By John R. Alston Trotter, EdD, JD
On March 11, 1879, my great, great grandfather, Robert A. Alston, was murdered down in the Georgia Capitol. He was DeKalb’s only State Representative at the time and had, by all accounts, a promising political career ahead of him, a career that some pundits at the time were speculating might lead him to be, along with Alexander Hamilton Stephens, one of the leading voices in the Georgia Democratic Party after the Civil War. But, in the good ole Alston fashion, he stepped on toes, but this time, it was the toes of the most politically connected (the Georgia Triumvirate, Gov.-U. S. Senator Joseph Brown, Gen.-Gov.-U. S. Senator John Gordon, and Gov. Alfred Colquitt) and the wealthiest (the Grant family was Atlanta’s richest family).
All of these wealthy and politically-connected Georgians were knee-deep in the heinous and pernicious convict lease system which essentially operated on the basis of judges handing out harsh sentences (usually to the former slaves but now freedmen) for petty or trumped-up crimes, and then these aforementioned men would lease these “convicts” from the State for a few dollars a year. These judges were appointed or financed to be elected by the machine Democrats which were controlled by the Georgia Triumvirate. The railroad industry of Georgia, which was essentially the most lucrative industry at the time, was highly dependent on these convict lessees laying the track and doing all of the heavy labor. These lessees were used to work the farms, to build walls around a plantation (as in John Gordon’s case), and to work the Joe Brown’s Dade County coal mines. They were essentially free labor, minus any food and shelter which were marginal at best and deplorable at worst.
Alston exposed the enormous evil of this system, with the attrition rate in some of the camps reaching as high as 25%, men and women being chained together and bastard babies being born in the camps, the squalid condition of the camps themselves, etc. The northern media picked up on the scandalous report that Representative Alston, as Chairman of the House Penitentiary Committee and someone who had personally visited all of the penitentiary camps, had presented to the Georgia House of Representatives.
To make a longer story more pithy, Alston was murdered (yes, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled it a murder) after being tracked down by a neighbor of his and Sen. John Gordon’s in DeKalb. Gov. Colquitt apparently told Alston that he would intervene and keep Ed Cox from killing him, but very little was done. In fact, the author of a book written on Alston’s life and published this past spring by the Mercer University Press, Pamela Hain, wrote that she believed that both Gordon (who was the Grand Wizard of the Klan in Georgia but also Georgia’s most popular post-Civil War politician) and Colquitt (the governor who was at Alston’s side when he was dying with the bullet lodged in his temple) were both at least complicit in the murder of Alston. Indeed, the love of money is the root of all evil.
Henry Grady, the editor of The Atlanta Daily Constitution, wrote after Alston died that he had never so mourned another’s death as Alston’s. Alston was responsible for bringing Grady to Atlanta from Rome, Georgia where they became partners in The Atlanta Daily Herald. Alston was the publisher and Grady was the editor, and this newspaper was considered the “most sprightly” newspaper in the South, almost running The Constitution out of business. But, after only about six or seven years in existence, it folded for lack of finances. Its under-capitalization, however, didn’t keep this The Herald, from spending money lavishly and even sending a locomotive to Macon, Georgia each day to deliver the newspaper. Grady also said that he had never met a more generous man than Alston. Alston was known for knowing people not just all over Georgia but all over the Union, and his obituary was carried in newspapers, large and small, all over the country, including The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. In fact, even The New York Times carried an article on Alston’s wife’s death about five years later.
Alston hailed from the Halifax Alstons, also known as the Dueling Alstons, of North Carolina. They were enormously wealthy, and as Grady noted, they were an “impervious” family which “brooked no contention.” Alston always wished that, unlike his ancestors, he would not die with his boots on but would die a natural death, after taking care of his wife and four children. In fact, at his death bed, one sensitive onlooker recalling how Alston had a longing to die without his boots on, leaned over to take off Alston’s boots before he breathed his last breath.
The trial of Ed Cox, the murderer of Alston, was spoken of in the media of the day as “the trial.” The courtroom was packed and the throngs filled the street, talking incessantly about the Alston murder. One of the prosecutors was Benjamin Harvey Hill, Jr. whose father served in the U. S. Senate for years, and the lead defense attorney was Congressman Milton Candler, brother to the Coca-Cola magnate (Asa Candler), to a Georgia Supreme Court Justice (John Candler), and to a Methodist Bishop (Warren Candler). Both side had the most illustrious attorneys working for their respective team. Cox was found guilty of murder.
For a few years after Alston’s death, the black people of DeKalb County had memorial services commemorating his life and death at his grave site each year. This was stopped when the Bourbon Democrats got back in full control after Reconstruction and the Black Codes and later Jim Crow laws were passed and the Negro vote in Georgia was disenfranchised. The memory of Alston was not something that the Bourbon Democrats wanted.
