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It was long thought that Matthew Hewlett Banks, the son of a slave and of a former Confederate colonel, was the city’s first black councilman.
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It was long thought that Matthew Hewlett Banks, the son of a slave and of a former Confederate colonel, was the city’s first black councilman.

Ex-slave was Decatur’s first black councilman

By Deangelo McDaniel · 340-2469

The historic moment is written clearly in the minutes of what was the “town” of Decatur.

Near the midway point of page 285, as it has been for more than 125 years, you’ll find the name, Burrel Lemons.

Lemons gathered in the mayor’s office with D.L. Downs, H.S. Freeman, J.S. Sugars and William M. Dancy to take the oath of office.

On May 31, 1880, the former slave was sworn in as Decatur’s first black council member.

The city did not have district government at the time, but the council assigned the south portion of the city to Freeman, Dancy and Lemons.

Whether the local papers covered the event is unknown. Decatur had two papers at the time, but they are not available for research.

Huntsville Gazette

The Huntsville Gazette made no mention of Lemons taking the oath, but the newspaper wrote after the May 4, 1880, city election that “Mr. Burrell (sic) Lemons, a colored gentleman of ability, was elected alderman in the town of Decatur.”

The night of the election, Lemons, a blacksmith by trade, joined the Republican Party for a victory celebration and to elect Morgan County’s delegates for the state convention.

The revelation of Lemons’ election probably surprises some because city officials have long thought that Matthew Hewlett Banks, the son of a slave and former Confederate colonel, was the city’s first black councilman.

Decatur, a city Union forces destroyed during the Civil War, was still recovering from the war and the 1878 yellow fever epidemic when voters elected Lemons. The population had declined from 1,140 in 1874 to below 500.

Perhaps the most significant event during Lemons’ tenure on the council was the establishment of the Bank of Decatur.

Joined by three other investors in 1881, C.C. Harris, a Lawrence County native who fought in the Confederate Army and returned home penniless, started the bank with $20,000 capital.

Lemons’ administration did express an interest in education, but the construction of a male and female academy for whites did not start until after he was out of office. The council donated $200 in August 1882 to help build the school.

Beyond the minutes during his two-year term, city officials know little about Lemons. The 1880 federal census shows him in Decatur at age 65 with a railroad hand and hired hand living with him. His occupation is listed as blacksmith and his birthplace is Virginia.

Two years later, the voters elected Banks as Decatur’s second black council member. And, in another historical revelation, the council majority elected him mayor pro tem.

Banks served three consecutive terms and helped establish the first public school for blacks.

In a 2000 interview with The Daily, his granddaughter, the late Athelyne Banks, said her grandfather’s past was the family secret because he was the son of a prominent white citizen.

“The family didn’t talk much about him,” she said.

Mat Banks was born Feb. 11, 1844, and died May 25, 1919. She attended his funeral and she said the “other side of the family” always claimed her grandfather as Col. Banks’ son.

Remembering the funeral, she said: “I thought he was an only child, but all these ladies came in with black veils and black dresses on. I didn’t know who they were. My mother told me they were my grandfather’s sisters. I was young, and I was surprised.”

As for her grandfather’s physical build, Miss Banks said: “He was medium height, a light-skinned man. He believed in education and owning land. He thought every man should have something to leave his heirs. He did not consider you a man, unless you owned land.”

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