacks impoverished and disenfranchised. Free Blacks still inhabited the slave cabins of their ancestors, toiled in the fields as sharecroppers, and were kept “in their place”, segregated from Whites. There were constant threats of rape against Black girls and women, trauma was birthed in generations conceived from rape. Constant threats of physical harm or even death… the simplest gesture or word could lead to assault. The Klan rode at night, terrorizing Black communities. Boggs says the end of slavery did not result in freedom for Blacks, “But in the eyes of Negroes the Civil War was the war which made it possible for the United States to be industrialized, the war which resulted in the Bargain of 1877 between Northern capital and Southern landed aristocracy, which left the former slaves living and working under a caste system as brutal as that of slavery itself...” Chapter 7: Rebels with a Cause – James Boggs 

Public Domain: Photo published before 1923

Amidst the darkness blazed a revolutionary firebrand. James Boggs refused to beaten down. As a teen, he would escape the oppression of the South, seeking a better life. Boggs bravely, or recklessly, faced an unknown future riding on trains to reach the North (called “hoboing”) and emerged as a champion for human and civil rights.

Boggs found his soul mate in wife (married in 1953) Grace Lee Boggs, a philosopher, author and human rights advocate.  Together, James and Grace were a force to contend with. The couple became noted activists and raised awareness of and fought for causes including civil rights, labor rights,  feminism, Black Power, Asian Americans and the environment. They also founded a charter school and helped to establish several community organizations that inspired positive change in communities ravaged by poverty and civil unrest. The couple shared a deep and abiding love that lasted, on earth, for forty years until the death of James in 1993.  The James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership was founded in 1995 in Detroit to carry on their work and honor their legacy.

James Boggs: Not Just a Southern Gentleman, A Revolutionary

James “Jimmy” Boggs (May 27, 1919 – July 22, 1993) was born and raised in rural Marion Junction Alabama. He was one of four children born to Earnest Boggs, a blacksmith and iron ore worker, and Leila Boggs, a cook. Recalling his life in the South, Boggs said most Black families were poor but always had something to eat (due to the agricultural environment),”Down south nobody was hungry, not even black folks. We always had chickens, cows and hogs down south. Down south people were ragged. We didn’t have no shoes, no clothes, much; but you had food..” (“In Love and Struggle“, Ward).

Grace Lee Boggs writes in her autobiography that “Mama Leila” had lived with the couple for 6 years and during that time, she grew very close to her. Grace Lee recalls she,”..had worked in the white man’s kitchen all her life but like many southern blacks she saw herself not as a victim, but as a survivor, someone, who despite obstacles, succeeded in winning self respect and the respect of others…” (p. 85-86, “Living for Change: An Autobiography”) 

Mama Leila never learned to read or write so she instilled in Boggs, and all of her children, the importance of getting an education. Mama Leila emphasized that her life could have been better had she gotten an education and been able to take advantage of job opportunities, that would have improved her life, and that of her children. At that time, the agricultural economy of Alabama still relied heavily on the labor of Blacks. Educational opportunities for Black children were severely limited, and often non-existent.

At 15 years old, Boggs sought to make his mother proud, despite working hard to further his education there were no further avenues to continue his studies in Dallas County. Boggs left Marion Junction to live with grandparents in the industrial city of Bessemer, where he attended Dunbar High School. Boggs graduated from Dunbar in 1937 and shortly after, left Alabama by hopping trains headed North. The experience of riding the rails left an indelible mark on Boggs, who , for the first time saw and experienced a much bigger world and interacted with people from all walks of life.

“Boggs was born on May 27, 1919, in Marion Junction, Ala., not too far from Selma. His place of birth, as we have come to learn, was infested with nightriders and members of the Ku Klux Klan, who were not opposed to expressing their feelings about Jim Crow using a noose. This was no place for someone with an inkling of resistance, and by the time he was 18, Boggs caught the first train smoking for Detroit, following a trail that had been worn by thousands of blues people from the region. He arrived in Detroit with empty pockets and a head full of dreams..” James Boggs: A visionary revolutionary 

Dunbar High School (Wikimedia Commons)

Boggs eventually made his way to Detroit, where he found a job in the auto industry. Boggs married his childhood sweetheart, Annie McKinley in 1938, and they had seven children together. The marriage ended in 1952 with divorce.