Alston’s funeral on this day, March 13, 135 years ago, was the largest funeral at the time in Decatur, Georgia. Trains came in from Atlanta and all over the State, bring mourners into Decatur. The Georgia Speaker of the House, Gus Bacon who was related to Alston and who also went on to become a U. S. Senator from Georgia, spoke at Alston’s Masonic funeral. He was buried in the Old Decatur Cemetery. The ante-bellum home that he started building for his wife, Mary Charlotte Magill Alston who hailed from Georgetown and Charleston, South Carolina, in 1856 is considered the second oldest house in Atlanta. The name of the old plantation is Meadownook, and it is in the National Historic Registry. It is located on Alston Drive in East Lake across from the East Lake Country which was part of the Alston plantation and is Atlanta’s first country club and now part of the PGA Tour.
Alston’s life was cut short. He died at 46 years of age. He was a renown lawyer, publisher, and farmer. He even had a fish farm. He was making his mark in politics, and there is speculation that he might himself been planning a statewide run for office. He had been part of the Charleston Light Dragoons and was at the firing on of Fort Sumter in April of 1861. He resigned this commission to join up as a Private with the illustrious Morgan’s Raiders and quickly became, because of his skills, General John Morgan’s Acting Adjutant General/Chief of State and later led a battalion. He was in about 100 battles and never was wounded. He was well-known throughout the war, by the leadership on both sides. He was personally acquainted with Jefferson Davis. In fact, after he wore out General Burnside of the Federal Army about his illegal arrest and imprisonment in a Federal War Prison, he was released. General Burnside explained to Secretary of State Staten that he released or exchanged Alston because he could think of an innumerable ways to die rather than from the pen of Robert Alston. When the war ended, Alston was just 32 years old, but he retired a colonel. In Mary Chestnut Boykins’s famous Civil War diary (the one that was edited by C. Vann Woodward won the Pulitzer Prize), she talked quite a bit in this diary about “the famous Bob Alston.”
Alston was noted by many authors, including Boykins, that he was “gallant” and flamboyant. But, by the time that he was murdered, he was settling down and coming into his own. It appeared that he was leaning toward the Independent Democrats (as opposed to the Bourbon Democrats). He was in the home of Congressman William Felton and his intelligent and outspoken wife, Rebecca Latimer Felton who went on to be sworn in later in life into the U. S. Senate where she became the nation’s first U. S. Senator, if only for a day or two. Mrs. Felton, who was a great writer, wrote very fondly of Col. Robert A. Alston and feared for his life. In fact, Alston was in the Felton home in Washington, D. C. the week before he was killed in Atlanta. The Feltons were leading spokespersons for an Independent Democrat movement. It appears that he was contemplating a more independent movement of his own, though he was Gordon’s lawyer and was on friendly terms with Colquitt too, though there had been chilly feelings between him and Joseph Brown for years, due in part to the estrangement of Brown and Alston’s uncle, State Senator Augustus Holmes Kenan. (By the way, there were only 18 State Senators back then.)
Alston was an effective lobbyist in the halls of Congress and personally knew President Hayes. He had been around men of influence his entire life. In fact, his grandfather `was a personal friend of Andrew Jackson, and the President Jackson earlier in his life had stayed in the Alston home in Hancock County, Georgia where Robert W. Alston was the wealthiest man in this country which was considered one of the most cultured counties of the day, located right next to the Georgia Capitol in Milledgeville.
In Milledgeville where Alston had lived and gone to the famous Midway Academy while growing up, his uncle, Augustus Holmes Kenan, had entered the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay. Kenan was a Whig and was opposed to secession and threw away the pen with which he finally signed the Secession Ordinance. Alston’s cousin, the son of Kenan, later became the Mayor of Milledgeville but was gunned down while in office. Augustus Holmes Kenan was one of the most noted criminal lawyers in Georgia. He was elected to the Congressional Congress which met in Montgomery, Alabama. He later defeated Howell Cobb, former Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, for a seat in the Confederate Congress which was to meet in Richmond, Virginia, handing Cobb his only political defeat.
Alston’s grandfather on his mother’s side was Rev. John Howard, who became the Presiding Elder in the Methodist Church in Macon, Georgia. Howard is credited with whipping up the enthusiasm for the Georgia Female Seminary which became Wesleyan College in Macon, the first college in the country to confer degrees to women. In 1835, the Methodist Conference in Georgia appointed John Howard to raise money for Manual Labor School in Covington, Georgia and was appointed to the Board of Trustees. The next year the school was named after Bishop Emory and is now Emory University. The first obelisk erected by the citizens of Macon, Georgia in the historic Rosehill Cemetery was erected to Rev. John Howard.
Another grandson of Rev. John Howard was William Schley Howard, who was elected several times to the U. S. Congress from Decatur. Congressman Howard was one of Georgia’s best criminal attorneys and was also the grandfather to Pierre Howard who was elected twice as Georgia Lieutenant Governor. Congressman Howard was cousin to both U. S. Senator Gus Bacon and to Col. Robert A. Alston. Unbeknownst to most Georgians is the fact that one of Georgia’s wealthiest blacks and one of the leading black citizens in Georgia was David Tobias Howard, the half brother to Congressman Howard and the first cousin to Col. Robert Alston. David T. Howard was leader in the movement to build the first black high school in Atlanta, Booker T. Washington High School, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King. King attended David T. Howard Elementary School. Atlanta’s second black high school was named David Tobias Howard High School. Many luminaries attended this high school, including Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor and one of the namesakes of the Atlanta airport, Vernon Jordan, Bill Clinton’s close advisor and lawyer, Eldrin Bell, Atlanta’s first African American Police Chief and later Commission Chairman of Clayton County, and NBA All Star, Walt (The Clyde) Frazier. By the way, Congressman Howard and Governor Slaton spoke at the funeral of David T. Howard who was a close associate of W. E. B. DuBois.
