Ask McGehee: I heard one of the old homes that used to be in downtown Mobile had ties to the slave market. Where was it?

According to local folklore, the city’s oldest house stood at 190 St. Anthony St., with a portion of the house dating to the city’s Spanish period (1780 – 1812). By the 1830s, when the city began to flourish, it was owned by John B. Toulmin, a commission merchant in the firm of Toulmin, Hazard & Co.

In the decades that followed, the building had the dubious reputation of housing the overseer for the adjoining slave market. No images of that shameful space survive, but in 1913 historian Peter Joseph Hamilton said it had occupied the west side of Royal Street between St. Louis and St. Anthony streets and contained a three-story brick barracks with barred windows.

Writer Frances Beverly in the 1930s described the overseer as having been “a low, common bestial type who would strip off the shirts of women” (being auctioned). The name of this low, bestial sort has not come to light, but artist Marian Acker McPherson wrote that “he plied his trade by day, and then at night, long clanging chains held troublesome slaves in a bricked in dungeon built beneath his home.”

A report by participants in the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1934 dated the house to 1835, while noting it “traditionally (is) assigned an earlier date.” The house was described as an “L”-shaped structure with a late 19th-century wooden porch. Apparently, the notorious basement had been filled in years earlier, as the report makes no mention of its existence.

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In the early 1900s, the house rated a postcard view. By that time, it was in possession of Prelate D. Barker, Mobile’s longtime Republican postmaster and president of the Battle House Company. However, it seems that Barker never occupied the place. City directories show him living full time at the Battle House and later in a house on Government Street.

The unseemly reputation of the house may well explain why tenants rarely stayed within its walls for more than a year or two. City directories reveal a lengthy list of occupants, ranging from a hatmaker to several widows. By 1938, it stood vacant, and the wreckers took it down in 1940. An ordinary parking lot now occupies the site where the building once stood.

text by Tom McGehee

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