After the Civil War Union troops occupied Mobile for several years, many of the units were composed of so-called “colored” soldiers, often ex-slaves who had enlisted in the army. Some of those units camped north of St. Stephens Road and west of Ann Street. Newly freed slaves came to live around the Union forces for protection, as racial tensions were high after 1865. Eventually the troops left, but African-Americans stayed. Today, the area is the Mobile Historic Development Commission’s newest historical district and is called The Campground.
In 1946, James Sweet and his wife, Laura, decided to take on a business venture that would eventually become an industry of grand proportions. They built inexpensive, prefabricated/manufactured homes to meet thepost-War housing crisis. They lived in Prichard. He was a machine shop supervisor, she a commercial artist. Their business did well, but before the days of interstate highways, their market was restricted to this region. They started Sweet Homes, and the name “Mobile home” caught on, but people eventually forgot its connection to the city of Mobile. But, the strange, little-known tale continues: The company had a radio-advertising jingle, “Sweet Homes, Alabama, ” which is widely reported to have been the basis for the 1974 Lynyrd Skynyrd hit.
Actually there are, or were, two Goat Islands. The one still known by that name is a small, uninhabited spot east of the USS Alabama frequented by fishermen. Half a century ago, a man lived there and kept goats. He infrequently rowed ashore for supplies and smelled of the livestock. Ono Island is the other Goat Island, for the animals were kept there, too, before the end of WWII. Today, Ono Island has certainly been gentrified, and the Goat Island of Mobile Bay no longer holds goats either.
The Lucky A
The Lucky A is not the University of Alabama, but the USS Alabama, so called because during all its service in WWII, no crew member was lost to enemy action. Few other warships could make such a claim. Fully commissioned in 1942, she fought in the North Atlantic and throughout the Pacific Islands campaign. In combat for almost all of the war, she was decommissioned in 1947. In 1964, thanks to contributions from across the state, she was brought to her current location on Mobile Bay where she has consistently been the centerpiece of one of the state’s main tourist attractions. Her luck still holds, despite hurricanes and the passage of time.
Summerville was quite far west of antebellum Mobile, approximately where Crichton is today. It was a camp for the Confederate Army during the Civil War and a United States Army camp in the Spanish-American War. By the turn of the 20th century, a large cotton mill and many workers’ cottages claimed the spot, and it became known as Crichton. In its time as Summerville, it was a leisure destination for picnickers and sightseers, especially when army units camped there. In the late 19th century, in addition to taking your carriage to Summerville, you could ride the Dummy Line, which went out Springhill Avenue to the current junction of Moffett and Springhill, and then up the hill. Augusta Evans Wilson lived on the eastern edge of the area, in Georgia Cottage, and organized medical care and a hospital for wounded Confederate troops during the war. (See page 51 for snippets from her novel, “Beulah.”) The area was not inside Mobile’s city limits until after WWII.
In the early 20th century, one of Mobile’s main streetcar lines ran west out Government Street until it reached the outskirts of the city. There the line made a loop, and the cars returned to the city center. While no sign of that streetcar line still exists, today everyone knows the area around DIP and Government Street as The Loop. (This is not to be confused with the Henry Aaron Loop around Downtown.)
Today the Orange Grove neighborhood is an area of public housing running south and west of I-165 and north of the Henry Aaron Loop. One might speculate that the name was derived because of the presence of satsuma trees that were not uncommon in the region, and the climate and proximity to the water would have made it a fertile landscape for the fruit. We do know that the area, always a blue-collar community, was home to Irish- and African-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most males worked at jobs in the nearby docks, most females as domestics. Both John LeFlore and Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb have ties to the Orange Grove community.
In 1952, Mobile Infirmary moved to a new building on what had been the Oak Hill Golf Course north of Springhill Avenue. Sited on a low hill, the hospital and the area around it, which became home to many physicians’ offices and residences, soon became known as Pill Hill. Today, the Infirmary campus, centered on the 704-bed hospital, is the largest single medical facility in south Alabama.
City of Five (or Six) Flags
The Port City. The Big Oyster. The Azalea City. City of Perpetual Promise. Mobile has a slew of nicknames, each expressing some key aspect of the town’s personality and history. The moniker City of Five (or Six) Flags comes from the number of flags that have flown over Mobile. That figure depends on whether you count the Confederacy (most do, making five) and whether you recognize the Republic of Alabama, which existed from the state’s secession from the Union on Jan. 11 until the Confederacy was formed on Feb. 8, 1861. (Most people skip over this, but if you don’t, six states, nations or empires, including France, England and Spain, have governed Mobile.)
At various times in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mobile had a system of public markets selling fresh produce, fish, shellfish and meat. The largest and most famous was built on the corner of Royal and Church streets in the mid-1850s. Municipal offices and the armory for the local militia were upstairs above the market stalls. Gradually these closed (the last one in 1940), and the building became City Hall exclusively. Now, it is the Museum of Mobile, a well-respected institution preserving our history.
The Avenue | The North Side | Down the Bay
Formerly Davis Avenue, The Avenue is actually Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. This was the center of the North Side, which in the days of segregation was the black part of town. The other black/Creole neighborhood was south of the city center, now south of the Henry Aaron Loop, called Down the Bay. It was east of Broad Street and extended south to Virginia Street. As the name implies, it ran east to the Mobile River. Down the Bay was a residential area, while The Avenue was a bustling street of shops, movie theaters, saloons and more when African-Americans were not welcome customers in white establishments. More African-Americans lived in houses in the North Side, and there was some rivalry between the North Side and Down the Bay.
These famous Bay-area folks are better known by their handles.
The Iron Hand
Henri de Tonti (1649/50 – 1704) was a Sicilian with a long career in the French Army and Navy in both Europe and America. He lost his right hand in combat in one of the wars in the old country and thereafter wore a hook covered by a glove. He was very important as the military leader in the founding of Mobile, and was well-respected in the Native American communities. In 1704, he died of yellow fever and was buried in a grave, which is now lost at the site of Old Mobile at 27-Mile Bluff.
Floating Island was the epithet given to Mary Eoline Eilands (1854 – 1937) who walked every day along Government Street from her home at 655 St. Emmanuel St. to the docks on the Mobile River. It was understood that she was searching for her lover who went off to sea in the late 19th century and never returned. She dressed in old-fashioned, long skirts and did not wish to speak to people on the street. Her walk was almost a dance-step, and if her way was blocked she just glided over the obstacle. Because of her gait and last name, she was known as Floating Island. She is buried with her parents in Magnolia Cemetery.
Born Leroy Robert Paige (1906 – 1982), Satchel Paige was certainly one of the greatest baseball players of all time, even though segregation excluded him from major league play until he was 42 years old. There are various explanations for his nickname. The most common story – the one he, himself, told – was that, when working as a porter, he devised a way to carry several bags to increase his income. Some said he got the soubriquet for shoplifting, and he was sent to reform school at Mount Meigs, Ala., for that offense. In the five years he spent there, he learned to pitch and soon was a star in the negro leagues, before finally going on to the slow-to-integrate major leagues.
The Brat, actually The Brat from Kensington, was Eddie Stanky (1916 – 1999). Born in the Kensington working class neighborhood of Philadelphia, he was seen by people in baseball, like Leo Durocher, as a tough kid. (He was still considered to be a street brat in the 1940s but had probably mellowed when he came to USA to coach.) Stanky was a second baseman and later manager in the major leagues, but he is best known in Mobile for building the University of South Alabama baseball program where he had a 488 – 193 record in his 14-season tenure. He was incredibly popular with his players and fans alike.