Phenix City History
Phenix City is the county seat of Russell County and is located in East Alabama along the west bank of the Chattahoochee River, which separates the city from Columbus, Georgia. At one time nationally known for its rampant crime and corruption, the city has now evolved into Russell County’s largest metropolitan area.
Town of Girard
The region around the Town of Girard, present-day Phenix City, was originally the territory of the Coweta branch of the Creek Indian Nation. After the City of Columbus, Georgia was established in 1828, traders and other individuals who preferred a less-regulated frontier culture gravitated to the Creek Indian towns on the other side of the Chattahoochee River. Thus, Phenix City’s reputation as a wild and untamed place appears even in early references.
The city was named for a young Philadelphia Philanthropist and slave dealer, Stephen Girard, who acquired much of the land in this area. When Russell County was formed December 18, 1832, Girard became the county seat, with the first session of court convening October 14, 1833.
Battle of Girard
In the spring of 1865, during the Civil War, the town was attacked and subdued in an offensive by General James H. Wilson and his Union troops, who had also taken over Tuscaloosa, Selma, Montgomery, Girard, Columbus, and Macon. In occupying Girard, the Union forces had pushed the Confederates across the river into Columbus. When Union forces attacked in Columbus, the encounter came to be known as the Battle of Girard and is considered to be the last battle of the Civil War.
Brownville & Lively
The land that makes up present-day Phenix City was initially divided into two towns. The southern portion was named Girard and the northern part was named Brownville. However, in 1871, the U.S. Post Office confused the town of Brownville with another Brownville of earlier origin in Tuscaloosa County, and so the name Lively was chosen to replace Brownville.
The reason for choosing the name Lively is not known, but local lore indicates that the name referred to the lawless nature of the area. After a few years, the town once again became known as Brownville, but confusion persisted about the town’s actual name because the U.S. Post Office still maintained the name Lively, and the railroad in town designated its depot “Knight’s Station.”
Phenix City’s Official Incorporation & Merger
February 23, 1883, the Alabama Legislature officially incorporated the town of Brownville. On February 19, 1897, the legislature officially changed the name to Phenix City. Although no definitive source reveals why this name was chosen, possibilities include it being named after the Phenix Mills in Columbus.
The city of Girard merged into Phenix City on August 9, 1923, giving the newly enlarged town a combined population of 10,374. In 1932, Russell County ceded the Marvyn Community in the Northwest section of the county to Lee County in exchange for a portion of Phenix City in Lee.
The Great Depression
During the Great Depression, Phenix City went bankrupt, accumulating more than $1.1 million of debt. By 1933, the city was operating under a federal receiver. At the time, local authorities rationalized widespread crime and corruption in Phenix City as being a necessary revenue producer in the absence of other businesses.
City leaders took advantage of this activity and enforced a system of fines and licensing for gambling and for the use and sale of liquor to raise money for the city’s treasury, while not addressing the illegal activities themselves. By 1945, the city was collecting more than $228,000 a year in fines.
World War II
During World War II, Phenix City improved its Police Department with more men and equipment, and its first Fire Department was established in 1944. Four years later, the city welcomed its first city hospital, the Homer D. Cobb Memorial Hospital. The Phenix-Girard Journal, now defunct, was the most widely read newspaper in the area at this time.
Also during the 1940s, Phenix City increasingly came under the control of organized crime bosses who ran gambling, narcotics, and prostitution operations throughout the city. These men rigged local and state elections and held important leadership positions in the Chamber of Commerce, school and hospital boards, and several service organizations. Local law enforcement and city officials were also members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Crime Cleanup Resistance
Concerned citizens began to try to clean up the illegal activities in the city, but were met with violent resistance from the gambling interests. Hugh Bentley, a local businessman and Sunday school teacher, organized a group to clean up the city and had his house bombed as a result.
Local attorney Albert Patterson, who had moved his family to the city in 1933, joined with Bentley and the Russell Betterment Association (RBA), whose purpose was to fight corruption in Russell County, specifically in Phenix City. Deciding that the best way to clean up the city was to win the State Attorney General’s Office, the RBA put Patterson forward for the election. He won the Democratic primary despite attempted election tampering by local officials, but sadly, on June 18, 1954, Albert Patterson was assassinated outside of his law office.
Patterson Assassination Response
In response to Patterson’s murder, Phenix City Mayor Homer Cobb ordered all businesses where alcohol was sold to close on Sundays. On the state level, Governor Seth Gordon Persons placed the town under martial law and sent in 75 National Guardsmen under the command of World War II veteran General Walter J. Hanna. The guardsmen performed around-the-clock raids on nightclubs, warehouses, and gambling institutions, and nearby Fort Benning declared Phenix City off limits to its soldiers.
After learning about his father’s death, future governor John Patterson ran for the State Attorney General’s Office in 1955. While in office, he prosecuted those who were responsible for his father’s murder, though only one man was actually convicted. More than 700 people were indicted by a special Russell County Grand Jury, and by late 1955, the town was rid of all organized crime and vice. In 1955, Allied Arts produced the film The Phenix City Story, which was a wildly exaggerated treatment of the Patterson murder and the surrounding corruption.
After the city’s rehabilitation, Look Magazine named Phenix City as an All-America City in 1955, and in 2007, BusinessWeek named it the nation’s Best Affordable Suburb for raising a family.