Boggs  felt there was more work for him to do; he saw great injustices happening in society and felt called to lead the way for change as a revolutionary. He later commented, “I am a factory worker but I know more than just factory work. I know the difference between what would sound right if one lived in a society of logical people and what is right when you live in a society of real people with real differences.” (The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook). Boggs fought against oppression to became a well-known political activist, author and organizer of community causes.

Discovering Ancestry in Marion Junction

Marion Junction is a small, country town just off Hwy 80, hidden behind thick trees, from which gravel roads emerge, wandering into vast farmland. Alongside the main road travelling through the center of Marion Junction is a lone railroad track, once belonging to the Southern Railroad Company another intersecting rail line was once part of the Cahaba, Marion & Greensboro Branch. Also noteworthy is Church Road, which leads to the Presbyterian Church, where Burwell Jackson Fort Sr. (1797-1836) was once a member and elder. Continuing along Church Road leads to Marion Junction Community Cemetery, where generations of the white Fort family have been laid to rest.

Map of Marion Junction and Land once held by the Fort Family, 1913. Source: Alabama Wills and Probate, Burwell Jackson Fort, 1913.

The Fort family once owned a vast stretch of land in Marion Junction area , as indicated in the 1913 probate records of Burwell Jackson “Jay” Fort, Jr 1827-1897 (Find A Grave) At one point the town was named Forts in their honor, changing its name in 1857 to Marion Junction with the coming of the railroad. The plantation owned by the family continued to be referred to as Fort’s, as did the post office.  According to probate records, the lands lie right at Marion Junction, some of it is improved and some unimproved. Property included in the estate of Burwell Jackson Fort Jr. included: a large residence house on one part, a smaller residence house on another part, a dwelling (hotel?) and a restaurant combined and two double Negro cabins (although records indicate there may have been as many as 5 slave cabins). 

After the death of Burwell “Jay” Jackson Jr., his personal property, homestead and lots of land were parceled and sold off individually and the proceeds divided among the heirs. The “spacious country home where B.J. Fort II and his family lived  has been modernized and restored to its original grandeur and is now the home of his great-grandson, Earnest Franklin Randall.” (“A family called Fort: the descendents of Elia Fort of Virginia” by Homer T. Fort, Drucilla Stovall Jones, p. 591). The home is part of Morning View Stock Farm, which was registered as an Alabama heritage farm in 1977. E.F. Randall died in 1979 and is buried in Marion Junction Community Cemetery alongside his ancestors.

Residing in one of the Negro cabins on a plantation owned by the Forts, was my ancestress Julia Fort (1824-1882), a mulatto slave. Julia worked as a housekeeper, laundress and cook for the Fort family.  During the course of slavery, Julia bore at least 5 children who identified as mulatto, the father of the children is reported to be of European origin and was born in Alabama, meaning he was likely a member of the white Fort family. I see incredible strength in my grandmother Julia to endure what she did, and then to raise and nurture children alone, without any help…when she also struggled every day for her own survival is remarkable.

The children of Julia Fort I have discovered so far:

  • Joseph “Joe” Fort (1845-1925) m. Malinda Brantley, 7 children
  • Wyatt Fort (1850-1914) m. Anna Reese Fort, 12 children
  • James “Jim” Fort (1855-?) m. Darnella Curtis, 5 children
  • Monk Fort (1856-?) m. Julia Watkins, 9 children 
  • Lizzie Fort (1861-?)

Marriage licenses show the connection between Julia’s family and the Forts. Her sister Sintha married Thomas “Tom” Harrell in December 1872, the ceremony was conducted on the E.W. (Elias William) Fort plantation. Also, in Dec 1874, Julia’s son Monk Fort (my ancestor) married his wife Julia Watkins on the Fort plantation.

Julia died on August 28th 1882 and is recorded as being buried at an unknown Negro cemetery along Harell’s Road.

Just as Boggs made the journey, Julia’s children and grandchildren would one day leave Marion, working as croppers on farms across Dallas County. Others sought work in industrialized cities, some making the migration to cities Up North, including Detroit (as Boggs did). Julia’s descendants carried on the name Fort, and alternately were called Ford.

