Lemuel James Fowler - Part I: Childhood

 by Robert I. Pinsker

The woman who would become Lemuel Fowler's mother was born Tempie Thomas in March 1874 (1900 census), daughter of Abram Thomas, a farmer who had been born about 1835 in Georgia, and Jane Thomas, born about 1842 in South Carolina. Tempie, 6 at her last birthday in 1880, was the youngest of seven children enumerated in the June 1880 Census for Rockford, Alabama in Coosa County. Rockford is about 60 miles southeast of Birmingham.

Lemuel Fowler's father is almost certainly the Edward Fowler who was enumerated in the 1880 census in Blount County, Alabama, the younger son of Henry Fowler, a divorced farm worker with two sons who was born about 1846 in Alabama. This Edward Fowler was born circa 1870 according to that census. Ed Richard Fowler applied for Social Security in May 1937, saying that he was born 7 January 1872 in Blountsville, Alabama, a town in Blount County, with his parents listed as Henry Fowler and Mary Murry.

Ed Fowler married Tempy Thomas on October 20, 1892 in Jefferson County, Alabama. As part of the obtaining of the marriage license, Edward certified that he was over 21 years of age and that Tempy was over 18 years of age. Note that Tempie Thomas's age according to the 1880 census is consistent with a March 1874 birthdate, which would make her 18 years old in October 1892, while Ed's age according to the 1900 census would not have made him over 21 at the time of the marriage, while an 1870 birthdate would have him about 22 at that time.

Ed Fowler and Tempy Thomas marriage, October 20, 1892
Ed Fowler marries Tempy Thomas, Jefferson County, Alabama, October 20, 1892.

According to the 1900 federal census, enumerated on June 5, 1900, Lem Fowler was born in July 1898 in Woodlawn, Alabama, at the time a town of population of about 2500 at the northeast edge of Birmingham. (More precisely, we will later learn that Lemuel's date of birth was to his own belief July 19, 1898.) The town was annexed by the growing industrial city of Birmingham ("The Pittsburgh of the South") in 1910. Fowler's parents, Edward and Tempy Fowler, are shown as having both been 24 years old at the time of Lem's (the name is given as Lem) birth (both shown as born in March 1874), while it seems possible that actually Ed might have been two to four years older than that from the 1892 marriage affadavit and from the 1880 census. Edward and Tempy have been married for 7 years in June 1900, which is consistent with the marriage record, as they would have their 8th anniversary the following October. Edward Fowler was employed in a rolling mill, while Tempy does not list an outside job. Though Lem would reach his second birthday only a month after the enumeration, his age is given as 2 at his last birthday, which is an understandable rounding up. Tempy is listed as having previously given birth to two other children, neither of whom survived infancy. This seems to be consistent with having been married for nearly 6 years by the time of Lem's birth.

Fowler in 1900 Census
Excerpt from census of June 5, 1900 for Woodlawn, Jefferson County, Alabama, Precinct 34, showing Fowler family of Edward, Tempy, and Lem, born July 1898. The optical character recognition mistakenly interpreted "Lem" as "Len" in Ancestry's search.

An Edward Fowler, a black man as indicated by the symbol "(c)" is shown as a laborer residing in Woodlawn in the 1898 city directory for Birmingham and environs, while the same directory shows "Timpey Fowler (c)" as a cook, also residing in Woodlawn. The 1897 directory had shown only Edward, again simply as a laborer, residing in Woodlawn. The 1899 edition of the city directory is itself segregated, and the "colored" section shows "Edw Fowler" as a married individual working at the Alabama Rolling Mill Co and residing at 6223 Woodlawn Avenue. The business portion of that 1899 directory lists the Alabama Rolling Mill Co. ("iron mfrs") with works in Gate City, which is about 2 miles from Woodlawn. The 1900 directory lists Edward identically.

While the listings for Edward Fowler that appear in the 1905 and 1906 editions of the directory cannot be identified as Lem's father with certainty, Tempie is listed in the 1906 directory as a domestic at 5304 Austin Ave. in Woodlawn. The 1909 edition Edward as a helper at R.C. Foster Co., the office of which is listed on the facing page as in the iron and steel business. Apparently the firm had a facility in Gate City where Edward worked. In 1910, it seems that Edward and Tempy tried the grocery business, as shown here:

Crop from Birmingham City Directory 1910 marked
Excerpt from Birmingham City Directory, 1910.

