1873 Jefferson County seat referendum

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James Powell

The 1873 Jefferson County seat referendum was a county-wide referendum to decide whether to move the Jefferson County Courthouse and seat of government from Elyton to the newly-built city of Birmingham.

The referendum held on May 5, 1873, was initiated by James Powell, then president of the Elyton Land Company, over the objections of citizens of Elyton, who had recently renovated their courthouse and did not care to see the center of government and the attendant business moved to an infant upstart city, and to be doubly insulted by contributing their taxes to pay for the move.

Powell submitted an enabling act to the Genral Assembly of Alabama which was passed on March 5, 1873. The act called for Jefferson County Sheriff James T. Eubank to organize the referendum election, but Powell took it upon himself to orchestrate the details.

Reconstruction-era laws allowed residents to vote from any precinct. Powell arranged for special trains to bring masses of voters, many of them newly-enfranchised former slaves, to Birmingham. He met the crowds at the depot in front of the Relay House and then led them, on horseback, to the proposed site of the new courthouse on 3rd Avenue North where he had provided an enormous barbecue feast. A rumor circulated that Powell, dressed in military regalia and waving a saber in the air, was General Grant himself.

Historian George Cruikshank related the referendum in a short section of his 1920 History of Birmingham and Its Environs, entitled "An Early Tale of Politics":

The county seat was moved to Birmingham in 1874; and thereby hangs a tale. It is said that methods to wrench the honor from Elyton were employed which would not bear the scrutiny of the strict moralist, or even good citizen. Walker County whites and negroes are even believed to have voted at the election which decided the matter, and railroad hands, no more legally qualified, cast their ballots for the Magic City. There is no doubt but that the Railroad interests, which were creating [Birmingham] solidly and most efficiently backed the removal. The Duke of Birmingham (J. R. Powell) engineered the campaign for his town, and is said to have convinced the negroes that he and General Grant were working together to bring about the change.

In the end, the result of the election was overwhelmingly in favor of Birmingham. The new courthouse on 3rd Avenue North was completed in 1875.

Act

Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Alabama, That there shall be an election held at the different precincts and in the city of Birmingham, in Jefferson county, on the first Monday in May, 1873 for the purpose of permanently locating the court house of said county.

Sec. 2. Be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of the sheriff of Jefferson county, on the first Monday of May, 1873, having given thirty days notice by advertisements as required by law in general elections in this State, to cause the polls to be opened and an election held at the different precincts in said county and in the city of Birmingham, in said county, which shall be conducted in all respects as elections for members of the General Assembly. The managers and clerks shall be appointed as they are at other elections, and shall each take the oath prescribed for managers and clerks at general elections and shall be subject to like penalties for a violation of any of their duties. The returns of said elections shall be made to the same person and in the same manner as the returns of other elections are required to be made by the election laws of this State, and upon the coming in of said returns it shall be the duty of the board of supervisors to count, compare and add up all the votes polled; and if it shall appear that either place voted for shall have received a majority of all the votes polled, they shall declare such place the permanent seat of justice for Jefferson county.

Sec. 3. Be it further enacted, That no person shall be eligible to vote in said election who is not legally authorized to vote for members of the General Assembly, and any person voting illegally at said election or voting more than one time in said election shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof shall be fined not less than one hundred nor more than five hundred dollars and may be imprisoned in the county jail not exceeding twenty days, at the discretion of the court trying the same, and said election may be contested by any elector in said county, for fraud, gross mismanagement or illegal voting, in the same manner as near as may be as such contests in elections for judge of probate are now conducted.

Sec. 4. Be it further enacted, That any person offering to vote in said election not known to be a qualified elector may be challenged by the returning officer or any qualified elector; Provided, that such election shall not be delayed by such challenge, but that the inspectors shall proceed to receive other votes until the oath as hereinafter provided is being administered by one of the inspectors.

Sec. 5. Be it further enacted, That when any person offering to vote in said election is challenged, if his ballot is not withdrawn, one of the inspectors or managers must administer or tender him the following oath: You do solemnly swear that you are twenty one years of age or upwards; that you are a qualified elector under the laws and constitution of the United States and of this State; that you have resided in this State six months next and in this county for three months next preceding this election and that you have not voted at this or any other precinct this day. And upon such oath as aforesaid the ballot of such person shall be received and deposited as in other cases.

Sec. 6. Be it further enacted, That any person wilfully or corruptly taking this oath, the same being false, shall be deemed guilty of perjury, and on conviction thereof shall be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary for not less than two nor more than five years, at the discretion of the jury trying the same.

Sec. 7. Be it further enacted, That if any person offering to vote refuses to take the oath prescribed by the preceding section of this act, his vote shall be rejected.