Possibly at Robert A. Alston’s funeral was both the young William Schley Howard whose father was Alston’s uncle, Thomas Coke Howard, a man whom Alston was very close to. Howard had been publisher of the pre-Civil War newspaper, The Intelligencer. He ran many statewide campaigns and held many jobs with the State of Georgia. He was a neighbor of Govenors Alfred Colquitt and Governor and U. S. Senator John Gordon in the Kirkwood area of Dekalb. Also possibly attending his cousin’s funeral was the very successful black man, David T. Howard who was 30 at the time.
The former Director of the DeKalb Historical Society told me that he interviewed the very well-known black preacher in the Atlanta area who worked for Alston (along with his family) when he was a youth. According to what was told to me, Rev. W. Frank Paschal said that as a youth he attended Robert Alston’s funeral on March 13, 1879 and that he also attended the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. This gentleman lived to be about 112 years of age and credited Alston’s influence over him in going into the ministry. He attended Central City College in Macon, a seminary for black men. It was also reported to me by this Director of the DeKalb Historical Society that he baptized Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., in Stockbridge, Georgia and that Daddy King attributed the influence of Rev. Paschal for him going into the ministry. Paschal’s picture is on the wall, along with the other former pastors of the church, in the building of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta where Dr. King’s close associate, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Jr., was a pastor for many years.
One of Alston’s grand nephews became a Presbyterian minister, Dr. Wallace A. Alston. Dr. Alston also was President of Agnes Scott College in Decatur for 22 years. He is buried right next to Col. Alston in the Old Decatur Cemetery.
Two of Alston’s nephews, Robert Cotton Alston and Philip Henry Alston Sr., began a law firm in 1893 which, after some mergers, has become Alston & Bird, one of the largest law firms in the country, with offices all over the world, including London and Hong Kong. Robert C. Alston also was President of the Georgia Bar Association. He married Caro duBignon whose family were French Huguenots who fled France because of persecution but did well in this country, eventually owning Jekyll Island. Robert C. Alston led the efforts for the Atlanta Diocesse of the Episcopal Church to be formed. He was the chancellor of St. Philip’s Cathedral, the largest Episcopal congregation in America. The Alston’s house was designed by the famous architect, John Neil Reed, and is on historic tours of Atlanta. The Corporate Law Chair at the University of Georgia’s Law School is the Robert C. Alston Chair.
One of Philip H. Alston, Sr.’s sons, Philip H. Alston, Jr., was quite an attorney also. But, he made quite a mark in politics as well. A little known peanut farmer came to his office one day asking for help in raising money to run for governor. Alston took him under his wings, raised him lots of money and chaired his campaigns, both for Governor and President. President Jimmy Carter appointed Philip H. Alston, Jr., to be the United States Ambassador to Australia. There is a Philip H. Alston, Jr., Chair in the College of Education at the University of Georgia, the alma mater of Philip Alston, Jr. The first occupant of this chair was former Governor and former U. S. Senator Zell Miller.
Nephew Robert C. Alston and Eugene Black, son-in-law of Henry Grady amd member of the Federal Reserve Board, led the efforts to have the Georgia Senate honor Rep. Robert A. Alston over 40 years after he was gunned down in the Georgia Capitol. The Georgia Senate passed a resolution honoring “the martyr,” as Georgia’s first State Historian, Lucius Lamar Knight, called Alston in about a 25 page essay written in his honor. The Georgia Senate asked that a portrait of Alston be given to the State, which was done. The portrait hung for years in the Stare’s library in the rotunda of the Capitol and was moved with the library in its move to Washington Street. Reportedly Governor Sonny Perdue asked for a portrait in the Governor’s Mansion’s parlor of a Georgian who stood up for right against wrong. The Alston portrait was moved to the Governor’s Mansion’s parlor to fill this request.
When the National Cathedral was completed in Washington, D. C. in the early 1930s, a flag was donated by each State in honor of a citizen who made significant contributions to that State and was hung in the Cathedral. Georgia’s flag was dedicated in honor of Robert A. Alston.
This article was typed hastily, trying to beat the clock while it is still March 13. So, please forgive any typos – and hey, please leave me a comment to point them out.
One bit of trivia: Robert Augustus Alston was probably the only person who was at the very beginning of the American Civil War at the firing on of Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor and at the last regular meeting of the Confederate government in Washington, Georgia, as the government was on the run. Alston was Morgan’s adjutant and later Battalion commander and it was Morgan’s Raiders who were assigned to escort the escaping Confederate government through Georgia. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America, was captured in Ocilla, Georgia.