COLONY, Ala. (WIAT) — The land they were given wasn’t ideal. It was rocky. Isolated. Some thought it uninhabitable.
Ethel Alexander, president of Birmingham’s African-American genealogy group, said the land was given, but not graciously. The formerly enslaved people who received the land as “compensation” for decades of enslavement deserved more. But the people of Colony, Alabama, made it home.
A safe haven for its residents, the town of Colony is a place that they say will always be home. Cullman County’s only majority African American community, with a population of just over 260 people, many — even in Alabama — have never even heard of it.
Around 1900, the town was excluded from the boundaries of Arkadelphia, and the area became known as the Colored Colony community. The farming town was not incorporated until 1981.
But its residents, given little, did more than just survive — they thrived. Colony’s settlers were determined to make a life for themselves and their families. By building homes, mercantile stores, a cotton gin, and even a school, the citizens of Colony proved just how resilient they were.
Because Blacks weren’t able to visit many of the doctors in Cullman County, members of the community took on the role of caretakers for the sick, using healing remedies passed down over the years. Many women stepped up as midwives and delivered babies, even moving into homes to help provide care after delivery.
On a breezy Alabama Thursday, a group of seniors gathered in the town’s senior center to share what it was like growing up in what they affectionately call “The Colony.” Many were born and raised here — direct descendants of original settlers like John Johnson and Kizi Leeth. Others, like Precious Harris, found their way to Colony later in life.
Despite their differences, the 12 seniors share one commitment — they always returned home, no matter how far away they went.
“This is my safe haven,” said Barbara Marsh, who was born and raised in the Colony. Her first job was at 13 years old, cleaning inside the homes of white families in Cullman.
To make a living, Colony’s citizens did whatever they could. They worked as tenant farmers. They picked cotton. They worked in homes like Marsh. Children worked alongside their parents to help pay for things like school clothes.
Odis Minnitt, also born and raised in the Colony, said he took two days from school in 1963 to pick cotton in order to pay for clothes, at a time when cotton was worth only 33 cents a pound. He started a friendly competition with a woman in her 50s that had previously picked 30 more pounds than he had.
“I can’t believe that old lady beat me,” Minnitt said. “I ended up beating her [later], but I paid for it.”
Earlene Johnson, who would eventually serve as the first female mayor of Colony, said she worked on the farm during high school to pay for part of her college tuition. Johnson used the money earned to attend Alabama State University.
“Things were difficult,” she said. “We didn’t get the factory jobs, we had to farm.”
Education was something that elders in Colony focused on. They pushed the youth to go to college or trade school so that they could get the type of education that was not available to them growing up.
When schools integrated in 1965, Colony High School students, including the town’s current mayor, Curtis Johnson, were required to begin attending Hanceville High. Five seniors from Colony, including Barbara Marsh, finished their last year of school in Hanceville. Marsh said the transition was traumatic.
“Even the teachers called us the ‘N’ word,” Marsh said.
Margaret Dimbo’s parents never made it past the eighth grade but pushed her to go further. Dimbo graduated in the top 10 percent of her class at Hanceville but didn’t like the experience. Hanceville wasn’t home.
“I enjoyed Colony as long as I could,” she said. “I feel like I got a better education in Colony than I ever did in Hanceville.” Dimbo remembered Ms. Smith, a teacher at Colony High School that required her students to learn how to play piano and participate in a recital, emphasizing the importance of the arts in addition to core subjects.
After a long year, Marsh and others did make it to graduation, only to realize that the commencement speaker was the then-Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, known for his promise of “segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
“Some of my classmates said that they weren’t going to shake his hand [walking across the stage], but I did whatever to get my diploma,” Marsh said.
The spirit of resilience the town was founded on became a way of living for its residents.
After graduating from trade school, Odis Minnitt went on to work at a plant in Cullman. He was promoted to supervisor after only six months. Shortly after being promoted, he was fired.
Minnitt filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the company and won. He said he had an opportunity to return to the company but declined. Another plant in Birmingham would eventually employ him as a supervisor. Minnitt told his supervisor he would like to be promoted to a plant manager position, but was ultimately told he would just never get that job, despite being overly qualified.
Years later, Minnitt was surprised by a visit from the very man that told him he would never get promoted. He said the man was battling cancer and didn’t have much time left.
“You know, you should’ve gotten that promotion, but I held you back, and I apologize,” the man said.
Minnitt assumes the man didn’t want to take the guilt to the grave with him. Minnitt doesn’t hold a grudge. He realizes that he was not rewarded as much as he should’ve been: “That’s just life.”
Mervin Greene related to Minnitt’s story. He, too, was denied promotions despite being overly qualified. One of his first jobs was building tailfins for government airplanes. He said he was the first person to pass the test that the company used to qualify its welders.
“I know exactly where he’s coming from,” Greene said.
Returning home allowed residents to escape the stressors of the outside world and even allowed them to have a little fun.
Gwendolyn Purifoy recounted rushing home from work on Saturdays so that she wouldn’t miss what she called a “platter party.” Purifoy explained that local DJs like Paul “Tall Paul” White and Shelley “the Playboy” Stewart would travel to the Colony and host parties on the weekends.
“Fifty cents worth of gas would get me home from Cullman, 50 cents would get me into the party and 50 cents would get me a sandwich and a coke,” she said.
Purifoy said that even though Colony was small, its residents never lacked anything growing up. If one person didn’t have something they needed, the community made sure they were taken care of. They were all family.
Family is something that Parrish Fitts, the manager of Colony’s senior center, holds close to her heart. Fitts said that growing up, she and her family worked on a farm every day from sun up to sundown. In elementary school, she would dream of leaving Alabama just to get away from the living and working conditions she had endured.
After she graduated high school, Fitts attended Miles College and eventually moved to New York with her aunt. Her dream had become a reality. After a while, Fitts said she returned to Colony because she wanted a better life for her mom, who also worked in the houses of white families in Cullman.
“You go in there and cook, take care of the kids, but you couldn’t eat at the table,” Fitts remembered of her early days. “You’ve fixed the food, but you couldn’t eat with them. Sometimes [my mother] had to walk home from work or sit on the backseat in the car. She wasn’t good enough to sit on the front seat… I just wanted a better life for her.”
Fitts returned home and worked to buy an acre of land. In 1972, four years after returning, she was able to build the house for her mother. It still stands today.
In 2022, taking care of others is still a core value for those living in Colony.
Eartha Cole makes it a point to cook meals every day and never hesitates to share with her neighbors. Linda Bradford, known as one of the first nursing assistants in Cullman County, spends her time tending to the elders in the community. Barbara Ward, the wife of Colony’s first mayor, took up upholstery so that she could sew clothes for the women of the town.
Despite the support that the community provides, younger people are leaving the Colony and building lives in the city, causing the population to decline.
That worries people like Ethel Alexander.
On a sunny, breezy, quiet, Thursday afternoon, Alexander walked among grave markers dating to the 1800s. Most of the markers bear the same last names, proving that family lineages began and ended here. Leeth, Ward, Cain. All early settlers of Colony that raised their families here.
Some markers were so old, no name was printed, only two rocks stood, representing the head and feet of the body buried.
While walking through the cemetery, Alexander pointed out an almost bare area where three tall make-shift wooden crosses stood. “I want to be buried there,” she said.
Despite the decline in population, Alexander is optimistic. For her, no matter what adversity its citizens may face, Colony will continue to be what it has always been. Resilient.