Sec. 8. Be it further enacted, That the town of Elyton and city of Birmingham shall alone be in nomination, and the place receiving a majority of the votes cast shall be the permanent seat of justice for said county. Each voter shall have printed or written upon his ticket Elyton or Birmingham.

Sec. 9. Be it further enacted, That any officer or person who shall fail or refuse to perform any duty by this act enjoined, either in opening, holding, managing or returning said election, or who shall do any act or thing whereby the object of this act shall be defeated, such officer or person shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof shall be fined not less than one hundred dollars and may be imprisoned in the county jail not exceeding twenty days, at the discretion of the court trying the same.

Sec. 10. Be it further enacted, That, if at said election it shall appear that Birmingham has received a majority of all the votes cast, then and in that event J. C. Morrow, B. Gulley, James O. Conner, S. H. Duprey and John L. Ellison be and are hereby appointed commissioners, whose duty it shall be and they are hereby authorized and required to purchase and receive by donations a fee simple title to and in said city of Birmingham, so as to vest the title in the said county of Jefferson whenever a court house and county jail may be erected, as hereinafter provided.

Sec. 11. Be it further enacted, That, in the event it is ascertained that Birmingham has received a majority of all the votes cast in said election, it shall be the duty of the county commissioners to provide some suitable building in said city of Birmingham for a temporary court house and as such building is provided all books, papers and public records belonging to the offices of the clerk of the circuit court, judge of probate, register in chancery and sheriff of said county shall be transferred from Elyton to Birmingham, and all the courts, circuit, chancery, probate, county and county commissioners, shall be held in said city of Birmingham.

Sec. 12. Be it further enacted, That, in event Birmingham is declared the permanent seat of justice for the county of Jefferson under said election, then and in that event it shall be the further duty of the court of county commissioners for said county to cause to be erected upon the lot or lots selected by the commissioners mentioned in the tenth section of this act a suitable court house and county jail at as early a day thereafter as practicable.

Sec. 13. Be it further enacted, That, in the event the permanent seat of justice of said county is removed to Birmingham, then it shall be the further duty of the court of county commissioners for said county to sell at public outcry or at private sale, as they may deem best for the interest of said county, all lands belonging to said county located in the town of Elyton, and the proceeds of the sale to invest in the public buildings aforesaid in the city of Birmingham, and the same commissioners are hereby authorized and empowered to execute a deed conveying the title of said county to said lands to the purchaser or purchasers thereof.

Sec. 14. Be it further enacted, That, in order to procure the means to carry out the objects of the twelfth section of this act, the commissioners' court for said county shall have the authority and are hereby authorized, empowered and required to issue the bonds of the county of Jefferson to an amount not exceeding twenty-five thousand dollars, or as much thereof as they may deem necessary for the purposes aforesaid, payable at such time or times as said court may agree upon, not exceeding ten years from the date of issuance, with coupons attached bearing interest at the rate of ten per cent. per annum, payable to bearer and receivable in payment of all county taxes.

Sec. 15. Be it further enacted, That the bonds issued under the provisions of this act must be made payable at such place as the court of county commissioners may agree upon, and shall be negotiable and may be issued in the sum or sums of one hundred dollars.

Sec. 16. Be it further enacted, That the bonds authorized to be issued under the provisions of this act shall not be valid until the same have been signed by the county treasurer and countersigned by the judge of probate and the seal of the county affixed thereto, and the county treasurer is required to keep a correct account of all bonds issued and disposed of under the provisions of this act.

Sec. 17. Be it further enacted, That the bonds issued in accordance with this act shall be exempt from the tax on seals and all State and county taxes.

Sec. 18. Be it further enacted, That the commissioners' court of said county are hereby authorized to do any and all things authorized under the provisions of this act which may be necessary to carry out the powers granted by this act, either through themselves or any agent or agents duly appointed by them for that purpose at any term of said court, whether regular or special, and if done at a special term of said court, its proceedings shall be as valid to all intents and purposes as if done at a regular term, and no technical informality, irregularity, neglect or omission in the proceedings or records of said court shall in any wise vitiate or annul said bonds or coupons, which shall have all the protection and properties of commercial paper.

Sec. 19. Be it further enacted, That, in order to meet the interest upon said bonds as it falls due and the principal at maturity, the said court of county commissioners are hereby authorized and required to levy a special tax from time to time upon all the property, licenses and business subject to a State tax under the revenue laws of this State, situated or located within the limits of said county.

Approved March 5, 1873.

References

  • Caldwell, Henry M. (1892) History of the Elyton Land Company and Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham: Elyton Land Company
  • Meade, J. L., editor (1893) Local Laws Relating to Jefferson County, Ala. Birmingham: Roberts & Son.
  • Cruikshank, George H. (1920) History of Birmingham and Its Environs: A Narrative Account of Their Historical Progress, Their People, and Their Principal Interests. 2 volumes. Chicago, Illinois: Lewis Publishing Company.