History came alive on Sunday afternoon at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Scottsboro. Some of Jackson County’s most interesting citizens from the past shared their stories with citizens of today.
Knowing and learning our history is important. It is important to know what we come from, and how we got to where we are. The Cedar Hill Cemetery Stroll showed how Scottsboro and Jackson County were molded by the men and women that came before us.
The 19 people portrayed represented a wide range of accomplishments in various fields. The roles of civic leaders, law officers, philanthropists, businessmen, war veterans and outright eccentrics were played by local actors who related brief histories of the portrayed citizens’ lives while standing at the gravesides.
War veterans like Gene Airheart, Pvt. McKinley Kirby and Pvt. James Knox Polk Martin were portrayed on Sunday. Airheart, a decorated WWII veteran, was rescued in France by the most unlikely of liberators: Japanese Americans who had been recruited from stateside internment camps.
He returned to Scottsboro for his recovery after sustaining bullet wounds that threatened amputation. Treated badly by the Union troops and no better by his own, Confederate soldier James Martin was the son of Bellefonte tavern owner Daniel Martin. His marker was moved from the Bellefonte Cemetery to Cedar Hill where its inscription briefly tells the story of his last days.
Influential women from the area like Virginia May Brown, Mary Texas Hurt Garner, Lucy and Jessie Sue Bynum came alive in the cemetery Sunday afternoon. Highly educated and given to using their considerable family fortune to see the world, the Bynum sisters were scholars who taught at prestigious universities, attended the major Broadway productions of their time, made extensive trips to Europe, and hosted luminaries such as Harper Lee in their home.
Here in Scottsboro, they lived modest, reclusive lives. The youngest woman in the nation to serve as a state’s secretary of state when she assumed that elected position at the age of 26, Garner held several elected state positions, winning many by overwhelming margins.
Athletes like Peniel “Sgt. Sammy” Baker and John O’Linger were portrayed at the Cedar Hill Cemetery Stroll on Sunday. A mill worker who began boxing in the army, “Swingin’ Sammy” amassed an impressive win-loss record and came within one bout of fighting for the welterweight championship. He spent his retirement years in Scottsboro, entertaining listeners with tales of his career and his friendships with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and gangster Legs Diamond.
O’Linger was one of three 1958 Scottsboro High School seniors recruited by first-year Alabama coach Bear Bryant. Bryant told John and his teammates Pat Trammell and David “Bull" Webb that they would be part of a national championship team by their senior year at Alabama if they committed to play for him. The unlikely prophecy proved true in 1961 when the team went undefeated.
Influential members of the community like Judge R.I. ‘Bob’ Gentry, Wiley Whitfield, Cecil Bradden Word, Mess, Charles and R.L. Hodges were represented on Sunday. Perhaps no family changed the landscape of Scottsboro more than the sons of W.J. Word. Although all of the sons left positive and permanent legacies, it is Cecil Word whose presence is the most visible to anyone driving the streets of Scottsboro.
As the guiding force of W.J. Word Lumber Company, he shaped the residential and commercial look of our city. A mixed-race man and son of Scottsboro founding father John Whitfield, Wiley Whitfield was the owner of a grist mill and saw mill, an affluent landowner, successful building contractor, and prominent civic presence.
Wiley started life as a carpenter and brick mason and was an early leader of the African-American community. His story continued well after his death as his family members opposed schemers hoping to exploit his marginalized legal status to claim a portion of his wealth.
Deputy US Marshal Ed Moody was portrayed on Sunday. He was shot while quelling a disturbance in downtown Scottsboro. Although remembered as a congenial man, his life had been shaped by violence since childhood. Marshal Moody’s grave marker was funded with contributions from last year’s stroll.
Oakley “Red” Sharp was one of the people represented on Sunday. Red Sharp was a man of exceptional natural abilities whose business success was based on his insights into personalities, his ability to do on-the-spot complex computations in his head, and his expertise at pitching pennies.
From driving stock cars to training zebras to roping elephants to rounding up feral cattle while wearing a seatbelt on his saddle, Red Sharp’s diverse exploits made him a memorable figure in local lore.
The sons of James Monroe Parks were also portrayed at the cemetery stroll on Sunday afternoon. The dream of many early settlers was to keep pushing West to find their fortunes.
In the case of James Monroe Parks, a physician and Scottsboro’s first postmaster, the trek from Scottsboro to Texas brought only loss. He lost two sons and a daughter to fever within two weeks arrival at the “promised land.”