Before the Shoals Theater was built on the corner of Mobile and Seminary Streets in Florence, Alabama, there was a two-story antebellum home on the site known as the Blair Place. This same location had once been the site of Richard Rapier’s home.
Richard Rapier was a wealthy keelboat captain and local merchant. When he died, he was buried in the back yard and many years later when excavation was being done for the buildings here, they found his casket and bones.
When Rapier died, he left his estate to his former slave, John Rapier, who also worked as the city barber. John Rapier became a wealthy and respected Florence citizen. When his wife, Suson, died, she was laid to rest in the former white section of the Florence cemetery. Her grave is the positioned at an angle, no doubt to placate those who opposed the burial of a former slave’s wife in that part of the cemetery.
In addition, Suson and John Rapier garnered distinction because their grandson, James Rapier, became the first African-American Alabamian to be elected to the United States House of Representatives.
James Thomas Rapier was born a free black in Florence on November 13, 1837. He was educated by private tutors in Alabama and studied law in Canada. He was admitted to the bar and also taught school for awhile. After returning to the South, he worked as a correspondent for a newspaper. In 1865, he began a cotton plantation in Alabama. In 1866, he was appointed as a notary public by the Governor of Alabama.
Rapier was a member of the first Republican convention held in Alabama and took part in the committee that framed the party platform. On March 4, 1873, he was elected as a Republican to the Forty-third Congress and served until March 3, 1875.
Rapier died in Montgomery, May 31, 1883. His obituary, appearing in the Florence Gazette, Saturday, June 2, 1883, summarized his life: Ex-Congressman, James T. Rapier, the most prominent colored man in Alabama, died Thursday, in Montgomery, quite suddenly. He was a native of Florence, and about 50 years old. His father, John Rapier was a barber here, and was highly respected by our people. He was educated in Canada, and was a man of fine sense. Besides representing the Montgomery district one term in Congress, he was Collector of Internal Revenue for this district for a number of years, and very lately removed by President Arthur. HE was unmarried, and leaves a good property, over $50,000, it is said. One of his brothers, Thomas Rapier, left yesterday for Montgomery, with his attorney, Emmet O’Neal, Esq. His body will be buried here.
An addendum to the obituary was published in the Florence Gazette, Saturday, June 9, 1883: Ex-Collector James T. Rapiers was buried at St. Louis, at the request of relative there, and not here, as was first intended. We hear he leaves no will.
He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.
The First African-American Alabamian
To serve in the United States House
At some time, the Blair family purchased the property. Mary Nail Blair was known throughout Florence as a beautiful black haired widow and she was the most daring blockade runner in North Alabama.
Following the surrender of Forts Donelson and Henry in 1862, traffic on the Tennessee River was controlled by the Union Navy. Florence was cut off from receiving any supplies from the outside. Locals began to depend on blockade runners who were brave enough to go behind enemy lines from Florence to Nashville.
Mary Nail Blair was said to have been the most successful of these. Her wagon train was driven by her three slaves and she rode ahead in her own buggy. Her granddaughter claimed she was as good as a general and could outmaneuver any of the Yankee forces.
At the battle of Franklin, her caravan was captured by the Union army and she barely escaped back to Florence. She died soon after the war but her bravery was heralded for years afterward.
Mary’s son, William Edward Blair, accompanied her on many of these trips when he was only fourteen years old.
The Yankees captured him one day in Florence and conscripted him to serve as their guide. They arrived in Waterloo, and were immediately caught up in a skirmish. One Yankee soldier covered young Ed with a barrel to protect him from the firing. Shaken, but unharmed, he was released, after the fighting ceased.
Ed, however, is best remembered for capturing the notorious outlaw, Tom Clark.
Tom Clark was one of the most feared local Tories during the Civil War. He bragged that he killed sixteen men in his lifetime and that the only one he regretted was a one-year-old boy he tossed up and caught on his knife point because the child was wearing a gold medallion he wanted. Clark’s first victims were Confederate supporters but he quickly turned on anyone who got in his way.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Clark resided in the Jacksonburg community, north of Florence. He had been involved in several criminal acts, namely, horse thievery and stealing and reselling slaves.
He fought for the Confederates for a short time before deserting. After that, he joined the Unionist 2nd Tennessee Mounted Infantry at Clifton, Tennessee. He eventually deserted them and made his way back to the Shoals area where he joined with other deserters who called themselves the Booger Gang. They headquartered in a cave on Shoals Creek and went about North Alabama robbing wealthy plantation owners who were rumored to have buried their valuables.
One of the men they robbed was an invalid, John Wilson, whose plantation was near St. Florian, where the Blackberry Golf Trail is now. Tom and the Boogers tore pages out of Wilson’ Bible and set them on fire, holding them to the soles of Wilson’s feet until he told them where his money was buried. The Boogers searched the yard but did not find the gold. In fact, they came within a foot of their intended target. Thinking Wilson had lied to them, they stormed the house once more, and killed Wilson and two others before going outside to harass the servants. One of the former slaves they left for dead was Christopher Brewer, W. C. Handy’s grandfather.
The Booger Gang was so heinous, that once when the Yankees left Florence, the ladies of the town asked them to return to keep the Boogers from pillaging the area completely.
Tom Clark was finally caught, in early September, 1872, when someone in Waterloo recognized him and reported his whereabouts to Ed Blair, the sheriff of Florence.
Blair, along with three deputies, William Barks, William Joiner, and WB Warson, formed a possee, rode out to Waterloo and captured Clark, on Pettypool Hill, west of Gravelly Springs, along with two other Booger Gang members. Oddly, when Tom Clark was captured, he was wearing a lady’s dress, presumably as a disguise to elude arrest.
The posse brought Tom and the two Boogers back to Florence and imprisoned them in the city jail, which was on Pine Street at the time. The outlaws’ jail stay, however, was short-lived. A lynch mob formed and Tom and the two Boogers were wrested from the jail and taken to a lot on the corner of Tombigbee and Pine Streets. The three were hanged from a large sycamore tree.
After the execution of the criminals, the ladies of Florence went to the mayor and requested that they not be interred in the consecrated ground of the Florence Cemetery.
The bodies were taken to a field across from the cemetery, approximately where Mobile Street is today. The two boogers were buried there. One man recalled Tom Clark boasting, “No man will ever run over Tom Clark!” So, as an ironic twist, legend has it that Clark was buried under Tennessee Street, just outside the gates of the Florence Cemetery. A historical marker designates the spot believed to be Clark’s grave, where thousands of people run over Tom Clark daily.
William Edward Blair died in 1894, when he was only forty-six years old.