The key to understanding the past to realize that William Faulkner was right when he wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
In 1861, Marmaduke William’s granddaughter, Laura Owen, married James T. Murfee in the front parlor of 815 17th Avenue. He was a professor at the nearby university and she was heiress to the plantation surrounding the home. The massive sliding doors that separated the double parlors would have been open and guests would have spilled out into the grand entrance hall as the happy couple exchanged their vows. Slaves would have gathered in the quarters to celebrate with their own party, perhaps including gifts of meat and whiskey. It would have been a festive occasion, although celebrated under the shadow of war.
I’m standing here in the front parlor, in front of the fireplace where they were married all those years ago, wondering if they could foresee that the war would sweep away the world they knew. And, pondering how much that world is still present in the hearts of southerners. We carry the germ of nostalgia for a place and time none of us has ever experienced. Little girls in Alabama still imagine themselves as hoop-skirted belles and little boys as heroes in gray.
The newly-wed Professor Murfee was a soldier of the Confederacy and so were his young students. In addition to teaching them mathematics, he also commanded them in the university’s cadet corps. As the bloody years of war dragged on and older students left to join Lee’s army and fight for the south, Professor Murfee stayed behind to command a corps of brave boys, mostly 15-16 years old.
In 1865, Union forces reached Tuscaloosa and Professor Murfee rallied his troops on the front lawn of his home. I can still make out a slight depression that marks the spot a massive oak once stood around which they gathered. They marched off to meet a more-experienced, better-equiped army of Federal troops. Two of those boys never saw another sunrise on the campus they loved.
I can’t help but wonder what they felt on that long ago day. Did they know the war was all but lost? Did they still hope they could salvage the only way of life they knew? Were they afraid? Did Laura shed a tear as they marched away? They are all long gone, but the house is still here. The house saw it all unfold, and keeps its secrets.