The address of the Fowler & Fowler grocery business is given as being between the Alabama Great Southern and Seaboard Air Lines railways on South 65th Street. The Polk's city directory for Birmingham and environs was published in February 1910, so presumably the data published therein was assembled late in 1909, but apparently by the time the 1910 federal census was enumerated in late April 1910, the Fowlers had dropped the grocery business as Ed is listed as working at a rolling mill once again.

By that 1910 enumeration, Lemuel (this time his name is spelled out in full) has acquired a pair of siblings: sister Mabel, born circa 1901, and little brother Parks H., born circa 1908. This time, Lemuel's age at last birthday is given as 11, consistent with a July 1898 birthdate. Mother Tempe's name is rendered with that spelling in this case, and she reports having given birth to four children, three of whom are living. Oddly, this census shows both Edward and Tempy (Tempe) having been born in South Carolina, rather than Alabama, as had been reported a decade earlier. (In 1900, Tempy had reported that her mother was born in South Carolina, in agreement with the 1880 census record for Tempie Thomas.)

Fowler in 1910 Census
Excerpt from census of April 27, 1910 of Birmingham, Alabama (by this time, Birmingham had annexed Woodlawn - this is the same neighborhood in which the family had lived in 1900), showing the larger family of Edward, Tempe (spelled that way in 1910) and their children Lemuel, daughter Mabel, and younger son Parks H.

We will learn much later that apparently Lemuel was sent to school for some period of time to St. Mark's Academy, an arm of the Episcopalian church, in downtown Birmingham (at the corner of Avenue C, now 3rd Avenue South, and 18th Street South). The fact that his parents were willing to pay for that private education, though it was partially subsidized by the church, speaks well to their commitment to their children's education. St. Mark's Academy was primarily and best-known as a school for girls, but a small fraction of the pupils were boys, 58 out of 358 in 1911 [https://www.bhamwiki.com/w/St_Mark%27s_School], for example.

St Mark's Academy before 1923
St. Mark's Academy at 18th St S and Avenue C (now 3rd Avenue S), Birmingham, before 1923, a few years after Lemuel Fowler reportedly attended. The attic floor of the original building was destroyed in a fire in 1905. The source is the book shown, from the NY Public Library.

In early 2022, Don Veasey, archivist at the Birmingham Public Library, searching at my request, located what is apparently the only relic of St. Mark's Academy's student roster from this period, which is a tuition ledger from the 1914-1915 school year. By that year, it appears that Lemuel had graduated from the grade school as his name does not appear in the ledger, but his sister Mabel was attending the 7th grade in that year. Her parents paid the $1 per month tuition charge faithfully during that year, and they apparently made a $3 donation in addition. The 7th grade consisted of 36 children, 33 girls and 3 boys.

1914-15 St Marks tuition ledger page 53 from BPL.jpg
Excerpt from St. Mark's Academy tuition ledger 1914-1915, showing the tuition payments and donations from the parents of Mabel Fowler and of a classmate. Credit: Birmingham, Ala. Public Library Archives.

Six months after the 1910 enumeration, Lemuel Fowler's mother passed away in her mid-thirties, on October 29, 1910 (Source: Alabama Deaths and Burial Index, 1881-1974, FHL Film no. 1894075, Tempy Fouler [sic], age 34), leaving at least three children. The date of Lem's mother's death must have been seared into the 12-year-old's memory, because in his testimony in 1922 in court, he answered the question "When did your mother die?" with "1910", then "What date?" with "October 29".

It seems likely that Lem's father Edward may have married again during the early 1910s, as an E.R. Fowler of about the right age is married to Mary Fowler in the 1920 census for Birmingham, and among the children living with them is Henry Fowler, b. circa 1908. The other two children are daughters Eloise (b. 1910) and Sadie (b. 1914). If we suppose that Parks H. Fowler, b. 1908 in the 1910 census is Henry Fowler in the 1920 census, then E.R. Fowler could be Lem's father. This is supported by the 1930 census, in which E.R. Fowler married to Mary in 1920 turns out to be Ed Fowler, and daughters Sadie and Eloise are living with them, Eloise having been married to Everett Whitfield on Feb. 28, 1928 (though Everett does not appear to be living with his wife in 1930). Also, Lem's sister Mabel appears to have been married and divorced by 1930 and is living with the family. Finally, we can identify 'Edward Fowler' in 1900 and 1910, 'E.R. Fowler' in 1920, and 'Ed Fowler' in 1930 with "Ed Richard Fowler" who applied for Social Security in May 1937, born on 7 January 1872 in Blountsville, AL, and with the widower of the same name, born about 1875, who died in Birmingham on October 24, 1939 (FHL Film number 1908580, Ancestry.com. Alabama, U.S., Deaths and Burials Index, 1881-1974 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011).

