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Decatur City Council President Billy Jackson, left, with former council member Collis Stevenson, right, on the pedestrian bridge that was dedicated to Stevenson. Stevenson was the first elected black councilman in Decatur since 1886. Also in foreground are Jewel Freeman and David Swoope Jr.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Decatur City Council President Billy Jackson, left, with former council member Collis Stevenson, right, on the pedestrian bridge that was dedicated to Stevenson. Stevenson was the first elected black councilman in Decatur since 1886. Also in foreground are Jewel Freeman and David Swoope Jr.

City honors a former councilman

By Deangelo McDaniel
dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com · 340-2469

True to his modest personality, Collis Stevenson tried to deflect attention to others.

But this was his day, the day when friends, family and Decatur said, "Thank you — job well done."

At about 6:30 p.m. Saturday, the son of poor farmers unveiled a sign that reads "Collis Stevenson Pedestrian Bridge."

"This is nice, very nice," he said.

The ceremony happened two years after the bridge, which crosses railroad tracks behind the Old State Bank, was officially named to honor Decatur's first elected black city councilman since 1886.

"We waited because Collis wanted us to wait," Council President Billy Jackson said.

Waited for reunion

Stevenson said he wanted to wait until the Stevenson family reunion came to Decatur.

"You know, we have had this reunion for about 60 years, and I wanted my family to be here," he said.

The walkway links Northwest Decatur with Old Decatur.

"That's very symbolic because that's what Collis did when he was on the council," Jackson said. "He linked the new with the old, the black with the white. He has done so much for this city. There was never any question who deserved to have this named in their honor."

In the 1988 municipal elections, Stevenson defeated his first cousin, incumbent Russell Priest.

Only 12 votes separated the two candidates.

Born the fourth of five children to Claude and Lassie Stevenson in Landersville in Lawrence County, Stevenson didn't envision politics as a youngster.

After graduating from segregated Central High School in Courtland in 1952, he enrolled at Alabama A&M.

The U.S. Army drafted him, and he served in the Korean War. He went back to A&M after his military service and graduated in 1958.

He thought about law school, but he received a letter from his wife telling him she was pregnant.

“I decided to make a living for my family,” he said. “I didn’t pray for riches. I just wanted to take care of my family.”

He also passed on a teaching job at Drake Tech in Huntsville because “I wanted to make my living outside.”

He worked as a construction contractor. But in 1988, he said, his community called.

Already an appointed member of the Decatur Board of Education, Stevenson sought a spot on the City Council in District 1.

His proudest accomplishment as a councilman was establishing Community Youth Awareness.

“I enjoyed working with kids, and this gave me the opportunity to take them places they had never been,” he said.

Showing the past

He carried one group of Northwest Decatur teenagers to Canada to the end of the Underground Railroad, which blacks once used to escape from slavery.

“It was important for them to understand history and where black people came from,” he said.

Stevenson knew there was something historic about his election in 1988, but he remembers thinking about all the people who sacrificed for him. “A lot of folks paid a dear price for me to get on the council,” he said.

Burrell Lemons, a former slave and blacksmith by trade, was Decatur’s first elected black councilman.

After being sworn in on May 31, 1880, Lemons joined the Republican Party and helped the party elect Morgan County’s delegates to the state convention.

Two years later in 1882, Decatur elected Matthew Hewlett Banks as the city’s second black councilman.

The son of a former slave and former Confederate colonel, Banks served as the city’s first black mayor pro tem. He served three consecutive terms and helped establish the first school for blacks.

After Banks left office in 1888, Decatur didn’t have another black council member until Priest was appointed as a result of a court case.

Stevenson lost his bid for a second term in 1992, but he never stopped serving Decatur and his community.

“He’s always contributed monetarily and with his time,” Jackson said. “He’s like that rabbit that never goes away. He keeps doing for the community, and I felt compelled to honor him.”

Now 75, Stevenson is retired. But if something is going on in Decatur and he can help, he’ll be there. “My parents raised me to help,” he said. “It was hard on black families in them days, and we helped each other. I just hope I have helped make Decatur a better place.”

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