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Clinton Jackson Coley

Keith S. Hébert, Auburn University
Clinton Jackson Coley
Civic leader Clinton Jackson "Jack" Coley (1902-1997) was a judge, county commissioner, banker, historian, and philanthropist who was instrumental in the establishment of Alabama's first National Park Service unit, Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, and the expansion of the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH). Involved in dozens of organizations across the state, Coley advocated for causes that raised public awareness of Alabama history and enhanced educational opportunities for students. Coley was a vocal advocate for historic preservation and education in Alabama until his death in 1997.
Born on June 17, 1902, in Alexander City, Tallapoosa County, Coley was the fourth of seven children of merchants Eugene A. and Nannie Sandlin Coley. He belonged to one of the first Euro-American families to settle in Tallapoosa County following the removal of the area's Creek Indian inhabitants. At age 12, Coley attended the Battle of Horseshoe Bend Centennial picnic, organized by ADAH founder Thomas M. Owen. The program furthered Coley's interest in Tallapoosa County history and would later inspire him to preserve the battlefield.
Alexander City High School
In 1920, after graduating from the segregated Alexander City High School, Coley worked for one year at the First National Bank of Alexander City before enrolling at the University of Alabama (UA) in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County. In 1922, Coley received and passed on an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. At UA, Coley studied commerce and was a founding member of the Alpha Rho chapter of Alpha Kappa Psi fraternity. While in Tuscaloosa, he often wrote for the Alexander City Outlook, sharing campus and personal news with Alexander City readers. In 1926, Coley's father died unexpectedly, and he dropped out of school and returned home to help provide for his mother and younger siblings. He resumed his bank job and quickly became a prominent civic and religious leader. Coley later returned to UA and graduated. For years, Coley taught Sunday School at the First Presbyterian Church of Alexander City and churches across the area often invited Coley to preach whenever a local minister was away from the pulpit. In 1932, he married Evelyn Gertrude McCord, with whom he had two children.
During the Great Depression, Coley supported Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs. As a member of the Young Men's Democratic Club, Coley promoted a progressive political agenda that embraced a slate of federal National Recovery Act initiatives. As World War II raged across Europe and Asia, Coley chaired the local Ration Board and sold war bonds and salvaged metal goods to support the war effort. After the war, he briefly took a sales job with a Birmingham investment firm and while there developed an addiction to alcohol. He quickly became homesick and returned to Alexander City for good. In 1946, after struggling with alcoholism for more than a year, Coley joined an Alexander City Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group. For the next 51 years, Coley rarely missed an AA meeting and helped sponsor numerous community members in their recovery.
Coley resumed his banking job and rose from cashier to president. In 1946, he ran for probate judge. In the hotly contested Democratic Party primary, Coley received a 500-vote majority to defeat incumbent Roy Oliver. When Oliver died before the November general election, Alabama governor Chauncey Sparks appointed Coley to complete Oliver's term. Like most members of Alabama's Democratic Party at the time, Coley was a staunch supporter of racial segregation. Correspondence found in Coley's papers at the ADAH illustrates his opposition to the 1954 Brown v. Board decision to end segregation in public schools and efforts to collaborate with Alabama probate courts to impede Black voter registrations.
Battlefield at Horseshoe Bend
During the 1950s and 1960s, Coley played a central role in the development of Alabama's first National Park Service unit, Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Daviston, Tallapoosa County. Decades earlier, ADAH founder Owen had led an unsuccessful campaign to create a national park to preserve the historic battlefield, site of the final defeat of the Creek Nation in 1814 by forces under Gen. Andrew Jackson. The federal government denied the proposal, but Alabama Power Company president Thomas W. Martin agreed to purchase more 1,700 acres of land associated with the historic site. In 1955, with the help of Congressman Albert Rains, Coley convinced Alabama governor John Patterson to incorporate the Horseshoe Bend Battle Park Association. The association included influential business leaders from across Alabama, including Martin and Thomas D. Russell, owner of Russell Manufacturing in Alexander City. Serving as association secretary, Coley campaigned statewide, urging Alabamians to support creating a national park at Horseshoe Bend. His advocacy earned him the moniker "Mr. Horseshoe Bend." Unfortunately, Coley's support sometimes drew the ire of Black and white families who lived on battlefield lands. Coley successfully lobbied the Alabama legislature to pass a bill that enabled Tallapoosa County to evict residents who opposed the sale of their lands to the state and federal governments. One upset resident, however, whose family had been forced to sell their property at a rate they believed to be far below market value, broke Coley's jaw during an assault on the steps of the Tallapoosa County courthouse. Thanks to Coley's successful lobbying, on August 3, 1956, Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower signed H.R. No. 11766 establishing Horseshoe Bend National Military Park.
ADAH Expansion Groundbreaking
Coley also played a major role in the expansion of the ADAH. He served on the ADAH Board of Directors from 1969 until his death in 1997. By the mid-1960s, ADAH operations had outgrown its 1940 WPA building. The agency sorely needed additional space to house its expanding collections and growing staff. Fresh off his successful campaign to build a national park in Alabama, Coley was chosen by ADAH director Milo Howard to lobby state legislators for expansion funds, which they agreed to do. On September 2, 1970, Gov. Albert P. Brewer, Howard, and Rains participated in the official groundbreaking ceremony of ADAH's new east wing. Throughout Coley's service to ADAH, he remained a fierce advocate for the archival staff and programming. In 1982, Coley played a critical role in hiring as director Edwin Bridges, who remained at the helm until his retirement in 2012.
ADAH and Horseshoe Bend National Military Park were but two of many organizations touched by Coley's advocacy. He was also a founding member of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, an advisor on race relations to Pres. Richard Nixon, the first president of the Alabama 4-H Club Foundation, president of the University of Alabama National Alumni Association, a board member of Lyman Ward Military Academy, and secretary of the Alabama Academy of Honor. He also served as president of the Alabama Historical Association, Lions Club, and Alabama's state chapter of the Future Farmers of America. In 1992, he received an Alabama Humanities Award from the Alabama Humanities Alliance.
Coley died in his Alexander City home on December 16, 1997, at the age of 95. The Alabama Historical Association gives out two awards honoring Coley: The annual Clinton Jackson Coley Award honors the best book on Alabama history and the Clinton Jackson and Evelyn Coley Award that provides biannual support for graduate student research in Alabama history. He is buried in the Alexander City Cemetery.

Additional Resources

Hebert, Keith S., and Kathryn H. Braund. Horseshoe Bend National Military Park: Administrative History. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 2019.
Published:  March 23, 2021   |   Last updated:  March 23, 2021