alabama · Black History Month · courage · slavery

William Bolden Townsend, an Alabama native brings our complex past in view

William Bolden Townsend, courtesy Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to present William Bolden Townsend. He is a descendant of the Townsends freed by Samuel Townsend, a Huntsville planter who left the bulk of an estate worth $5.1 million in today’s currency to ten enslaved children from five enslaved women and their immediate kin.

William Bolden Townsend was born in 1854, two years before Samuel Townsend, his grandfather, passed away. While several of the elder Townsend’s children were relocated just before the Civil War to Xenia, OH, where they enrolled at the newly opened Wilberforce boarding school, later, a university, Townsend moved to Leavenworth, Kansas with his mother, Margaret.

After obtaining a law degree at Kansas University and admitted to the bar in 1891, he pursued a fight against unjust acts targeting people of African descent. He did as much in several states during the rise of Jim Crow. He had earlier been a teacher in Mississippi and a postal employee. Owing to his militant work that upset some middle class African Americans and whites, he eventually became a clerk for the Judiciary Committee in the Colorado House of Representatives in Denver where he died in 1917.

For more, see Ch. 4 of Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black-White Intimacies in Antebellum America (Northern Illinois University Press, 2015).

I’ll be discussing the Townsends at noon on Feb. 17 in Montgomery at the Alabama Department of State Archives. I can’t think of a better place to share more information about this country’s complex past that includes William Bolden Townsend. Montgomery is well known partly because of the mid-20th century bus boycott, something many of the Townsends likely saw from afar, but perhaps up close, too, as some relocated to Alabama after the Civil War. Thomas Townsend, one of Samuel’s sons who graduated from Wilberforce, served in the Union Army, certainly returned to Alabama. He was not only a lawyer, but later an alderman for the City of Huntsville. His neighbors included a Confederate officer.

I’ll also discuss the Townsends Feb. 18 at Ernest & Hadley Booksellers,1928 7th St, Tuscaloosa, AL 35401. There, I’ll do a co-book reading with my University of Alabama colleague Hilary Green, author of a recent book on African Americans and education in Alabama in the postbellum period.

For more, see

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