Street names honor significant Tuscaloosa figures

Emily Williams

People drive down Warner, Wallace, McFarland and Greensboro all the time, but most never stop to consider where the names on the street signs came from.

Some of the street names in Tuscaloosa are named after extremely well known figures like Paul Bryant, Wallace Wade and Gene Stallings. But even some of the less recognizable names pay tribute to figures who made an impact on the city of Tuscaloosa and the state of Alabama.

For example, Lurleen Wallace Boulevard is named after Lurleen Wallace, the state’s first and only female governor. In the 1960s, Alabama was the only state in the South to have a female governor.

“Her legacy is really in part because she was governor but a lot of people don’t know that,” said Laura M. Sojka, a political science doctoral candidate whose research focuses on the life of Lurleen Wallace. “You think of Lurleen Wallace Boulevard or you think Lake Lurleen and you think, ‘Oh, it’s just the governor’s wife.’”

Lurleen Wallace, who grew up in Greene County, was born in Tuscaloosa County. She ran for office following her husband George Wallace’s first term, because of state laws that prohibited governors from serving two terms in a row. She was elected in 1966 and served just over a year and a half in office before dying of cervical cancer in 1968.

“There’s that dichotomy of, ‘Oh she was just a puppet, she was a stupid woman,’ all that stuff,” Sojka said. “She was also a politician, but we frame her as a wife. There is that kind of contradiction when you think of southern womanhood and ‘a woman should be in the home,’ when you think of the 1960s and all the constraints on women and what was expected socially.”

Sojka said Lurleen ran as Mrs. George C. Wallace to make it clear to Alabama voters that she supported her husband’s platform.

“In a lot of ways she certainly was a proxy,” Sojka said. “She openly admitted she didn’t have an interest in politics. She said she did it because it was important for George, and she wanted to help the state of Alabama. At the same time, she ran, she got elected, she served in office. The fact that she won and served speaks for itself.”

While Lurleen was elected as an extension of her husband, she made a name for herself supporting causes that were important to her as well.

“She was really big into state parks, which is part of the reason we have Lake Lurleen,” Sojka said. “It was an initiative of hers in terms of beautification and improving the lives of Alabamians.”

Lurleen also worked to improve mental health laws and was involved with Bryce Hospital. However, Sojka said, Lurleen wasn’t an entirely sympathetic governor, and in many ways continued her husband’s infamous legacy.

“The implicit assumption is there with improving the lives of Alabamians; she meant a certain type of Alabamians,” Sojka said. “Because she also really fought integration at the federal level.”

Sojka said history has not been favorable toward Lurleen Wallace. While there are many books written about the legacy and infamy of George, there are just three written about Lurleen – one of which is a children’s book. Sojka said writers and historians within the state of Alabama are much more favorable toward Lurleen than those outside the state.

(See also “Wallace Jr. talks about his controversial father“)

Another famous Tuscaloosa street pays tribute to local businessman, philanthropist and art collector Jack Warner. Warner’s family was prominent in the paper business throughout the South.

“Mr. Warner’s grandfather was the gentleman that patented the square-bottomed paperback and created the machine to make it,” said Katherine Richter, director of the Tuscaloosa Preservation Society. “The family industry of wood, pulp and paper developed from that. It used to be called Gulf States Paper. It’s now called The Westervelt Company. Mr. Warner was executive of the company for many years and in that time built up his American art collection and opened the museum.”

The Tuscaloosa Museum of Art, formerly the Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art, is located on the campus of the Westervelt Company on Jack Warner Parkway. Warner’s collection includes works of late 19th-century American artists such as John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Edward Hicks.

(See also “Westervelt Collection home to 1000 works“)

Richter used to work at the Westervelt-Warner Museum of Art and knew Warner personally for many years.

“Mr. Warner is really nice,” she said. “He’s a sweet, sweet man. He turns 97 this year, and he’s still as active as he can be.”

Richter said the Warner family has always been involved in local philanthropy and are active members of the First Presbyterian Church.

“His family was very involved in getting Queen City Pool started,” Richter said. “He had a brother, David Warner, who died by drowning. Then the family opened the community pool for Tuscaloosa so that kids could learn how to swim.”

The Warner name can be found other places around Tuscaloosa. The Mildred Westervelt-Warner Transportation Museum is named after Warner’s mother.

“He’s a pretty major player in Tuscaloosa history,” said Ian Crawford, director of the Jemison Mansion.

Crawford said the streets of Tuscaloosa were not always named after famous residents. He said there was a time when street names were much more practical. Jack Warner Parkway used to be called River Road, because it ran the length of the Black Warrior River. Crawford said River Road used to be one of the city’s main industrial districts.

(See also “The Way of our Water“)

“If you look at a map of Tuscaloosa, the original city is laid out parallel and perpendicular to the river, and the city ended at what is now called Queen City Boulevard, but it used to be called East Margin,” Crawford said.

He said most of the streets were originally named in the 1820s and 1830s. Names like Cotton Street reflected the major industries in town.

“Queen City itself is named because at the intersection of what was East Margin and South Margin, or Crescent Street, which we now call 15th Street, they built the Cincinnati and New Orleans Railroad. Cincinnati is known as the Queen City, and New Orleans is known as the Crescent City,” he said.

Crawford said streets like 1st, 2nd and 3rd used to be named after Presidents Washington, Adams and Jefferson.

“You also have Market Street, which is now known as Greensboro,” Crawford said. “That’s where the markets were. Later it was colloquially known as Millionaire’s Way, because that’s where all the planters had built their homes.”

Crawford said the University was originally intended to be an entirely separate community not connected to downtown or the West. University Boulevard was known as Broad Street up to the University campus and Huntsville Road on the other side of campus.

Over the decades, the University, the city of Tuscaloosa and their streets have grown together. Downtown and campus are today connected not only by University Boulevard, but also by Paul Bryant Boulevard. Other streets carry the names of people from the University, the city and the state as a whole, all of whom made a big enough impact during their lives to be memorialized in asphalt and concrete.