Marion Junction: Chalk Line Around a Cotton Town 

Boggs says about Marion Junction: “James Boggs, born in Marion Junction, Alabama, never dreamed of becoming President or a locomotive engineer. He grew up in a world where the white folks are gentlemen by day and Ku Klux Klanners by night. Marion Junction is in Dallas County where as late as 1963, although African-Americans made up over 57 percent of the total county population of 57,000, only 130 were registered voters….” The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook by James Boggs

Bogg’s life is also recorded in the book “In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James and Grace Lee Boggs” by Stephen M. Ward.

Growing up in Marion Junction, he said, meant walking a chalk line all the time…. Jimmy remember the Marion Junction of his childhood as a ‘cotton town’ comprised mostly of Black farmers. There were, he told an interviewer, about 500 or 600 Black people and between 100 and 150 Whites….

Public Domain Image, Photo Published Before 1923. Source: Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840-1882)

Most of the White residents came from what he described as ’20 major White families’. Boggs was actually related to one of these White families. His paternal grandmother was employed as a domestic in the home of Thomas Boggs, paternal grandfather, a White man who owned land in Marion Junction. The full measure of their relationship is unclear but they had 3 children: Ernest (Bogg’s father) and his twin brother, and a third brother. Predictably the White Bogses did not acknowledge the Black Bogses as family and shut the three brothers out of family affairs, even denying them the opportunity to see their father when he died.

..Boggs described this part of his family tree as an example of the South’s “integration by rape“, explaining the cook or maid or field hand won’t have no alternative to resist the approach made by the boys. Well the White boys first sexual relations in the south is generally with a colored girl because the white girls are kind of dainty little things that you don’t go round spoiling at that early point, you go and catch a colored girl, this is a normal way of life in this town…” Jimmy says that, “Lots of Negroes had this kind of family relation in the South..”

Boggs shared a particularly close bond with his great-grandmother, Big Ma. Born enslaved in the 1850’s, and living through emancipation, Big Ma shared with Boggs her recollections of slavery, the cruelty inflicted on Blacks, and offered hope by sharing the spirituals and words of wisdom passed down in the family.

One of the stories that left a mark on Boggs involved what was called “The Buck Dance” which meantwhite people would come up and say N— dance, and then start shooting at the feet of blacks so they would dance at everything.  As a childBoggs witnessed the “Buck Dance” when the Sheriff of Selma came to town “..shooting and raising Cain to see the colored folks run..

About the Civil War, Big Ma was careful to point out not that Blacks had been freed but that slave holders had surrendered. Ward writes,”She saw the change as something that had been won by somebody, not something that had been given. She realized that there had been a struggle, and that somebody had to lose…” 


Today, Marion Junction remains a small town, the footsteps of the past have been overgrown with thick brush and the absence of memory. The recollections of James Boggs, and the voices of our Elders, is threatened by the modern world and its conveniences of being forgotten or deemed not relevant, even as this generation reaps the benefits of the sacrifices and tears wept for our freedom.

Let us not forget that in a small town a barefooted black boy, the descendant of slaves, fought for his education at a time where, according to the expectations of an oppressive (and racist) societym to be nothing more than a field hand. And with the knowledge he acquired, he refused to “stay in his place” and fought against inequality and oppression for all people. Boggs saw the poor and downtrodden not as victims but as agents for needed social change, and spent his life working to inspire and empower people through writing and activism.

Had my grandmother Julia Fort lived to see the accomplishments of James Boggs, I think she would have been proud to say he was from Marion Junction. But she can no longer speak so in this generation, each one of us must be that voice… and carry on the memory of our Elders, and preserve what they fought so hard for or risk losing it all.

The people who are striving for power must themselves be transformed into new people in the course of the struggle. Their will to struggle, their vision of what they are struggling for, their social consciousness and responsibility, and their capacity to govern must all be systematically increased. The struggle must therefore be an escalating one, focused on problems the people can learn from…” ~ James Boggs (Racism and the Class Struggle)

Further Reading: 

Dallas County AlArchives Biographies…..Fort, Burwell Jackson April 6 1827 – living in 1893

Marion Junction – Topo Quest

Entry filed under: alabama, Fort, Historical Information & Tidbits. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

SNCC Field Report 1963: Bruce Gordon Documents Fight for Voter Registration, Efforts to De-Segregate Selma It Takes These Things to Heal (Poetry, Memoir)

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