Indeed Ed Fowler married Mary White on August 27, 1912 at 60th Street in Woodlawn, only a few blocks from the 65th Street address at which Ed resided in this period:

Ed Fowler marries Mary White Aug 27, 1912
Ed Fowler marries Mary White on Aug 27, 1912

Ed Fowler can be traced via the Birmingham city directories for the rest of his life. In 1914, Edwd. R. Fowler is listed as a married ironworker residing at 520 S. 65th, in 1915 and 1916 as a laborer at that address. In 1919, he appears as a porter (apparently a fairly generic type of laborer at the time) living at 1217 N. 30th, rear. The 1920 census listing for E.R. Fowler indeed shows the Fowler family at exactly that address, and lists E.R.'s occupation as a porter at an 'overall factory'. The 1924 city directory reveals that the factory at which Edward is a 'porter' is the Phillips-Lester Mfg. Co., which was a manufacturer of work clothes, particularly "401" overalls, from 1902 to the late 1950s at least, at 2300 First Avenue North for the entire first half of the 20th century, according to numerous mentions and articles in the Birmingham newspapers.

The 1925 directory explicitly mentions that Edward is married to Mary, at the N. 30th address, and by 1926 they have moved to 6232 2nd Ave. S. The 1928 directory terms Edward a janitor at Phillips-Lester; interestingly, daughter Eloise is listed separately at the same address. The 1930 census listing shows Ed as a machinist in an 'overall factory', while the 1931 directory lists Edward as a porter at Phillips-Lester. Throughout the 1930s, Edward is listed as either a janitor (1932, 1937) or as a laborer (1939), always at the 2nd Avenue South address. The last mention of wife Mary is in the 1932 listing, which might be consistent with the documented death of Mary E. Fowler, age 48, wife of "Edd Fowler", on November 5, 1933 in Birmingham (FHL Film number 1908514, Ancestry.com. Alabama, U.S., Deaths and Burials Index, 1881-1974 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011). This Mary E. Fowler is almost certainly the daughter of the Cornelius White who married Rachael Hester on Feb. 2, 1878 at Faunsdale, Marengo County, Alabama (source: Film no. 001293868, Ancestry.com, Alabama, U.S., County Marriage Records, 1805-1967 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016). The very small town of Faunsdale is 100 miles southwest of Birmingham.

According to Lemuel Fowler's testimony in the legal action in 1922, he left Birmingham in "the early part of June, 1916", in other words, a month prior to his eighteenth birthday. However, in that testimony, Fowler evidently claimed to have been two years younger than he actually was, so that he was claiming to have left Birmingham at age 15. In the portion of the court transcript that is available at this writing for inspection, we do not have the specific testimony regarding his destination at that time, but it seems highly probable that he went directly to Chicago, where his next documented appearance was in 1919. Hence, Fowler had joined the Great Migration of African-Americans from the Deep South to northern urban areas in the late 'teens and had moved to Chicago.

So far, no World War I draft registration for Lemuel J. Fowler has been located, though he certainly would have been eligible for the third and final registration of 1918, for which all men between 18 and 45 were required to register. This would be a key document, because registrants gave their date of birth among other information.

In fact, in that 1922 testimony, where Fowler's precise age was an important issue, he was asked by the attorneys whether he had registered for the draft. One can easily imagine that the lawyers were attempting to get Fowler to slip up and accidentally reveal his true age by comparison with the dates of the draft registrations. But Fowler did not:

"RDQ 86: Were you registered in the draft? A: From the 18 to 45, the second time . . .":

What Fowler meant was the third and last registration, on September 12, 1918 for men between the ages of 18 and 45. The two earlier registrations, on June 5, 1917, for men who had reached 21 by that date, and on June 5, 1918, for men who had turned 21 after June 5, 1917 would in fact not included Fowler even with his correct date of birth. And the third registration, on September 12, 1918, for men who had turned 18 years old by that date, would have included Fowler either with his actual date of birth, which would have made him 20 years old on that date, or the date he was claiming in that testimony (July 19, 1900), in which case he would have just turned 18 two months prior to the registration.

Hence according to his own testimony, Fowler did register for the draft in 1918, and that registration may yet turn up, presumably in registrations in Cook County, Illinois.

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