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Rising Road Helps Explain 1921 America, Author Says

Posted by Mary Wimberley on 2010-10-15

Her non-fiction account of a 1921 murder in Birmingham is a story with many lessons about the tenor of the times, author and criminal law professor Sharon L. Davies said at Samford University Thursday, Oct. 14.

Davies’ book, Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America, she said, “Tells us where we were as Americans at that time.”

In the book, Davies chronicles the revenge murder of Catholic priest James Coyle by Methodist minister Edwin Stephenson and the subsequent trial in the Jefferson County courthouse. At the time, the courthouse was located on Third Avenue North, not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral and rectory, site of the murder.

The tragedy resulted from Stephenson’s anger after learning that Coyle performed the marriage ceremony of Stephenson’s daughter, Ruth, to Pedro Gussman, a Puerto Rican immigrant and practicing Catholic.

To her audience of mostly Cumberland law and Samford undergraduate history students, Davies explained the background that formed the basis for the situation.

Stephenson, she said, was like many other Protestant ministers who held hostilities about Catholics.  It was a time when being anti-Catholic and voicing those beliefs were popular ideas, she said.  “It was almost deemed the American thing to do.  Catholics were often classified as not being true Americans, since it was said that they owed allegiance to a foreign leader, the Pope in Rome.”

Many states had laws that allowed officials to search, without warrants, Catholic buildings for weaponry, based on a fear that Catholics wanted to overthrow the government by violence, said Davies, who teaches criminal law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

The Ku Klux Klan, seen after World War I as a patriotic organization to protect the U.S Constitution and American way of life, included as its targets Catholics, Jews and some immigrants. Its ranks included many of a town’s prominent residents and professionals, and spelled trouble for Catholics, Davies said.

During  the Birmingham trial, the Klan raised money statewide to hire Stephenson’s defense team, which included Birmingham attorney and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice and civil rights proponent  Hugo Black.

“This was Hugo Black before he was Hugo Black,” Davis said of the young lawyer who was “making a name for himself” at the time. Years later, she noted, Black was on the Supreme Court that repealed laws that, in 1921, made Coyle’s performing a marriage ceremony between races a crime. The matter became a factor in the trial when Stephenson, on the stand, referred to Gussman as a “negro.” At the time, it was illegal for a white to marry a black, and for a minister to perform the ceremony.

Davies’  interest in the subject of criminal sanctions of marriage between racial groups stems from her own family’s bi-racial history: her father’s mother was an African American who married a white man. She said that she “tripped over” the Birmingham homicide while researching material for a Law Review article.

“I was mesmerized by the story,” said Davies, who soon saw it as a way to describe “where we were as a nation at the time.”

Roadblocks in her research included an urban legend that there was no complete trial transcript, since it was said that the Klan had seen to it that some pages disappear. However, an archivist with the Catholic archdiocese in Mobile, where Coyle had been a priest before Birmingham, produced the compete material.

Another challenge was that, when Davies was doing her five years of research and writing, all the main characters in the case were dead. But it was before television, she noted, and towns such as Birmingham had three newspapers, which all followed the story. The case also received national coverage in The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune and other widely-circulated publications.

Davies stopped short of telling her audience how the trial and lives of the newlywed couple ended, suggesting that they read the book.

Her talk was sponsored by the Cordell Hull Speakers Forum of Samford’s Cumberland School of Law and the Samford history department.

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