D210712 old town

Site on the planned lockwise from bottom left, Newcomb Street Church of Christ, King’s Memorial United Methodist Church, the former Lakeside High School, now Leon Sheffield Elementary, Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Etta Freeman Park. [JERONIMO NISA/DECATUR DAILY]

The site of an infirmary that opened in 1900, Decatur's high school for Blacks during segregation and a church founded by former slaves will be among 13 tour stops on a planned Old Town Decatur digital walking tour.

The project is sponsored by the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area in collaboration with the City of Decatur and Decatur Morgan County Tourism.

Historic plaques, which will mark the tour stops and be installed on metal poles, will feature QR codes that a visitor can scan with a mobile device to learn about the site or structure itself and Old Town area, according to Carrie Crawford, director of the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area.

Crawford said the project is meant to “share and preserve the stories of a vibrant part of Decatur with visitors and residents.

“We’re looking at probably a late summer installation,” Crawford said. “We’re in the process of having the signs manufactured.”

Historian and author Peggy Allen Towns, a member of the team involved in the initiative, said it will “give a snippet of Old Town’s history, the oldest neighborhood in Decatur.

“The story is told using historical images and maps, combined with contemporary images,” Towns said. “You’ll get a history lesson, see photos of how the neighborhood once looked and learn little known or forgotten facts about historic Old Town.”

Bordered by the railroad tracks on the west, Alabama 20/Wilson Street on the north and Bank Street on the East, Old Town dates back to the 1820s.

The tour stops will include Newcomb Street Church of Christ, Lakeside High, Etta Freeman Park, First Missionary Baptist Church, King’s Memorial United Methodist Church, Schaudies-Banks Cottage, the planned Scottsboro Boys-CEOTA (Celebrating Early Old Town with Art) Civil Rights Museum, Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site of Cottage Home Infirmary, which predates the beginning of what is now Decatur Morgan Hospital; the Old State Bank on Bank Street; the Turner-Surles Community Center on Vine Street; Decatur Union Depot on Railroad Street and the Morgan County Archives on Bank Street.

The Cottage Home Infirmary and Nursing Training School in Old Town opened in a three-room cottage in 1900, and within a decade, was a two-story building with 18 rooms, according to a Journal of the National Medical Association article published in 1913. The first nurses graduated from the training school in 1910

Last month, the Decatur school board approved the placement of a plaque at the former Lakeside school, which was the city’s high school for Black students from 1955 to 1969 before integration, and Superintendent Michael Douglas recognized Towns’ effort in the project. Lakeside is now the site of Leon Sheffield Magnet Elementary School on Wilson Street Northwest.

The Decatur City Council in 2019 approved an agreement that will eventually give ownership of an historic home at 818 Sycamore St. N.W. to the nonprofit CEOTA, which focuses on preserving and celebrating the history of Old Town. CEOTA plans to renovate the building that’s associated with the Scottsboro Boys trial and build a museum featuring Decatur’s role in the civil rights movement.

Among the other sites on the tour, the Etta Freeman Park was named for a lifelong educator, community activist and member of First Missionary Baptist, which was founded by 22 former slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War. King’s Memorial's congregation housed Decatur’s first permanent public school for Black children in 1867.

Other members of the tour team include Crawford; Brian Corrigan, a consultant with the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area; Florence photographer Abraham Rowe; Morgan County Archivist John Allison; Wylheme Ragland, a retired pastor and historian; David Breland, a retired Morgan County judge and historian; CEOTA founder Frances Tate; and Danielle Gibson, executive director of Decatur Morgan County Tourism.

“It is my hope of course that the tour is a learning tool, one that connects our past with our present, to our future,” Towns said. She also hopes the project “generates conversation and that it will provide some clarity of just how viable our community was during a period in our history before integration, and before urban renewal.”

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