It is fair to call Julia Strudwick Tutwiler, born in Havana Alabama (1841), one of the most transformational figures in Alabama history. Her name is writ across the landscape of the state, in places large and small, for good reason.
- She was a tremendous supporter of troubled youth, believing in rehabilitation in a time marked by concepts like the Deserving Poor and the pitiless notion of predestined criminality based upon half-baked pseudoscience. In the prison systems, she helped establish the state’s juvenile detention facilities, and helped remove juvenile offenders from the general population and its hardened group of serious or career criminals.
- Tutwiler’s work in criminal justice did not stop at the young. She sought gender equity and safety for incarcerated women. She helped remove women from the general prison population into their own facilities — before that time, Alabama jails were a thunderdome of predation and rape.
- Tutwiler and her students routinely spent their weekends with inmates: teaching them about hygiene, reading and writing, and providing church services and bibles to the population. For all of her humanitarian efforts across the prison population, Tutwiler was dubbed the “Angel of the Stockades.”
- She ended the Convict-Lease system in Alabama prisons, where predominately black inmates would be “leased” to corporations to then be forced to engage in ultrahazardous activities, such as mining. With Alabama receiving the lease income, such a system not only incentivized incarceration, but was barely indistinguishable from state-sponsored slavery. (FDR would end the practice with a pen stroke in 1935.)
- She was no less active in her efforts to reform education, and had become an educator at an early age. Even as a child, she was teaching the family’s 20 slaves (She was born wealthy in Alabama in 1841, folks.)
- Later in life, she was particularly instrumental in creating coeducational environments. In 1892, she singlehandedly led a successful campaign to permit qualified (white) women to attend the University of Alabama.
- With the assistance of her uncle, a former UA President, she led the merger of two small teachers’ colleges in West Alabama that would later become the State Normal College — what we knew as Livingston, and now as the University of West Alabama. She was the first woman college president in Alabama, and to this day the only woman to serve as president of UWA.
- In 1893, a group of 10 of her Livingston/Normal teachers were the first women admitted to to the university of Alabama as coed students.
- For an encore to those feats, in 1896 she then helped found Alabama’s only public liberal arts college, the University of Montevallo.
- Tutwiler was also able to combine her passion for prison reform with her belief in the redemptive power of education when she and Tuskegee’s Dr. Booker T. Washington established the State’s first reform school for troubled African-American boys. As always, her hope was that through education (and a whole lot of religion), people could avoid the gallows.
- Did I mention that, along the way, the “First Citizen of Alabama” even composed a poem that would later become the State song (and it’s a bluegrass hoedown jam):
We will aye be true to thee,
From thy Southern shore where groweth,
By the sea thine orange tree.
To thy Northern vale where floweth
Deep and blue thy Tennessee.
We will aye be true to thee!
Broad thy stream whose name thou bearest;
Grand thy Bigbee rolls along;
Fair thy Coosa-Tallapoosa
Bold thy Warrior, dark and strong,
Goodlier than the land that Moses
Climbed lone Nebo’s Mount to see,
Alabama, Alabama, we will aye be true to thee!
Though very much a woman of her time, Tutwiler is considered to be one of the pillars of Alabama progressivism, alongside Dr. Booker T. Washington. She was a woman of fierce conviction and boundless energy; a tireless reformer and impassioned person of principle. There were few people as remarkable as Julia Tutwiler, especially in the state’s early history. Combining her keen intelligence, wealth, connections, and a knack for getting things done, Tutwiler was one of a kind. And, along the way, the Mother of Alabama Education, the Angel of the Stockades, shaped the world for millions of Alabamians in the century to come.
Ms. Tutwiler passed away in 1916, and for most of us, having even achieved just one of her accomplishments would be a life well-spent.
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